Why I’m not a Progressive

The Myth of ProgressI struggled with the title for this post. What I really wanted to call it was “You are not a Progressive”. I’ve compromised on this impulse to tell people that their beliefs are just wrong.

But you can’t be a Progressive, in the current political sense of the word, because there is no such thing as historical Progress. Progress is a journey, travelling towards a predetermined destination. But things do not gradually get better over time, moving towards a pre-destined better place. History is one damn thing after another until extinction. There is no reason to it. It does not have a shape. It doesn’t travel on rails, with the odd hesitation. Either things get better for people, or they get worse or they stay the same. But if they get better, that isn’t a step forward on a well mapped path along which we are Progressing. It’s the result of one set of social pressures and circumstances, sometimes planned and sometimes not, bringing about a change which can- as soon as opposing forces gather themselves to assault that change- be reversed or kept. The NHS in the UK wasn’t a result of Progress. It was a revolution. And it is always at risk from a counterrevolution. It had a beginning and just as certainly, it will have an end.

The outlawing of the slave trade was a moral triumph by UK abolitionists. If they hadn’t done all the things required to build that political change, it wouldn’t have changed by itself. There was no inevitability, no arrow of history, that would have ended the profitable activity of trading in humans without their intervention, or the intervention of another comparable group of people. Votes for women, labour laws, weekends, health systems, human rights- all social improvements, none of them inevitable, all of them fought for, all of them always at risk of reverse.

I am all in favour of efforts to make things better for as many people as possible. It devalues those efforts if they’re simply taken for granted as the invisible hand of progress. And it lulls us all into a false sense of security if we think that, once achieved, a material social improvement can just be banked.

There’s no such thing as progress. It’s much harder than that.


  • Simon Cox says:

    mmm. “Non-Zero” has good scientific arguments that natural selection between societies gives a direction towards ever greater complexity and sharing autonomy with larger and larger groups of others. It’s not clear the (human) world is a better place or will be. But it does mean there may be some direction of travel…

  • john says:

    Not very convinced by this argument. Perhaps my familiarity for decades with the Hegelian/Marxist dialectic and the implications of Darwinism (as perceived via my training as a biologist) has constrained my outlook somewhat.

    While I quite agree that there are no pre-ordained railway tracks which head definitively in the direction of PROGRESS, I am struck by the striving of philosophers over the centuries to analyise what we are and what we could be or should be. The role of the political world has been to give voice to and offer a construct of what could be or should be.

    It is true that there is no certainty that the outcomes of this philosophical and political nexus will always seem an improvement on what went before. I think of how the struggle between orthodoxy and heterodox Islam led over centuries to the withering and introversion of Muslim thought and culture, which had led the world for a period, ‘and which eventually staggered to an ignominious end with the collapse of the Ottoman empire a 100 years ago. The orthodoxy won out in the struggle for ideas and for hegemony in the Muslim world. In Europe it was a close run thing. If the Counter Reformation had succeeded would we still have the Inquisition and the Codex of banned books as law across European civilisation. The upsurge of the Protestant ethical framework – including capitalism and the later collapse of a flawed socialist experiment seem to me to be the ponderous working through of a movement driven not by chance events but by a desire to better what went before. The kind of mechanistic “progress” and historical determinism of the Marxist-Leninist variety is now generally seen as a bankrupt concept but if genetics teaches us anything it is that living things, and we as the most sentient of them, are always striving to offer the possibility of advantage which I generally equate with advancement. There is no status quo in nature.

  • Conor says:

    To extend this logic, there’s no such thing as conservatism either because the status quo has changed over history regardless of what any conservative believed while change occurred.

    Progressiveness is an individuals personal exerted social pressure with a goal of change in mind. Whether that change is achieved or stayed is immaterial to the persons ideology as they engaged in forwarding their ideals.

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