The Myth of Progress?

It is a common element of the myths we human beings like to spin around our lives that our circumstances are progressing in a favourable direction, or at least are about to. Even when things are going badly we look for a silver lining in the cloud to encourage ourselves for the future. And we imagine that we are learning from our experience, probably without analysing too carefully whether what we think we have learned is assisting us in our life projects. We are rarely challenged about our reasoning in this respect because we are the author and arbiter of our life projects and the main determinant of success is that, well, we deem it so.

There is a temptation to try and do the same in relation to the progress of society as a whole. However the situation here is more problematic insofar as we don’t individually get to decide what constitutes “success” for society. By its nature such an evaluation can only be reached by consensual means among the members of that society. To assert that progress has been made in some area of  social life or societal organisation, it is necessary to present reasoned and evidence-based arguments and, if you prevail, your friends down the pub (if you have chosen them carefully) may concur with your assessment. However, you probably can’t help but notice the people at the next table looking in your direction and murmuring what you suspect to be disapproval.

What we are dealing with here is of course politics: the fact that we evaluate social initiatives and outcomes differently from our peers. And the process we have invented in an attempt to mediate between the dissenting opinions is what we call democracy. But given that a lack of consensus is our starting point, what basis is there for assuming that there can ever be a shared understanding of what constitutes progress?

[This paragraph deliberately left blank to allow the reader to ponder the previous question before proceeding.]

I would like to suggest that there are two possible responses to this dichotomy, and if you have followed the suggestion above of reflecting on what yours is before proceeding, you will probably be able to work out which of my two camps you are in. I shall refer to them as the Platonists and the Cleisthenians, in deference to the philosophers with whose names these ideas have been associated since classical antiquity.

The position of the Platonist camp is essentially that set out in Plato’s “Republic,” which is that a higher caste of philosopher kings possessed of a superior level of wisdom, intelligence and trustworthiness should be charged with the task of making political choices and mapping out the direction in which society should evolve in the interest of the common good. Such was the character of the rulers of his utopian city Kallipolis, who were thus able to discern what constituted “progress” and to sail the ship of state in that direction.

Those of a Cleisthenian bent favour instead the democratic decision-making process propounded by their eponymous philosophical forebear Cleisthenes. They hold that in circumstances where there is a conflict of opinion or interest, the solution should reflect that fact, rather than looking to impose a resolution on the basis that there is always a single “right” way to proceed (if only we could fathom what that was). 

You will notice that neither of these groups, as I have defined them, comes down unequivocally on a philosophical position that there exists such a thing as a shared idea of progress. Rather the differences between the positions reflect more the perspective from which they seek a practical resolution to the original problem. That is not to say there are not those who look to put forward a coherent single view of what constitutes progress. The main problem they have is that the sharing of the view seldom extends much beyond their own person.

So we might ask ourselves what progress has been made over the two and a half thousand years that have elapsed since Plato wrote his “Republic”? Obviously there has been a huge amount. That we can all agree on. Where things become more difficult is in agreeing which particular events engender the progress and for what reason. We can probably agree also, to take an example, that the discovery by Crick and Watson at Cambridge University of the molecular structure of DNA constituted a great progress which has brought many benefits to human society in its wake. But when we consider alongside that the uneven bestowing of opportunity which was implicit in the building of an august institution like Cambridge University and the consequent exacerbation of inequality between social classes and nationalities, many today would challenge the narrative that this history constitutes an unequivocal progress.

But the situation is even more problematic than that, because not only is the inequality resulting from the uneven bestowing of opportunity which progress brings cited as regressive, the very structures which brought about this progress and their embeddedness in particular cultures and mindsets are often deemed to be ipso facto oppressive insofar as they privilege people (disproportionately male!) who are part of that culture and embody that mindset.

Rather than getting into an argument here about the validity of the different perspectives, the point I want to draw out of this example is that our evaluation when we look back at “progress” is often quite different from how it was seen at the time. Not only are things weighted and prioritised differently with hindsight. Things which were considered unequivocal progress at the time can from a later perspective be viewed as having been retrograde steps. And the opposite can also be true. It is hard not to look back with astonishment at the vigour with which the remnant of the UK coal mining industry was defended as recently as the 1980’s by the “progressive” left. Now even burning the stuff is considered anathema by many of the same people who fought the police on the picket lines at the coal yards.

