The Road to Nowhere: The Idea of Progress and Its Critics
Matthew Slobach will deliver a talk on his book, The Road to Nowhere: The Idea of Progress and Its Critics, at American University’s Political Theory Institute, a JMC partner program.
Thursday, February 22, 2018 • 5:30PM-7:00PM
Kerwin Hall, Room 301 • American University
This lecture is part of the Political Theory Colloquium Lecture Series. Founded by Alan Levine, this lecture series has brought noted speakers to campus for more than 15 years. The colloquia provide a focal point for the community to engage in a common conversation, and also enrich the discussions that occur in particular classes.
Abstract of A Road to Nowhere: The Idea of Progress and Its Critics
Since the Enlightenment, the idea of progress has spanned right- and left-wing politics, secular and spiritual philosophy, and most every school of art or culture. The belief that humans are capable of making lasting improvements—intellectual, scientific, material, moral, and cultural—continues to be a commonplace of our age. However, events of the preceding century, including but not limited to two world wars, conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, the spread of communism across Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, violent nationalism in the Balkans, and genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, have called into question this faith in the continued advancement of humankind.
In A Road to Nowhere, Matthew W. Slaboch argues that political theorists should entertain the possibility that long-term, continued progress may be more fiction than reality. He examines the work of German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Oswald Spengler, Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and American historians Henry Adams and Christopher Lasch—rare skeptics of the idea of progress who have much to engage political theory, a field dominated by historical optimists. Looking at the figures of Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, and Adams, Slaboch considers the ways in which they defined progress and their reasons for doubting that their cultures, or the world, were progressing. He compares Germany, Russia, and the United States to illustrate how these nineteenth-century critics of the idea of progress contributed to or helped forestall the emergence of forms of government that came to be associated with each country: fascism, communism, and democratic capitalism, respectively.
Turning to Spengler, Solzhenitsyn, and Lasch, Slaboch explores the contemporary relevance of the critique of progress and the arguments for and against political engagement in the face of uncertain improvement, one-way inevitable decline, or unending cycles of advancement and decay. A Road to Nowhere concludes that these notable naysayers were not mere defeatists and presents their varied prescriptions for individual and social action.
Matthew Slaboch is 2017-18 James Madison Program Postdoctoral Research Fellow. His principal areas of expertise and teaching are in political theory and comparative politics. In A Road to Nowhere, his forthcoming book from the University of Pennsylvania Press, he utilizes a comparative-historical approach to explore critiques of the idea of progress. Interdisciplinary in nature, Dr. Slaboch’s work brings into conversation such diverse figures as the German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Oswald Spengler, the Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the American historians Henry Adams and Christopher Lasch. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Indiana University, a M.A. in Political Science from the University of Kansas, and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Illinois.
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