Progress for Whom?

There is a tendency to ascribe an inevitable arc of progress to history. The Black Death might have halved Europe’s population but from the vantage point of seven centuries, the incline of progress is visible: the mass loss of life reduced the supply of labour, increased peasants’ wages and helped put the final nail in the coffin of Western European serfdom. Likewise, the Industrial Revolution brought modernity to Europe and the United States at the cost of generations of working-class misery. Economic change and technological progress are painted as inevitable forces of long run improvement and emancipation.

This Hegelian notion of history is everywhere in our politics. It is a narrative where the uncomfortable, the unpleasant and the unfortunate can be cast as a temporary (but necessary) interlude. Consider austerity, whose logic demands wrenching sacrifices that will be rewarded in the indeterminable future. Thomas Friedman’s ‘Golden Straightjacket’ is a version of this argument, with globalization as a quasi-supernatural force before which one can only adapt or perish. The same type of argument is visible in today’s debates about technology regulation. Platforms, many of whom did not exist two decades ago, claim to be surfing the wave of history. Any opposition to their current form is then labelled Luddite-like reactionism against progress.

The unequal burden of sacrifice

In practice this means the cost of adjustment is overlooked. The champions of progress favor collective narratives and references to ‘humanity,’ but they rarely pay the price of progress. All the while, those least capable shoulder the burden for turning the wheel of history with remarkable regularity. As a result, those in the firing line have become markedly less enthusiastic about the march of progress and in 2019 they have erupted in outrage. On almost every continent people have taken to the streets to demand everything from revolution to climate action. These people are adding their voices to a roar that has been growing since before the Global Financial Crisis and is now reaching its full pitch. 

Across the West, decades of public service cuts, privatization and austerity have been justified as part of ‘transitions’ that never quite ended. Across Europe, austerity transferred the burden of macroeconomic ‘adjustments’ onto those most dependent on the public services being slashed. In the US, manufacturing workers lost well paid jobs and received community college coding courses in exchange. As a result, 2019 has seen some of the most radical political campaigns in a generation in the US and UK, while the far right continues its march on the continent. After decades of intransigence, leaders are stirring to life on climate change and warning of a difficult transition. Discovering that they were being asked to bear the burden of the transition, the lower rungs of French society exploded out onto the streets against the proposed fuel tax in protests that continue to this day. 

Elsewhere, inter-generational transitions are underway. Many are told to put their dreams on hold, so that the golden goose of growth is not smothered. Frustration boils over when the same people find themselves told to wait again and again, while they see golden eggs all around. In Chile, people grew tired of waiting for the ever-dangling fruits of prosperity. In Lebanon and Iraq, the legacy of conflict and the failure to deliver the promises of development have led to quasi-revolutions. Part of the fatalistic strength of the Hong Kong protests stems from a youth locked out of any hope of prosperity.

With 2019 coming to a close, frustration with the current arc of progress looks set to continue, with little end in sight. Several paths are available for our leaders. Gradualist pleas for patience and sacrifice will fall on deaf ears with electorates tired of waiting for the future that never comes. An even bigger insult would be to dismiss these protests as a reactionary and unreasonable outcry against inevitable change. To do so is to demand that the burden of change be borne on the same worn shoulders time after time, but now, with a smile and thanks. Instead, we must stand in solidarity with those who are disillusioned by the repeated promises of a better future. The next time you are told about the march of progress, remember to ask who paved the road.