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The myth of inevitable progress 


THERE is one of those annoying preachy adverts on Kayo Sports, where I watch real cricket, about progress, in which the preacher says that whether progress is sudden or slow, there is one thing that is certain. Progress is ‘unstoppable’. It is one of those cliché-filled, glib, ‘we all agree with this’ efforts by an alleged business guru. 

Casual Whiggism is one of the curses of the age, and a well-worn tactic of those who seek to drive ‘history’ in a particular direction by portraying it as inevitable. It is the default ideology of most of those who rule the world today.   

A Wiki summary is as follows: ‘The British historian Herbert Butterfield coined the term “Whig history” in his short but influential book The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). It takes its name from the British Whigs, advocates of the power of Parliament, who opposed the Tories, advocates of the power of the king.’ 

Butterfield’s book was about history being written by the winners, and the embedding of the idea that ‘inevitable forces’ were driving something called ‘progress’. It has appealed to all sorts. 

The great philosopher of science, Karl Popper, called big theories of underlying historical movements and forces ‘historicism’. The greatest historicist of all was Karl Marx.  His theory was about class struggle. At the core of these ideas is the notion of progress. 

Earlier generation progressives included Woodrow Wilson, the US President, an early adopter of something we now call ‘the new world order’ and John Dewey, an influential philosopher of education whose ideas have done much to cause the crash in our education systems. 

Progressives are normally regarded as being of the left. They are the ones who often say, in response to some push-back inevitably described as ‘reactionary’, that ‘it is 2023, after all’. In other words, we just don’t believe that any more. But the ‘right’ has its own legion of Whig history apologists. Typically, they are seeking to defend capitalism in the forms they wish it to have taken. And they mostly talk about economic growth being the driver of all things modern and the engine of progress. Scratch the surface and you will find that most thinkers who believe in evolution, as well as those who lionise innovation and just about all of the technocratic class, agree that the world is constantly being improved, and our lives getting better. And every libertarian I can think of. 

Alas, capitalism has taken the turn towards its own corporatisation. Towards a global corporate model that is racked by cronyism, deals, capture of decision-makers, often criminality, oligarchy and what the public choice theorists have seen to be a corrupted version of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Yes, Adam Smith was the first conspiracy theorist. He rightly recognised that: 

‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.’ 

Who’da thought?  Price fixing is only the start of it.  If only capitalists had confined their interests to profits, price fixing and collusion. Now they want to run the world. To mess with what we once knew as the democratic process.  The CEO of BlackRock, the abominable Larry Fink, has taken it upon himself to write an annual ‘letter’ to the CEOs of the world.   

To keep them on message.  How grand of him.  His gospel of ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) is also the playbook of the World Economic Forum, now the go-to place for the PGGWC (progressive, green, globalist, woke, Covid) class. BlackRock and its ‘competitors’, State Street and Vanguard, now control most of the world’s investment decisions. One might think that Adam Smith would be appalled. No doubt they think they are progressive and progressing us all. 

The ace that the prophets of progress always play is that of technology and medicine. Of longer life expectancy. Of indoor plumbing. Of electricity. Of the car and the aeroplane. Of the personal computer and the smartphone. Adopting the language of the Kayo Sports advert, they will use words like ‘transformative’ and ‘disruptive’ and ‘game changing’.  Examples of the right-of-centre protagonists here include Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist (2010) and The Evolution of Everything (2016); Virginia Postrel, author of The Future and Its Enemies (1999); Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now (2018) and Rationality (2022).   

Disciples of Adam Smith, most. Ironically. Ridley thought 2010-20 the best decade in the history of the world. Wonder what he makes of the years since, where his principles got thrown into the dustbin of history.  He has also written: 

‘Ever since I wrote The Rational Optimist in 2010, I’ve been faced with “what about” questions: what about the great recession, the euro crisis, Syria, Ukraine, Donald Trump? How can I possibly say that things are getting better, given all that? The answer is: because bad things happen while the world still gets better. Yet get better it does, and it has done so over the course of this decade at a rate that has astonished even starry-eyed me.’ 

