It's been a dog's life this century

Progress and Barbarism
September 18, 1998

Mid-way through his recent fictional-cum-autobiographical excursion, Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut relates a conversation with William Styron, author of Sophie's Choice. Together they try to put a figure on the number of people in the whole planet who have what they have - "lives worth living". They agree on 17 per cent. Anyone who reads Clive Ponting's history of the century, however, is likely to leave Progress and Barbarism with a sense that the two erred wildly on the side of optimism.

Conceiving the world as divided into core, semi-periphery and periphery, Ponting suggests that largely only for citizens of the core - about 20% of the world's population - has the century been marked by progress. On the plus side of the century's ledger, he tentatively enters: rising life expectancy; declining child mortality; increased food and manufacturing production; technologies permitting easier communication and transport; more widespread literacy; and greater equality for women, at least in the core. But the profits of progress were (and remain) offset by massive debits of barbarism. For Ponting, the greatest of these is that the world has been characterised by "huge and growing inequalities between the overwhelming majority, who were very poor, and the small minority, who were rich".

The planet's most typical inhabitants through the century have been Chinese and Indian peasants. For them, the story of the century has been primarily one of barbarism. The debit side thus reveals for the majority periphery dwellers: massive poverty and malnutrition; life expectancy rates often only half those of the core; environmental destruction as the price of increased industrial production and agricultural yield; monotonous, grinding work, especially for women enduring a double burden of paid and unpaid drudgery. Even the 20 per cent of the world's population fortunate enough to live in the core has not enjoyed the fruits of progress uniformly, with global inequalities between states being replicated in microcosm within the very wealthiest societies.

Where the 19th century ended - at least in Europe and North America - with a profusion of smug speculation about the imminent perfectibility of man, the 20th century has done much to demolish such unquestioning faith in progress, science, reason and the Enlightenment, at least within the academy. Beyond it, however, Ponting's book (which seems pitched at non-academic residents of the core) may serve to remind readers that their comfortable conditions are not replicated around the globe, nor even for many fellow residents of their own state.

Certainly, few could come away from the book without feeling slowly bludgeoned by the accretion of damning statistics about a century in which, according to Ponting, fascism was the only (semi-) original contribution to political philosophy, and during which most citizens have lived - and often died - under some form of dictatorship. The roll call of unnatural deaths makes grim reading: 100 million from famine; 10 million in natural disasters; 25 million through traffic accidents; 150 million in war; 100 million at the hands of their own state; and 14 million as a result of genocide - a unique 20th-century "invention" and perhaps the most terrible manifestation of "progress" hitched to the purposes of barbarism.

Necessary reading though his illustration of the danse macabre of progress and barbarism undoubtedly is, Ponting's summation is not without its drawbacks. Academics may be disappointed by the lack of footnotes, with which he has dispensed for fear of "overburdening" the text. We have to accept unquestioningly the damning data upon which so much of the burden of argumentation is placed, though we might wish for more clarity about categories that are not always self-evident. (When is a natural disaster "natural", for example?) This narrow point finds an echo in the broader observation that Ponting generally places less emphasis on explanation than on exposition. He sensibly takes a thematic, rather than chronological approach to the century, dealing in the three core sections ("Economic and social history", "International history" and "Domestic history") with such topics as environment, globalisation, empires, conflict, dictatorship, discrimination and genocide. But other than his fundamental debt to Immanuel Wallerstein and world systems theory, his account is thin on theory and thick on empirical detail. And while Ponting notes that other historians will reach different interpretations, he does not himself seem keen to engage in interpretational debate.

The emphasis upon statistical information and narrative accounting makes for a rather flat history. Greater use might have been made of telling quotation, to leaven the diet of "facts", and Ponting's prose rarely cries out for quotation. The century's cultural and intellectual life is generally neglected, and the more pleasurable distractions - music, cinema, television, literature - are paid little heed. One senses that for Ponting the cultural smacks of the unduly frivolous, just as his prose gives the impression of being burdened with the injustices of the century - in the face of which writing with more sparkle would be a small act of barbarism. Lacking the shining apercus and insights of Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes, it is hard to see Ponting's book rivalling its more illustrious predecessor as a history of the 20th century destined for a long shelf-life in the 21st.

For Ponting, one of the century's big questions is why more people have not risen in revolt against the manifest injustice that surrounds them. For Vonnegut, the question is why more of the 83 per cent doomed to lead unfulfilling lives do not commit suicide. He consults a doctor friend whose work routinely brings him into contact with people whose lives appear utterly desperate, and who has himself regularly posed Vonnegut's question to his patients. They habitually recoil in horror: "An idea that sick had never entered their heads!" It is, perhaps, easy to tolerate a status quo that appears the unchallengeable order of things, even an intolerable one.

Ponting's conclusion entreats readers - for most of whom the status quo will be quite tolerable - to reflect on the origins of their material comfort and ponder the dialectic between progress and barbarism that is certain to mark the 21st century. The century's ultimate barbarism resides in the grotesque statistic that, at its close, the average American domestic dog enjoys a better diet than the majority of the world's people. For contented citizens of the core, Vonnegut's clarion call in Timequake might serve as a salutary injunction at the dawn of a new millennium: "You were sick, but now you're well again, and there's work to do."

Susan Carruthers is lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Progress and Barbarism: The World in the 20th Century

Author - Clive Ponting
ISBN - 1 856 19610 0
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - 584
Pages - 584

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