Some exploratory thoughts on Progress

The idea of progress is a complex concept. Normally it is taken to mean that the human condition is improving over time and will continue to improve into the foreseeable future.

This conceptualisation of progress include a sense of advancement, forward movement, and gaining a higher understanding or ability. It is an upward linear progression, a continuation, a development. Progress is Onwards and Upwards.

It also has the more subtle sense of simple passage of time; a going from place to place, a procession or journey, things being underway – as work being in progress: an unfinished thing that may or may not work out well.

The Enlightenment struggles with the idea of Progress were attempts to rationalise ways forward. Do we have similar impulses and methodologies that allow us to sense ways forward, to make contemporary progress, in a world that seems more fragmented, with uncertain sets of relationships. How will we agree what constitutes progress in a context that is complex, ambiguous, and kaleidoscopic?

We will begin with the sense in which there is ‘improvement’ (progress) rather than ‘sequence’ (progression’). It is history as positive advancement rather than history being just one thing after another.

This view of Progress grew in importance throughout the 17th, 18th  and 19th Centuries, part of a strand of the philosophical optimism of the times.  Later attitudes to progress were similarly heavily influenced by the social context in which they were produced.

The Enlightenment (as an intellectual movement that gained ground in 17th/18th Century Europe) tried to get below the surface of day-to-day events to see wider trends. It rested on a belief that human historical improvement was based on:

  • advances in understanding of the natural world, through the blossoming of scientific and intellectual activity, opening up the ability to improve the human condition through increased knowledge and understanding
  • the development of laws that allowed some prediction of futures, bringing an optimism that humans could control their physical surroundings and their own destinies; the manipulation of their world through technological advances
  • overcoming ignorance where this arose from superstition or ‘unfounded’ religious views
  • improvements in the quality of life: through economic development once people apply reason and skills; and through liberty and equality once people apply science to society
  • organised political processes with each individual having a voice; with better decision-making through education and the power of ideas
  • social improvements that could overcome cruelty, violence, ill-health and injustice

The ability to secure progress was seen as being in the hands of individuals. The future was not divinely foretold, nor at the whim of capricious spirits or malign influences. If there were external forces these were more in the realm of evolutionary processes and genetics: things that could be controlled.

Much rested on discovering ways of understanding the world: scientific experiment, and observation of the universe to explain its ‘laws’. People were essentially seen as rational and good, with a degree of individual liberty within some form of universalism based on reason, observation, analysis and challenge. This developed into investigations into the workings of society and the scientific study of humanity – a sociology that would, through application of those understandings, enable humanity to progress to a superior state.

Whether thinkers before the Enlightenment were producing similar notions of progress is disputed. Pre-Enlightenment ideas were more often based on a cyclical view of progress: that things might change spontaneously and that eventually there could be decline and disaster. Once there was the adoption of a linear account of human affairs, this allowed the idea of salvation through positive outcomes of a life well-lived: personal, moral and spiritual progress, of sorts. By accepting the perfectibility of people through their own endeavours, centralist religious authority was increasingly undermined (countered by labelling non-subscribers as heretics and outsiders).

Once this Enlightenment view of progress was firmly established, the history of England was intellectually seen in terms of the history of progress (rather than the progress of history). But what caused progress to occur?

In the 19th Century, thinkers took up the idea of conflict as the driver of progress. For Hegel, new ideas grow alongside old ones and overtake them, with progress driven by the clash of ideas. Marx turned this upside down: idealism was replaced by materialism, with productive forces determining ways of seeing and changes in production producing progress in ideas.  Sometimes progress was viewed as inevitable. Sometimes it collapsed into the view that progress was most effectively secured through a vanguard of the enlightened few whose duty was to impose progress.

Whatever the causes of progress, by the end of the 19th Century one of its main drivers in practice was the desire for wealth creation. Progress was of a prosperous, creative kind.

Whilst for traditionalists industrialisation represented dark satanic mills, for those concerned with progress, industrialisation meant moves towards a progressive uniformity (of machinery, of railways, of laws, of time). It may have been resisted; it may have been disastrous for some, but this form of progress did bring about shifts from systems of corrupt patronage to structures based on a legal system with independence of decision-making and codification of laws, which gave individuals the right of reply or the right of redress. Progress was the shift from organic and feudal, to utilitarian and mechanistic.

For this to succeed (for progress to really move ahead) there needed to be an integration of the working class into the values of capitalism and industry. Part of this was through an emphasis on intellectual progress:  schools, universities, newspapers, literacy, publishers, lectures, art and culture

Mechanics Institutes, adult learning opportunities, voluntary associations, the fostering of exploration and debate – all might lead to progressive understandings (through rational knowledge and individual responsibilities) as the underpinning of civil society.  This valuing of knowledge also fostered a desire to have it captured: in collections, repositories, libraries, museums, galleries and exhibitions.

