José María Sbert, Progress, 1992

The Development Dictionary,
A Guide to Knowledge As Power

With the rise of the modern world, a distinctly modern faith – faith in progress – arose to make sense of, and give ultimate meaning to, the new notions and institutions that were now dominant. Our deep reverence for science and technology was inextricably linked up with this faith in progress. The universal enforcement of the nation-state was carried out under the banner of progress. And increasing conformity with the rule of economics, and intensified belief in its laws, are still shadows of this enlightened faith.

Though today faith in progress is largely unacknowledged, and probably weaker than at any other time in contemporary history, a definite breakdown in the plausibility of this faith – which many people think has already occurred – would confirm a crucial turning point in modern culture, and one pregnant with threats to the spiritual survival of persons.

The gradual obsolescence of the development ideal and sudden implosion of bureaucratic state socialism certainly represent a reduction in the pre-eminence, as well as concrete manifestations, of faith in progress. For it has been “development” and “revolution” which were supposed to actually embody progress during the greater part of the twentieth century.

Two offspring: revolution and development

The term “progress” had suffered heavily in prestige, along with “civilization”, as a result of the two world wars and the Great Depression. Politicians and experts could no longer brandish it about without some traces of embarrassment, especially in Europe.

But progress retained some messianic force in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, where communism was thought to be “establishing on earth peace, labour, liberty, equality, fraternity, and happiness for all nations”, as the Soviet Party Programme proclaimed in 1961. North Americans, coming out of the Second World War with little damage and less guilt, still found the word “progress” suitable for describing the achievements of the American way of life, including their own generosity, which at the beginning of the 1960s took the form of the aptly-named Alliance for Progress.

In the United States, assassinations at home and accusations of genocide abroad, however, soon poisoned the optimism of the period. The sacred lamp of progress seemed no longer to illuminate the political scene. It then withdrew to purer and more transcendent spheres: to the conquest of space as the culmination of the glorious power of science, and of disease and death – that other infinite realm – as the culmination of technology’s redemptive humanism.

In the late 1960s faith in progress was kept smouldering mostly through its Lady Macbeth-like daughter – revolution. Revolution may not have “killed the sleep” of modern civilization, but it had certainly turned its dreams of progress into recurrent nightmares. From the beginning, the new faith was fanatical enough to justify not only conquests and foreign adventures, but murder, widespread destruction and civil war. Revolution, in line with progress, was also handily sacralized. So from the nineteenth century onwards, revolution had to be held in check through the promotion of less draconian ideas such as evolution and some early political uses of development [1].

Revolution as people saw it in the 1960s – perhaps in 1789 as well – was not the ultimate answer to unprecedented despotism or unbearable injustice. Rather, it was the rejection of irrational obstacles to cashing in on the promises of a rational faith. In the 1960s, from both sides – amidst socialist successes and Keynesian prosperity, Marxist messianism and liberal generosity – the hopes of progress appeared ripe and luxuriant, imminent and inevitable, and certainly not to be senselessly surrendered.

For the contestataire products of the baby boom, there were only two kinds of people – those few screwed up through having achieved progress themselves and the many screwed up by the progress of others. And the claims, even to power, of underprivileged groups – whether majorities or minorities – were acceptable, for a while at least. There was black power, student power and a war on poverty – until, that is, real power felt it had had enough and shrugged off any feelings of guilt and unnecessary scruples and set out to establish the monopoly of money power, abstaining only from street demonstrations flaunting as placards their mink coats and diamond necklaces [2]. For money power did not have to march in the streets to bring back into line – as it did so effectively – the universities, the media, the political parties and governments.

Apparently, there was something faulty in the simple and irrefutable logic of progress. Intellectual fashion moved away from utopian thinking and plunged into the structural complexities of language, the unconscious and the microphysics of power. Progress flew even further away from the scene. Under “progress”, the 1983 edition of the Columbia Concise Encyclopaedia states only: “See space exploration”.

