The end of progress?

March 2017 | 6 min read

Written by Professor Frank Trentmann

The end of progress?

We are living in an era of endings. The end of globalization, the end of human rights values, the end of Europe as we knew it, the end of "facts" and the end of human decency. These (and many others) have all received plenty of attention in these last few months. But what if underneath all these, there is a fundamental change in the very order of time? Is this the end of "progress"?

Progress has been the animating spirit of our modern times. But there was nothing natural or inevitable about the vision. For several thousand years, human civilizations managed without it. It was only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that Western societies began to ahead to a new and better future. Prior to this, there were two time zones: human and divine. In human time, the present and the past circled in the same zone. The great historian Reinhart Koselleck (1923-2006) used a famous battle painting from 1529 (the battle of Alexander at Issus) to show how the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian (1459-1519) merged into Alexander the Great, who had defeated the Persians in 331BC, almost two thousand years earlier. Past and present here appeared in a simultaneous frame, awaiting the Last Judgement to come. It was an end time scenario: there was a feeling that the Holy Roman Empire would be the last. For protestant reformers like Martin Luther the world was speeding towards its divinely ordained end. Centuries were being compressed into decades and years. The future promised a second "Fall": the apocalypse and the last judgement, the threshold into God’s kingdom of time.

Albrecht Altdorfer, The Battle of Alexander at Issus

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries set in motion an entirely new sense of time. Instead of the past and present being a kind of waiting room for the Second Coming, past, present and future were now laid out in a linear progression. And time was stretched. Instead of facing an imminent break into a space-time only known to God, scientists, rulers and businessmen started to encroach on the future, making plans for exploiting and redesigning times that were yet to come. Foresight, forecasting and life insurance were born. Here was a fundamental shift in orientation: think of the future rather than the present was Cardinal Richelieu’s advice. Humans acquired an unprecedented belief that they held the power to fulfil their own destiny. Societies were heading towards a run way readying themselves for take-off. The progress of science, reason and industry not only appeared unstoppable. Anyone standing in the way needed to be moved aside, by force if necessary. In the eighteenth century, progress found a brother-in-arms: revolution. People, Maximilien Robespierre insisted in 1793, had a duty to reach their potential and hasten the coming of a new order.

The progressive spirit captured science, politics and culture. On the eve of the First World War, speed and dynamism had established themselves as a new gospel. Only peasants were sluggish, and who wanted to live like a peasant? Progressive people embraced radical change. In the vanguard were self-proclaimed "Futurists" like the architects Antonoio Antonio Sant’Elia and F. T. Marinetti. In their 1914 manifesto they confidently announced that "homes will endure less than us". Each new generation ought to have its own new city, buildings and lifestyles.

They had a right and duty to tear down the old. Conserving the old spelled stagnation.

To be sure, for all the emancipatory ideals, progress was not a bed of roses. In real life, it did not only bring engines and vaccines but also the Maxim gun and the gas chamber. Critical reason was accompanied by violent revolution, liberal democracy by colonialism and totalitarianism. There was a "dialectic of enlightenment", as the emigre philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno argued in their famous book of that title in 1944. Today, we can add climate change to that list.

We are so accustomed to taking our modern comforts as the norm, that it is important to recall just how seismic the transformation brought by progress has been. Modern growth has been staggering. Between the birth of Christ (1CE) and the death of Napoleon (1821), living standards in the West barely doubled. Since then, they have increased more than twenty fold, from an average of $1200 a person to $26,000. That growth means not just fancy cars, but schools and hospitals, clean water, warmer homes and several meals a day. In Western Europe in 1750, people on average died before their 40th birthday. Today, they live until 81.

Russolo, Carrà, Marinetti, Boccioni and Severini (Futurists) in front of Le Figaro, 1912

Has the engine of progress now broken down? Since the 1970s, progress has certainly slowed. As the economist Robert J. Gordon has emphasized, personal computers and smart phones have been far less revolutionary than earlier innovations such as electricity and the internal combustion engine which transformed lives fundamentally, from cooking and housing to mobility and communication. It is in the nature of big inventions that it is impossible to foresee them, but as far as the IT sector is concerned, it arguably has run most of its course and future growth will be limited.

