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Artillery Row

We have to be more precise about progress

What sort of progress do we want, and how are we going to get it?

Of all the rhetorical affectations which help to confound people’s understanding of politics, one of the most irritating — although undoubtedly, at times, effective — is the left’s co-option of the word “progress”. 

It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, in its own terms, for those with a whiggish sense of history as a motive force with a clear moral direction to cast themselves as the agents of progress towards it. (A central feature of the Whig view — one often lost on its libertarian users — is that the arc of history must curve more or less to where we are now — and just on to where one wishes to get to.)

There is also clear tactical utility in claiming ownership of what progress means, and leaving conservatism to cast itself as a mere moderating influence. “The tree which does not bend in the breeze, snaps in the gale”, says the wise Tory, not realising that they lost the moment they accepted that this is the choice. (The winning position, in either, is being the wind.)

Nonetheless, this frame confuses things, because it leads us instinctively to look for opponents of progress on the right, and overlook the many ways in which left-wing or progressive movements can be conservative or even reactionary forces. 

It also  leads to the mistaken belief that the right cannot have its own visions of progress, or aspire to wrest from the left not just political power, but the role of motive force in service to a new direction. Fascism was born out of Italian Futurism; Jeffrey Herf’s concept of reactionary modernism perfectly describes how right-wingers can be very enthusiastic about technological progress without sharing any “progressive” politics.

I was put in mind of this when reading a recent thread by John Burns-Murdoch, of the Financial Times, about the so-called “economic culture war” being waged over progress.

Given that I wrote another piece in response to Burns-Murdoch recently, I should say that this time I am broadly on his team when it comes to the importance of progress and our attitudes to it. Hence my one-man mission to turn Thomas Cole’s polyptych The Course of Empire into a meme template.

I also agree that cultural attitudes towards progress, however defined, can have a material impact on the course of a civilisation. 

(Granted, a comparison between England and Spain overstates it. Whilst cultural conditions in Great Britain could have forestalled the industrial revolution, for example, the material conditions for it arguably did not exist in Spain, and no volume of can-do literature would have changed that.)

Despite that, I think that describing the problem as an “economic culture war” is unhelpful, not merely because the phrase “culture war” is normally used merely to try and delegitimise political argument but also because it leads one instinctively to try and map the conflict onto our normal political divisions.

For example, the only political tendencies Burns-Murdoch calls out by name in his thread are “populism, nativism and conspiracy theories”. He’s quite right that such tendencies are exacerbated by zero-sum thinking – the politics of shortage, of who gets a limited pie, is invariably more divisive than the politics of prosperity.

But they are a symptom, not the cause, of our society’s modern wariness towards progress. If we want to tackle that, we need to look past the usual roster of stock villains and confront one central fact: that progress always comes at a cost, and it is the real or imagined trade-offs involved that are getting rejected, time and again.

This rejection is not normally described, and probably not often conceived, in those terms. Indeed, quite the opposite: the imposition of ever-more extensive and onerous regulation in all areas of economic life is often explicitly framed as progress. This is reinforced by the whiggish conceit that it must be progress, because it happened. Only a reactionary wants to go back.

Still, a good rule of thumb is that a safer world is a slower, less dynamic world, and one doesn’t need to be a diehard libertarian to see how, in principle, the cost-benefit calculation for many modern rules might not stack up. Yet who ever wants to be the one arguing for less safety, or for lower standards? 

Perhaps the single most important way this has happened, as J Storrs Hall argued in his excellent book Where is my Flying Car?, is nuclear energy — a technology which looked more or less set to continue the century-long upward sweep of human civilisation before we regulated it to a standstill.

Or consider another example from Burns-Murdoch’s thread: “Rates of conflict and violent crime have plummeted. All measures of poverty and hardship are way down.”

This is true. But how much of that is an artefact of the very culture of stagnation he’s criticising? A society which produces fewer and fewer young people (particularly young men) will have less violent crime, even before it cracks down on stimulants and raises them on screens. The result is far less potential energy to put toward destructive purposes.  

However, that energy hasn’t been redirected to positive ends. It has been dissipated altogether. Is society perhaps, as John Stuart Mill put it, “rejecting the stuff of which heroes are made, because it knows not how to make them”?

It’s the same on the macro level. The world is far more peaceable now than perhaps it has ever been. Yet historically war has been a huge driver of technological and social change; it is perhaps no coincidence that the century from 1850 to 1950 was both transformative for human civilisation and perhaps the bloodiest in its history. 

Then there’s democracy. Everyone generally agrees that the spread of democratic government is a good thing. But it is often precisely the strength of local control — especially in, for example, our planning system — that empowers the strongest resistance to progress and change. Humans are generally loss-averse; we find it harder to appreciate abstract potential gains than more tangible potential losses. Progress is often an elite pre-occupation, whereas not for nothing has the peasantry often been a deeply conservative class.

What mattered in the Britain of the 1600s to 1800s was not merely that its elite culture was enthusiastic about progress, but that said elite had the means to deliver it: to drive railways through valleys, raise smokestacks over historic skylines, sink mines into ancient hills. 

Absent that freedom (or that concentration of power, if you prefer), the challenge is completely different. You need to foster not merely an elite enthusiasm for progress, but a mass culture enthused about it, and prepared to actively sacrifice their perceived immediate interests to deliver it. How often has that ever been done?

There is no need to take a binary position on this: one can be in favour of scrapping the ban on large windows without advocating for a return to regular warfare. But to understand the problem, it is important to recognise that those trade-offs are heads on the same hydra — that truly joining battle in the cause of material progress will sometimes mean squaring off against self-described progressives.

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