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The RSA Great Room was packed yesterday lunchtime to hear Steven Pinker explain the core thesis of his masterwork: ‘The better angels of our nature: the decline of violence and its causes’. Unless you have hidden away from the radio, TV and serious newspapers for weeks you will by now be starting to recognise Pinker’s core argument: the five forces which he says are responsible for the irrefutable evidence of declining human violence: 1) the Leviathan (the rise of the orderly state, and particularly the democratic state); 2) gentle commerce (trade creates an incentive to avoid war and to cooperate with other nations and peoples); 3) feminisation (the rise of female-friendly values); 4) the expanding circle (globalisation, culture and mass media have expanded empathy beyond its biological span of kin, friends and peer group); 5) the escalator of reason (rising levels of education and intelligence are making the world’s population more capable of reflection and self-control).  

Given the current economic turmoil, perhaps the most challenging part of Pinker’s case is simply that the world is becoming a better place, and quite rapidly too. It isn’t hard to think of counter-arguments.

One of the most obvious concerns environmental degradation and climate change. But, even here, a fascinating article in yesterday’s Guardian sheds a more positive light. Data analysis by the environmental writer Chris Goodall provides clear evidence that economic growth in the UK has for some years been de-coupled from resource consumption. For example cement production peaked in 1989, paper and cardboard consumption in 2001, we have been producing less household waste since 2002, and eating less meat and using less water since 2003. Of course, it is still the case that UK citizens consume far too many of the world’s resources and generate far too much of its greenhouse gasses but, still, it is surely good news that the trends are going in the right direction. It is reasonable to draw the conclusion that it is well within the normal scope of modern human ingenuity and effort to build a steadily better future and overcome even tough challenges like climate change.

‘What about something that is clearly getting worse?’ I hear you cry ‘social inequality, for example’. It’s a fair point; many Western counties have suffered rising levels of inequality and – judging by the 49% rise in boardroom earnings reported on Monday - the problem is getting worse. But the prelude to social advance is rising social concern which is, in turn, precipitated by a problem seeming to get worse (which may be because it is or simply that we have become less tolerant of it). Could it be that widespread anger about social inequality and concern about stalling social mobility turns out over the long term to be the spur to new attitudes and new ideas which see such inequality being overcome?

By now you might think I have had magic mushrooms for my breakfast. I can understand why such apparent complacency is jarring. On a personal level, as someone who has all my adult life said that my reason for being is ‘to change the world’, the news that the world may be changing perfectly well without my intervention is potentially soul destroying. This is why I cling on to the idea that a great deal of the credit for the world getting better in modern times is due to those people who insisted that without action it could only get worse.

The 18th century enlightenment saw the triumph of humanism, the idea that it was within the power and authority of all citizens (rather than just kings or Gods) to decide what future they wanted and then to build it. Since then we have simultaneously striven for and achieved progress while at the same time having a predisposition to social pessimism.

In the face of the failure of communism (and success of fascism) in 1920s Italy the Marxist Antonio Gramsci suggested the right mind set for revolutionaries was ‘optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect’. The progressive paradox is this: pessimism about the human condition is both ill-founded and indispensible. Conversely, those like Matt Ridley who suggest we cheer up, chill out and leave progress to the hidden hand of the  market are in danger of creating a self-negating argument – for if the progressives did relax the momentum of social advance might be lost.

In her famous study of Adolf Eichmann and the bureaucracy of the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt coined the resonant phrase ‘the banality of evil’. Perhaps we could also talk about the ‘illusion of idealism’; the idea that progress relies upon those who feel it is their duty to emphasise all that is wrong in the world and demand radical change.

Social revolutionaries are only a part of the engine of progress. Sometimes (as in the first half of the 20th century) they are the part that blows up the whole mechanism. At other times they may prove essential to its survival, and perhaps tackling climate change is an example of the latter. This doesn’t mean reformers should leave the streets and tend to their gardens, but instead that we might project a less overbearing, more generous, more subtle and, most of all, more optimistic view of the world.

It is entirely understandable that progressives believe that without them the world will collapse but it is this that leads to the jarring disconnect between our future idealism and our current pessimism. Given this may be the biggest flaw in the progressive argument, perhaps humility is the path to potency.


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