Terribly Boring II: the doctrine of progress…

Being the second instalment of Terribly Boring, an occasional series for hungover weekends, in which I consider two utterly disparate ideas side-by-side for no discernible reason.

This became so long and had so few jokes that I eventually had to split it down into two – in my defence, I will add that after reading it you can cross John Gray’s Heresies off your Oh god, when am I going to get around to reading that? list. Just to keep you primed with excitement I’ll reveal the counterpoint – just what does she intend to consider alongside the doctrine of progress, eh? – at the end. I bet you can scarcely wait.

Progress – is it real or are we just speeding?

Some years after the rest of the intellectual world, I recently got around to reading John Gray’s Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions. Before I outline his anti-progress argument, I will get some whining out of the way. Gray has cruel things to say throughout about liberal values and the people who espouse them. Now, this would probably be bothersome if it wasn’t quite clear that he is using “liberal values” as shorthand for, amongst other things, intrusive statism and aggressive western hegemonising. In other words, he is taking uncritically the definition of liberal values as espoused by a Blair or a Bush (and not a few self-styled “leftish liberals” among the left activist base). And he is to some extent quite legitimate to do so, because liberal values are what these people are claiming to be the justification for their actions. Gray isn’t in the business of realigning liberalism correctly with its actual meaning, that’s our job, so with that observation in place I’ll stop kicking him for it.

His progress argument, as nearly as I can remember it (the book has gone back to the library along with the one pound sodding forty fine)  is divided into three parts. First, he argues that technological progress, conceived as a sort of panacea which will lead us into an age of plenty in which no-one will starve and medicine will be available to all, is a delusion. The twentieth century has been a history of the misuse of technology for political ends – why should we imagine that future developments will meet with any better political response? The crux of this rather depressing point reveals, to me, Gray’s own Thatcherite past: human beings are fundamentally and immutably bad, and will continue to be bad no matter what wonders proceed from their brains. Everything human beings create is tainted by its origins.

Actually, to call this an argument against progress per se is slightly misleading. It’s specifically an argument against that teleological concept of progress that will one day lead us to Utopia (and Gray draws the comparison between this fervent belief in technology and the old, displaced belief in religion and in heart-and-head political ideals like Marxism – all supposedly leading to one form or another of heaven). On the specific point about teleology I’m entirely with Gray, by instinct and by training. It’s impossible to study history for any length of time (in both senses) and not know that teleology is rubbish. But he doesn’t put enough emphasis for me, and nor would he, on how technological progress nonetheless makes things better. I mean, penicillin and all that? Freely available to everyone in the UK (not, of course, in the US)?

This cavil aside, the idea that technological progress is not the supra-human light that will lead us permanently out of all-too-human political darkness is something that makes an instinctive sense to me, even if I do not quite share Gray’s somewhat one-dimensional view of human nature. People often glibly talk about how history proves that human beings have always essentially been the same and I can’t understand why, I really can’t. Yes, if you only study the post-1800 period, it probably does prove just that. But if you immerse yourself in twelfth-century France, or in Mayan culture, or in Classical Greece even for five minutes, the shape of the minds, mores and priorities you detect around you are so eye-poppingly different that you’re never quite the same again when you come out.

The other two parts of Gray’s anti-progress thesis are even more clearly rooted in historiography. Secondly, in discussing Iraq and US hegemony, he clarifies that the new “democratic values” wars of the 1990s and 2000s are still, nonetheless, basically the same land-and-resource wars that have always been fought, dressed up in a hearts and minds language that will appeal to what he thinks of as “liberal values”. Thirdly, and in the most scattered section that ranges over a number of topics, he essentially argues for what you might call the swings and roundabouts theory of history contra the forward march of those “liberal values” – thus, the re-emergence of the Far Right in Europe is actually evidence that, for all our leaders would like to have us think otherwise, we are not steadily proceeding into more liberal times.

These two points in particular could have come straight out of Herbert Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History , published in 1973 and probably the single most influential historiographical work of the twentieth century. Mind you, that famously slim volume, as far as I recall, has few actual examples or illustrations in it (admittedly it is some time since I read it). It’s one of those crystalline pieces of thinking that is so abstract and self-contained that there is no need for the author to have any truck with actual sordid reality. Accordingly, with your critical faculties and normal standards of evidence flapping in the wind, you read it and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is right. About everything. The main thrust of his argument matches Gray’s; the onward progress of history is an illusion. Most historians, by their nature tending to be liberal, Protestant, progressive people, write selectively to emphasise the progress of western history towards an enlightened ideal that fits rather happily with their own concerns. There is a:

tendency of many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present. 

So much for poor old progress. None of these are terribly lovely things to read for a liberal, small-l or big, because the inescapable implication is that, just as Marxism didn’t work, statism didn’t work and paternalism didn’t work, liberalism won’t work either. Or at least, not forever. It’s undoubtedly what we currently need but that is a different thing, a matter of balancing and rebalancing society.

Saying this feels a little heretical on day when the Cleggster has been delivering this corker, so I should qualify it to reassure you that, as far as you and I (and, to his chagrin, John Gray) are concerned, it really doesn’t matter that liberalism is not the perfect answer. It doesn’t have to be. It just has to be the best answer. Neither you nor I will live forever, so for current purposes we can put the fact that liberalism is not perfect for all times and all seasons at the back of the same drawer where we keep all our awkward questions, unfinished business, opportunities lost, the knowledge of our own mortality and that of our loved ones, and our Weightwatchers points card.

