For some time now, men and women who think of themselves as progressives or, in the United States, as “liberals,” have been wondering what they should do next. Those who really believe in the principles they swear by know that large parts of the world could do with some thoroughgoing reforms, but because they have been taught that no culture is superior to any other they are reluctant to impose their own values by denouncing barbaric practices such as slavery in countries where they are still routine. For that reason, most limit themselves to fighting what they think is injustice in Western lands, where many of the goals their counterparts of previous generations aimed at have already been reached, while others have turned out to be far more elusive than had been imagined.
But believers in open-ended progress cannot just sit back and call it a day. They have to keep going, which is why so many have taken up “identity politics”; instead of aspiring to refashion the society they live in, in the hope of making it more egalitarian and removing any remaining vestiges of an unhappy past, they can concentrate on the grievances of groups whose spokespeople say they are fed up with being mistreated by a shadowy privileged power elite. As there will never be a shortage of “minorities” who would like a better deal, “identity politics” should keep progressives in business for a long time to come.
In the English-speaking countries and, to a lesser extent, in other parts of the world, the Left – whose leaders assume they are in charge of the progressive project – is redefining itself. Not that long ago, socialists were against large-scale immigration because it harmed the local workers and was supported by businessmen; now, in the US at least, young-ish politicians who say they are socialists are all for it. They have also taken to making common cause with militant Islamists who, by traditional left-wing standards, must surely be counted among the most reactionary, and therefore “right-wing,” people on the face of the earth.
Is this progress? In most walks of life, things keep changing, but that does not mean progress is being made. Are European societies really more “advanced” than they were 50 years ago? You could argue that in many important ways they have been going backwards, becoming more rigid and class-bound.
However, there is one noteworthy field in which progress is undeniable: science. Despite the propensity of some practitioners to believe wholeheartedly in mistaken theories and then waste their lives looking for hard evidence to prove they were right all along – as did Stalin’s pet biologist Trofim Lysenko, whose hostility to “reactionary” Mendelian genetics did immense harm to Soviet agriculture – science, closely followed by technology really does progress.
We know far more about the material universe than we did 50 years ago, let alone several centuries ago and, as we are frequently reminded, a cheap smartphone has more computational power than everything NASA had in 1969 when it put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.
It was thanks to the scientists that the idea of progress captured the Western imagination. Suitably impressed by their achievements, bright people began to assume they could emulate them in literature, music, painting, sculpture, sociology, psychology, politics and just about everything else. Avant-garde experimentation came into fashion. It is still with us. Few thought poets who sprinkled words on a page or made their musings edgier by a liberal use of obscenities improved on Homer, but for much of the cultural establishment, being suitably “modern” was more than enough to make their offerings seem more relevant.
Painters and sculptors also want to progress. Instead of replacing traditional standards by equally exacting modern ones, influential artists and critics decided that hierarchies were bad and it was a waste of time to try and explain why something by Michelangelo ranked higher than a haphazard collection of blobs; their rejection of anything smacking of effort allowed politically savvy pranksters to make a killing by getting investors – who know that Impressionist works that once went for a couple of pounds will now fetch enough to make you enviably rich – to pay millions for something quickly made from scrap metal or even elephant dung. Musicians got into the game by inventing atonal languages; unfortunately for them, only a tiny minority preferred their products to those of hopelessly outdated composers such as Mozart.
In the scientific world, progress will continue to be made, which is not necessarily a good thing, but elsewhere it has stalled. Can politicians and the people who feed them with ideas continue to push society onwards and, presumably, upwards in their quest for utopia? For a short while in the second half of the 19th century, it seemed they could, as many reforms did have a clearly positive effect on people’s lives. But then things started to go terribly wrong.
For generations, many highly intelligent people who wanted to leave the benighted past behind thought totalitarian movements had the answer: their attempts at social engineering and the wars they undertook saw hundreds of millions of people die a miserable death, but that was not enough to kill the belief that, somehow or other, society should keep moving ahead by embracing whatever looks new.
Environmentalism, which these days entails letting nature have the final say, is also in favour in left-wing circles. Some would be more than happy to see industry grind to a halt if it helped slow climate change yet the consequences for millions of workers and for many eco-warriors would be catastrophic. Would closing down all those coal mines, dirty factories and dairy farms – apparently, bovine flatulence releases more noxious gases than motor vehicles spew out – make the weather friendlier? Perhaps it would not, but progressives who until quite recently took it for granted that if they ran things they could create societies that were far better than the ones that already existed, have come to the conclusion that, as humankind was responsible for the planet’s ills, they themselves should stop breeding. As a result, birth-rates in places where progressives abound tend to be far lower than in those inhabited by throwbacks who cling to antiquated beliefs.