It is more likely to destroy than create jobs.

Cromemco C 10 Personal Computer

The disenchantment with progress, however, cannot be pinned on secular trends of growth alone. After all, we are talking about a slowdown not a stand-still, let alone a reversal. Both the US and UK economies have grown this last year by 1.8%. Admittedly, this is a far cry from the 5% that were routine in the golden age of the post-war boom. Still, in the annals of history, it hardly counts as a disaster. It would have been inconceivable any time before the nineteenth century, when societies made do with 0.5% or no growth at all. And even Japan, which today is in the second "lost decade" of stagnation, has not imploded. Yet, instead of greeting 1.8% with a sigh of relief, many Americans and Brits are doubting whether there will be any future after tomorrow at all. Why?

The answer lies with a number of micro-social and cultural changes that make people view the larger macro-changes with growing alarm. One reason progress has lost its shine today is that most people’s lives also no longer follow a linear, forward looking trajectory. The structured, sequential progression in the same job that characterised industrial and professional society is becoming the exception. Similarly, in their private, intimate lives, people no longer marry once, settle down and have first children and then grandchildren, but divorce, remarry or live in alternative families with overlapping generations of kids, if they have children at all. Admittedly, this single, structured model of a patriarchal family and secure job was more an ideal than reality for many people in modern times, except, perhaps, for the 1950s.

Then, there is the decline of a whole number of institutions which had provided our lives with a sense of temporal order and security in the highly dynamic and uncertain age of progress. With their bells and regular hours, the Church and the factory did a lot of organising our time for us. Today, shopping and mobility is a 24-hour juggernaut. Leisure is no longer leisurely, but packed with a seemingly endless and ever changing combination of activities, especially among the professional middle classes. Contrary to popular perception, it is not true that today we have no time and work longer than our great grandparents. In America, it is women in their 30s and 40s especially who have seen their leisure time shrink since 1980, but even they are no worse off than their sisters in 1900. Other age groups, and especially those over 60, have much more free time now than a century ago. Part of the problem is that time is so unevenly distributed across generations and increasingly out of synch with the multiple demands of career and caring that converge for the so-called sandwiched generation. What has changed, too, is that we are now much busier in our free time and, on top of it, have to coordinate our schedules ourselves. Hence we feel as if we are living in turbulent times.

But, at a time when zero-hour jobs and precarious working arrangements are on the rise, it is the 1950s which more and more people are taking as a yardstick of the good life.

It is easy to blame inequality and the rise of rubbish jobs in the gig economy for the support for Trump and May. Certainly, many deprived areas did vote for Trump and for Brexit. But on their own, the unemployed, indebted and marginalized would hardly have led to their success. In London today, for example, there are 60,000 people working as poorly paid couriers and in the storage sector connected with it. It is doubtful that they all or even most of them voted for Brexit; many, in fact, are the very Europeans, the British government now aims to rid us of. What proved decisive was that Trump and Brexit were able to win majorities in places like Pennsylvania, Canterbury and Wiltshire. These are not overwhelmingly the home of the unskilled or the precariat. Their inhabitants have done fairly well out of globalization. Rather, it is fear that the good times are over, that they might be the next group of losers, and this is unfair and something should be done to stop it before it is too late.

This sentiment of fear is a result of a growing mismatch between an economic reality here and now and the expectations inherited from the golden age of progress after the Second World War. Progress oversold itself with promises it is no longer able to fulfil. "I’ve got to admit it’s getting better", sounded lovely when the Beatles sang it in 1967. Now, few are ready to admit anything is getting better, not because nothing is getting better, but because our expectations have been overinflated for so long. Austerity is treated as short-term medicine but, after the cure, we are promised the good times will return.