But, as an export commodity, the moon was not a satisfactory replacement for progress. The pristine credo of faith in progress had been constantly preached to the Third World. As expressed originally by Condorcet, prior to the depths and refinements added by Hegel, Marx and Comte, such a credo promised:

“The destruction of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within one and the same nation, and finally, the real perfecting of mankind … We shall find, from past experience … that nature has assigned no limits to our hopes … The time is doubtless approaching when we shall cease to play the role of corrupters and tyrants in the eyes of these people (in Africa and Asia) … Then will the Europeans respect that independence which they have hitherto violated with such audacity … and those thieves’ counting houses (established by Europeans) will become colonies of citizens who will propagate, in Africa and in Asia, the principles and the example of freedom, and the reason and learning of Europe.” [3]

Integration of progress and national culture in fact followed many different paths throughout the world – among them, the strategy of defensive modernization, first attempted by Peter the Great in Russia and then carried out successfully by the Japanese. But this route was not available to the rest of the world, which had been “heavily impacted by the Western imperial era” [4]. In most of Asia and Africa, where colonialism lasted only a century or so, Western domination did not entirely submerge the original cultures, while it did effectively transmit to local leaderships a faith in progress “rendered ambivalent … by its very association with Westernization”.

In the Spanish colonies, established in Latin America as early as the sixteenth century, a very different situation obtained. Indigenous cultures were submerged and, in time, the new local elites adopted the idea of progress without any “sense of moral ambivalence”. Indeed they “viewed themselves as culturally European” [5]. The very words that summarized Auguste Comte’s ideal, “order and progress”, were written on Brazil’s flag and in Mexico they became the slogan of the late-nineteenth-century “liberal dictatorship” that consolidated the nation-state.

By the middle of the twentieth century, however, what had been called by Europeans uncivilized, uneducated and backward all over the world had a new name: underdeveloped. Apparently, while faith in progress had already created great expectations, the term itself had become somewhat tainted and worn-out by both its imperial and its indigenous champions. So the new word “development” came in handy.

Within this new development scheme of things, the idea of progress remained implicit as a crude dogma, debasing the sublime and fascinating elaborations of its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophers and ideologues. The development discourse was now the work of “experts”. Their perspective is well expressed by C.E. Ayres in the 1962 Foreword to his 1944 book which is entitled The Theory of Economic Progress, but which is already devoted to development:

“Since the technological revolution is itself irresistible, the arbitrary authority and irrational values of pre-scientific, pre-industrial cultures are doomed. Three alternatives confront the partisans of tribal values and beliefs. Resistance, if sufficiently effective, though it cannot save the tribal values, can bring on total revolution. Or ineffective resistance may lead to sequestration like that of the American Indians. The only remaining alternative is that of intelligent, voluntary acceptance of the industrial way of life and the values that go with it.

We need make no apology for recommending such a course. Industrial society is the most successful way of life mankind has ever known. Not only do our people eat better, sleep better, live in more comfortable dwellings, get around more and in far greater comfort, and … live longer than men have ever done before. In addition to listening to radio and watching television, they read more books, see more pictures, and hear more music than any previous generation of any other people ever has. At the height of the technological revolution we are now living in a golden age of scientific enlightenment and artistic achievement.

For all who achieve economic development, profound cultural change is inevitable. But the rewards are considerable.” [6]

What was added later to the premises of development – intelligent and sensitive as they so obviously already were – amounted only to a cosmetic touching up. Nonetheless, in a frequent confusion, critical analysis of development generally reached a point where an unacceptable loss was confronted. To proceed with the critique down to the very core of the concept would have been experienced as the abandonment of faith in progress itself.

With the timely arrival of development, the term “progress” was subsequently applied only to what the self-designated First World had already achieved and to the infinite potential conquests still to be secured through its economy, science and technology, and not yet available to the rest of the world. The Third World had to develop first – before even thinking about real progress. The term “development” would be one in a series of words to describe – and rally people to – the ever more elusive path to progress. Only a path, not an arrival – and one, for that matter, that would be proved utterly inadequate.

A theodicy and an imperative of power

But progress is more than just a journey or an ideal. It is modern destiny. To modern man, and to those who want to share his identity, rejecting faith in progress is unbearable. Modern man is defined by progress. His self-esteem is rooted in it and it is his deepest justification for the ruthlessness he displays towards his fellow men and nature.

A portentous faith built on progress is the real spiritual foundation of modern man, the tradition he stands on. The idea has been the most influential and ubiquitous notion in the formation of modern thought, merging the power of the modern world with the spell of a chimerical metamorphosis of Christian faith.

