What Is Progress?

As defined by the Oxford dictionary, progress is: “development towards an improved or more advanced condition.” Merriam-Webster defines it as: “the process of improving or developing something over a period of time” or, more concisely, “gradual betterment.”

As is the case with attempting to understand any word or phrase, we are confined by the boundaries of our own language. How can we attempt to explain what a word represents when we only have other replacement words to use in our explanation?

But it is not our language that I wish to discuss, or more specifically, not the issue of our language being both an advantage and a hindrance. The issue at hand is the context of the word in which we use it. What its meaning is when we speak it, what we understand by the term when we hear it.

Progress is a term that evokes positive feelings. When someone is said to have made progress then we consider it a good thing. Inherently then it seems that progress is a virtue rather than a vice.

I believe this to be true, and I am sure many of you would agree with me. It’s highly likely that if we encountered someone that did not agree, that person would have a very difficult time in persuading us that progress is in fact a bad thing.

This widespread belief then, that progress is good, immediately faces a contradiction when taken into the political sphere. Progressives are overwhelmingly people of the Left, and yet if what they advocate is inherently good, why are our societies not dominated by these sorts of political parties? Put simply, if we all agree that progress is good, and there is a progressive party in existence in our nation, why are we not voting for them every time?

In political terms, and by its very definition, to be conservative is to avoid change. It is to be cautious and a believer in, and defender of, the status quo. Conservative can be seen as the exact opposite of progressive, and yet in the UK, we have had a Conservative Prime Minister for four years. Does this mean then that the people of the UK knowingly deprived themselves of something considered inherently good?

The problem with politics is that words very quickly lose all meaning. Freedom, choice, promise, hero, progress. Evidence of this can be seen, oxymoronically, in the fact you can get Progressive Conservatives. People who are firm believers of cautious, conservative ideals, yet also claim to be progressive in what they wish for the society. And it is this that perfectly illustrates the problem of progress.

Progress is a mercenary and a whore. It is picked up and put down more times than it cares to remember. The values and the beliefs that we have grown to associate with it become hazy. No longer are we confident in what it represents. Such is its over-usage that the word itself has lost almost all meaning.

Progress in today’s society is more money in the bank, it is faster cars, and more devastating weapons. It is cheaper items in shops, more railways and roads, and continuing discussions with tyrants across the world. If we return to the initial definitions that we spoke of, with progress being “development towards an improved or more advanced condition”, we are left with the more questions. Aside from the figure on the bank balance, what has developed? Are cheaper T-shirts and faster cars the “advanced condition” that we want to see?

Unless you are nothing but the most shallow of materialists, then I would assume your answer would be no. Faster cars, cheaper clothes, and more money in the bank are not the pillars of the “advanced condition” in which we wish to live, and they do not represent progress.

It is for this reason that when we discuss the issue of progress within societies, we must ignore such meaningless topics and instead concentrate on what can truly be worthy of the label of progress. The conditions in which we live, our life expectancy, the relationship between men and women, the effect our activities are having on the planet, the opportunities available to a nation’s populace.

In 2013 a South Korean film named Snowpiercer was released. It was based on a French graphic novel, and though it scored highly on both IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, I felt it was a rather poor watch. It does however contain a nice metaphor for progress. A speeding train, continually moving on a circular track. Going nowhere fast.

Over a century earlier, in 1912, Woodrow Wilson had his own metaphor for progress. In a campaign speech which, like the title of this piece, was entitled “What is Progress?” He said:

“All progress depends on how fast you are going, and where you are going, and I fear there has been too much of this thing of knowing neither how fast we were going or where we were going. I have my private belief that we have been doing most of our progressiveness after the fashion of those things that in my boyhood days we called “treadmills,” a treadmill being a moving platform, with cleats on it, on which some poor devil of a mule was forced to walk forever without getting anywhere.”

Until we come to realise what does and does not constitute progress, we will continue to be that mule walking on Woodrow’s treadmill for many years to come.

More progress quotes:

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” – George Bernard Shaw

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” – Martin Luther King

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” – Franklin D Roosevelt

Further reading:

Social Progress Imperative

Good, natural, malignant: five ways people frame economic growth

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This article was originally published here, at Cultured Vultures on 17/3/15

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