What counts as progressive change?

Monday, 16 December 2013 at 03:01
That is true culture which helps us to work for the social betterment of all.” - Henry Ward Beecher

If there is to be some change in how we live together on this planet, what could be generally accepted as being an improvement? Discussions on this subject often jump straight to strategies or policies, whether they call for reform or revolution, without being explicit about what those steps are really aiming to achieve, or why some stated ideals are to be pursued, or just assume that it is already clear. This sets up confusions and challenges in uniting over common causes. If a more fundamental and specific idea of collective 'progress' can be agreed on, then that creates a foundation from which principles, strategies and momentum can be built. It may also give us an insight into how some of our collective problems have arisen.

A typical dictionary definition of progress is along the lines of: “development towards an improved or more advanced condition”. From a human perspective then, an improved or more advanced condition is one with greater well-being and fulfilment. It could be said that what leads to well-being and fulfilment is where our needs are met. So then we can say that progressive social change is created by finding more efficient, effective and sustainable ways of meeting people's needs within a social collective.

But what exactly counts as a 'need'? Needs can be variously categorised, but essentially they are a resource, a value, or a state of being or relating, with which life is enriched or made possible, and without which life is impoverished or made impossible. A need is distinct from a desire, or a strategy for satisfying an underlying need. For instance you might want a shiny car or platinum credit card, when your need is for freedom, respect and joy. Or you may want a hot fudge cake or extra pork pie when your need is for nurture, food, warmth or affection. There are infinite wants and potential strategies that can be rooted in a need, and naturally some of those strategies do a better or longer lasting job than others at meeting the underlying need(s). It has been shown by Max-Neef (1989), Rosenberg (2003), Tay & Diener (2011) and others that people of all cultures have a common pool of needs. While the exact terms and emphases may differ between researchers and cultures, that shared pool of human needs spans such interrelated and non-exhaustive categories as:

Subsistence (physical health, rest, food, shelter),
Safety (protection, security, stability),
Affection (connection, love, intimacy, touch),
Nurture (care, support, giving),
Identity (sense of place, respect, integrity, authenticity, self-expression),
Purpose (significance, contribution, meaning),
Participation (belonging, fellowship, appreciation),
Leisure (relaxation, peace, calm, harmony),
Understanding (clarity, certainty, trust, knowledge, mastery),
Change (creation, variety, adventure, challenge, growth),
Freedom (choice, independence),
Joy (play, humour, celebration).

Were a way to live together found, that helped to more efficiently, effectively and sustainably meet such needs, then that way would be described as 'progressive social change' (and were it to be to the general detriment of such needs, then it would be 'regressive social change').

This particular clarification of the concept of 'progress' does three things. It includes everyone equally, while avoiding any argument of political ideology (apart from those that explicitly don't include everyone). It includes through many of the needs listed, key qualities of relationships, which as social animals are crucial to our greater well-being and fulfilment. It offers a way to measure success and identity specific areas for improvement.

Some recent metrics of progress or development such as the HDI (Human Development Index), HPI (Happy Planet Index) and SLI (Satisfaction with Life Index), integrate non-economic growth measures to varying degrees, including elements like life expectancy, education, inequality, child mortality, and carbon footprint. The HPI and SLI also account for well-being, which relates obviously to the common pool of human needs. Gallup produce detailed global metrics on experienced well-being, used in the HPI. You can explore how different countries rank on various development related metrics using a tool on the United Nations Development Program website.

But it is the financial measure of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), or the similar GNP, that is still used by most countries today as the prime measure of progress. GDP is the total market value of all goods and services produced in an economy in one year. If the GDP is growing at somewhere around 3% then politicians and industry are happy, but otherwise no mountain is too big to move (or remove) to get the economy back on track and growing again.

There are many problems with this picture of progress. It is not inherently inclusive, and in fact, market mechanisms mean that it is rather exclusive, it does not directly relate to the quality of relationships and connected human needs, and it is fundamentally unsustainable on a finite planet.