Progress possesses the brightness derived from its close link with the sacred – even when, as here, the sacred is not presented as such. It has the lustre of transcendence. Consequently, it has to be enshrined nowadays in achievements that would seem to confirm that man, the terminator of the gods, is indeed supplanting them through the conquest of the heavens in space and time. But its proper home base on earth remains the First World. There it reveals that man no longer needs a creator, but constantly refashions himself.

Progress, whether because it was forced by historical inertia into “reoccupying positions” established by Christianity – as Hans Blumenberg [7] contends – or because of the advantage obtained from such positions, turned into a quite typical theodicy. Progress explains current phenomena inconsistent with its promise by reference to future perfection. The sufferers will be consoled and the unjust punished, just as in “the different manifestations of religious messianism, millenarianism, and eschatology” [8]. Progress as theodicy is associated in times of crisis with revolutionary promises, and, when these promises are proved hollow by events, the locus of compensation is transposed to remove scientific conquests, quite similar in fact to the kind of other-worldly explanations and realizations characteristic of conservative theodicies.

Down here on earth, however, progress remains the irresistible imperative of power. It is imperative to the powerless in order to enforce their submission, and just as imperative to the powerful because they wish to retain their positions. Progress is felt to be a matter of survival. Who would dare risk turning his back on progress? As Hobbes understood long ago, freedom can only be guaranteed by the capacity to dominate others, and happiness cannot lie in having progressed, but in progressing here and now.

Progress is an imperative that outlasts the failure, no matter how recurrent, of particular strategies. Its model is modified constantly, as well as the path to attain it. But the path will be followed, no matter what the resistance of American Indians, the people of the subcontinent, the Shogun or mafiosi politicians. Progress redefines reality through the manifold influence of power. Those who have progressed more, and continue progressing, are stronger and wealthier and inexorably prevail, no matter whether the instrument be missionary and educational institutions, or the East India Company, or Commodore Perry, or, equally well, simply the spontaneous and overpowering desire to imitate the rich and the famous.

Virtues into vices

To disguise inevitable submission and make the new faith accessible, progress has to redefine man, time and the world. It has to present history as following a vector, replacing the cyclical conception of time and discarding faith in destiny or providence. It portrays other religions as contemptible schemes for obedience, practised by oligarchical priests who invoke ghosts to humiliate man and who induce him to waste his life on searches far removed from the perfectly feasible construction of a paradise on earth. It offers the world as a resource to a unified humanity – headed, of course, by those who have already progressed, but open to all races and nations provided they jettison their tribal and traditional bonds, which are but the capricious obstacles to universal redemption.

Progress highlighted hope – a vision of a future of plenty, freedom and justice – and excluded, along with beliefs in powers superior to man, the traditional notions of man’s limitations. Humility turned from a saintly virtue into a rare heresy. Condemnations of greed, innate to the Christian religion and to all traditional systems of wisdom and philosophy, were transformed into leniency bordering on approval towards such a sin, which is now perceived as the veritable psychological engine of material progress.

So, greed and arrogance in individuals turn into prosperity and justice for nations and all mankind. Such a miraculous feat does not even require the intervention of divine providence. Supra-individual man – the ‘humanity’ invented by the Christian Church of Imperial Rome and ultimately consecrated by the Enlightenment – is fed by an invisible hand, a cunning reason that will do him good even if its members indulge in evil.

Thus mortal sins contribute to progress, and famine, plague, war and death are nothing but small accidents along the road – provided the advancement accumulated in history as a whole is considered. And such accumulated capital, which keeps on growing ever faster, will permit those who fail again and again, and even those who move backwards – always the majority – eventually to obtain a share in the promised land, even if only through their descendants.

The creed of progress bloomed exuberantly as an ideological force and seemed destined to prevail over the decadent spiritual power of established religion in eighteenth-century Europe. A new galaxy of social forces and institutions, led by the capitalist or entrepreneurial class and the modern state – the great binomial of modern political economy – found in religion an obstacle to further advancement. So, waving the flags of progress, the new social forces snatched away the banners of religion.

Likewise, progress championed the fight against the moral power of those traditions representing an obstacle to the expansion of the market, industry and the modern state. Once the causes of the wealth of nations had been properly assigned to the novel Western way of subordinating society to the market and technological innovation, the idea of progress provided the new justification for inequality at home and Western self-assertion abroad. It was progress which had permitted Europeans to ‘discover’ the whole world, and progress which would explain their growing hegemony over the global horizon.

