Does America Still Believe in Progress?

“No western politician incarnates hope any more,” writes journalist Simon Kuper in a recent article in the Financial Times. Instead, he suggests, societal-level hope and progress have gone private—to the level of the individual in the form of obsessive self-help and perfectionism.

The concept of “progress” held the world in its palm from the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century to the horrors of World War I. Hope in progress for mankind was consistently bolstered by new technology, growing wealth, increasing lifespans, and the rapid extension of the bounds of knowledge. In the United States, Westward expansion promised new frontiers for our utopian visions, as depicted in the painting above. Lady Progress is seen “enlightening” America’s western frontier by extending a spool of telephone wire, followed by railroads and wagons. However, we now look back on such blindly hopeful and patriotic iconography and scoff. Utopian social and political projects in history remind us of Enlightenment hope, but today we write them off them as childish and unrealistic. The failure of Communism finally delimited what we now consider politically reasonable, and compressed the American political spectrum into relative moderation, now resigned from hopes of progress.

Western belief in progress has been slipping steadily for decades, but is now at a nadir. Anyone who still believes that politics will uplift humanity is considered a crank…

Only four years ago, belief in progress wasn’t yet dead. Barack Obama became the world’s president with the ultimate progressive slogan: “Yes we can.” After clinching the Democratic nomination, he had said: “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” These now sound like words from another era, but even in 2009, heading into the United Nations’ environmental summit in Copenhagen, many still thought the world might solve global warming…

Today the notion that Obama or Mitt Romney might usher in utopia sounds hilarious, like something out of Mad magazine.

In our political arena, nearly all grandiose proposals are quickly dashed, and the arrival of long-awaited progress is conveniently postponed by political campaigns to the next election cycle—on the condition, of course, that such politicians are reelected. (We might consider Obama’s healthcare plan a notable exception). But what about the public’s excitement about political campaigns and monetary contributions to political causes? Surely these are displays of hope for social progress. For Kuper, these behaviors are disingenuous. They don’t show vision or lasting belief in progress via political organizations, but merely celebrate momentary victory over the less-preferable opposition.

However much progress seems to be absent from our political arena, Kuper suggests that it has only changed its target. Now, we believe in individual progress by way of a neo-American Dream, though such progress is indeed threatened.

Yet the idea of progress hasn’t vanished. It has simply been privatised. Just as those early Parisian socialists believed in humanity’s progress, westerners increasingly believe in their own personal progress. They don’t think the next human generation will be better off, but they are making darned sure their own children will be…

The western middle-classes increasingly believe in progress in their own lives. They read self-help books, take cooking classes, go on diets, stop smoking, do “home improvement”, and have invented a new mode of parenting, “concerted cultivation”…

On the smallest scale possible for social reform—that of the individual—we are now furiously constructing our own micro-utopias. While large-scale social and political reform are now ridiculed, self-help is in vogue.

And yet [the early] socialists were right: humanity is in the lift. Societies do progress. It’s just that the policies that achieve this are boring and uninspiring. As this column argued recently, despite the economic crisis we have never had it so good. Wars are dying out, life expectancy is rising almost everywhere, extreme poverty is falling, democracy is spreading, and we are even getting happier. The vast social-scientific “World Values Survey” combined national surveys carried out between 1981 and 2007, and found that happiness had risen in 45 of 52 countries studied. The reason: “Economic development, democratisation, and rising social tolerance have increased the extent to which people perceive that they have free choice.” And free choice makes people happier.

As so often, Orwell was right: “Progress is not an illusion; it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing.” The idea has been too hastily privatised.

Though progress may be occurring all around us, it happens too incrementally for us to appreciate and act upon within the short attention span of politics. But this realization led us inward to ever higher personal and professional goals, and the individual is now the object of Enlightenment perfectionism. Still, if Amy Chua’s “Tiger Moms” are at all paradigmatic of America’s new camp of utopian living and parenting, Kuper is right to question this overeager reapportionment of ideals. It wouldn’t hurt America to rediscover its former utopian vision, even if “change” is on the back burner for now.


Simon Kuper, “Do You Believe in Progress?” The Financial Times

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