Yes, we can
Progress is an idea invented in the 18th century, the age of the Enlightenment and of revolutions but it sometimes hard to keep the idea alive in our own time. In France, the revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy and the “natural order”—the ultimate heresy at the time.
Progress is an idea invented in the 18th century, the age of the Enlightenment and of revolutions but it sometimes hard to keep the idea alive in our own time. In France, the revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy and the “natural order”—the ultimate heresy at the time. The Founding Fathers of the United States, imbued with the notion of progress, bequeathed it to generations of Americans. When it first flowered, the idea of progress was confined to the West, to what we might call the “Enlightenment Zones”; and to the relatively educated classes. Through following decades, thinkers and activists believed in human emancipation and fought for it—for the eradication of slavery, a new life for immigrants, the rights of workers, of women and minorities.
In those early days, science and technology seemed to be developing with such speed and assurance, solving so many problems and making life so much easier for millions that it was easy to believe—in 19th century Britain for example--that mankind was on the high road towards an ever-brighter horizon.
The notion of “development” embodied the 20th century version of progress. At least until the appearance of the UN’s Human Development Reports in the mid-1990s, the official “developers” like the World Bank confused economic growth with human well-being and, pushing vast programmes like the “Green Revolution”, counted on science and technology to eradicate poverty and inequality. China is still following a similar 19th century path, displaying unrivalled faith in technological progress while showing little interest in human liberation or ecological limits.
Two world wars, the Shoah, the gradually revealed horrors of colonialism, the nuclear arms race and civilian nuclear disasters all contributed in the 20th century to eroding faith in progress. Climate change, proliferating financial crises, the “oil shock”, the threat of massive famine and terrorism are playing the same role in the 21st.We seem finally to be getting it through our heads that civilisation can very well go backwards and that at this very moment we are almost certainly pushing it in that direction.
Historically speaking, only the left, only the progressive forces have ever brought about progress in the sense of human emancipation. So the question that TEMAS is asking its authors — “What would be a new idea of progress for the left in the 21st century?” is an urgent one.
Let me try to answer it first by pointing out the distinction one must make between scientific and technological advances and human progress. The two used to go hand in hand; today, however, the debate, indeed the fight concerns whether scientific developments actually constitute progress or not. Now the left must often try stop what the right labels “progress”, an inconceivable role for progressives a hundred years ago. In our day, when supposed “progress” is controlled by transnational corporations focused solely on profit and opening new markets, this is a progressive duty.
The example of Genetically Manipulated Organisms illustrates this point. Although no one has yet conclusively proved that GMOs are dangerous to human health, their harmful impact on the environment and their capacity to spread and destroy the freedom of farmers to grow organic or traditional crops is manifest. Knowing that transnational corporations control GMOs, particularly Monsanto with its heavy legacy of harmful products progressives are right to prevent the cultivation of GMOs except under strictly contained conditions.
We do not need more nuclear power but rather, as in Spain, much more investment in wind power and other alternative energies. Nor do we need new warplanes, however much these may earn for the military-industrial complex, but rather research and development of light-weight materials for building commercial aircraft in order to reduce drastically the amount of fuel they consume. As the philosopher Paul Virilio has pointed out, every technology comes with its own specific accident: the plane crash, the computer black-out with catastrophic information loss; the nuclear meltdown, various plagues due to unplanned release of manufactured organisms in nature, the oil spill or the chemical explosion—the list is long. The duty of progressives is to apply rigorously the precautionary principle and attempt to control the corporations that seek to control us. It requires perseverance and transnational political organisation to match the strategies of the corporations themselves.
The question of progress towards human emancipation is different. Here the left is obviously not called upon to prevent, but to seek and find new paths—just as all progressives who have ever lived have tried to do. All of them had to struggle against the myriad forms of oppression in the difficult circumstances of their own times, and most of them, let’s face it, lost. Spartacus did not bring about an end to slavery in ancient Rome, nor did slavery end until the 19th century. Hundreds of philosophers, proto-scientists, thinkers and innocent people were burnt at the stake before the power of the Church could be blocked. For centuries, Europe fought bloody wars resulting in untold numbers of needless deaths until a united Europe brought them to an end. Women were not recognised as fully human until less than a hundred years ago and are still trying to gain genuine equality, even in “advanced” societies. Human rights are still ignored in most places, including the west, so we do not lack for targets and 21st century “construction-sites”.