In European history, and in the history made by Europeans worldwide, the new faith in progress may have been a decisive weapon in the conflict between, on the one hand, the modern economy, modern institutions and the humanity they sought to create and, on the other, men and women deeply rooted in their respective cultures and places. Progress impelled these people to become their own God and make their own history. It ridiculed their old beliefs, fears and superstitions as well as their reverence for nature, the past and their ancestors. It dismissed vernacular gender – the all embracing division of the person’s inner and outer worlds into the asymmetrical complementarity of men and women – as irrational, pigheaded and unjust.

Faith in progress is entrusted with stripping the common man – who as yet has not progressed, but has already been cut off from his common land and deprived of his traditional means for autonomous subsistence – of all the cultural footholds that could give him spiritual autonomy and personal confidence as he faces the market, industry and the nation-state. Disembedded from his community and caring only for himself, free from his elders’ beliefs and fears, having learned to look down on his parents and knowing he will find no respect in what they could teach him, he and his fellows can only become workers for industry, consumers for the market, citizens for the nation and humans for mankind.

Eclipse of providence and wisdom

Western faith in progress is rooted in historical experience as much as in the oft-cited Judaeo-Christian view of time, history and man’s place in the world. What got the modern Europeans hooked on the idea of progress was probably their peculiar history, mostly in the quite poor north-western parts of the continent. Between the fall of the Roman Empire in the West and Scottish prosperity in the time of Adam Smith lie more than fifteen centuries of advancement, enough to feel that progress is deeply grounded in their experience, and to ride out ups and downs of fortune and to scoff at the greater grandeur of more ancient civilizations.

Plagues and wars at home, and mighty enemies on their boundaries, forged their character to be able to face diversity successfully in a never-ending confrontation with all things foreign – beliefs, ideas, weapons, even disease. Fierce competition in the market and constant war on the frontiers contributed to a prodigious rate of technological advancement which eventually made Europeans invincible in every field. As today’s fashionable historiography sees it, the arms race combined with the rat race was a mighty formula for the rise of great powers, provided, of course, it was compatible with modern financial wisdom.

Thus, the Western penchant for progress and hegemony has deep roots in historical experience. As Karl Löwith puts it, the big question remains

“whether this tremendous sweep of Western activity has anything to do with the non-secular, religious element in it. Is it perhaps Jewish messianism and Christian eschatology, though in their secular transformations, that have developed those appalling energies of creative activity which changed the Christian Occident into a worldwide civilization? It was certainly not a pagan but a Christian culture which brought about this revolution. The ideal of modern science of mastering the forces of nature, and the idea of progress, emerged neither in the classical world nor in the East, but in the West. But what enabled us to remake the world in the image of man? Is it perhaps that the belief in being created in the image of a Creator God, the hope in a future Kingdom of God, and the Christian command to spread the gospel to all the nations for the sake of salvation, have turned into the secular presumption that we have to transform the world into a better world in the image of man and to save unregenerate nations by Westernization and re-education?” [9]

In response to his own question, he formulated the influential thesis that

“The eschatological outlook of the New Testament has opened the perspective toward a future fulfilment – originally beyond, and eventually within, historical existence. In consequence of the Christian consciousness, we have a historical consciousness which is as Christian by derivation as it is non-Christian by consequence.” [10]

From this point of view we could add that, ever since the twelfth century, technological innovation in both production and learning combined with a process of Church institutionalization which, by providing services and written records, controlled peoples lives, establishing thus the organizational model of the modern state. The secularization of the world that ensued is the actual history of progress, where transmogrified religious beliefs, rituals and institutions undertook a ‘reform’ of the world through major scientific, economic and political breakthroughs.

What the Christian creed demanded was a spiritual reform of the believer which, had it become prevalent, would have led to a serious challenge to the worldly passions for riches and power which, for Christians, headed the incarnations of evil. If Christianity in practice contributed to an opposite orientation on the part of Western civilization, we might conclude, with Jacques Ellul, that it was because it was subverted by its own power, and because the radical nature of Christian faith is so intolerable that, for it to become a dominant cultural force, it had to be transformed into its opposite,

“since it is really intolerable to think that peace, justice, and an end to poverty cannot take place on earth. … However, that is precisely what Jesus himself has said.” [11]