Our project to infer progress clearly faces a challenge here because, if in order to infer progress having been made in the past we allow ourselves to impose on the narrative a perspective which would not have been shared by those living through the past events, on what basis do we privilege any one contemporary perspective over any other, past or present? This may look to be a serious setback, but it is not insuperable: while it forces us to be more nuanced (hopefully) in our evaluations, it does not prevent a broad consensus from emerging about certain principles which, all else being equal, we can agree constitute progress, such as the availability of better health care, housing, education, etc.

This brings us back to the question we originally posed which was about incommensurable perspectives on whether a given initiative constitutes progress. What is remarkable is how little progress we appear to have made over against classical antiquity when we look at the state of contemporary debate, where positions seem to be firmly entrenching themselves into the two camps: Platonists and Cleisthenians. The latter have not evolved their position greatly over the years, basing their critique of the Platonist perspective on the manifest incommensurability of values which has remained a vestigial factor in moral discourse down through the ages.

What is interesting is the extent to which we are seeing the emergence of a new class of philosopher kings in the form of the “progressive” left. For example, it is ever more frequently reported in the media how those who do not conform to the identity politics-based perspective on social justice which they promote find themselves excluded from academic posts, publishing opportunities and research grants. In “Panics and Persecution: 20 Quillette Tales of Excommunication in the Digital Age” (Eyewear Publishing, Dec. 2020), selected testimonies are presented of scholars who were hounded out of their positions in this way. And they are just the tip of the iceberg. The difficulty facing dissenting voices seeking the opportunity to be heard has led Toby Young to found the Free Speech Union to provide a vehicle to allow unjust sackings, platform denial and marginalisation to be challenged.

The justification for such behaviour boils down to a claim of a monopoly of perspective on what constitutes progress, in evaluating not only contemporary policy but increasingly the events of history going back several centuries, with attempts to villainise previous heroes. We are even starting to see a pushback on the sciences and quantitative disciplines with calls to “decolonise” the curriculum and museums. Such efforts constitute an attempt to impose the moral perspective of the philosopher kings in subject areas which do not seek to address themselves to moral issues and demand that changes be made to the method and content of teaching based on their say-so.

In another related development, a recent attempt to impose on Cambridge university staff a requirement that inter alia they “respect” (rather than just tolerate) opinions different from their own was opposed by Arif Ahmed, a don at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, who compared the agenda which was driving this to McCarthyism and even the 17th century Salem witch-hunts. This resulted in a referendum being held in which three amendments removing the most egregious restrictions on free speech were successfully passed, the votes in favour being between 78% and 87%. What is notable here is that even in the academic community which is supposed to be driving this progressive agenda, the existence of a consensus is not in fact established, although the impression is given looking in from the outside that it is.

Another piece of evidence we can look at is the recent research conducted for The Times on shifting public attitudes towards the BBC. Their finding was that, although according to UK government research 62% of the UK population had a favourable view of the BBC as recently as 2016, only 33% now believe that it represents their standpoint, with 33% expressing the view that in the last year the BBC had come to reflect their values less. These are shocking numbers for a broadcaster which until relatively recently prided itself as being respected the world over for its objectivity and reliability. But it is clear evidence of a philosopher-king mentality pervading our institutions, holding itself to be above considerations about the degree to which their values actually chime with those of the majority of society, whose interest they are supposed to serve.

Finally, consideration can be given to how the shape of politics is changing across the whole of Europe and N. America, with traditional centre-left and centre-right parties and candidates who used to dominate political life struggling to distinguish themselves from one another, as those with radical progressive agendas on the one hand and populist conservative agendas on the other benefit from their plight. So for example we see the so-called Red Wall being broken down in the North of England as tradition Labour voters reject the progressive left agenda of the philosopher kings in favour of a more populist agenda being offered by Nigel Farage and, more recently, Boris Johnson. Similar phenomena can be observed across many European nations and in N. America. Meanwhile heads of corporations and financiers in the Metropolis are queuing up to demonstrate their allegiance to whichever fashionable cause is being promoted by the progressive left in the name of equality and social justice. The old divisions in politics between the left and the right seem to be giving way increasingly to those between the Platonists and the Cleisthenians.

The important question we need to ask ourselves, though, is not so much whether we agree or sympathise with the agenda promoted by the philosopher kings (this can and will change over time, perhaps faster than we might realise), but whether we are happy with the transfer of power out of the hands of the Cleisthenian majority into the hands of the Platonist minority. It has happened before in history, often as now with the best of intentions initially on the part of the philosopher kings seeking greater powers. But can we think of a case where it has ended well?

About the Author

Colin Turfus
Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 12 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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