The long arc of inevitable progress

A few years ago, my colleague Jack quipped that all decent art comes from those with a liberal outlook. Art, poetry, music, film… Can you think of any truly spectacular right-wing art from the aforementioned categories, produced in the last 100 years? It’s difficult. Contemporary art is about challenging authority and shining a light on perceived injustices, rather than just reflecting the comfortable status quo. Renaissance art was quite the reverse. It was about maintaining the status quo and celebrating the established order. Opposing it was risky. Death could be a punishment metered out willy-nilly.

Today, in the democratic corners of the world, artistic expression is no longer beholden to the established order. It no longer has restraint. The notion of art as free expression, seems obvious.

Ideas are funny things. Once they’re out of the bag, it’s nearly impossible to put them back in. These conceptual seeds rattle around our collective sense of right and wrong, often for centuries, sometimes for millennia, waiting for the moment when public opinion is sufficiently fertile for them to grow.

Progressive ideas have always been the engine of positive change. A longing for something better is by default, progressive. This applies not just to the organisation of society; How about a desire to improve accuracies in quantitative measurement? Or improving yield in crop growth? Thoughts about how to improve measurements or increase crop yields are progressive ideas. Rarely are ideas for improving tangible commodities opposed - however when ideas for improving society are suggested, you can almost guarantee there will be a vocal, fierce opposition.

It is not surprising that nearly every idea which changes society in meaningful, positive ways, has come from within liberal circles among radical thinkers. Those with the wherewithal to challenge what is unjust and suggest alternatives are the vanguard of progressive discourse.

Socially ambitious ideas are nearly always met with ridicule when they are first proposed. Arguments against big societal changes are swift and stern. Usually, such counter arguments are proffered by someone, somewhere who stands to loose capital or to loose power. The established order digs in its heels to stifle change. It’s those with the most to loose, that rage against change. Luckily civilisation has a secret weapon: once an idea is out of the bag, there’s no putting it back.

One of my favourite quotes is from the author Helen Keller :

The heresies of one age, become the orthodoxy of the next

Elegant and succinct. It explains that ideas which are considered outlandish or impossible fantasies in one era, typically become widely accepted standards in the next. It’s really easy to spot these ideas: they are the ones which make life better for people and reduce suffering.

Try some of these on for size. How outlandish do they sound?

  • Taxing all income over £150,000 per annum at 80%
  • Paying every single person a universal income, of £35,000 a year
  • Removing all international borders
  • Taxing cash held by the estates of the deceased at 100%

I can almost hear you grumbling about these suggestions from here…

You’ll notice that the majority of these suggestions are about finance. That’s because ultimately, all injustices boil down to the flow of capital.

Fortunately for civilization, new ideas with benevolent roots eventually erode conservative opposition and take hold. This phenomenon is meticulously explored by Stephen Pinker in two of his books, The Angels Of Our Better Nature and Enlightenment Now. Two excellent books which I encourage you to read, even if only to make yourself feel better about the future.

Pinker explains that humanity is perpetually undergoing a great civilising. Where the beneficence falls upon people. Some topics he explores (backed by quantitative data) are:

  • The quality and length of life
  • Rights of marginalised groups
  • Income equality
  • Reduction in capital punishment
  • Reduction in crime
  • Reducing torture
  • Reducing slavery

For all of human history we have been on a sure-footed, steady (sometimes slow) upward trajectory. It is progress driven by technological development and sociological philosophy. There have been regressions of course, but the overall trend is one of improvement.

We gaze back in horror upon ages when child sacrifice was considered A-OK, or when the entire African populace was just a resource waiting to be had for commercial exploitation. Remember when women couldn’t vote? Remember when 8-year-old children would work 16 hour days in factories? Once upon a time, those were fully justified and accepted practices. Any challenge to them was as perplexing as taxing the estates of the deceased at 100% might be considered now.

The United Kingdom’s current track record

Let’s take a brief detour into the recent voting records of a handful of Members of the UK Parliament. Here are four MPs and their voting records on social issues, noted in January 2021:

MP Name Party
Stuart Andrew Conservative
Heather Wheeler Conservative
Clive Betts Labour
David Davis Conservative

I shall let you decide which of the people on this list, are likely to be on the right side of history in 100 years.

Fond memories & idealism

The people whom we remember fondly and with revere, are those who could see inequities way before others and began the long crusade to affect change and wave the banner for what is just. After ideas have been cast into the world and sufficient time has elapsed for them to become established, public consciousness catches up and the conservative angst holding them back withers upon the threshold of positive change.

These people are often called ‘idealists’. Idealists are really just progressives who are willing to be vocal. It’s these groups that cultivate benevolent ideas and can see beyond the long, turning nose of conservative ambivalence. Of course, what constitutes a progressive thinker changes from generation to generation, but the central principle of benevolence is unchanging.

Conclusion

Moral ideas that improve the human condition always win, given enough time. I think the best maxim to live by, is to be progressive in everything you do. Ride the tide of change and they’ll remember you. Allow yourself to entertain seemingly utopian ideas or concepts when the intent is to improve life for somebody or to reduce suffering. You’ll be sowing the seeds for a better world, to flourish long after you’re gone.

Written by Thomas

29th January 2021