A growing body of research, see for instance Easterlin (2003), Dutt & Radcliff (2009), Easterbrook (2005), in the field of 'happiness economics' shows that after secure subsistence level is reached, increased GDP per capita produces exponentially diminishing benefits in life satisfaction, at best. The Equality Trust have also shown that higher inequality in income within a population results in diminished well-being, health and safety for everyone in that population, poor and rich – even where basic material needs were satisfied. Inequality also reduces the potential for innovation. In other words, inequality is measurably anti-progress. Now when an economy grows, and GDP increases, those already with the most wealth tend to get most of that growth, because private property creates cumulative competitive advantage. Therefore, inequality will tend to increase along with the GDP, if left to market mechanisms alone.
Robert F. Kennedy said it well in 1968:

Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

So if the growing market-economy picture of progress and human development is so obviously flawed, why is GDP growth such a paramount and pressing goal of government and media pundits?

Just letting that question sit for a moment leads to a morbid realization. That the governments of the world, those institutions in charge of maintaining our ways of co-existing and protecting the public interest have, for a very long time, for a large part been pursuing a policy starkly at odds with progressive social change. That makes them part of the problem.

But not that the problem stops with government, or that this is a criticism of all those who work in government with good civic intent, or of the essential administrative and planning services it provides. It is a criticism though of the strong, entrenched and arguably fundamental alignment government has as an institution with the regressive ideology of pursuing market-economy growth (and the protection of concentrated wealth) above practically all else. Even in the planned economies of 20th century totalitarian 'socialist' states, a similar reverence for market economics was seen. In fact, despite vast human cost, inequality and chronic inefficiencies, due to heavy industrialization and cheap labour the rate of GDP growth for the USSR, between 1929 and 1973 significantly outstripped that of the USA and most of Europe (Broadberry & Klein 2011).

What could possibly be maintaining this program then? There must be some needs that are met by the market-economy growth picture of progress. Indeed there are, and having more money does make it somewhat easier to meet them. Defenders of this predominant program would also argue that ultimately it is about better meeting needs, such as giving people more freedom, choice and opportunities, better health and all the rest. In fact, the United Nations Development Program describe their aim as 'to contribute towards the expansion of opportunities, choice and freedom'.

The trouble is with the strategies used to pursue our common needs, and the supporting myths that have built up around those strategies. It is those that lead to the insatiable pursuit of GDP. The core strategy is market-economics – the trade, recognition and protection of private property as the primary means of cooperative production and service provision. The myths are numerous, covering skewed interpretations of natural selection, rationalising entitlement, poverty and war, claiming credit for spurring human innovation, talk of the efficiency of markets, making a case for systematic coercion, pinning it all on the base nature of man, and asserting that of a set of bad options, this is the least bad. These and more are addressed specifically in a later section.

Underpinning both strategy and myth is a certain way of thinking and relating to the world, characterized by a strong emphasis on competition, securing and controlling physical resources, elevated stress or aggression and short-term planning. This could be summed up as 'threat-focused' thinking. Although a useful part of our nature, due to recent developments in human history, the threat-focused mentality has grown out of balance with other elements of our nature.

As a species we are still struggling to adjust to our ability to amass wealth. Before the innovation of agriculture at least 10,000 years ago (Wadley & Martin 1993), it was not possible to do this on a large scale. After this pivotal invention came cities and the accelerated development of technology and language. Along with that, social class and slavery, landlords, conquerors, kings, emperors and associated entourage, institutionalized religion, banking and eventually modern forms of government emerged and spread, all enabled by extending the concept of private property beyond direct personal production, and backed up by force. Due to the potential spoils and resource requirements in higher population densities, and the related vulnerabilities of being in a settled location, warfare spread alongside economic growth. Thus empire building, whether through battleships and bombs or extortionate IMF loans, is also associated with the establishment picture of 'progress'.