In the long run, living within our means is treated as an unacceptable proposition and no major political party in the Anglo-world dares to propose such a future within limits.
45th American President, Donald Trump

The new politics of time which is feeding off these fears is no longer animated by progress but by nostalgia. Both Trump and May are essentially backward looking. Their self-professed goal is to "take back" something that has been lost. It is doubtful whether their policies can paper over the crack in time that has opened up. Protectionism might win back this or that plant to the Rust Belt, but these gains are one-offs. They do nothing to revitalize productivity - they are more likely to stifle it. America’s infrastructure can do with a big overhaul, but, with corporate tax cuts promised, it is unclear where the money would be coming from. For Theresa May, Brexit will return Britain to its historic glory as a great trading nation. The problem with this idea is that a lot of things have changed in the last hundred years. In Victorian times, Britain was an empire and the biggest economy on the planet. Today, it has no empire and accounts for a mere 4% of world GDP. It is a rich but small island which, on its own, matters much less to the rest of the world than in the past. China and Germany, even Japan pack a bigger punch. All the Churchillian rhetoric cannot disguise that for ever.


Nostalgia offers a poor toolkit for a future which needs to square low growth with flexibility and knowledge. Talk about getting former "good jobs" back is one thing. But we also need to train people for new jobs in the flexible global marketplace of today and tomorrow. It is here where Brexit is its own worst enemy. In the past, the free movement of skilled labour and creative types from Europe effectively made up for Britain’s poor or non-existent policy for flexibility at home. The collapse of part-time university education in the United Kingdom tells a sad story. At the very time when nations like Denmark went out of their way to promote flexible learning and retraining, the British government first, in 2008, withdrew funding for students who returned to university to train for a second qualification, then trebled fees, and, to complete the hat-trick, excluded part-time students from loans. Eventually, in 2013 part-time students became eligible for loans, but the damage had been done. In less than five years, between 2010-11 and 2015-16, the number of part-time students nose-dived from 428,000 to 266,000.

A second weak spot is consumption. It is often said that inequality drives consumption, as if everyone feverishly tries to keep up with the ever bigger yachts and cars of the super-rich. Jealousy, of course, is part of human nature and such cases exist. But, as I show in Empire of Things, it was actually during the era of greatest equality and welfare spending in the 1950s-70s that mass consumption made its biggest leap. Today, inequality and austerity are eating away at its foundations. 2% growth is fine if fairly distributed, but with inequality and welfare cuts it threatens under-consumption.

In 1992, three years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published what became one of the most talked-about books of the decade: The End of History and the Last Man. In it, he argued that world history was converging towards a single end point of Western liberal democracy and free market capitalism.

A quarter of a century later, Putin, Communist China and now Trump are a reminder that history remains alive and unpredictable.

But if history should guard us against Western triumphalism, it can also caution against unnecessary despair. We can be awfully provincial in the Anglo-World. Progress, tolerance and free movement may be under threat in Washington and Westminster, but look at Germany. Surely, the reception of refugees and migrants there is big step towards enlightenment ideals compared to the Nazi period or even the 1950s. What looks to us as progress running out of steam, is in full swing in other parts of the world. For the many millions of Chinese peasants flocking to cities every year, their new life means progress. You can see and breathe progress with the smog in Delhi and Beijing. While much remains to be done, progress has not been all bad. China especially has taken a huge leap in eliminating high-polluting woodstoves and promoting renewables. In 2015, the middle kingdom became the world’s biggest producer of solar power. Admittedly, their economies have slowed but China and India are still growing at 6% a year. They simply are not travelling on a road to secular liberalism but Hindu nationalism and state capitalism.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989

In a world where billions have no clean water, pull carts with their own hands, and have no gas and electricity, there is plenty of work for progress left. For all the fears and nostalgia in Britain and America, progress is still alive and kicking in many other parts of the world.

Frank Trentmann is Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London. He is a contributor to UNLIMITED and the author of Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (Penguin).

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