Signs of Progress

How the modern world lost its senses

The more sophisticated animals become, the worse they get at connecting with reality. As they cephalize, and socialize, stories substitute for reflexes, and the survival value of a story owes almost nothing to its factuality. Believing what everyone else does, or what makes you feel good, counts for vastly more. Wherever it is that discussion leads, it is only very rarely, and accidentally, in the direction of reality.

Science begins with the realization that stories aren’t to be trusted, even – or especially – if they sound credible, conform to prior intuitions, and readily attain social approval. Since narrative satisfaction is the great deceiver, science reaches beyond language into the vast frigid tracts of mathematical signs, stripped clean of all moral and emotional significance. Hardening itself against the temptation to see faces in the clouds, or hear voices from the heavens, it digs determinedly into the test-bed of numbers and quantitative signals, where seductive words are led to die.

Economics has never been a science, but economic behavior, and even theory, has been able to avail itself of a measure of leverage against story-telling. Its great resource in this regard has been the price system, expressed in ‘meaningless’ quantities (without immediate narrative significance) which enable economic calculation to sustain a posture of ideological indifference. An accountant who tells a story is a bad accountant, and most probably a criminal, whilst an entrepreneur fixated upon a story of how things ‘must be’ is subject to market-Darwinian nemesis. That, at least, is how laissez-faire hard money capitalism once roughly worked, as attested for instance by the indignation of Charles Dickens, who insisted upon the right of moral, political, and religious story-telling in the midst of a process that systematically disdained it.

Things have progressed incalculably since then, in a direction that could be confidently described as ‘Dickensian’ if that adjective had not already been settled in its highly-effective polemical purpose. That ‘the Big Story’ (BS) would triumph over calculative Scroogean realism was perhaps entirely predictable, but the near-metaphysical comprehensiveness of its victory – and its revenge — was less easy to anticipate. When attempting to gauge this progress, money is the best indicator, or rather, the destruction of money as an indicator is the most telling sign.

Under the conditions of hard money industrial capitalism, progress follows two, rigorously accounted tracks. Most notoriously, it is measured as a process of accumulation, or the amassing of fortunes through profitable business activity. Economic intelligence is socially dispersed along with the multitude of fortunes, with each unit of capital accompanied by its own (Scroogish) accounting function, weighing revenues against outlays, and estimating the viability of continued operation. This intelligence does not lend itself to convenient or reliable public aggregation.

Accompanying the multiplicity of private progressions (and regressions), there is a second track measuring social advance in strictly quantitative, meaningless, and unambiguous terms. On this track, technical and organizational improvements in business activity overspill private accounts, and take the form of public ‘externalities’. Under any monetary system competent to register reality, such general social advances are expressed as falling prices, cost reduction, or deflation. (A typically insightful Zero Hedge post on the topic can be found here.)

The importance of this point is difficult to over-emphasize, especially since it directly contradicts our carefully fabricated neo-Dickensian common sense: Deflation! Isn’t that kind of like fascism or something?

Deflation can certainly represent a type of socio-economic misfortune, under specific conditions. During business cycle downturns, for instance, it can reflect fire-sale asset or inventory reductions, driven by, and exacerbating, credit crises. The seriousness and typicality of such cases is strongly asserted in the dominant (neo-Dickensian) story of the Great Depression. It is worth noting, however, that even under these circumstances – at the worst – the first-order effect of deflation is to generate a spontaneous increase in affluence, or spending power. When life is at its toughest, it gets cheaper to live.

In the hard money world, chronic mild deflation simply is social progress. The two concepts are effectively indistinguishable. Gentle deflation is the invisible hand out, giving everybody a little more of almost everything, year by year, as it spontaneously distributes a fraction of the ‘social surplus’, or public dividend on rising productivity. Even in today’s radically progressed world of ruined money, the output of the consumer electronics industry still manages to exhibit the deflationary trends that have been obliterated elsewhere (so next time you buy a gizmo, don’t forget to feel appropriately oppressed.)

What the hell in heavens happened? How did modernity’s metallo-monetary senses get turned off, rapturing Scrooge into a Christmas Carol, and eclipsing industrial reality? One obvious neo-Dickensian go-to guy for that is William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), a politician whose multi-dimensional war against reality – truly astounding in its consistency – represents enthusiasm for the Big Story (or ‘social gospel’) at its most uncompromised. Either Bryan’s anti-Darwinism (the Scopes trial) or his ardent prohibitionism (campaigning for the 18th amendment) would have sufficed to earn him a place in the historical record as a hero of the BS (‘evangelical’ or ‘progressive’) State, but his most enduring legacy rests upon the speech he delivered on July 9, 1896, to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, in which he declared – as if to Scrooge himself – that “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

This is a declaration that is sublimed to progressive universality through the elimination of context. Embedded within the late 19th century debates on bimetallism (price-fixing of gold-silver exchange rates), its present implications are significantly diluted, or at least complicated, by questions about the financial responsibility of central authorities, creditor-debtor class warfare, global economic integration, agrarian-urban tensions, and (East-West) regional politics in the USA. Yet, fundamentally, it can be recognized as ‘Dickensian’: the passionate denunciation of a neutral criterion for economic reality, precisely for its neutrality, or indifference to Big Story moral-historical narrative. Gold is cold. It measures without judgment. Between damnation and salvation it demonstrates no preference or inclination.

Concretely, gold was registering, in economic terms, the social upheaval of American industrial urbanization. Mechanization of agriculture implied falling food prices, ruination of small farmers, and rural depopulation, during a sustained process of massive disruption whose miseries were only exceeded by the socio-economic revitalization in its wake. In its distribution and in its accounting function, gold facilitated the depreciation of rural labor, the bankruptcy of misallocated businesses, and the empowerment of concentrated industrial capital in the nation’s rising urban centers. Bryan articulated the views of those at the sharpest edge of this shift, who found the messenger culpable for the message, the senses guilty for the scene: “If thine eye offends thee pluck it out” (Matthew 18:9). (Even though Bryan lost all three of his presidential elections bids, we’re all totally plucked.)

To make of money a vehicle of moral purpose, rather than a neutral registry of fact, is to make the crossing from liberalism and progress as they were once understood (dynamic industrialism), to the progressive liberalism of today (political evangelism). If money can save us (through ‘demand management’), as the Keynesians insist, then its politicization is a moral imperative, whose neglect is a sin of omission. The senses are transformed into story-tellers. Shut the windows, and listen to the Christmas Carol. It’s progress (honestly).