But notwithstanding

“Christ has said: ‘Do whatever you can to make this world liveable and share with everybody the joy of salvation, but without any illusions about what you can really achieve.’ But that is what man cannot hear or accept. If he acts, he wants his doings to work, to succeed, to progress. He wants to achieve by himself. In that context the word of Christ is actually demobilizing, not deriving from the fact of Christ’s truth, but from the realities of man’s indigence, his pride and his foolishness!” [12]

“The difficulty arises since we cannot say: ‘Indeed, our practice is faulty, but look at the beauty, the purity, the truth of Revelation!’ No Revelation can be known outside the life and testimony of those who carry it … Not being that which Christ demands, we turn all of the Revelation into something mendacious, delusory, ideological, imaginary.” [13]

Free from the radical demands of praxis – which is essential to the very meaning of the principle of faith – Christian revelation was turned instead into a philosophical and cultural instrument of the Western world.

And it was precisely in the link with “praxis” that characterized “wisdom” that progress, by eclipsing that central notion, was most revolutionary. Instead progress, as the new Polar Star in the firmament of ideas, became closely associated from its beginnings with the splendour of science, that boast of the Moderns over against the knowledge of the Ancients:

“In the tradition of the great books, the moderns usually assert their superiority in all the arts and sciences. They seldom claim superiority in wisdom. The phrase ‘modern science’ needs no elucidation, but if anyone were to speak of modern wisdom, he would have to explain his meaning … A distinctive mark of wisdom is that it cannot be misused … Rabelais’s Gargantua admonishes [his son] in the words of Solomon: ‘knowledge without conscience is but the ruin of the soul’.” [14]

Besides obliterating the ideas of destiny, fortune and providence, the new star of modernity or progress overshadowed the importance of wisdom as existential, cultural experience. Formerly, the practice of virtue and fidelity to sacred principles embraced and gave meaning to intellectual knowledge, which could only be enriched thereby. But faith in progress is faith in a purely intellectual, mathematical, scientific knowledge “liberated” of all moral constraint and ethical context.

Doctrines of progress, at first, had a difficult time filling the gap left by the flight of wisdom and providence. Quite differently from wisdom, progress no longer trusted in the individual will to virtue – which had probably already been disheartened by the intolerable demands of Christian praxis. Instead the new doctrines seemed to rest their hope for the moral perfection of humans on the exhaustion of greed through the satiation of appetites, or on some prodigious balancing act of egotistical forces. This last presumed that stasis would be worked out by reason, but of a kind which had no known locus since it rested neither on God’s providence, nor on individual experience, revealed truth, or moral tradition.

The processes leading to collective good and excellence would be harder to grasp for the devotees of progress than spiritual reform had been, and as inscrutable as providence, despite the efforts of modern thinkers to explain how “the invisible hand” of the market or “cunning reason” might automatically attain these ends. Eventually, the job of reason was taken on by the managerial and bureaucratic systems of industrial society. And social reality had to be remodelled to fit the ‘laws’ of economics and efficient administration.

The subversion of Christianity, well under way in the medieval alliance of feudal and Church power, was thus perfected by a faith in progress that now placed the opportunities it had opened up, its philosophical and cultural synthesis, and its world-view and hopes of the future, so richly nourished for centuries, at the service of the market, industry, the modern state and their agents – the merchants, bankers, princes; politicians, intellectuals, mass leaders; scientists, entrepreneurs and revolutionaries.

In this way the notion of progress came to be used and propagated most patently through the action of the masters of modern history, from Frederick the Great and Queen Victoria to Lenin, Castro and Reagan. It was elaborated and diffused through the writings of brilliant adherents, from Voltaire and Darwin to Sartre, Régis Debray and Vargas Llosa. The register of thinkers who enthusiastically believed in progress is huge and includes the roll of honour of the last three centuries. Indeed, some historians of progress manage to include almost every eminent thinker in history, although a distinction tends to be made, most explicitly by Bertrand Russell and Robert Nisbet, between those stressing rationality, freedom and the market – such as Turgot, Hume, Smith, Kant, Mill – and those emphasizing feeling, equality, power and the state – Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche.

