Development and the Myth of Progress (SPECIAL GUEST DISCUSSION)
Since Hegel, Western European writers and leaders have been pushing the idea of progress, putting darkness, savagery, the past, and societies outside of Western civilization on one end of the spectrum, and light, consciousness, technology, the future, and the modern Western world at the other end. Of all the civilizations and cultures that once lay beyond the dominion (and ken) of Western civilization, those located in Africa have been portrayed as the furthest back on the dark end of the continuum. Hegel wrote, “Africa proper, as far as History goes back, has remained-for all purposes of connection with the rest of the World-shut up; it is the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night.” Despite the incredible ignorance and falsity of this embarrassing pronouncement, it still echoes in the minds of people of all colours around the world.(more in expanded post)
Today, we divide the world into “developed” and “developing” regions, with virtually all of Africa (and most other places where the descendents of Western Europeans are a minority) falling into the latter category. The implication being that these regions of the world are or should be trying to become like the “developed” world. It seems as though the spectrum of progress hasn’t changed much since the days of Hegel and colonization. Back in that day there were missionaries and colonial administrators and educators pushing Christianity, the backwardness of non-Western societies, and the bright future of European civilization, technology, and culture. One of the stated goals of the French colonial policy in Africa was cultural assimilation-to better the primitive Africans by transforming them into little dark Frenchmen and women. Now there are Western-educated aid workers, politicians, professors, and organizers pushing the materialist religions of free-market capitalism and Marxism (both ideological descendents of Hegel’s philosophy), the backwardness of non-Western societies, and the bright future of modern technology and the American way of life. One of the unstated goals of globalization seems to be the cultural assimilation of poor Africans into the American middle-class culture of consumption. Unfortunately, this “new” spectrum of progress seems to have become almost universally accepted on both sides of the have/have-not divide.
While I enjoy my super-sized fries and time-saving appliances as much as the next American, I also recognize that the United States is far from being the exemplary society to which all others should aspire. Many Americans still struggle to make ends meet, and we have the largest per capita prison population of any nation in the world. People of colour are over-represented in both of these groups. The Americans who do “make it” often find that their material success doesn’t translate into happiness or even contentment. Most Americans are unhealthily overweight, which is symbolic of the fact that although we make up 5% of the world’s population, we consume 30% of its resources. It’s simply not possible or prudent for the “developing” world to copy the American way of life—the world simply doesn’t have enough gasoline, plastic wrap, or Prozac.
There is no linear trajectory of development, with Africa on one end and the United States on the other. This illusion of progress and American superiority has been maintained by rewriting history to make the past look worse than the present, and associating present-day non-American societies with this dark past. All of us well-intentioned people who live, work, or go to school in the so-called “developed” world need to be very careful to avoid this kind of thinking if we want to “help” those on the African end of the continuum. We’ve all been somewhat indoctrinated with Hegel’s imperialist delusion, which is fast becoming a very real nightmare for the postcolonial poor. But we can only really help the poor and destitute of the world after we’ve rid ourselves of the ideology that makes them destitute and poor.
Every society has its own dynamic history of progress or regress that must be considered on its own terms. Living on less than a dollar a day isn’t so bad if your cost of living is much lower or you’re living in a place where dollars don’t mean that much. There are several “primitive” societies in India and Western and Southern Africa that have achieved infant mortality and life expectancy rates comparable to the United States, and residents of many so-called “developing” nations such as Nigeria consistently score higher on polls of happiness, contentedness, and optimism than citizens of the US, Canada, and even the Scandanavian socialist wonderlands.
It’s no accident that many Americans have turned to Buddhist meditation, African dance classes, yoga, and soul-searching service-vacations in Latin America. Perhaps without realizing it, they’re turning Hegel’s continuum on its head, suggesting that the “developed” world, in some ways, should be progressing towards the Third World.