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The myth of ‘progressive’ thinking

Too much weight is put on the idea of ‘progress’

13 February 2021

9:00 AM

13 February 2021

9:00 AM

One of the guiding instincts on the political left is that society should be ‘progressive’. Social attitudes, politics and the economy should all advance together, making society fairer and more equal in the process. In this view, a tax can be progressive if it targets the income of the wealthy, just as a law is considered progressive if it protects the rights of a minority. This progressive worldview permeates almost all thinking on the modern left.

And yet the contemporary idea of the progressive society has undergone a logical collapse. It has been driven that way by activists, some of whom represent groups with valid causes, but whose messages have been concentrated and distorted out of all proportion by the lens of social media.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this can be seen in the argument over trans-gender rights, which has erupted between feminists and trans activists. The contention that ‘trans women are women’ has caused huge controversy among feminists who reject the idea that someone who is biologically male can ever become a woman in the full sense.

Trans rights activists regard feminists who make this argument as being regressive and guilty of trying to throw social progress into reverse. And so it is that two progressive movements find themselves diametrically opposed to one another, which according to the logic of progressive politics and activism should be impossible.

The reason for this paradoxical situation is that the ‘progression/regression’ view of human affairs is itself flawed. It is misleading for its implication that human progress is linear: that either we go one way, which is progressive, or we go the other, which is regressive.


History shows that this isn’t so. Human advancement is often closely entwined with its opposite, sometimes to the extent that it is impossible to pick them apart. This subverts the progressive worldview, which assumes that we will be able to recognise progress when we see it. That’s not always the case.

The historical record is littered with the debris of apparently progressive projects that turned out to be nothing of the sort. The biggest of them all was perhaps the Soviet Union, which won admiration from a generation of thinkers who saw Stalin’s new order and assumed it was the end towards which all humanity would progress. When Bernard Shaw visited Russia, he was so smitten with the place that he promised to be ‘a friend of the Soviet Union until the end of my days’. That dedication to the Kremlin — and to Stalin — looks very wrong-headed now.

There are other, more recent examples of progressive political projects that were revealed to be something quite different. Take Jeremy Corbyn for example, whose political outlook is as pure a distillation of the left’s progressive instincts as you will find. At the last election, he put forward a super-progressive collection of policies — tax rises, laws to protect minorities, workers rights and so on.

Corbyn’s offer to the country was wrapped up in the progressive message that his government would be ‘For the many, not the few’. It was a revealing slogan, but not in the way Corbyn intended. People who believe that a society is run by ‘the few’ will invariably speculate about who ‘the few’ might be. For some of Corbyn’s supporters, the answer was the Jews. As David Baddiel sets out in his excellent and troubling new book, Jews Don’t Count, Corbyn’s superficially progressive political project was revealed as being shot through with anti-Semitism. Corbyn’s Labour party was not advancing in a single progressive direction after all. It was simultaneously heading in several directions, some of which were deeply sinister.

It has always been this way. In The Idea of Progress, the historian J.B. Bury got to the central flaw of the progressive impulse when he noted that: ‘It cannot be proved that the unknown destination towards which man is advancing is desirable.’ In other words, what looks like progress very often isn’t, and that goes not only for politics but also for scientific and technological progress. The mastery of the atom, for example, was a triumph of scientific reasoning, and represented a huge advance in humanity’s grasp of nature’s physical laws. It also led directly to the creation of atomic weapons. Many of the physicists who worked on the Allied bomb project at Los Alamos felt a sense of deep moral anxiety at what they had done. Progress was again combined with something profoundly troubling.

Our highly technologised society seems to represent some sort of progress, and the power of our smartphones and artificial intelligence is astounding. But the same facial recognition technology that lets people unlock their phones has been used by the Chinese authorities to identify pro–democracy protestors in Hong Kong. Is that progress, regression, or perhaps both at once?

Social media provides a similar example. Facebook has certainly been very good for Mark Zuckerberg’s bank balance. But the platform’s sheer size has caused it to seep into areas of public life where it was never supposed to be, and where it is not always welcome. As to the economic benefits of these new technologies, in The Rise and Fall of American Growth, the historian Robert Gordon searched the data for any signs that the information technology revolution has yielded any substantial economic benefits. He concluded that it has not.

Which is not to say that there is no such thing as human advancement, or that governments should not try to help the worst-off in society. The point is that the idea of progress is too diffuse and too weak to support the enormous political weight that is put on it, often by the politicians and activists of the left.

Humanity doesn’t progress along a uniform path towards an unambiguously brighter future. An open society like ours advances in all directions at once. Political parties and social movements that don’t grasp this fact risk falling into irrelevance. Corbyn’s Labour project is only the most recent example of that unhappy fate. Other progressive movements will no doubt follow his example.

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