What is Progress? – The Critique of Progress, Part I

Central to radical conservationist claims is a rejection of the Idea of Progress. What does this mean? Put simply, to paraphrase Bury (1987, p. 2), the Idea of Progress is the belief that civilization has improved, is improving, and will improve the human condition. Note the three components of this idea: first, improvement happens in a generally linear fashion, so better days lie ahead; second, what is considered humanity progresses as a single unit; and third, nature must be controlled and manufactured to improve the human condition. (This anatomy of the Idea of Progress is derived from de Benoist 2002, p. 55.)

Some try to explain the Idea of Progress as if its main problematic was that of time and time-consciousness (e.g., Dienstag 2009): things “get better over time.” But, while the idea does breed a certain relationship with time, especially the future, it is fundamentally about technical development, the backbone of civilization. That the improved human condition could be undone by technical regression is a testament to this. It therefore makes no sense to say that anything can be Progress depending on what one values: civilizational collapse would emphatically not be Progress in the precise sense outlined here, since Progress is inherently a polemic for the technical development of civilization. It is true that polemicists have sometimes argued that pre-civilized conditions contain a modicum of Progress, such as the domestication of fire. However, we can appropriately limit the scope of the idea to civilization since the polemicist really only notes these developments for the way they set the stage for what he truly hopes to defend.  This is the commonly assumed meaning, as is evidenced by quotes such as Tsanoff’s (2014, p. 12): “…the march of civilization can fairly be called the march of progress” (see also Gulsepi).

This definition, although slightly stricter than usual, so exclusive of ideologies traditionally seen as inherently progressive, allows us to make important distinctions that would have otherwise been lost. For instance, Christianity is sometimes called an inherently progressive ideology. But given that not all Christians were or are concerned with the development of civilization as such, Christianity can’t be inherently progressive. For instance, Christian sects have always existed that hark back to a golden age or extol certain primitive states as the true site of virtue.

(Christianity is inherently concerned with spiritual progress, but to associate this with the Idea of Progress is a consequence of ambiguous language. As stated earlier, the Idea of Progress is specifically confined to the effects of civilization on the human condition. Thus, not all positive developmental processes, which could feasibly be called “progress” in the colloquial sense, are relevant to the grand narrative considered here.)

We can still say that Christian ideas historically laid the groundwork for the Idea of Progress and that it has historically been a civilizing force. This is useful because it separates Christian doctrine (disputed among the sects) and the historical influence of the Christian religion. The same applies to other sometimes-progressive ideologies, like humanism, which also have non- or anti-progressive variations, such as primitivism.

Note that standards for judging whether a development is good or bad are not built into the Idea of Progress. Such a thing would, in fact, be impossible, since Progress itself determines the values that will be appropriate. Thus, Carr (1987, p. 119) writes, “But I shall be content with the possibility of unlimited progress—or progress subject to no limits that we can or need envisage—towards goals which can be defined only as we advance towards them, and the validity of which can be verified only in a process of attaining them.” Thus, the standards for progress at any given time are usually determined by a civilization’s dominant ideology, whether or not all variants of that ideology espouse the Progress narrative. For example, in modern technoindustrial society, progressive humanists identify improvement with peacefulness and equality,.

By this account, it seems as though Progress can only be refuted by arguing that civilization has actually had negative effects, or none at all. For instance, to refute the humanist account of Progress, it seems like we must say that civilization has not brought less violence or more equality. But this would of course not refute Progress as a whole, since to do that one has to demonstrate that all progressive narratives other than humanism are also wrong.

However, it is possible to refute the grand narrative of Progress by refuting some or all of the three narrative components mentioned earlier: one could refute the “will improve” part of the narrative by demonstrating that civilization cannot continue (“the argument against the future”); one could also demonstrate that the unit of Progress (nowadays considered to be all of humanity) is illegitimate (“the argument against civility”); or one could deny the imperative to modify nature (“the argument against domestication”). In the next few posts in the series, we will consider each of these claims.


de Benoist, A. (2008). A brief history of the idea of Progress. Occidental Quarterly 8(1), 7-16.

Bury, J. (1987). The idea of progress: An inquiry into its origin and growth. Mineola: Dover Publications.

Carr, E. (1987). What is history? New York: Penguin Books.

Dienstag, J. (2009). Pessimism: Philosophy, ethic, spirit. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gulsepi, R. (n.d.). An overview of civilization. World History Center.

Nisbet, R. (1979). The idea of progress. Literature of Liberty 2(1), 7-37.

Tsanoff, R. (2014). Civilization and progress. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky.

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