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The myth of progress

The first day of a New Year arrives full of portent and promise. In its empty expanse of days, we see possibility the chance to do things differently and, by definition, better.

In the unfilled blankness of unmarked weeks and months, we see opportunity. On the first day, we can stare at the pure realm of potential, unsullied by disappointments or devastations.

The belief that oils the arrivals of new years and new centuries is simply faith in the maxim that things constantly and continuously get better. It is this belief in linear progress that imagines the human march as one towards constant improvement. The passage of time is thus constantly positive, arriving again and again at a destination that is an improvement over the last.

This year we can get somewhere further than where we were last year; in a hundred years we will have gone even farther on this scale of continual betterment. Science and technology lend credence to the idea of mankind`s linear march of progress; we know more, can prove more, can understand more and, consequently we conclude, we must be improving, gaining, ascending, rising.

The expansion of our economic activity, the connectivity of our world through communication and travel, the advancement of our ability to treat diseases and find cures are further evidence of our continuing improvement. Moral and philosophical heft is added to the precept of progress by other examples the abolishment of slavery, the idea of human rights, the legal enabling and idealisation of equality all substantiating the idea of constant progress.

Even detractors cannot but pivot their arguments on the same linear model of the human journey. Recent commentators critiquing the inability of the world`s current inhabitants to take seriously the threats of climate change, the depletion of natural resources, global warfare and rampant inequality all simply reverse the thesis. In other words, they allege a path of devolution or depletion, a simple regression in opposition to the idea of constant progression.

If the optimists of the world imagine history marching towards something better, the pessimists suggest a march backward a coming of end-times, a prediction of apocalyptic change. Most times, they do not think that progress is unachievable, even unattainable, but simply that the current course has to be drastically changed in order to put humanity back on the path of progress.

The path of progress as a philosophical precept, a mode of ordering history, thus remains intact. If only we can stop polluting, become more faithful, more conscientious, they insist, we can return to the linear path towards something better. A truly alternative view of the world would discard altogether the idea that history is ordered along a linear scale.

One of the contemporary proponents of such a worldview is the political philosopher John Gray. In books such as Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and other Animals, and the recently published Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, Gray takes on the idea of progress as a way of understanding time and history.

According to Gray, improvements in government and society are real, but largely temporary. Not only can they be lost, they necessarily will be. In Gray`s world, therefore, nothing is getting better or even worse; instead we are stuck in ever repeating occurrences of gain and loss. History, hence, is not linear but cyclical, and our fortune at being born or living at a particular time depends largely on our luck of having been born at a juncture of this repetitive gaining and losing.

In his thesis, however, progress and advances must be distinguished; advances are possible but, even as they occur, they are condemned to eventually being erased.

The consequences can be felt most proximately when applied to actual events. Historic events such as the French Revolution or, in the subcontinent`s case, the Partition of India, have meaning only in the limited realm of the context in which they inhabit. Their meaning is, in this sense, imposed by those who live the event or by those who remember it, rather than by some intrinsic moral value that would make it better or worse for mankind.

Meaning, like the belief in progress, is for Gray a crutch; most people, he insists, believe in progress, because without it they would not be able to get out of their beds in the morning. Progress, then, is the lie we tell ourselves to evade the fact that the world around us is not marching towards some ultimate goal, that we inhabit but a moment in time in a universe whose workings we only minimally understand.

At the inception of 2014, belief in progress is a choice. For those in Pakistan who believe they have been abandoned at the periphery of what is otherwise a global march from one achievement to another, there can be some solace in the fact that those on top will eventually, cyclically topple. The degradations imposed by imperialism and occupation can thus be blunted by faith in the cyclical nature of things, in the inevitability of decline of the now triumphant.

This dissection of progress, applied as a salve on our own wounds of underachievement, comes, however, at a cost. While those who strive to keep their spots at the top may believe in progress, so as to maintain their dominion over the world, the failure to believe among those at the bottom can mean apathy, dissolution, and, for at least another year, despair. •

The writer is an attomey teaching constitutional law and political philosophy rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Rafia Zakaria, "The myth of progress," Dawn. 2014-01-01.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Social rights , Human rights , Social laws , Sociology , Slavery , Humanity , John Gray