Ridley is a little glib here. Bad things? Postrel’s book argued: 

‘Today we have greater wealth, health, opportunity, and choice than at any time in history. Yet a chorus of intellectuals and politicians laments our current condition – as slaves to technology, coarsened by popular culture, and insecure in the face of economic change. The future, they tell us, is dangerously out of control, and unless we precisely govern the forces of change, we risk disaster.’ 

A reviewer of Pinker notes: 

‘In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress . . . Steven Pinker argues that the human race has never had it so good as a result of values he attributes to the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. He berates those who focus on what is wrong with the world’s current condition as pessimists who only help to incite regressive reactionaries. Instead, he glorifies the dominant neoliberal, technocratic approach to solving the world’s problems as the only one that has worked in the past and will continue to lead humanity on its current triumphant path.’ 

These people typically appeal to the Enlightenment, the arrival of ‘rational thought’, science and putting institutional religion in its place. Oops, as Chesterton famously warned, when you trash traditional religion, you don’t get John Lennon’s Imagine. You get Greta Tintin Thunberg’s version of religion. And not too much rational thought. 

We should be extremely cautious about the theory of inevitable progress, in any of its ideological forms. 

Just looking around us in 2023, we see a potential nuclear conflagration in Europe, the abandonment of science and of liberal principles during the ‘pandemic’, the free world led by a man not in control of his faculties, creeping totalitarianism in so-called Western democracies, rule by unelected, careerist managers, the pursuit of policies that will kick us back to the Stone Age to avoid ‘climate catastrophe’, decisions on local health care taken by unelected China-picked nutjobs at the World Health Organisation, ideology trumping rational policy, woke lunacy accepted as mainstream, the re-emergence of communism among our uneducated, clueless youth, a world addicted to screens, limitless growth in public debt and executive power, vaccine worship, rainbow rule, mainstream churches ruled by the Godless, and people of conscience living in fear of losing their livelihoods if they protest at the madness. 

Thinking back over the course of the twentieth century, we observe Nazism and communism. The gulag. Stalin. Mao’s cultural revolution. Pol Pot. The killing fields of World War One, on the back of jumped-up European warlords with huge egos. Fifty million or so American babies aborted because first wave feminists thought this meant progress. The slaughter of the innocent, which, unlike Herod’s original efforts in this area, now profits from the extreme efficiency of modern technology.  Progress, eh?  All sanctioned by democratically elected governments and a Supreme Court that the American Founding Fathers thought would be a bulwark against executive power. 

Anyone call this ‘progress’? On any reckoning, in any area of life you care to mention, we have children of the Enlightenment writing the longest suicide note in history. The idea of progress has been weaponised in order to conscript the eternally gullible. Of whom there are plenty in these times. 

The obvious conclusion is that you can have technological advances – which inevitably have very mixed outcomes – without overall human progress. Whether you fall back on Hayek and his notion of the ‘fatal conceit’ of governments or on Christian theory about the fall of man and original sin, two of our most compelling cautions against the idea of progress, the most empirically sustainable hypothesis is that we haven’t advanced one iota.   

There is a real danger that those who would normally cheer on the work of the aforementioned thinkers, since they are often attacking the right (by which I mean the left) people, like greenie doomsayers and climateers, might reflexively accept their theory of historical progress. Turns out they are wrong on the really important questions. (The left is correct to point out that material progress has not been even for all people, and that growth has had harmful environmental, social  and cultural consequences). And they have forgotten that there was a reason that Marxists gave up on economics and turned to culture as the main front in the battle of ideas. These folks are MIA on these questions. Only those with their heads in the sand would argue that the world just keeps getting better and better. 

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Paul Collits
Paul Collits
Paul Collits is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Quadrant Online

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