The roots of the ideological quarrels of the twentieth century, however, may be traceable to the fervent hope that all held in common and the related differences about how best to reap the unlimited promises of industrial society. Nevertheless, no matter how great the distinctions or antagonisms among this large majority of modern thinkers may appear, as a group they turn out to be quite homogeneous in their thinking, especially when confronted with the central notions related to the nature of man and history – in contrast to the Ancients and Medievalists. Their world-view is even more radically incompatible with the cultures of those in other parts of the world who have not yet joined industrial society, and the partisans of tribal and indigenous peoples’ values and beliefs who question the designs of progress before being ready to bless any further immolation.

Still a search for the beyond

Progress is a faith that is not recognized as such, but remains the genuine soul of the modern West and whatever comes to resemble it in the present world. Modern man has to believe that his ideas and actions are entirely grounded in what is rational and not supported by revelation, or a vision, or hope. His very identity has been forged in the conquests of progress, and centred on the conviction that he can know reality through science, thus overcoming obscurantist dogmas.

Nonetheless, trust in progress may in truth pertain to the realm of faith in a sense similar to the Christian assurance of things hoped for in the beyond. Certainly, faith in progress turns in practice mostly into mere “false consciousness” – into ethnocentric, class-oriented and self-interested self-deception.

Paradoxically, this unacknowledged faith, this false consciousness – often labelled materialistic or even hedonistic – flagrantly contradicts true attachment to the world. It is a desperate search for transcendence that, again and again, annihilates the world as it is and substitutes for any real sense of place, rhythm, duration and culture a world of abstractions, a non-world – of homogenous space, linear time, science and money.

Originally, progress was a term referring to place, as in the destination of a journey. Later it came to mean an advancement in time, in vectorial measurable time. And as progress evolved further as a result of the need for calculation in industrial economics, it condemned us to live in a “worldly” future, to build there an always elusive fulfilment “under the sun” – which turned out to be a quite neurotic overextension of the reality principle, which was apparently already making modern society feel there was something wrong by the time of Freud.

Just as being in the present lost meaning, so did every defined place – we do not, for example, build on a plot or in some town but instead convert it into “value”: a figure in our heads or some record kept on paper or in a computer. And it is there, and only there, in an abstract record of values, that most material progress really is, utterly removed from the truly worldly aim set down in Ecclesiastes by Kohelet, the voice of a tribal assembly:

“Eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart. … Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity … for that is thy portion in this life.” [15]

As for spiritual progress, the accumulation of scientific knowledge and technical achievement seems to ignore its own meaning and direction and is prone to be misused. It is detached from the flesh, the heart and the soul. Man, therefore, cannot be any wiser today, since the knowledge he so massively acquires cannot be integrated into either culture or the person.

What is more, progress can rarely be enjoyed during the lifetime of a person; rather, it is mostly to be hoped for, for his descendants. For the believer in progress falls into a sort of inverted Confucianism – a cult of the descendants, not the ancestors. And now this faith in progress faces a traumatic nemesis. For the glory of sacrifice for the sake of a better world for future generations is in danger of turning into its opposite – fear of not bequeathing them anything but a shambles, and the guilt that goes with that tragic anticipation.

The Bourgeois and his Feedback

Perhaps it was these sorts of paradoxes that inspired Paul Valéry to write:

“The bourgeois has invested his funds in ghosts and gambles with the ruin of common sense.” [16]

And today, we would have to add with the ruin of the biosphere, the new mother Goddess of our ecocomputers. Gaia, the suffering planet, must halt the “strategy of the progress culture” because its “basic values act as a great complex of positive feedback forces” that are “self-amplifying, like a fire burning out of control” [17].

With this new systems management mentality, faith in progress may turn out to be fighting its last round in history. A myriad “side effects”, mutually reinforcing each other in their devastating power, are creating serious doubts about the feasibility of spreading further the Western style throughout the world. Besides, those who run world models on their computers are repeatedly led to the discovery that programmed progress turns out to be less efficient than the “cultural strategy” of the bees, or, when it comes to environmental adaptation, far less ‘developed’ than, say, that of the Australian Aborigines. Thus, nobody admits any more to ever having believed in Utopia. Some even see the future as a time where nothing but incalculable catastrophies loom. The time-arrow, the axis of faith in progress, is in the process of shifting its angle: if anything, it now points downward.

