One Hundred Years of Solitude is a strange book to act as a foil for a discussion of progress. It is a work that takes the view that history is cyclical and repetitive. Progress, on the other hand, maintains that history overcomes the errors of human elites and creates greater truths, human happiness and greater rationality. Progress is a faith that stands on very weak grounds, but it remains the very core of enlightenment western history.
The telephone comes to Colombia as a consequence of the transportation made available by the railway. Its function is not that distinct from the rail and its impact on Jose the elder is clear: on the one hand, he finds himself almost dead on a train of corpses made much easier by the communication of the phone. Whoever controls this technology is able to do what the government does after the slaughter of Chapter XV.
The work of Condorcet might make readers wince with its dogmatic self assurance and extreme oversimplification, but his Outlines of a s Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind (1795) could not be a clearer vision of this Utopian ideology. Here, Reason marches through the blood of history forging a world of increasingly sophisticated truth and justice. He states, just a few years before the blood orgy of the French Revolution:
Every thing tells us that we are approaching the era of one of the grand revolutions of the human race. What can better enlighten us to what we may expect, what can be a surer guide to us, amidst its commotions, than the picture of the revolutions that have preceded and prepared the way for it? The present state of knowledge assures us that it will be happy (Condorcet, Int).
In Macondo, there are plenty of revolutions, but none more far-reaching than the railroad. From it flows electric lights and the telephone. All of these are “foundational” in that they provide the infrastructure for the rest. These are not separable for this reason. Only in the most superficial way can these be seen as positive. Chapters XII-XIII, where the effects of these developments is graphically presented, the citizens of the town experience what is not immediately obvious about such “progress.” Manners change. Labor is regiments and frivolity, materialism and passion are unleashed. The telephone and rail make those who control it immensely powerful. Those controlling this technology are not local and have little interest in their well being. Technology in the novel enmeshes the town (and the country) into a universe of power politics no one locally can comprehend, let along control.
In Chapter XV, it is clear that working conditions have deteriorated. Those inventions must be maintained and maintenance is difficult, costly and dirty. Increasing mechanization means a coarsening of manners and the regimentation of work. Labor is threatening a strike in this chapter, which is fairly easy to confront since telephones make communication with the capital easy and rail brings soldiers rapidly to the flashpoint. Mechanization is found most graphically as workers are slaughtered by automatic weapons after refusing to disperse.
Significantly, Jose Segundo wakes soon after on a train, surrounded by corpses from the slaughter, evidently confused for one of them. Upon his arrival home, the existence of the telephone has little meaning since the state decides who controls messages and communication. No one is aware of the slaughter and the state simply lies about the events.
The remaining chapters are more personal and less social, but the desire for gratification is endless. That sexuality dominates most of these pages is significant only in that it does not differ form the desire of the state for power or the plantation owners for profits. Yet, in Condorcet’s more general approach to progress, he states that, for the sciences, our “passions and interest do not disturb” its operation (237). In Macondo, the technical developments are both fueled by and further inflame this precise passion for gain, power or control. In fact, there is not a single prediction of Condorcet that is not parodied in the novel (cf Condorcet, 240-249).
By contrast, chapter XVI in Thomas Malthus work on population is far more realistic. Observing that technological developments have not assisted the working poor, he is forced to conclude that there are simply too many of them. Any time there is an improvement in the conditions of the working class, there must be a concurrent event that lowers the population such as war (Malthus, 99). Conveniently, since industry often requires the services and population of cities, the diseases spawned there help improve the wealth of society. Killing off the superfluous population will check this “perpetual tendency in the race of man to increase beyond the means of subsistence” (Malthus, 108).
The naïve view of Condorcet is that extreme levels of inequality that came into existence since industrialization, according to Condorcet, exist artificially in the contrived, non-economic institutions of the elite. If free competition were the pure law of the land, then “fortunes [would] naturally tend to equality, and that their extreme disproportion either could not exist, or would quickly cease, if positive law had not introduced factitious means of amassing and perpetuating them; if an entire freedom of commerce and industry were brought forward to supersede the advantages which prohibitory laws and fiscal rights necessarily give to the rich over the poor. . .” (260), the socially necessary work of society would bring fortunes to a rough equality. This begs the question as to who is in power to begin with. In Macondo, old elites are quickly swept aside and a new, mechanized and ultimately foreign world is imposed. It is not progress and it is not good.
The work of Marx, Marquez, and the experience of the past 200 years suggest that, far from abolishing such “prohibitory laws,” re-created them under different names. Condorcet’s error was – among others – that technological and scientific developments are synonyms with moral clarity. Marx saw the old society loathed by Condorcet swept away, but certainly not into utopia, but rather a greater, mechanized exploitation found in Marquez.
- Malthus,Thomas. An Essay on the Principle of Population. London: St. Paul’s Church, 1798
- Condorcet, M. Outlines of a s Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind. M. Carey, 1795 (online at: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1669)
- Marquez, G. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Harper Perennial, 2006
- Marx, K and F. Engels (1848). Manifesto of the Communist Party. In: Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol. I, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1969, pp. 98-137