The unprecedented challenge facing progressives now is to be active on all geographical fronts. Until recently, it was quite enough to try to deal with the problems of one’s own country—decent wages, improved working conditions, proper health care, universal education, separation of Church and State and so on. Needless to say, national issues are still important. So are local ones. More and more, however, we can see that the boundaries of our lives reach well beyond our national frontiers. Europeans today must face the fact that 85 percent of the legislation governing them will come not from their national parliament but from Brussels and the EU is in the grip of the neo-liberal, business-driven economic model to the exclusion of any consideration of social progress.
The European Court of Justice has recently handed down no less than three decisions obliging Sweden, Finland and Germany to accept workforces from Eastern Europe paid up to 50 percent below the agreed wage for their own workers. These decisions are based on the “freedom to provide services”. They deliberately place European workers in direct competition with each other and organise the “race to the bottom” for wages and working conditions. In the Lisbon Treaty, the word “market” appears 63 times, “competition” 25 times, “social progress” gets three mentions and unemployment none. The Commission insists that there be no restrictions on the free movement of goods, services people and capital. How can we hope to tax international capital movements—as Attac has been proposing for years—if no “restrictions” are allowed and it is the unelected Commission or the Court that decides? Centuries of European progress can be rescinded and blotted out unless progressives can get this neo-liberal Europe under control; a task we must accomplish through trans-border organisation to match that of the European elites who are extremely well-served by present arrangements.
Internationally speaking, it is a painfully slow process to place vital subjects on the agenda, much less to get them acted upon. It took over twenty years to convince national and international decision-makers of the reality and the danger of climate change, so eager were they to listen to the corporations, especially the oil companies. Now that everyone is conscious of the threats, the leadership is once more paralysed. We know that climate refugees will be hammering on our doors in a matter of years—yet no preparations are made. We know that famine is once more stalking the world, that tens of millions of people who had emerged from lives of chronic hunger are being plunged once more into that particular hell, yet we continue to produce bio-fuels instead of food-crops and make no efforts to contain market forces that lead to mass starvation.
Progressives need to get rid of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation once-for-all and replace them with international organisations genuinely responsive to the needs of the neglected three-quarters of humanity. By the time he died in 1946, John Maynard Keynes had already drawn up blueprints for such organisations—we could do far worse than to exhume and improve them to suit today’s needs.
Everywhere we see elites anxious to end the democratic progress of past centuries and to put an unelected leadership [the EU Commission...] or technocrats [the IMF, the WTO...] faithful to their interests in charge. The constant struggle of progressives to preserve democracy pits them against their adversaries trying to undermine it: the democratic deficit must be the nexus of all our future action.
Perhaps because he recognises this, Barack Obama has emerged from near-political anonymity to occupy a pre-eminent place in the collective imagination and, one hopes, soon the office of the US President. In magnificent language, he gives people the sense of their traditions and achievements. Each time they were told they were not ready, that it wasn’t worth trying, that they could never win, they replied, “Yes we can”. The authors of the Declaration of Independence , the slaves and the abolitionists, the pioneers and the immigrants, the workers and the women, the New Dealers and the astronauts—all of them replied Yes we can.
Human history, and therefore the struggle for human emancipation, is not over and we must never insult the future. Let us hope that progressives worldwide, above all Europeans, will also unite around those words: Yes we can.
This article is a contribution to the debate on “The idea of progress in the 21st Century”, to be published in Spanish in TEMAS para el Debate, June 2008.
Susan George is Board Chair of the Transnational Institute and honorary president of Attac-France. Her latest books are La Pensée enchaînée: Comment les droites laïque et religieuse se sont emparées de l'Amérique [Fayard, 2007], to be published in English as: Hijacking America: How the Religious and Secular Right Changed What Americans Think [Forthcoming, Polity Press 2008], and We the peoples of Europe [Pluto Press, 2008].