The term progress carries a heavy weight. It seems to mean unproven change in the name of increasing wealth, cities, and power to centralized authorities. It has taken two forms in the West, and perhaps the greatest revolution of our time is that we finally see they are one and the same.
The first form was the idea of the progress of industry. At that time, most people lived off the land as farmers or those who supported them, with artisans making tools in the towns and cities. This approach was highly resilient, but did not offer many guarantees. The crops could fail, Indians could attack, or a forest fire could wipe out farms and homes.
Someone in the cities figured out that the way to subvert this lifestyle was to offer guarantees. A job guaranteed a paycheck; a city guaranteed people around you for safety, even if only as alternate targets; insurance guaranteed no bad years; government guaranteed order and protection. “Progress” meant moving from self-reliance to reliance on the group and its technology.
Others pointed out that these guarantees came with a high price. The job meant that someone else was in charge of your life, and it might take a good deal of time. Insurance and technology took more money from the home and gave it to the centralized authority. Government, well, it was a dirty word in most of the country because it meant city people making rules from afar.
Those who decried the first Progress found themselves making a difficult argument. Why should we resist all of these new, good things? Life would be easier. What most forgot, however, was that now they were making a system which was more inter-dependent. A farm could fail, but that meant a localized problem; if a government or employer failed, many people would be scrambling for the same resources at once.
Even more, it was pointed out, Progress was like a revolt against Darwinism. Your farm reflected your ability; a job showed your acumen much less, and distilled your task from making something work as a whole like a farm to following some instructions and training. In addition, those who were less competent got paid along with the rest and, after the unions, promoted.
Progress the First ate up the small towns of America and replaced them with cities and suburbs. Commuting became a thing. So did what the country folk called “loose morals,” because in the city, there was no real accountability and no process. Where courtship and marriage were rituals of life in the country, people in the city existed in a sort of perpetual adolescence.
Some noticed that Progress I seemed to empower nasty people. Whoever had a mind for making money, and knew how to seize opportunity and cut the right corners, got ahead; those who tried to make their actions fit within a social order did not. Now that insurance and taxes were standardized, people in the country started to realize that getting ahead was essential to avoid bankruptcy.
Those in favor of Progress did other things, too. They set up an estate tax which slaughtered family farms and small businesses by taxing individuals for the whole worth of the business upon the death of the patriarch; they imposed rules and regulations which raised the cost for sole proprietors, and insurance became mandatory, too. The financial structure outside the cities was insufficient.
And so everyone moved into the cities, with each generation losing more, so that by 2007, over half of the world was urbanized.
This initial foray of Progress seemed at first to be entirely economic. What people came to realize was that economics reflected culture and, in the absence of a broader culture, quickly became a substitute for culture. The city did not have a gentle ranking of people by ability, but by money, and while the two somewhat overlapped, there was a good deal of disconnection.
The first Progress meant that the diversity and hierarchy of the natural way of human life had been replaced by something like a factory: a mass production of equal units, indoctrinated in checklists and mission statements, such that a product would emerge with value added and be sold, with those sales then generating taxes which could finance the increasing guarantees by government.
As soon as it became clear that Progress salvo one was succeeding, the second was launched: political Progress. This second coming focused on the idea of equality, which came to us through the Renaissance notion of man as the measure of all things and the Enlightenment idea of individualism, then flowered in the French Revolution.
Progress II accelerated what Progress I had begun, which was the gradual standardization of humanity. Moving to the cities had collapsed the caste and social structure, and melded different ethnic groups as workers socialized with the middle classes, but Progress II aimed to move racial integration into the scenario as well. This eliminated heritage, for all practical purposes.
Unlike the first Progress, the second iteration occurred through multiple channels. It aimed to subsidize workers and protect them from employers; it tried to stop discrimination in housing and services; it demanded that women be given the same roles as men. Again, it erased any kind of social structure, replacing it with the assembly line method.
As the twenty-first century dawned, what bothered most people was that life was hell and it seemed like it would never change. We all hate our jobs. We all lack free time and spend too much time on frustrating, pointless, and unnecessary bureaucracy and futzing around with glitch technology. We all notice we barely know our neighbors, have no culture, and dating is a minefield in which no one emerges anything like a saint, more like used tissues trying to find another long enough to breed and divorce.
In short, by doing the “right” thing we had done the wrong thing, and by succeeding, we had destroyed all the parts of life that were meaningful at a level above the individual. Our individualism poisoned all of what gave life purpose and significance, but it all seemed right to us, because we thought about life only as it related to us, our fears, and our desires.
Generation X was really the first group to recognize that our Utopian individualism had created a modern hell. During the 1980s, Progress II really entered its final stage with the rise of the corporate job, regulations, lawsuit mania, anti-discrimination law, and other managerial fixtures that supported one another.
