A shallow, hackneyed enemy of progress

If Surviving Progress is any indication of the state of radical politics today, no wonder the future appears scary.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

You can never judge a book by its cover, and only a particular type of fool would make the mistake of deciding to watch a TV show by its title. In these digital days of multi-channel choice galore, programmers can become sly, baffling or sometimes outrageously misleading in a bid to win viewers. There are endless tantalising possibilities of the title Dog the Bounty Hunter, for example, which could never really match up to the reality of a programme about a bounty hunter called Dog.

Similarly, when placed in the context of some of their documentary seasons on rude history, it is impossibly disappointing to discover The Transit of Venus is about celestial happenings rather than some arcane Victorian slang for ladies touching themselves. Some days you almost want to weep with gratitude for the sheer straight-up simplicity of Extreme Fishing with Robson Greene or 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Tsunamis.

It was something of a pleasant surprise to discover that the BBC4 documentary Surviving Progress did pretty much what it said on the tin. ‘Progress’ did not turn out to be a lusty nymphet from the annals of history, or a beefcake redneck badass in Ray-Bans. Rather, the documentary informed us, simply, that Western civilisation is doomed, that the experiment of the past few centuries (rocketing standards of living, modern medicine, procreation and all that jazz) is over, and that it is all somehow the fault of the one per cent of the global financial oligarchy and/or greedy little Chinese people.

I was tempted to breathe a sigh of relief. But judging by the rather grim prognosis of the future of the world made by Surviving Progress, it seems like we’re all going to have to start cherishing such little pleasures and making do with less.

Based on a best-selling non-fiction book, A Short History of Progress by novelist Ronald Wright, this short piece of agitprop contained the familiar charge sheet of eco doom-mongering – deforestation, resource depletion, growing global inequality, overpopulation, excessive consumption, industrialisation of China, etc – mixed in with a liberal dollop of banker-bashing (sorry – global financial oligarchy) and some very grown-up sounding historical allusions to the parallels between the contemporary era and the end of the Roman Empire and the Mayans.

The invocation of the Mayans – long-time favourites of apocalypse fetishists – is often eyebrow-raising, of course, but aside from that this was pretty mainstream anti-corporate and misanthropic stuff. The kind of stuff which spiked (and others) takes apart in considered and serious form on a regular basis, so it’s hardly worth confronting straight on here.

That co-director Harold Crooks previously worked on fun anti-capitalist film The Corporation in 2003 – which involved diagnosing the US corporation as a ‘psychopath’ – indicates that there is at least a small glint in the eye. The phrase ‘an advanced sense of rhetoric’ has even been coined to describe such activist movie-making: this isn’t meant to be a manifesto or even an academic essay. If anything, Surviving Progress is more interesting as a short introduction to the contemporary politics of Occupy – erudite-sounding, hipster-smart, media-savvy, with no clear sides and few straightforward objectives – than it is as a worldview to deconstruct.

Martin Scorsese’s role as executive producer is perhaps telling. The director of Taxi Driver and Cape Fear has always had a fascination with maladjusted urban psychos and a fixation with America’s role as a new global empire, a fascination which is continuing to bear creative fruit with the Prohibition-set drama Boardwalk Empire. It might be better for all involved if Scorsese stuck to fiction rather than funding documentaries, but it comes as little surprise that the director who produced Travis Bickle would be interested in a programme which was essentially praying for rain to ‘wash the trash’ of humanity away if it didn’t clean up its act.

Yet, for all that, it is difficult to forget that the ‘advanced sense of rhetoric’ disappears when it is not taken up in the cause of various fashionable causes. The uproar which greets the similarly opinionated and rhetorical Martin Durkin when he lays into environmentalism seems to prove that. Even highly respected filmmaker Adam Curtis was notably careful to couch his critique of such forms of contemporary depoliticised misanthropy in suitably anti-capitalist terminology in All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace for fear (presumably) of feeling the wrath.

That Surviving Progress set out its case in such a frenetic, incoherent, overblown and frequently inconsistent manner should be a cause for some celebration: it is difficult to imagine anyone serious-minded taking this at face value. Yet what is frustrating is that there are plenty of pressing questions about the state of progress today, what it means and how it is we have come to lose faith in technological development and economic growth at precisely the historical moment it has delivered so much. There are plenty more articulate and powerful enemies of progress afoot than were on display here: but it is not an urgent debate that will be kickstarted by this rot.

If this is hollowed-out and dishonest garbage is truly the shape of radical politics ahead, then Surviving Progress is probably right to be worried for the future: I certainly am.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture


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