Join us again tomorrow or, depending on whether we can sneak past the library counter to the computers without paying out another fine, later today, for the next thrilling instalment of Terribly Boring in which the whole progress business is unloaded like a ton of bricks all over that famous Twenty-First Century Panacea: Managerialism.


  1. Isn’t it a straw man to say that we are designing some techno-utopian future? Never mind that it would fail, I don’t think anybody is really doing it. What we are doing is using technology in the present to meet the demands of the present. Put like that it seems rather silly to generalise a whole class of down-to-earth behaviour and work as part of some relentless march towards ultimate failure.

    Doesn’t an anti progress argument commit the same crime of historicism as a pro progress argument?

    Yes, we are still fighting land and resource wars, but it is getting harder for governments to fight them – particularly post-Vietnam – because they have to invent a plausible values wrapper. That’s, er, progress.

    Half the world, probably, holds elections. 30 years ago, not even half of Europe held them. Throw all the anecdotes you like at that, it is cause for optimism.

  2. 100 years ago, utopianism was much more in vogue and even 50 years ago there were still a lot of British communists who fervently believed that Soviet Russia was a land of milk and honey were no-one went hungry and everyone was happy.

    I think progress has become one of those words like left or right which aren’t in and of themselves meaningful but can be used as a sort of vaguely understood shorthand.

    Regarding the technical aspect, all I can add is that Henry George pretty much summed up all that needed to be said 100 years ago. Technology doesn’t automatically make things better for people as a whole because it also gives people economic advantages which can quickly become monopolistic. I don’t know enough about Gray to know if that is something recognises should always be viewed critically or like most Thatcherites he merely seeks to encourage as much of it as possible.

  3. Isn’t it a straw man to say that we are designing some techno-utopian future? Never mind that it would fail, I don’t think anybody is really doing it.

    Speak for yourself! 😉

  4. Gosh, some readers! I must try to be more boring.

    “Isn’t it a straw man to say that we are designing some techno-utopian future?”

    Straw is very apt; Gray’s particular example here is the capacity of GM crops to end world hunger. And the fact that no-one is actually doing it when it *could* in theory be done is rather the point.

    “Doesn’t an anti progress argument commit the same crime of historicism as a pro progress argument?”

    I’m totally with you there, hence the penicillin argument. It’s fatuous to say progress doesn’t exist, but it is perfectly reasonable to say that progress towards a given utopian goal doesn’t exist, which is the simple point I was trying to make.

    I believe this is an essentially liberal point of view, insofar as liberalism involves the intellectual freedom to look at a problem and solve it according to individual circumstances. Its being an essentially liberal viewpoint gets us into trouble, because there are plenty of liberals who *do* like their liberalism with a faintly Utopian tinge.

    “100 years ago, utopianism was much more in vogue”

    Gray’s point is supposedly that this state of affairs is building again, has been building quietly over the whole of the twenty-first century without anyone specifically recognising it. I believe he is right to the extent that there now exists an implicit cultural trust in the power of technology that may sometimes not only be misplaced, but may actually *limit* our capacity to redesign and shape the technology to our convenience. However, much of what he says has a transatlantic tinge, so it’s quite possible that his conception of the growth of utopianism, just like his version of liberalism, is essentially informed by America.

    “Henry George pretty much summed up all that needed to be said 100 years ago”

    Well, naturally that goes without saying ;-). God, I really must read that… Gray does implicitly accept the monopolistic point, if only in the course of saying that essentially people are too evil to ever do anything right even with the ultimate technology at their disposal. It’s sort of spiritual Thatcherism with some weirdly different outcomes.

    Having said all that, none of this was intended to be particularly thoughtful or precise. I was summarising a reasonably uncontroversial point of view in order to deliver, naturally, a devastating denouement in part (b).

    “Speak for yourself!”

    Hey, get back to work on the Grand Plan! 😀

  5. Is ‘utopianism’ another of these vaguely-(mis)understood shorthands.

    I was amazed to discover that revolutionary Marxists would condemn attempts at reformist politics as Utopian. Surely revolutionary politics, with its attempt to start again with a blank sheet of paper, is more deserving of the label Utopian.

    Anyway, another point has occurred to me.

    We have the two contrasting arguments:
    1. Technology is not that good because people will always misuse it.
    2. But look at things like penicillin…

    I think these arguments are talking about slightly different things. The first is asserting that technology does not lead to the moral growth of individuals. The more people are liberated by technology, the more evil they will commit.

    The second argument looks more at the direct consequences of having the technology. Inventing penicillin has similar consequences to pulling millions of drowning people out of lakes, and is therefore extremely good. No impact on individual virtue is required.

    While I agree with the first argument that technology has no necessary impact on virtue, I would totally reject the conclusions – it is just a repackaging of the argument that people can’t be trusted with freedom.

  6. I think Gray’s argument has to be seen in the context of Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis, that the end of the cold war somehow meant a final victory of liberal democracy over all other competing forms of government. Gray, I think, is right to argue that the spread of liberal values is neither complete nor inevitable, and that over-reliance on technological solutions is just one of the many dark byways into which liberal thought can become trapped.

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