Avoidance of outright planetary disaster may soon top the global agenda. This very different prospect calls for a different conceptualization – hence the resort to systems language which best expresses man’s current preoccupation with stability. For it directs attention away from high-flying hopes to the nitty-gritty conditions of systems maintenance here and now. “Feedback cycles” show on the computer screen the hideous workings of “side effects”, forcing their official recognition by governments, while the search for the conditions of “equilibrium” aims at identifying the break points. In terms of this perspective, the affairs of people are not at the centre of politics any more, which instead has become preoccupied by the abstract requirements of systems maintenance as defined by the new experts in survival. As for the idea of progress, it will have come a long way and may in the end mean simply avoiding the worst.

Progress was an illusion, but a great illusion. It contained much more than anyone had ever dared to dream – justice, and even immortality on earth, achieved by man himself. As the vital and creative self-assertion responding to the previous overriding emphasis on “divine omnipotence” [18], progress was a great path of achievement. Facing both fears of eternal damnation and feelings of impotence in the utter contingency of his existence in the world – both ideas hammered into him by theological absolutism – modern man managed to gain confidence by way of self-realization, a confidence finally felt as the all-powerful free seeker after perfection. Progress was still a dream of persons, not of bees.

Sadly, the utopian ethos of progress lost its chance to come to terms with reality. It became overwhelmed by the undiscerning forces of economics and technology, or led along the political road to totalitarian strait jackets. Along with utopia, progress shed most of the layers that had sculpted its tragic beauty and conceptual richness, and fled instead into the realms of science fiction. Today it merely shields the blind conceit of the post-modern world from serious critical thought and any doubts about sense and meaning. Reduced to the childish fantasies of scientists – pervertedly polymorphous indeed – faith in progress is nothing today but a fortress of contemporary folly which wards off our multiple fears of annihilation from modern weaponry, economic growth and cultural indigence. It has shrunk to a foolish confidence that the predicaments of modern civilization will be solved through a psychotic delirium of abstractions and technological creations which have been given a life of their own.

The new wisdom of systems theory, now taking charge of reconciling the biosphere and the economy in some impossible balance – having one’s cake and eating it – has to accept the humiliating assumption that man is just one among many forms of life. What greater vanity and vexation of the spirit? The harder it is for man to recognize that what he has placed under the sun has not made him much better, the harder it is for him to recognize his basic reality, an always tragic reality. And it is only human, too human, to try to change or forget this reality, as Solomon himself admits:

“And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven … So I was great and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem.” [19]

But Solomon did not conclude that his kind could become omnipotent. Modern man, having ventured so deeply into that delusion, finds it ever more difficult to accept his frailty, to live in this world and to search for his truth. Jacques Ellul sums it up in a quotation from George Bernanos:

“In order to be ready to hope for what will not deceive, we must first despair of all that already deceives.” [20]

There may be much more involved in despairing about progress than we have glimpsed in this essay. As I have suggested, faith in progress has been built into modern man to such an extent that he is not aware of it any more, like a fish is not aware of the water till drawn out of it. And, like fish out of water, we may eventually realize the importance of our faith in progress only after emerging from it, at the point of again dying in awe as persons, or – in a world of systems maintenance – at the point of turning into just another “life” managed by abstract systems moving towards some “steady state”.


José María Sbert (1945-2006) was variously editor of CIDOC Informa in Cuernavaca, acted in the Mexican government’s dealings with the World Bank, was head of the National Film Library, manager of a subway trains factory, Mexican undersecretary of planning, and ran an advertising business.



Further reading

As a starting point, the historical review by S. Pollard, The Idea of Progress: History and Society, New York: Basic Books, 1968, which contains a separate bibliography, and R. Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress, New York: Basic Books, 1980, where the sources are commented on in the text, are the most accessible and useful, as well as the collection of readings by F.J. Teggart, The Idea of Progress, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1949, and the related article and quotations in Britannica World Books, which contains also the basic traditional bibliography. To my knowledge, the most recent comprehensive effort on the subject was edited by G.A. Almond, M. Chodorow and R.H. Pearce, Progress and Its Discontents, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. Divided into five parts related to the historical, scientific, economic, social and humanistic dimensions, it covers twenty-five different themes by as many authors. P. Chaunu, Histoire, Science Sociale: La Durée, l’Espace et l’Homme à l’Epoque Moderne, Paris: SEDES, 1974, and G. Duby, Guerriers et Paysans, VII–XIIe siècle: Premier Essor de l’Economie Européenne, Paris: Gallimard, 1973, gave me a rich portrait of the experience of progress in Western Europe, which can be complemented by the strategic outlook of P. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, New York: Random House, 1989.

