The Possibility of Progress – Synopsis

My first book, The Possibility of Progress, was published in 2005 since when it has garnered one or two positive comments.  The late Tony Benn thought it “a deeply moral and intellectual book”.  James Robertson called it “important, impressive and readable”.   

You can read reviews of the book here, here, here and here.  You can buy it online here.  This synopsis was written at the time of publication in early 2005.

Is there any possibility of progress towards a more equitable and sustainable world?  If there is, why are we failing so conspicuously to make such progress?  What needs to change to set us on the path to a more inclusive social order, and is such change within our collective powers? These are the central questions this book tries to answer.

Despite the immense cultural, technological and economic advances of recent times, there is a growing feeling that our evolving society is taking us in directions we would rather not go. Our moral aspirations are increasingly out of synch with the reality of life for many people, and not just those who struggle under the burden of poverty.  We have never been so successful, we have never been so wealthy, we have never been so knowledgeable, nor so able to convert our immense knowledge into wondrous new technologies, yet we are failing to make progress towards a more just and inclusive world, or to extend economic security and the freedoms it brings to greater numbers.  These failings are compounded by our refusal to address the greatest threat to our collective well-being: the harm we are doing the life-sustaining capacity of our planet.

The book begins with a definition of progress as movement towards a more just, inclusive and sustainable global social order.  It looks at the history of the idea of progress, and examines the impact of the conflation of theories of social progress with those of biological evolution in the nineteenth century. It challenges the assertion that social progress is necessarily constrained by our genetic inheritance, exposing the poor science and dubious motives of many who so argue

The early history of humankind and key landmarks in the development of human culture are assessed in Chapter Two, especially the impact of the discovery of agriculture and the emergence of economic surplus. The cultural and psychological impact of transition from a situation of relative economic equity which endured for millions of years, to one in which perceptions of comparative wealth became society’s defining characteristic are examined.  The inevitability of subsequent developments is discussed and explanations for the emergence of an ultimate power base in Western Europe are sought.

Having established that our evolutionary heritage has fewer implications for social and cultural development than we are often led to believe, chapter three invokes the ideas of the Enlightenment to support the argument that in most essential respects, people are the same the world over: they have identical basic needs, they share the same potential, and they hold similar aspirations for themselves, their families and their communities.  This unity of basic needs suggests a duty to arrange the economy so that all have access to the means to provide for those needs.  Key developments in economic history are assessed in terms of their moral, social and cultural implications. Only in the period after 1945, when the requirement to rebuild the world economy and the desire to ensure no recurrence of the conditions which had led to war, did many people enjoy the benefits of a more inclusive economy.  The reasons for the collapse of the post-war economic consensus and the subsequent rise of the new right are examined, and the dominant model of global capitalism is assessed in terms of its ability to deliver on the specific goal of universal basic needs provision, and the general goal of greater social inclusion.

Chapter Four offers statistical and anecdotal evidence to illustrate the consequences of prevailing arrangements for people’s lives. Grinding poverty, hardship and poor access to economic opportunities are features of societies across the globe.  Economic security is diminishing steadily, even in the rich nations.  There can be no doubt about the need for change, nor any ambiguity over its urgency.

Chapter Five provides a potted history of moral philosophy, noting the separation of ethics from economic thought.  It outlines an ethic of universalism which, drawing from the principle of the equal consideration of interests, places economic justice firmly at its centre.  It argues for universalism as the moral foundation for social and economic transformation, but acknowledges that any philosophy can only alter the balance of political and economic power in the world if its values are understood, adopted and applied by many millions of people.

If social change requires change in the outlook and attitudes of many individuals, then the obstacles to such change must be identified at the levels of individual perception and psychology.  Chapter Six discusses commonly held beliefs and perceptions, revealing many of the most strongly held to have little basis in reality.  Such perceptions help keep progressive social change off the agenda, and are very often a consequence of institutions designed to keep people compliant with prevailing arrangements.

Chapter seven examines the factors which influence the development of the individual psyche to illustrate how people’s perceptions and opportunities in life are usually dictated by mechanisms and processes over which they have little or no control.  Recent research evidence that a poor environment in infancy can irreparably compromise physiological brain development reinforces the argument that only through wholesale changes to the nurturing, socialisation and education processes, could a citizenry equipped for the task of progressive social transformation emerge.  The impact on the individual of having to survive in a competitive society is examined, and our failure to acknowledge the inevitability of many losers in a world of few winners is discussed.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s stage theory of moral psychology and development is examined in Chapter Eight.  If, as the evidence suggests, there is an ultimate stage of moral understanding to which all people aspire and upon which there are no genetic or cultural constraints, then it is quite possible for the ideals of universalism to spread far and wide; the conditions for progress are within reach.

Concluding that ignorance about economics is one of the principal obstacles to change, Chapter Nine examines the ideas of the classical economist-philosophers of the enlightenment and argues that a flawed understanding of economic laws lies at the heart of our failure to address problems of economic equity and social justice.  It identifies the effects of the Law of Rent under conditions of concentrated land ownership as the underlying cause of economic polarisation, and, following Henry George, shows that the gap between rich and poor can only increase with economic advance unless the accumulation of economic rent in private hands is addressed.  The failings of contemporary neo-classical economics are examined, and its practitioners found guilty of neglecting the essential truths of economic theory, and of allowing their discipline to be hijacked in the interests of wealth and privilege.  Chapter Ten assesses the solution suggested by George more than a century ago, and illustrates how it not only promises an end to poverty, but also provides a mechanism to safeguard the environment, and a means of reconciling the apparently opposing values of individual freedom and social justice.

Social and economic transformation can only be directed and managed at the level of politics, and movement to a more inclusive world order must be guided by a politics which is truly democratic.  Recognising that effective democracy demands an informed and aware electorate, Chapter Eleven exposes the flawed institutions which we accept as democracy today and examines how they might be reformed.  It assesses contemporary political issues in terms of the imperative for change, and shows how none have solutions in isolation from the others, nor without movement towards real democracy, an economy based on cooperation and equality of opportunity, and a society built on the values of universalism.

The book concludes that an economy designed to favour minority interests cannot possibly serve the needs of all humans, but that the current order can be transformed without social breakdown, violent revolution, lapse into totalitarianism, or intolerable sacrifices for the privileged minority.  If sufficient numbers takes up the values of universalism, and come to understand why the economy currently fails to promote social justice, a more just and inclusive world is quite attainable, it would be the clear preference of almost all people, and it would encourage an explosion of creativity and diversity through which millions of people would finally have the chance to fulfill their true potential.