The paradox of progress: how some social improvements paper over unfairness and inequality


Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz is a lecturer in philosophy at Rutgers University, and host of the Embrace The Void and Philosophers in Space podcast.

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When people ask about my political persuasion, the first word that always comes to mind is ‘progressive’. I was raised to believe that progress is both possible and desirable, and that society exists to increase our quality of life by promoting progress. Recently though, I’ve been forced to question every part of this world view, and while I haven’t abandoned progressivism, I feel constantly plagued by what I’ve come to call the paradox of progress.

I experience the paradox of progress as akin to Zeno’s paradoxes about motion, which appears to show that the motion we all experience is actually impossible. On one side of the paradox are all the instances of what seem like unquestionable progress. From the abolition of slavery, to the enfranchisement of women and other marginalised groups, to shifting views on homosexuality, there are many discrete examples of progress for Polyannish thinkers like Steven Pinker to point to when arguing that things are getting better. On the other side of the paradox is the view that progress is a myth. Scholars have advanced the myth of progress thesis by attacking both the descriptive and prescriptive parts of the progressive position. Some claim that politics is inevitably cyclical rather than a linear progression, while others will argue that progress always seems to come for some more than others, and usually with externalised costs. Is there any way to reconcile these views?

We don’t factor in the vast numbers of people effectively denied equitable access to modern medical advancements because of the luck of birth, so that the rest of us can have the level of access we’re accustomed to.

We could start with common examples cited by proponents of progress, such as modern medicine. It’s easy to look at the reductions in suffering caused by modern medicine and conclude “that’s unalloyed progress”, but that’s partly because we obscure the massive quantities of single use plastic and other forms of waste that our medical system produces. We don’t factor in the vast numbers of people effectively denied equitable access to modern medical advancements because of the luck of birth, so that the rest of us can have the level of access we’re accustomed to. The system that manages to produce highly effective vaccines in the midst of a pandemic is the same system that predictably fails to equitably distribute those vaccines, because that system has learned that progress is achieved through the hoarding of resources and the enforcing of unjust distributions.

Take the example of slavery in America. The story goes that America, in a celebrated act of social progress, fought a bloody civil war to end slavery, followed by another hundred years and counting of protest met with domestic violence, all to secure a fairer society.  As a result, the descendants of formerly enslaved individuals no longer have to fear that a bounty hunter will capture them and return them to legal enslavement. And yet, human trafficking and forced labor remain substantial “hidden crimes” in America.

As with many social ills in America, the data on “modern slavery” is heavily contested. Estimates vary wildly depending on how the researchers define ‘slavery’. The picture is further complicated by America’s dependence on government approved penal labor, a system that traces its roots directly back to slavery. The vaunted 13th amendment that banned slavery included a loophole allowing forced labor for prisoners. That loophole, combined with the war on crime and drugs in the 80s, resulted in the exponential growth of a privately run prison industrial complex that now incarcerates 2 million people, more than any other country.

As with modern slavery more broadly, the data on what percentage of the prison population is coerced into forced labour is absurdly unreliable, especially given that we’re talking about a vulnerable population nominally in the care of the government. Some sources put it as low as 7% while others put it as high as 50%. The exploitative nature of American prison labour recently garnered national attention because of stories of California prisoners fighting forest fires for little money and with no guarantee that they would be allowed to use those skills as a firefighter when they’re released.

When we replace a system of overt oppression with a system of somewhat less violent covert oppression, should we really count that as progress? Postcolonial theorists argue that colonialism survived by evolving from the straightforward domination and extermination of indigenous peoples to a far more “ethically palatable” model that justified exploitation by coupling it with the promise of uplifting societies who had failed to progress. So, while it’s good that colonialists are no longer cutting off the hands of the Congolese for failing to meet rubber quotas, can we say progress has been achieved when the destabilising effects of that exploitation continue unabated?

Consider the final lines of Du Bois’s chapter “On the Meaning of Progress” in The Souls of Black Folk, where he talks about returning to a community he once taught in to find a former student has died and the families in the community are still suffering from unjust imprisonment, poverty, and exploitation:

My journey was done, and behind me lay hill and dale, and Life and Death. How shall man measure Progress there where the dark–faced Josie lies? How many heartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat? How hard a thing is life to the lowly, and yet how human and real! And all this life and love and strife and failure,—is it the twilight of nightfall or the flush of some faint–dawning day? Thus sadly musing, I rode to Nashville in the Jim Crow car.

Just as in Du Bois time, progressive activists today live in a world desperately in need of progress, where the history of exploitation remains deeply entrenched in current systems. There is no guarantee that the limited social progress of the past few hundred years is stable, and skeptics of our better angels may prove to be correct, especially aided by the effects of climate change. We really can’t know if the current strife is the precursor to more widespread progress, or the beginning of a dark period of social retrenchment.

A small plant growing out of some old wood

Even if we accept that progress is possible, the concept of social progress has potentially harmful implications. The concept of social progress necessarily implies a shift from a less moral society to a more moral society. What do those moral judgments mean for societies that don’t meet our criteria for progress?

Historically, the answers of social progressives on this front have been mixed. Progressive moral theorising in the mid-18th century combined with flawed knowledge of indigenous people to create the modern narrative that human societies should progress from savagery to civility through the uplifting influences of forces like Christianity, capitalism, and liberal democracy. Societies that had not followed this trajectory were seen as stagnant or regressive, and various pseudohistoric and pseudoscientific theories arose to explain why some societies had progressed more than others. Other social progressives tried to strike a balance between the desire to see their own culture as making progress and a culturally relativist approach to anthropology that suspended moral judgments towards other societies for the sake of achieving greater cultural understanding.

I don’t think either model is sufficient, and at present progressives are stuck with an uneasy mix of moral judgments that comes to the foreground when trying to address issues like religious arguments against autonomy for women. This is the mixed intellectual history that social progressives inherit, and we’re obligated to wrestle with it if we want to earn the right to talk of making things better.

As I wrestle with this paradox, some beliefs about progress do continue to seem justified. I believe we can still say that a society that respects the equality and bodily autonomy of marginalised groups is a significant improvement over societies that actively marginalise those groups. I believe there comes a point where the behavior of other societies becomes sufficiently regressive that we are morally obliged to intervene. I say that as someone living in a society that desperately needs an intervention on a variety of fronts. As I watch our right wing prevent action on climate change, embrace conspiracism, roll back bodily autonomy rights for women, and undercut voting rights for people of colour, I genuinely don’t know if we’ve made progress or not. I don’t think I’ll live long enough to find out the answer to that question, so I’m stuck with a persistent skepticism towards one of my most deeply held beliefs.

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