We began to see something here, which was that when we spread the cost out in order to protect the individual, we also increased costs and lowered efficiency across the board. Simple tasks were now complex and burdensome; costs rose because of legal and financial risks in these new mechanisms we had grafted into our civilization.
Even worse, we can no longer fail gracefully. Incompetents are subsidized by preventing their failures from having financial impact on them; large businesses and unions mean that the fools and lazy people get the same salary and benefits as anyone else. In order to keep this system going, we have to show constant economic activity, even if it ends up being pointless like 90% seems to be.
Progress clearly has won the battlefield, but over the past few years, it has lost the war for hearts and minds.
The first factor influencing this was that we finally saw its intended Utopia. Under Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, we saw a world where our nations were reduced to second-class citizens and we were replaced by people coming in for the great white people free money giveaway. Weaker foreign policy also created a more unstable world.
Next came a series of debunkings. It turned out that many theories simply did not work as they were portrayed to. Immigrants did not assimilate and begin earning money; long-standing minority groups did not stop hating us, but picked up the pace. It turns out that folk wisdom was right and sugar is worse than fat, some alcohol is good for you, and traditions are better than individualism.
Finally, people saw that the “revolutionary” ideas of the past were not only not very new, but now constituted the Establishment. Unlike the old one, this new Establishment was as graceless as a bureaucrat, as dominant as the Soviet Union, and created a thought stranglehold through political correctness. This rightly repelled people who saw too many similarities to past failed experiments.
Now a cultural wave is sweeping the West, and some of it has even extended into the cutting edge of popular culture:
On Jan. 2, he dropped the teaser trailer for Man of the Woods,” complete with Bon Iver–style symbology, and revealed the album’s cover, which literalizes his transformation from a man in a black and white suit to a man “of the woods.” On Friday, he released the album’s tracklist, featuring the song titles “Flannel,” “Montana,” “Livin’ Off the Land,” and “The Hard Stuff.”
Part of why the Western motifs of Man of the Woods feel so performative, so memeworthy, so laughable is that it doesn’t feel like a progression, or like something Timberlake’s been working toward, or a return to his roots. Instead, it’s the image equivalent of a trip to a dude ranch: an accidental projection of his greatest vulnerabilities, and a desire to immerse himself in a simple, elemental, mythical, masculine world that doesn’t ask hard questions or demand nuanced answers.
…Timberlake isn’t the first pop star of his generation to deploy the backwoods masculinity pivot. In 2012, John Mayer retreated to a Montana ranch on the Yellowstone River, selling his homes in New York and Los Angeles…Mayer was healing his vocal chords, but the larger implication is that the city — and fame — had made him into someone he wasn’t. “There’s all these struggles and stressors and conflicts every day [in the city] that you don’t even notice,” he told the Independent. “But waking up happy and going to bed happy, with contiguous happiness throughout the day, is very rare. You think: ‘I’m sure they’re saying my name somewhere. Somewhere, some hideously underpaid blogger is typing my name, and they’re either saying I’m great or I suck, but I don’t hear it and I don’t see it.’ It’s the most remarkable feeling I’ve ever had in my life – to be truly content, and to have that contentment not up for grabs by other people.”
…The video for “Shadow Days” makes the journey literal: Mayer starts in the city, gets in his car, and drives West: first to Monument Valley, one of the most iconic markers of Westernness, and then up through Idaho and into Montana, stopping at various places to be alone, pluck at his guitar, and sing into the distance. Once out of the city, he starts interacting with normal people — he goes to a guitar shop in a small town, plays around, shakes some hands, slaps some backs — and buys some oil to fix his car himself.
In the tropes offered by these pop stars, we see all of the mythos of the world before Progress. They become what they are, simple men agape at the grandeur of a natural world, and dedicate themselves to the task of family and masculinity. They fix their own cars. They get out of the cities. They are their own men, without their contentment “up for grabs by other people.”
The backlash is just gaining momentum, but it will be larger than most people have anticipated. These artists are winning with this approach, too, because it resonates with their audience. The city has lost its allure; Progress has lost its Utopian rose-colored tinge; modern life has become not a savior but a Satan.
Inevitably this pattern points toward a resurgence of tradition because it replaces modern values — both Progress I and II — with a much more reality-referential, simple and evident morality. You become who you are. You do what you were born to do. You live fully and you reject the idea that a whole bunch of people together know anything. Instead, you challenge yourself with life itself.
Maybe some of this has been inherited from Generation X music. After all, Burzum’s Varg Vikernes has been living this lifestyle for the past decade or so since he got out of prison. And Generation X, as the dropout and slacker generation, instinctively feels this idea. But more likely, modern society has run its course, and the backlash is gaining momentum.