Social progress

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Social progress is the idea that societies can or do improve in terms of their social, political, and economic structures. This may happen as a result of direct human action, as in social enterprise or through social activism, or as a natural part of sociocultural evolution.

The concept of social progress was introduced in the early 19th century social theories, especially those of social evolutionists like Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. It was present in the Enlightenment's philosophies of history. As a goal, social progress has been advocated by varying realms of political ideologies with different theories on how it is to be achieved, ranging from socialists on the left to fascists on the right.

John Gast, American Progress, circa 1872.

History of social progress as concept[edit]

The Enlightenment (1650-1800)[edit]

Main article: Age of Enlightenment

The big breakthrough to a new idea in Europe Enlightenment, when social commentators and philosophers began to realize that people themselves could change society and change their way of life. Instead of being made completely by gods, there was increasing room for the idea that people themselves made their own society - and not only that, as Giambattista Vico argued, because people practically made their own society, they could also fully comprehend it. This gave rise to new sciences, or proto-sciences, which claimed to provide new scientific knowledge about what society was like, and how one may change it for the better.[1]

In turn, this gave rise to progressive opinion, in contrast with conservational opinion. The social conservationists were skeptical about panaceas for social ills. According to conservatives, attempts to radically remake society normally make things worse. Edmund Burke was the leading exponent of this, although later-day liberals like Hayek have espoused similar views. They argue that society changes organically and naturally, and that grand plans for the remaking of society, like the French Revolution, National Socialism and Communism hurt society by removing the traditional constraints on the exercise of power.

The notion of freedom[edit]

This new idea implied a new concept of human freedom, i.e. people independently making their own lives using their own judgment. Initially, this concept appeared rather paradoxical; thus, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, "People are born free, but are everywhere in chains". A big breakthrough was the French Revolution of 1789, which inspired a lot of new philosophical thought.

In the philosophy of the German thinker Hegel, history radically recasts itself as the continual development of humanity towards ever-greater freedom, continually extending the limits of freedom. This philosophy is still religious and mystical however, insofar as Hegel sees history as culminating in the unity of God with the world, but at the same time, Hegel also affirmed and imputed a Logos or teleology to human history, and fully recognized that both evolutionary and revolutionary transformations took place in history. This was a hopeful philosophy, which in a rational way sees real progress occurring in history.

It was possible to detect human advances, as well as human regressions to an earlier state. In Hegel’s view, if something existed, it was rational. If it passed out of existence, that was because it had become irrational. This contained a very important idea, however poorly expressed, namely that history was not a fluke of fate (a kismet) but that it could be rationally understood, at least in principle.

Marxist theory (Late 19th century)[edit]

Marx developed a theory of historical materialism. He describes the mid-19th century condition in the Communist Manifesto as follows:

"The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all which is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind."[2]

Furthermore Marx described the process of social progress which is in his opinion based on the interaction between the productive forces and the relations of production:

"No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society." [3]

Capitalism is thought by Marx as a process of continual change, in which the growth of markets dissolve all fixities in human life, and Marx admits that capitalism is progressive and non-reactionary. This is an almost absolute rejection of the conservative ethos, according to which nothing really changes in human life. Marxism further states that capitalism, in its quest for higher profits and new markets, will inevitably sow the seeds of its own destruction. Marxists believe that, in the future, capitalism will be replaced by socialism and eventually communism.

In modernist thought (20th century)[edit]

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

George Bernard Shaw

Many advocates of capitalism such as Schumpeter agreed with Marx's analysis of capitalism as a process of continual change through creative destruction, but, unlike Marx, believed and hoped that capitalism could essentially go on forever.

Thus, by the beginning of the 20th century, two opposing schools of thought - Marxism and liberalism - believed in the possibility and the desirability of continual change and improvement. Marxists strongly opposed capitalism and the liberals strongly supported it, but the one concept they could both agree on was modernism.

Modernism is a trend of thought which affirms the power of human beings to make, improve and reshape their society, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation. It reaches its extreme limits with the Russian Revolution and the third Chinese revolution, inspired by Marxist ideology. Here, people claimed such confidence in the ability to change their world for the better, which they thought that, in a relatively short time, largely illiterate peasants could begin to build a just, egalitarian and socialist order in a conscious way, armed with science and technology.

Postmodernist thought (late 20th century)[edit]

"As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man.

There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire."

