Progress, New Adam, and
We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into
our heads, —and then we can hardly see anything else.
Henry David Thoreau1
In the same way that Queen Elizabeth in 2008 asked economists why they were unable to predict the coming economic crisis, Václav Havel, in reaction to the crisis, asked about the meaning of growth. “Why must everything constantly grow? Why must industry, manufacturing, and production grow? Why must cities unconceptually grow in all directions, until not even a bit of the landscape remains, not even a bit of grass?” 2 As Havel himself remembers, during his more than five years in prison under the communist regime he also had to constantly work, but in the vast majority of cases it was completely nonsensical work —it was “work for work’s sake.” Does economic growth always have a meaning, or is it just growth for growth’s sake?
When there is too much of something, we often do not notice it. And it tends to be the most important things that we overlook —precisely because we seem to be so certain of them. One of these is the idea of progress. It constantly surrounds us. On television, in ads, in political announcements, and from economists’ mouths. It is the undiscussed imperative of our time, something that is simply so automatic that we do not see it. We can also look at our system as being a bit like the illusion in the Matrix trilogy. Specifically, the idea of growth has the power to control us and in a way turn us into slaves. In Morpheus’s words, we are “kept inside a prison that [we] cannot smell, taste, or touch.” 3
1 Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays, 96.
2 Havel, interview with R. Kalenská, “Někdy se mě zmocňuje pocit … [I sometimes have this vain feeling …],” in Lidové noviny, Kalenská, November 15, 2008.
3 For further commentary see Irwin, The Matrix and Philosophy, chapter by Daniel Barwick, “Neo-Materialism and the Death of the Subject,” 258. And furthermore: “The intelligences