The Myth of Progress and the Fear of Death

have you seen the moon tonight
it's very nearly full
so eat and drink your fill
for soon 'twill come to pass
the king will feed the grass
and sacrifice his personality
to the tree
to the sea
cos 'it's not me'
oh no personality
will never pass for me
because I'm really the grass

- Daevid Allen, Song of Satisfaction, from the album 'Good Morning', 1975.

All contemporary political movements are in some way progressive, and in this article I will argue where that comes from, and why buying into the idea of Progress, as currently understood, will only serve to deepen our current predicament.

Once upon a time, there was no time as we now understand it. The seasons were cyclical, and time was understood as a circle. To suggest that humanity was progressing would have made little sense. This we now know as ‘prehistory’, which is an accurate term, it was before the concept of ‘history’, of time as a linear story going from one place to another, was invented.

Human beings understood that death was deeply embedded in life, and were not afraid of it. I believe that humans were once in touch with what is nowadays called the ‘non dual’, or the immortal life in which nothing is separate. This is not to say that they were not deeply sad when a loved one passed away, however they understood that loss in the world of time and space was only a relative loss, which moreover served to deepen the experience of life they were having. If one’s body never ages and dies, immortality surely becomes deeply boring, as explored in the many fictional stories of immortal vampires, who exhibit a weary nihilism, having seen and done everything the world has to offer, and look out on their endless future with overwhelming boredom.

Joyce spoke of history as ‘the nightmare from which I am trying to awaken’ - the concept of history seems to include the notion of progress, that history is somehow ‘going somewhere’, towards some omega point where everything is perfect, or at least that things are continuously evolving towards some destination.

I argue that the nearest we ever got to perfection was before history even started. Of course, I am not proposing an anarcho-primitivist trajectory whereby we somehow ‘go back to the stone age’, or denying evolution itself, more it is that history, progress and evolution are not necessarily linked, whereas in the popular conception, they appear to be. Rather, evolution contains the notion of progress as a stage from which humanity must learn, a nightmare indeed from which the human race must awaken.

The deep motivation for progress seems to be a desire to outrun or somehow escape death. By removing, as much as possible, death from our lives, we hope to forget it, but it remains as a background motivation to everything we do and believe, now consigned to the shadow self of humanity.

This, it seems to me, is what the indigenous people of what is now called the continent of America perceived in the first Europeans who sought to colonise the land where they were living - they called the psychic disease plaguing the settlers ‘wetiko’, a sort of acquisitive madness which seeks to cannibalise everything it touches. It is a deep lack of harmony with nature, and is propelled by notions of transcendence, of escaping the messy realities of death and life by means of conquest and ownership. Adding possessions, such as gold, land and ‘exploitable resources’ to the personal concept of a separate self, in order to amplify and raise up that self over the imagined herd of other separate selves, the common mass.

In this particular case, wetiko was motivated by an unholy mixture of bloodlust, power over others, desire for ownership, and religious fervour, however fundamentally it is more simple than this. It appears to be a need to transcend death, to become more than a mortal, whether in the sense of adding reputation to one’s name so that one will be remembered after death (there is indeed a large statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona, looking out to sea), or to make oneself greater by owning more possessions than others (sexual conquests also belong to this category of course, whereby one somehow ‘owns’ the others themselves).

A very clear modern example is the concept of The Singularity, of which there seem to be various versions, but which in its essence is a project with the goal of transcending death on the physical plane by means of technology, whether that be uploading one’s individual consciousness to a computer, or having one’s failing physical parts replaced with technological (and presumably enhanced) versions.

This is really just a secular version of religious immortality, whereby we transcend the flimsy human state and sail off into a techno-future managed by self-replicating - and infinitely improving - artificial intelligence (essentially god). This is the current omega point imagined by the disciples of Progress, it would appear. Previously the idea was that humanity would leave all the work to machines and would live a heavenly existence of leisure, however this was found to be deeply incompatible with capitalism and so, given that the proponents are congenitally unable to imagine a world without capitalism, has been quietly discarded in favour of the Silicon Valley notion of The Singularity.

So what would a future look like where we stop avoiding death? Obviously it would include healthy and appropriate rituals around death itself. But I think such a future is actually impossible right now given the lack of familiarity we have with death itself. We need to pause for a moment and actually face the fact that we are going to die first.

Our lack of courage in doing this is understandable given that the modern progress-based society takes it as a given that there is nothing after death and so there is little of benefit to be gained by looking into that particular abyss. However I think even if death is a hard full stop and there is nothing after it, facing the fact that our life is going to end does bring a quality of richness, appreciation, and gratitude to our daily experience.

In my personal opinion, death is actually not the end of everything, even if it is undeniably the end of the physical body, all our relationships, and very likely the end of our personality, the ‘I’ we currently take to be ourselves. This is a lot, of course, but my experiences with Holotropic Breathwork and other ritual techniques lead me to believe that what is left when all those are gone is actually not negligible. In fact what is left is Life itself, in its infinite vastness.

So maybe we can summon the courage to face death, knowing we are part of life and life itself cannot die. As others have pointed out, death is the opposite of birth, not of life. Once we do we can start to create the rituals which celebrate both life and death, and with this courage we can become pioneers of a new frontier, and an exploration which does not seek to destroy and enslave, a Progress which is a deepening into, rather than an escape from, the place where we came from and where we are going back to, Life itself.

Photo by sebastiaan stam on Unsplash