The results of economic and intellectual progress could be put to rational use in city improvement schemes – such as the 1876 Birmingham Improvement Act – levelling properties, creating broad avenues and cleaner air, establishing public squares and green areas. There were social costs for some, eg the removal of thousands of inhabitants, but these were seen as all part of progress.

Such progressive cities would increasingly rely on planning constraints, building regulations, permissions in law, quality control, health and safety considerations, and public health concerns – coupled to the technological possibilities of sewerage systems, road and rail infrastructures, and improved building techniques. These would create places of beauty and dignity as indicators of progress. Improvement was to be made on all fronts: medical progress, economic progress, social progress, moral progress. These concepts were carried forward,  to the present time, in the ideas behind Garden Cities and rationally planned spaces-for-people.

Whilst the whole ‘enlightenment project’ might thus be seen as the universally-welcomed acceptance of inevitable progress, throughout all of this there were sceptics and countervailing voices.

World events came to be seen as anything but associated with an upward historical trend. Even before 1914 there was sufficient evidence to counter the argument that technological advancement automatically meant that human condition would necessarily improve over time. Progress could produce material advantages of better health and economic growth but could also bring with it greater unhappiness or greater inequality. Technological progress could lead to wholesale slaughter. Rationalism could as easily lead to eugenics and genocide as to medical advances and social tolerance. By the mid-20th Century the optimism of progress had been further eroded by the use of atomic weapons. There was a sense of fear as well as a sense of optimism.

As European powers relinquished direct control of colonies this gave another impetus to those thinking about the ambiguous nature of progress. Decolonisation challenged the wider narrative that all progressive innovations stemmed from Europe: democracy being the ideal political system; scientific business approaches being the best economic approaches; hierarchical command and control being the ideal social structures. For those seeking to justify colonialization, the argument was that European influences had brought modernisation. It still held to idea that other areas should follow a path of state-building, building civil society, with individual/consensual political as the basis for collective decision-making, ‘democratic’ notions of freedom and liberty, rights if not always responsibilities. Others looked to alternative accounts and faith in the superiority of the West faded. To the liberated this itself was progress

The growth of environmentalist movements have added a further strand of criticism to the idea of progress. The natural world became seen as more important than social progress. Change was no longer linear and progressive but characterised by uncertainty within systems. Progress was equated both with advancement in alternatives and in preservation of species.

Such progress/anti-progress accounts could all be happening at the same time. The collapse of the communist bloc brought its own reflections on progress. For some this was a release to determine their own paths to progress. For others it allowed a resurgence of views that there was an idealised end of history that was based on particular interpretations of liberal justice and civic freedom.

By this time, in Europe as elsewhere, the day-to-day outcomes of progress had been concrete underpasses, ring roads, cities for the car, and high-rise dwellings. Post-industrialisation brought urban decline, with the once-glorious city now being defined as a problem.

Lately, there has been some restoration of the potential of cities as engines of progress. As larger proportions of populations live in large urban areas, cities might again be able to become powerhouses of progress through renovation, renewal, renaissance and regeneration – requiring a planned mix of conservation, heritage and preservation of a past; and its demolition and removal, to make way for the creation of a better future.

Where is all this getting us?

In general, from the 1970s onwards, the trend has been towards an increasing intellectual destruction of modernism: a breakdown of assumptions about universal truths, including a discarding of the dominant accounts both of progress via national liberal democracy and of progress via state collective socialism.

At the early 21st Century, we have reached a stage where there has been a disintegration of grand narrative and a slippage of apparent coherences. The once-enlightened Europe no longer feels as if it has the answers. There are disagreements about the varying degrees of progress or backtracking on freedom of speech, tolerance, privacy, personal and political rights, and the acceptance of pluralism.

We exist in a more shattered, splintered world, with uncertain sets of relationships. There is a greater potential for anomie as well as for clashing views of the world. An enlightened individuality did little to provide guidance for collective action, social solidarity, and communal moralities. Linked to an over-emphasis on money as a force for progress, everything can become amenable to the lack of compassion and denial of any moral obligation. Within all of this, ideas of what is implied by progress become more complex and continue to get worked out at various personal, public and social levels.

The Enlightenment grapplings with knowledge, observation and understanding were attempts to rationalise ways forward. Do we have similar impulses and methodologies that allow us to sense ways forward, to make progress, in a contemporary world characterised by:

  • globalised financial/economic systems
  • a predicted end to growth based on non-renewable resources
  • more value being placed on experiences, awareness and viewpoints
  • a mashing together of beliefs, understandings, cultures and realities
  • rapid and large-scale movements of ideas and people
  • a focus on differences as much as similarities
  • the importance of identities and significances

Where might we get to, in terms of making sense of things, in a context that is multi-channelled, multi-timed, multi-cultured, multi-centred – in ways that are complex, contested, ambiguous, kaleidoscopic, composed of fragments and frameworks rather than recipes and formulae ….. and, in all of this exploration, how will we agree what constitutes progress?

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