Forward thinking: Rather than marching ahead, assuming that progress is linear and that others are following, we must stop to make the case for change
When the RSA was founded in 1754, the concept of ‘progress’ as we know it was just emerging. Over the course of the 18th century, it developed from being an idea related to movement through space, to one connected primarily with movement through time. Along the way, it gathered a whole host of other associations: improvement, reform, civilisation. It also migrated from being an adjunct to other concepts (the progress of art, of knowledge, of science), to being an active agent in its own right. By the early 19th century, it was possible to speak of the ‘progress of history’ or the ‘progress of time’; by the end of that century, it was common to invoke ‘progress itself’ as a seemingly unstoppable force.
The evolution of this idea was rooted in the history and values of the Enlightenment, as, of course, was the RSA. This is a history that has come under a good deal of criticism over the past 50 years, both because of the colonial and patriarchal assumptions underpinning what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Enlightenment project’, and because of the complacency that comes with a faith in continual improvement, which can sweep aside the messiness of human interaction. But it is also a history that is having a bit of a political comeback. At a time when tolerance, reason and expertise seem to be under threat, the idea of resurrecting Enlightenment values seems attractive.
While it is difficult to oppose the idea of “enriching society through ideas and action” contained in the RSA’s mission to create a 21st century Enlightenment, we need to approach this history with a critical eye. If we take, for instance, the idea of being progressive, which is the focus of this issue of RSA Journal, there are big questions hidden behind its seemingly incontrovertible appeal. What does this label include, what does it exclude, and — most importantly — what does it do?
Let us begin with an opposition. ‘Progressive’ and ‘conservative’ have long been taken to denote opposing mindsets: forward thinking, experimental and modern on the one hand; stable, cautious and traditional on the other. In political terms, this has tended to be applied to the left and the right of the political spectrum, respectively, but with a great deal of scope for counter-intuitive positioning between them. For instance, in England, as early as 1858, the Manchester Guardian was complaining that “the edifying discussion of the respective beauties of progressive Conservatism and Conservative progress” was occupying so much parliamentary time that it was distracting attention from questions of national defence. It has barely been off the agenda since. In contrast, ‘conservatism’ has more often been used as an accusation than an aspiration within left circles, at least in the UK. The term is used to attack both centrist caution and socialist traditionalism; notwithstanding a brief flurry of interest in ‘radical conservatism’ in the immediate aftermath of New Labour.
This asymmetry is revealing. It tells us something about the cultural value of the term ‘progressive’. In his influential compendium Keywords (1976), the cultural theorist Raymond Williams suggested that by the turn of the 20th century, ‘progressive’ had become an empty word, more of a persuader than a descriptor. He noted the emergence of ‘progressive conservatism’ as a marker of the term’s boundless elasticity. Although Williams underestimated the longer history of progressive conservatism, he was right that something had changed. By the early 20th century, progressivism had become such a desirable political and cultural trait that, in the words of the conceptual historian, Reinhart Koselleck, “it has become difficult to gain political legitimacy without being progressive at the same time”.
The elasticity of the term might seem surprising to anyone with a background in liberal or left politics. In the UK, this was, after all, the time at which the Lib-Lab ‘progressive movement’ took shape. From the municipal politics of the London County Council to the electoral pact that helped the Labour Party gain its first parliamentary representatives, the history of progressive politics has seemingly been intrinsically associated with the centre-left, and particularly its relationship to one of the three themes of this edition of the journal: welfare.
In 1896, the first issue of a new journal called Progressive Review recognised the inadequacy of liberal doctrines of economic freedom and self-government “to undertake the onerous and multifarious duties which devolve upon a modern State, in contributing by legislative and administrative acts, to secure the material and moral welfare of the people”. Its editors argued that: “If such a departure from the historical lines of party action seem[s] impossible, we can recognize no force in the claim of the Liberals to be regarded as the progressive party of the future.” This was an attempt to reorient both liberalism and progressive politics around a strong commitment to welfare, and to the state apparatus needed to deliver it. This use of language became widely accepted, to the extent that we now forget, for instance, that progressive income tax was originally so-called because it is graduated and sequential, not because it is redistributive. It belongs to the family of progressive salaries, share dividends and hire purchase schemes that were regularly advertised in the late Victorian and Edwardian press. Its resonance with the aims of the new ‘progressive movement’ was a fortuitous coincidence.
But this redefinition was only ever partially successful. It supplemented, but did not replace, existing understandings. Enlightenment views of history had identified commercial freedom as both the driver and marker of social progress. This association remained intact throughout the 20th century. The efficiency, energy and innovation of successful businesses made them seem inherently progressive, and developing nations were expected to demonstrate their progressive credentials through stability, prosperity, rapid growth and self-confidence.
In party politics, progressive arguments were used to resist as well as to espouse state intervention in the economy. Most notably, self-described ‘progressive’ Liberal-Conservative alliances operated at both local and national level from the 1930s well into the post-war years, arguing for freedom for private enterprise in the face of what they saw as socialist restrictions. For instance, local Progressive Parties set themselves against municipal provision of utilities and direct employment of labour on the grounds that it was expensive for ratepayers and disadvantageous to private businesses. Such schemes had previously been undertaken in the name of progressive politics, most famously by the London Progressive Party. Yet, these new alliances applied the same language to the opposite cause, invoking instead older liberal ideals of retrenchment and good government.
This language has not died out. When David Cameron launched his ‘progressive conservatism’ project in 2009, and his ‘progressive partnership’ with the Liberal Democrats the following year, this was intended to signal a break from the party’s past, particularly Thatcherism, yet this might have sounded less novel to voters than he anticipated. A 2012 YouGov poll suggested Margaret Thatcher was thought more progressive than any other politician except Boris Johnson.
There are two understandings of progress at work here, which see it as either an organic process or a deliberate project. According to the former, state intervention risks interfering with supposedly natural progress through the market. The latter believes that real progress entails harnessing the resources of the state and driving them in a particular direction. This is not, however, as clear-cut as it seems. It is in the space between these two extremes that most self-described ‘progressives’ cluster. Partly, this is marriage between two forms of liberalism, with their two conceptions of progress. It suggests that welfare can only be built on prosperity, and tends to assume that the state can learn from the market, that innovation thrives on competition.
But this line of argument also carries the implication that it is politics itself that is the obstruction. This is what lies behind the repeated refrain that sensible, progressive people — from all parties and none — should simply be allowed to get on with things. ‘Progressive’ in this context denotes rational, reasoned solutions (it is striking that in the historical sources I look at, it is often coupled with ‘sane’). But it also suggests that there is a right answer, which could be found if only we had enough evidence, enough experts, enough creativity. Such attitudes have contributed to the increasingly technocratic and remote nature of governance, which has been blamed for both declining levels of trust and political engagement before 2008, and the anger and frustration we have seen since. Moreover, it is important to recognise that the very language of being ‘progressive’ can function as a threat. It is used to make certain futures seem inevitable, with the implication that we must keep up or be left behind.