Do you believe in progress?

Image of Simon Kuper

Around the corner from me here in Paris is a café called Le Progrès. I imagine its pavement tables a century ago, populated by early French socialists in hats and elaborate moustaches. These were men (yes, mostly men) who believed in progress. They met in the cafés and halls of eastern Paris to discuss uplifting the poor. They believed that humanity had been slowly rising, like an ancient lift clanking upwards, ever since 18th-century Parisian philosophers rediscovered the idea of “progress”.

Western belief in progress has been slipping steadily for decades, but is now at a nadir. Anyone who still believes that politics will uplift humanity is considered a crank. Yet the idea of progress hasn’t vanished. It has simply been privatised. Just as those early Parisian socialists believed in humanity’s progress, westerners increasingly believe in their own personal progress. They don’t think the next human generation will be better off, but they are making darned sure their own children will be.

Only four years ago, belief in progress wasn’t yet dead. Barack Obama became the world’s president with the ultimate progressive slogan: “Yes we can.” After clinching the Democratic nomination, he had said: “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” These now sound like words from another era, but even in 2009, heading into the United Nations’ environmental summit in Copenhagen, many still thought the world might solve global warming.

The past three years have been particularly poor ones for progress. The west’s big popular movements now look back: they promise a return to a past golden age, which Marine Le Pen’s Front National vaguely locates in the time before globalisation, and the Tea Party movement precisely locates in 1776. America’s founding fathers, themselves believers in progress, would presumably have been depressed to discover that they were the end-point of history.

Today the notion that Obama or Mitt Romney might usher in utopia sounds hilarious, like something out of Mad magazine. No western politician incarnates hope any more. On the May night when François Hollande was elected French president, I wandered up to Bastille to see the celebrating masses. There weren’t many. Hardly anyone aged over 30 was out, and many people on the square seemed to have come to watch, like me. What euphoria there was concerned not Hollande but the ousting of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Politicians now try to present themselves not as saviours but as managers: Romney, Mario Monti and even Hollande. That’s no wonder, as since 1945 the managerialism of Dwight Eisenhower or Bill Clinton has fared rather better than the utopianism of, say, Pol Pot. As George Orwell wrote in 1943: “Plans for human betterment do normally come unstuck, and the pessimist has many more opportunities of saying ‘I told you so’ than the optimist.” In Ukraine last month, a liberal dissident mused to me about who might be the country’s ideal leader, everyone else having failed. He came up with Lee Kuan Yew or General Franco. Progress has vanished not just from politics but from public life generally: the British municipal libraries that once stood for progress are now being closed.

However, progress has merely gone private. The western middle-classes increasingly believe in progress in their own lives. They read self-help books, take cooking classes, go on diets, stop smoking, do “home improvement”, and have invented a new mode of parenting, “concerted cultivation”, which largely means the sort of nonstop education for your own children that those moustachioed socialists had envisioned for the workers.

I realised just how new this obsessive self-improvement is at a recent family gathering, where all the over-forties drank alcohol at lunch and none of the under-forties did. In fact, whereas the early socialists dreamed of giving workers leisure, the new privatised idea of progress destroys leisure. Parties are for networking; cafés are for laptops; and sex is an opportunity to burn calories. Today the terrace of Le Progrès is packed with skinny, waxed people whose very bodies advertise the notion of private progress through unceasing labour.

And yet those early Parisian socialists were right: humanity is in the lift. Societies do progress. It’s just that the policies that achieve this are boring and uninspiring. As this column argued recently, despite the economic crisis we have never had it so good. Wars are dying out, life expectancy is rising almost everywhere, extreme poverty is falling, democracy is spreading, and we are even getting happier. The vast social-scientific “World Values Survey” combined national surveys carried out between 1981 and 2007, and found that happiness had risen in 45 of 52 countries studied. The reason: “Economic development, democratisation, and rising social tolerance have increased the extent to which people perceive that they have free choice.” And free choice makes people happier.

As so often, Orwell was right: “Progress is not an illusion; it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing.” The idea has been too hastily privatised.

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