The closest approximation to ancient wisdom in dealing with substantially the same subject – that is, progress – is contained in the Greek literature about Prometheus and in Ecelesiastes. J. Ellul devotes an entire book to Ecclesiastes, La Raison d’Être, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1987. F. Bickerman, Four Strange Books of the Bible, New York: Schocken Books, 1967, and H.I. Leiman, Koheleth: Life and Its Meaning, Jerusalem and New York: Feldheim, 1980, also approach this biblical book at length. I. Illich, in a call to put hope above expectation, deals with Prometheus and Pandora in the last chapter, ‘Rebirth of Epimethean Man’, of Deschooling Society, New York: Harper & Row, 1970. Illich’s books, among their innumerable facets, prompt a continuous meditation on the concept of progress.

The key book on Christianity, secularization and progress is K. Löwith, Meaning in History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949. W.W. Wagar, “Modern Views of the Origins of the Idea of Progress”, Journal of History of Ideas 28, 1976, pp. 55-70, gives a panoramic view of various authors on the subject of secularization, among them the less pessimistic outlook of J. Maritain’s books. C. Dawson, Progress and Religion, New York: Doubleday, 1970, rather celebrates the worldly orientation of Western civilization as fully consistent with its Judaco-Christian religious heritage. The rich outlook and fine thread that G.B. Ladner, The Idea of Reform: Its Impact in Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959, started to weave is regrettably cut short at an early historical period. H. Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Cambridge. Mass.: MIT Press, 1983, does not succeed in upsetting Löwith’s thesis, but glances deeply into the soul of the modern age at its intellectual starting point. E. Castelli, Hermeneutique de la Secularisation: Actes du colloque organisé par le Centre International d’Études Humanistes et par l’Institut d’Etudes Philosophiques de Rome, Paris: Aubier, 1976, contains rich and abundant material, including a paper by J. Ellul, whose books constitute a wide-ranging and up-to-date critique of modern progress by a Christian theologian.

Among the classical sociologists, a reflection on progress demands, especially, a review of Weber’s work, and of those who followed him as well as his critics.


The Development Dictionary,
A Guide to Knowledge As Power,
Wolfgang Sachs éd., Zed Books, 1992.
2nd edition, 2010.


[1] Wolfgang Wieland, “Entwicklung, Evolution”, in Otto Brunner, Werner Conze and Reinhart Koselleck (eds), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexicon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, vol. 2, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1975, pp. 199-228.

[2] As in a cartoon by Quino, the Argentinian creator of Mafalda, the contestataire replica of Peanuts. In “A mi no me grite”, Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 1972.

[3] Condorcet, Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain, 1795.

[4] Crawford Young, “Ideas of Progress in the Third World”, in G.A. Almond, M. Chodorow and R.H. Pearce (eds), Progress and Its Discontents, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982, p. 90.

[5] Ibidem, p. 88.

[6] C.E. Ayres, The Theory of Economic Progress: A Study of the Fundamentals of Economic Development and Cultural Change, New York: Schocken Books, 1962, pp. xxiv-xxv.

[7] Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986, Part 1, ch. 3.

[8] Peter L. Berger, The Social Reality of Religion, London: Faber & Faber, 1967, p. 68.

[9] Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949, pp. 201-203.

[10] Ibidem, p. 197.

[11] J. Ellul, La Subversion du Christianisme, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1984, p. 201.

[12] Ibidem, p. 201.

[13] Ibidem, p. 13.

[14] “Wisdom”, in The Britannica Great Books: A Syntopicon, Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, pp. 1102-1103.

[15] Ecclesiastes, King James Bible, 9:7 and 9:9.

[16] « Le bourgeois a placé ses fonds dans les phantasmes et spécule sur la ruine du sens commun », in “Propos sur le progrès”, 1929, collected in Regards sur le monde actuel, Paris: Gallimard, 1988, p. 142.

[17] Bernard James, The Death of Progress, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973, p. 10.

[18] Robert M. Wallace, translator’s introduction to Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, p. xviii.

[19] Ecclesiastes, 1:3 and 2:9.

[20] « Pour être prêt à espérer en ce qui ne trompe pas, il faut d’abord désespérer de tout ce qui trompe », in Jacques Ellul, La Raison d’Être: Méditation sur l’Ecclésiaste, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1987.


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