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October 23, 2020

Questioning progress

Opinion

October 23, 2020

“Progress” was the erstwhile confident answer to the important question “What is the best way to improve society?” Now this answer is being questioned as certitude wanes on the efficacy of progress.

The definition of progress, in general terms, as a forward movement to gradual betterment, has a certain visceral appeal. However, there is a need to be careful when using the words ‘progress’, ‘development’ and ‘betterment’ as they overlap and there can be elements of circularity in defining one in terms of the other.

To clarify, progress in this article is being used to depict an historic phenomenon that has roots in modernity and the Age of Enlightenment. This particular phenomenon necessarily entails advancements in science and technology, constitutional governments, secularism, capitalism, industrialization, and so on. Chronic poverty, growing inequality, new diseases, breakdown of the family structure, economic instability and environmental degradation are substantial reasons to question how have we progressed thus far and if the present graph of progress continues what will eventually become of things.

There are many stark facts about the present state of the world that can best be described as highly unsettling. Inequality, instability, intolerance, climate change and disease are causes for much concern. For example, a report published by Oxfam in January 2020 showed that 2153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion poorest people in the world. The global financial crisis of 2008 showed the complexity and instability of the global economy. The rise of extreme right nationalist sentiments in recent decades reveals that not only does intolerance remain it also seems to be gaining in popularity.

The environment is another serious area of concern as, among other things, unsustainable levels of greenhouse gas emission have led to global warming, climate change and possibly irreversible damage to the eco-system. Recently, Covid 19 cases crossed the 39 million mark and showed that despite progress in medicine we still are unable to stem the spread of this pandemic. These are reasons enough to question the past and prevailing notions of progress.

The past is important in deciding what might work in the future. In the developed West, modernity and the Age of Enlightenment helped governments and public decide that empiricism, secularism, individualism, the scientific method, rationality and industrial development could deliver progress and a better life. Similar to the West, past experience has helped guide future decisions on development in the developing East. One significant defining experience for many countries in the East was that of colonialism. In great part the colonizers, directly and indirectly, helped define what should count as progress for the governments and peoples of the colonized territories.

After the Second World War many colonized territories achieved independence. However, the influence of the colonizers continued to guide important decisions on future economic, social and political policies. During the cold-war years, there was a spurt of development – with two clear and widely divergent paradigms of progress. These were capitalism and communism. The dominant formula of progress in the capitalist economies came from a set of frameworks called the modernization theories. Many developing countries, including Pakistan, allied with the US and thus subscribed to the development paradigm of modernization.

Modernization took the view that societies develop through stages and the developing countries can follow in the footsteps of the developed countries. As per modernization theorizing, the value attached to all that was traditional diminished in importance and the modern was highly valued. The stages that a society would go through began from the traditional stage of an agricultural society with manual labor and pre-Newtonian attitudes towards life. In the second stage industry starts getting established, trade and commercial activities expand and landowners begin to invest in industrialization.

In the next stage, the industrial sector continues to grow and social and political institutions are strengthened. Subsequently, during the fourth stage industrial sector grows further, people have disposable income, social sector investments are made in education and a professionally competent leadership emerges. Britain reached this stage in the mid-1800s and the United States of America reached this stage around 1900.

In the fifth stage, there is sustained economic growth, mass production, mass consumption, urbanization and the industrial sector dominates the economy. Thus, progress promised to come with industrialization, social development, urbanization and increased incomes.

In Pakistan the modernization theories and their definition of progress underwrote development initiatives in the formative 1950s and 1960s including the Green Revolution, initial industrialization, mega infrastructure projects, etc. Since the 1960s, the Western idea of progress, contorted by our idiosyncrasies, and propelled by much publicized but ill-thought development initiatives has guided our regress.

It is always apt to question the major ideas of progress and development. The idea of progress, as defined by the West, with roots in modernity and the Enlightenment, needs to be questioned. The environmental devastation, weakening of the family support structure, increasing social contention, and economic disparities all signal towards ideas of development being in a state of disrepair.

This is a very good time to question the idea of progress, as is being done by some in the West, and for Pakistanis to deliberate on devising our own indigenous ideas on how to best improve and develop society.

The writer heads a university-based policy centre in Islamabad.