The stories we tell ourselves have the power to shape what we see and even what we believe possible. In our society one of the most deeply embedded and powerful stories is the story of progress. Broadly speaking, many Americans believe that, as a society, we are progressing. That is, in many ways – economics, social relations, health, etc. – things are better than they were before. Naturally, there are also many who insist that, at this moment, we are not better off but worse. An example of this would be someone who insists that things were moving in the right direction when Ronald Reagan was president and have been going down hill in the 30 years since. This group denies progress at the moment but accepts the concept on the whole. In other words, those who believe we are currently progressing and those who believe we are currently regressing equally operate with the assumption that society is (or would be if x was different) moving forward.
The story of social and cultural progress is usually told as a sort of historical narrative in which progress is the theme connecting the various historical touchstones. The Magna Carta is the newborn gasp of progress, freed from the womb of a wretched, stultified old order; the Renaissance hails progress’s puberty; the enlightenment is the man-child progress coming-of-age; and the technological and social changes of the 20th-21st centuries represent progress’ further maturation toward the full flower of inclusion, equality, tolerance, and freedom. This story is very appealing. It also happens to be false. Or false enough to be useless at any rate.
There are four fatal problems with the story of progress.
- It is a profoundly first-world story. It is certainly true that in specific ways we in the first-world have experienced progress. Healthcare is better than it was 100 years ago; technology affords us access to more knowledge and facilitates broader communication than has been available at any time before; and individual liberty and tolerance for different modes of life is the norm in most first-world nations. However, little or none of this applies to most of the people living on the continents of Africa or Asia. That is, this story is not true for most of the people living in the world. So when we speak about progress what we are really talking about is progress for us.
- But even this narrower definition of progress is untenable. This leads us to the second flaw in the story of progress; namely, that it is a dramatic oversimplification. Whether we are talking about technological or social change, we can only speak of it as “progress” if we filter out the all the ambiguities and problems that tend to rub the shiny off the story. For example, if one is using the internet as an example of progress one will focus on knowledge sharing, crowdsourcing, and other examples of how the internet has changed the world for good. In such an example one will ignore completely the fact that internet has spawned the darknet and facilitated an otherwise incomprehensible growth in sex-trafficking and other horrors we do not care to imagine. Both stories are equally true but including the nasty part makes it sound less like progress and more like mere change. Further, the sad fact is that very often our “progress” comes at the expense of others. Racial slavery represented an astounding step up in the quality of life of many Europeans and from their vantage point I am sure things seemed to be looking up. In our own time many of the goods we purchase so affordably, including our most beloved technological gadgets, come from wage-slave sweatshops in Asia or support conglomerates that make money through various forms of human and environmental exploitation. This is not progress in any social or moral sense. It is simply change – better in some ways, worse in others. But it is the kind of change wherein the consequences are placed carefully out of sight and thus out of mind. It is this more than anything else that most enables our illusion of progress. We are not obliged, most of the time, to face the negative consequences our society’s appetites. They remain neatly tucked away in another part of the world, in a womb, or another part of town, and we are free to imagine that we humming happily into a brighter future.
- The third problem with the myth of progress, aside from its being untrue, is that it dooms us to a conflict oriented social environment. If society is progressing, or should be, then progress itself, embodied by certain goals or policies, is the fundamental “good” of society. Those who are committed to progress, whatever it happens to be, are “on the right side of history” while those who oppose progress are their generation’s Dodo bird, doomed for the evolutionary garbage heap. As in Robespierre’s French Republic, the continued evolution of human society can be secured if only x person or group is got out of the way – sometimes with a little help. This kind of thinking has ended badly so many times in recent history that it might justly be used as a demonstration of group insanity.
- The fourth, and perhaps most visceral, problem with progress is its insatiable nature. If progress is the fundamental good of society then society must always be progressing. We must be in a never-ending state of progressive reformation. There can be no rest, no homeplace free from the righteous urgency of the moment. Progress marches to a relentless and pitiless drum.
To sum up, progress is a privileged illusion. it’s the computer generated pin-up girl of the idea world; a pretty but unreal and unsatisfying story we tell ourselves about the way things are. But if we reject the idea of progress what do we replace it with? That is a question for another day. Stay tuned!