A Portrait of Progress

Does anyone still believe progress solves everything, eliminates all problems and contradictions?

The fact is that progress, as it dawned in the Enlightenment and developed in the nineteenth century has not paid off of all its promises. And now, a culture, the culture of peasants, a culture that might help us to reassess ‘progress’ – this culture is simply being eliminated, or at least allowed to disappear.

John Berger

Last year I was asked to write a history – indeed a ‘rehabilitation’ – of the early 19th century Luddite Uprising for the second volume of the wonderful Dark Mountain Journal. The process has proved to be utterly liberating.

The history of the Luddites has shown me just how much we have sacrificed in the name of ‘progress’. A single passage from Kirkpatrick Sale’s ‘Rebels Against the Future’ (a book that proved absolutely essential as I wrote the Dark Mountain article) stood out as I was writing and for me it paints a perfect portrait of what progress means for too many people:

Lancashire, say 1780:
“The workshop of the weaver was a rural cottage, from which when he was tired of sedentary labour he could sally forth into his little garden, and with the spade or the hoe tend its culinary productions. The cotton wool which was to form his weft was picked clean for him by the fingers of his younger children, and was carded and spun by the older girls assisted by his wife, and the yarn was woven by himself assisted by his sons. When he could not procure within his family a supply of yarn adequate to the demands of his loom, he had recourse to the spinsters of his neighbourhood. One good weaver could keep three active women at work upon the wheel, spinning weft [although] he was often obliged to treat the females with presents in order to quicken their diligence at the wheel.”
Lancashire, say 1814:
There are hundreds of factories in Manchester which are five or six storeys high. At the side of each factory there is a great chimney which belches forth black smoke and indicates the presence of powerful steam engines. The smoke from the chimneys forms a great cloud which can be seen for miles around the town. The houses have become black on account of the smoke. The river on which Manchester stands is so tainted with colouring matter that the water resembles the contents of a dye-vat … To save wages mule jennies have actually been built so that no less than 600 spindles can be operated by one adult and two children. Two mules, each with 300 spindles, face each other. The carriages of these machines are moved in one direction by steam and in the other direction by hand. This is done by an adult worker who stands between two mules. Broken threads are repaired by children (piecers) who stand either side of the mules … In the large spinning mills machines of different kinds stand in rows like regiments in an army.”
It was, make no mistake about it, an industrial revolution, an alteration of such speed and complexity and scale as to dwarf even the considerable upheavals that had come in the centuries before.

As John Berger observed a human culture that may yet be our greatest hope for the future has been progressively devastated by – and is still under threat from… – the relentless onslaught of progress. But as climate change and peak-oil bring an end to fossil-fueled excess it might be prudent to ask the peasant to show us a better way to live.

Illustration by Jonathan Penney

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