Is Progress Inevitable?

I’m just back from the MatchPoints Seminar on ‘The Culture of Politics, Economics and International Relations’, in Aarhus, Denmark, where I gave a presentation on ‘Culture as Defence against Pathological Elites’.

A number of interesting questions came up again and again over the four days of the conference. Is progress inevitable? Are human rights a western invention? Does modernisation have to mean westernisation?

Progress is possible…

One of the speakers, Georg Sorensen, author of A Liberal World Order in Crisis, was one of those questioning whether belief in progress is still tenable. Belief in progress is strongly held in western societies. This is based, of course, on the western experience of modernisation, whereby modern liberal democracies have benefited economically, politically and culturally from long periods of sustained economic growth. We now expect other societies to follow the same trajectory. There may be setbacks along the way, of course, but we believe that they will get there eventually by adopting the tools of modernisation.

Those who believe in progress have much to point to over the last few decades in support of their belief. Since the end of Cold War, virtually all the countries in the world have become part of the capitalist global economy. This has resulted in unprecedented economic growth among emerging economies, particularly China.

They can also point to the Millennium Declaration, which was adopted by 189 world leaders in 2000, and states that ‘Men and women have the right to live their lives and raise their children in dignity, free from hunger and from the fear of violence, oppression or injustice. Democratic and participatory governance based on the will of the people best assures these rights.’ This statement of global solidarity based on the principles of liberal democracy is historically unprecedented.

Even the terrible events of 9/11, and the ensuing War on Terror, may be seen by optimists as having provoked a realisation among developed powers that underdevelopment for some is potentially a problem for all.

But progress is not inevitable…

Running alongside such grounds for optimism, however, are causes for concern. There seems to be a tendency for some countries to get stuck along their development pathway.

This is true for countries such as China, which is approaching middle income status, and which faces the enormous challenge of switching its development model from one reliant on exporting to the west, to one based much more on the purchasing power of domestic Chinese consumers.

A tendency to getting stuck in underdevelopment also appears to be true of the swathe of countries which are home to the world’s poorest billion people. The countries of the bottom billion suffer from a host of problems, ranging from appalling governance to demanding geography, which are thwarting their efforts to begin their path to modernisation.

And sceptics can also point to Russia as an example of a country in which development appears to be going backwards.

And maybe modernisation doesn’t mean democracy…

Sorensen argued further that even in countries which do manage to develop economically, such as China, this might not necessarily lead to the development of liberal democracy.

China, Sorensen argues, has a degree of legitimacy because it has delivered economic development and has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty. It also has a massive apparatus for oppression. China spends an astonishing $700 billion annually on internal security – more than it spends on defence against external threats. This combination of pseudo-legitimacy and oppression could mean that dreams of democracy any time soon in China may simply be delusions.

Sorensen’s conclusion then is that patchwork development is likely to continue, with some countries catching up with the west, while others remain far behind. And even among the new richer, stronger powers, some are likely to remain authoritarian regimes rather than become democracies.

In other words, while progress may happen, it may also not happen. The struggle for freedom continues…

What do you think? Will economic development necessarily lead to democracy, in China or elsewhere? Will human progress continue, or are we in danger of seeing human progress go into reverse? Please add you view below.

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