Despite appearances, the idea of social progress is a myth

Current growth, short-term profits and higher living standards for some are pursued at the expense of costs which are not evident immediately but will emerge later. Society has borrowed from and pushes problems into the future

Satyajit Das
Sunday 30 July 2017 12:17 BST
The acquisition of material goods defines progress
The acquisition of material goods defines progress (Getty)

The world cannot countenance the idea that human progress might be at an end or even have stalled.

The belief that advances in science, technology as well as social and political systems can provide continuous improvement in human life is perhaps the most important idea in Western civilisation. Yet attempts to measure actual progress are curiously vague. In January 2016, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi dispensed with practicalities arguing that “Europe cannot just be a grey technical debate about constraints, but must again be a great dream”.

Thomas Carlyle’s 19th-century analysis of England provides a useful benchmark for assessing human achievements.

Carlyle was critical of a world "submerged in mamonism". The undeniable improvement in living standards over the last 150 years is seen as evidence of progress. Improvements in diet, health, safe water, hygiene and education have been central to increased life spans and incomes.

The lifting of billions of people globally out of poverty is a considerable achievement. But many of these individuals earn between $2 (£1.50) and $10 dollars a day. Their position is fragile, exposed to the vicissitudes of health, employment, economic conditions and political and societal stability. As William Gibson observed: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”.

Economic progress also has come at a cost. Growth and wealth is increasingly based on borrowed money, used to purchase something today against the uncertain promise of paying it back in the future. Debt levels are now unsustainable. Growth has been at the expense of existentially threatening environmental changes which are difficult to reverse. Higher living standards rely on the profligate use of under-priced, finite resources, especially water and energy, which have been utilised without concern about conservation for future use.

Current growth, short-term profits and higher living standards for some are pursued at the expense of costs which are not evident immediately but will emerge later. Society has borrowed from and pushes problems into the future.

The acquisition of material goods defines progress. The concept of leisure as shopping and consumption as the primary economic engine now dominate. Altering Bob Dylan’s lyrics, the Angry Brigade, an English anarchist group, described it as: “If you are not being born, you are busy buying”.

Carlyle, who distrusted the “mechanical age”, would have been puzzled at the unalloyed modern worship of technology. Much of our current problems, environmental damage and pollution, are the unintended consequences of technology, especially the internal combustion engine and exploitation of fossil fuels. The invention of the motor vehicle was also the invention of the car crash. Technology applied to war continues to create human suffering. Mankind’s romance with technology increasingly is born of a desperate need for economic growth and a painless, cheap fix to problems such as reducing in greenhouse gas without decreasing living standards.

Carlyle’s hope for an “aristocracy of talent” has not been fulfilled. After a brief period of decline in the years after the Second World War, inequality measured as concentration of wealth and income is rising. Less than 100 billionaires now own as much as 50 per cent of world’s population, down from around 400 billionaires a little more than five years ago. Hereditary monarchies and “an idle landowning aristocracy” are less prevalent than in Carlyle’s time, although the current US administration and many emerging nations still emphasise filial ties. Instead, a gang of industrial buccaneers and pirates and a powerful working aristocracy of politicians, business leaders, professional and bureaucrats dominate public affairs. These include graduates of elite educational establishments such as America’s ivy league school, Britain’s Oxbridge complex or French ‘enarques’, America’s technology entrepreneurs or alumni of prestigious institutions and think tanks, which function as shadow governments. The new feudalism is like the older model, with class, privilege and wealth still highly influential.

Pre-occupation with narcissistic self-fulfilment and escapist entertainment is consistent with Carlyle’s concern about the loss of social cohesiveness, spirituality and community. His fear of a pervasive “philosophy of simply looking on, of doing nothing, of laissez-faire … a total disappearance of all general interest, a universal despair of truth and humanity, and in consequence a universal isolation of men in their own ‘brute individuality” … a war of all against all … intolerable oppression and wretchedness” seems modern.

Carlyle’s fear of the loss of individual freedom has proved well founded. The Black Lives Matter movement, the treatment of women and minorities and growing racial and religious intolerance highlight the disappointing limits of social progress. Following the 9/11 attacks, a fearful population has acquiesced in an unprecedented loss of privacy and civil liberties. Technology and social media permit an extraordinary level of monitoring of private lives. The state and powerful interests have emerged as Stalin’s engineers of human souls.

Carlyle bemoaned “a parliament elected by bribery”. Two centuries later, the need for vast sums to finance political campaigns and hold onto political office has made elected officials captive to donors. Carlyle would have recognised the lack of political leadership, simplistic ideas that are selected to maximise popularity and the use of propaganda to polarise opinion along racial, regional or other demographic lines for electoral advantage.

Other than in some material elements the future is likely to be much like the past with the tragic or farcical repetition of the same things. Human achievements, even when they are considerable, rarely change things more than marginally. The power of individuals and society is overstated. Each epoch only creates transient winners and losers.

Progress is ultimately based on the idea of perfectibility, that education and ideas can improve human nature or behaviour. But man may not be perfectible. Human irrationality, destructiveness and selfishness may not be able to be overcome.

The idea of progress is an ‘innocent fraud’, a term coined by economist John Kenneth Galbraith to describe a lie or a half-truth that with repetition becomes common wisdom.

Satyajit Das is a former banker. His latest book is 'A Banquet of Consequences' (published in North America as The Age of Stagnation to avoid confusion as a cookbook). He is also the author of Extreme Money and Traders, Guns & Money.

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