Rudyard Kipling

In the postmodernist thought steadily gaining ground from the 1980s, the grandiose claims of the modernizers are steadily eroded, and the very concept of social progress is again questioned and scrutinized. In the new vision, radical modernizers like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong appear as totalitarian despots, whose vision of social progress is held to be totally deformed.

Postmodernists question the validity of 19th century and 20th century notions of progress - both on the capitalist and the Marxist side of the spectrum. They argue that both capitalism and Marxism over-emphasize technological achievements and material prosperity while ignoring the value of inner happiness and peace of mind.

Postmodernism posits that both dystopia and utopia are one and the same, overarching grand narratives with impossible conclusions. The romanticism of our past due to present discontent has set western society into a state of nostalgia where modernism is feared. Here the past is re-presented as solution to our current problems.

Contemporary trends[edit]

In the present time, this trend of thought about social progress leads to five main kinds of responses:

  • Neo-conservatism, which returns to the old idea that nothing ever truly changes in the human condition, and the eternal values of religion. The ability of people to change anything other than themselves is vastly overrated. Here, the emphasis is on honoring a traditional way of life which proved itself as superior in the past, to which we should adhere.
  • Neo-liberalism, which affirms the power and potential of change, but only on a personal, individual level. The idea that the state should be an instrument of social betterment in society as a whole is totally rejected; only free choices made in markets can hold any promise of social progress.
  • Socialism, which argues that state direction of social progress could have very important positive results; at the simplest level, would be able to help the poor by taking from the rich. This leads to the defense of public services and assets, and the case for heavy regulation of market activity.
  • Resource-based economy, A resource-based economy would replace the need for the current monetary economy, which is "scarcity-oriented" or "scarcity-based". The concept creator Jacque Fresco argues that the world is rich in natural resources and energy and that — with modern technology and judicious efficiency — the needs of the global population can be met with abundance, while at the same time removing the current limitations of what is deemed possible due to notions of economic viability.
  • Various strands of new radicalism, which begin to question again the objective criteria by which we could measure human social progress. For example, labor productivity might be a criterion of social progress, but how about infant mortality? This kind of thinking rejects the political traditions of the past, and argues that a variety of criteria must be applied to assess social progress. In some cases, this leads to new charters for the moral criteria to which a society should aspire; in other cases, authentic lived experience in society with all its complexities is emphasized.

Measuring Social Progress[edit]

The Social Progress Index is a tool developed by the International Organization Imperative Social Progress, which measures the extent to which countries cover social and environmental needs of its citizenry. There are fifty-two indicators in three areas or dimensions: Basic Human Needs, and Foundations of Wellbeing and Opportunities which show the relative performance of nations.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The following annotated reference list appears in J. B. Bury's definitive study: The Idea of Progress, published in 1920 and available in full on the web:

    The history of the idea of Progress has been treated briefly and partially by various French writers; e.g. Comte, Cours de philosophie positive, vi. 321 sqq.; Buchez, Introduction a la science de l'histoire, i. 99 sqq. (ed. 2, 1842); Javary, De l'idee de progres (1850); Rigault, Histoire de la querelle des Anciens et des Modernes (1856); Bouillier, Histoire de la philosophie cartesienne (1854); Caro, Problemes de la morale sociale (1876); Brunetiere, "La Formation de l'idee de progres", in Etudes critiques, 5e serie. More recently M. Jules Delvaille has attempted to trace its history fully, down to the end of the eighteenth century. His Histoire de l'idee de progres (1910) is planned on a large scale; he is erudite and has read extensively. But his treatment is lacking in the power of discrimination. He strikes one as anxious to bring within his net, as theoriciens du progres, as many distinguished thinkers as possible; and so, along with a great deal that is useful and relevant, we also find in his book much that is irrelevant. He has not clearly seen that the distinctive idea of Progress was not conceived in antiquity or in the Middle Ages, or even in the Renaissance period; and when he comes to modern times he fails to bring out clearly the decisive steps of its growth. And he does not seem to realize that a man might be "progressive" without believing in, or even thinking about, the doctrine of Progress. Leonardo da Vinci and Berkeley are examples. In my Ancient Greek Historians (1909) I dwelt on the modern origin of the idea (p. 253 sqq.). Recently Mr. R. H. Murray, in a learned appendix to his Erasmus and Luther, has developed the thesis that Progress was not grasped in antiquity (though he makes an exception of Seneca), -- a welcome confirmation.

  2. ^ Manifesto of the Communist Party: Chapter 1, Marx & Engels
  3. ^ Marx, Karl. "Preface". Critique of political economy. 

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