Myths of inevitability

In a previous essay, I discussed an individual’s capacity for change. In summary, I posited that while certain aspects of our identity are resistant to change, meaningful change can be enacted through reflection and attention. Within the previous essay, there were also references made to society, with a specific claim that personal changes are often attributed to societal needs and pressures. Society is not an unchanging monolith, however, and like ourselves, is constantly changing. The relationship between the individual and society is of particular interest to me but will be discussed in more detail in another essay. This essay seeks to discuss the varieties of inevitabilities that we tell ourselves, which could limit our individual and collective agency when it comes to broader changes in culture and society. Two relevant forms of inevitability will be looked at in this essay. The first assumes that we are at an end-point in history and no further meaningful change can occur. The second is the belief that there is a natural course to history that ensures that specific changes will occur.

The Enlightenment and the project of modernity sought to achieve a universal understanding of the world through reason. A part of this project included theorizing the goals of various academic pursuits. In Aristotelian terms, this is known as the final cause, which Aristotle used to derive the purpose of any given object or animal. For instance, the webbed feet of a duck has the purpose of wading through water. Another term for this approach to understanding is teleology. Teleology is applied to various fields in modernity to gain clarity of how civilization should proceed. For instance, within the natural sciences, the fields of physics, chemistry and biology differ by their defined goals of inquiry. Physics is concerned with answering questions about matter, motion and energy. If all of the unsolved mysteries of physics are explained (and assuming that no other questions emerge in the field), one can say that physics has ended. To put it another way, this ultimate resolution can be called the “end of physics”. Such proclamations have been made before, not by crackpots but by well-respected experts. Albert Michelson, the first American physicist to receive the Nobel prize, stated in 1894 that within physics, “most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established” and “the future truths of physical science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” Michelson’s claim, therefore, is that physics no longer requires additional explanatory theories and that progress in the field is limited to more precise measurements. (This claim is often misattributed to the British physicist Lord Kelvin.) 

For hundreds of years, philosophers and other intellectuals have made claims to the “end of history”, which is the concept that there is an end-point in the evolution of political, economic and social systems, which manifests itself as the ultimate form of human organization or government. Beyond this “end of history”, major changes in human systems will cease to occur. In his controversial 1989 essay “The End of History?”, Francis Fukuyama claimed that the combination of liberal democracy and market economy seems to be the final form of human organization. He based this theory on the fall of fascism and communism in World War II and the increased liberalization of the market in the USSR respectively. Almost like clockwork, the Berlin Wall fell a few months after his essay was published and the USSR dissolved two years later in 1991. In the remaining years of the 90s and up until the mid-00s, Fukuyama’s idea seems to hold. Even Slavoj Zizek said in 2014 that “in a certain sense, almost all of us were Fukuyamaists” as “most of the left, was not raising fundamental questions… They were just trying to make the existing system more just. And more efficient.” The belief in Fukuyama’s claim may have created a blindness to the effects of neoliberal policies, which contributed to the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. The economist Joseph Stiglitz, responding to Fukuyama, titled a 2019 essay “The end of neoliberalism and the rebirth of history.” It is important, therefore, to be skeptical about suggestions that humanity has reached the final stage of its development. Gradual shifts that occur under our noses and unchallenged assumptions can lead to significant societal upheaval.

A related strain of inevitability is the cynical view that nothing fundamentally changes. In response to the French Revolution of 1848, the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” He is arguing that sweeping societal change only serves to cement existing injustice and inequality. The phrase rings true to many today in the US, who feel that their government only serves to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Despite being bailed out by US taxpayer money in 2008, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon got a bonus of almost $16 million in 2009. One could argue that it pales in comparison to the $27.8 million that he received in 2007 but it leaves a bad taste, especially for the millions of people who lost their jobs or their homes. However, in the book Factfulness by the physician and statistician Hans Rosling, the world as a whole has improved immensely over the past century. Some of these improvements include a decline in child labor, nuclear weapons and smallpox

For some, the fact that the world is improving causes them to believe that there is a natural course that history takes. This position may be best represented by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who (citing the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker) said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” These words inspire hope, but they may also cause people to feel that there is a natural tendency toward universal human progress that is separate from individual or collective agency. A similar form of optimism was criticized by Voltaire in his satirical novel Candide, whose main character became unable to reconcile the suffering that he observed in the world with the Leibnizian optimism that we are living in the “best of all possible worlds.” 

Our discussion leads us back to the intellectual heavyweight who shaped current thought around the “end of history” — Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. For Hegel, “World history… represents the development of the spirit’s consciousness of its own freedom and of the consequent realization of this freedom.” This means that he believed that freedom is an essential quality of humanity and that sociocultural evolution will always proceed in a way that increases freedom for all people. Similar to Karr, Hegel was affected by the events of the French Revolution but had an almost opposite interpretation. For Hegel, Napoleon’s conquest of much of Europe was one of many world-historical events that allowed humanity to get closer to the final stage of history. Today, some popular interpretations of Hegel view his work on the philosophy of history as a form of inevitable progress, whereas others claim that agency is central in his work. What is apparent to me is how certain groups of people adopt a somewhat Hegelian explanatory approach to justify certain supposed “inevitabilities”. For instance, the rise of automation and its replacement of human labor is increasingly assumed as inevitable. Why is that the case? To me, this so-called inevitability can be explained by the Friedman doctrine that a company’s only goal is to increase shareholder value. Costs are reduced by cutting jobs and investing in automated production capability, which increases company productivity and ultimately enriches shareholders. Therefore, it is important to question the underlying assumptions of people who sell us their version of the future. When necessary, we have to muster the courage to imagine and actualize our own vision.