The ability to amass and concentrate wealth certainly bought with it great benefits, but also the metastasizing of greed. The ability to accumulate wealth amplifies competitive advantage, creates and reinforces hierarchy and assists in meeting all the basic physical needs, as well as tying in with those connected to freedom, security, identity and leisure. So there are some clear incentives. It is also widely thought by historians that the health, nutrition, work-to-leisure ratio and longevity of most people under agricultural civilization was actually inferior to their hunter-gatherer brethren, until well into the 20th century (Hayden 1990, Cohen 1977, 1989, Lee & Devore 1968, Gurven & Kaplan 2007) – so around 10,000 years of being worse off for the majority, and when it comes to work-to-leisure and nutrition, still counting. All of which is convenient, because if you have managed to accumulate some wealth it can put you in a position of being able to charitably help those in need, gaining you a warm feeling and additional status. Thus, all in all there are strong drives for accumulating ever more wealth – which requires ever more resources, regardless of how well our common needs might be met minus the acquisitive urge. This is why the threat-focused picture of progress is so at odds with the ecological balance of our planet.

To a degree, social codes and a common instinct for sharing will act to keep personal accumulation in check. But there comes a point where the power of the wealth (supported by a common acceptance of the idea of private property), in its struggle, begins to outweigh the power of those social regulatory elements. It becomes clear then that to protect and advance the personal benefits of amassed wealth a continual competition and controlled cooperation must be engaged in – alongside whatever compromises are necessary to maintain favourable conditions for keeping that private wealth. In other words amassing wealth is an exercise in managing and avoiding threat, and so the threat-focused way of thinking becomes engrained as the norm. From this point 'progress' becomes bound to the acquisitive, controlling and conflict prone drive. In that respect, no part of society is left behind, from the individual's sense of identity and self-worth relating to what they 'own' or 'earn', to the violence saturated media that is presented as entertainment, to rigidly hierarchical family relationships, to the division of social class and the – to this day still popular and practised – sin of human slavery. In this way we have lost the more empathic, egalitarian and by necessity collaborative culture, characteristic of our longer nomadic hunter-gatherer history.

From a habituated threat-focused outlook naturally develops a certain kind of narrative, one marked by dichotomies. These may serve a purpose in dealing with an immanent and grave threat, but when applied to everyday life, as the emergency-measure plan making apparatus they are, serve us poorly and lead us to bring about our own prejudgements of the world. It is a narrative of friends and enemies, 'good guys' and 'bad guys', “if you're not with us you're against us”, “it's the market or mud huts”, selfishness verses altruism, freedom verses security, and prosperity as being largely a zero-sum game. These are false dichotomies, but they take on a reality through our believing and acting on them. From that world-view the recognition and protection of private property is the very foundation of civilization, and the winning of profit the surest sign of progress. Furthermore, great inequality is inevitable and desirable as it is a driver of aspiration and productive competition. And most of all, there is and can be 'no other way'.

So you can see how the current mainstream concept of progress might be hard to shift. Of course, it is not quite that black and white, because that large part of human nature outside the domain of threat-focused thinking and greed, is still very much with us, if slightly pushed into a corner. People generally do care about their friends, family and strangers, are happy to work as equals with others, are often willing to share to help others in need, do commonly invest time and energy in activities without financial reward which benefit their communities. They are also often interested in finding more peaceful and equitable ways of co-existing, of more effectively and sustainably utilizing resources and spreading the benefits of technology more widely. This part of human nature and outlook, lets call it 'collaboration-focused' is why there is any hope at all. But it is also why a threat-focus dominated socioeconomic system can even exist, because without the free services our natural collaboration-focused behaviour provides, such a system would soon collapse.

The human mind being the flexible thing that it is though can hold these two diverging outlooks and accompanying narratives together, operate according to both and find ways of avoiding the cognitive dissonance. But it is getting harder to maintain the incongruence because information and progressive ideas are spreading faster, which is also why there is hope.

The beginning of this section set out to get to the root of the idea of 'progress' and associated aims. The establishment (mainstream 'left' or 'right' politics) picture of progress as economic growth and the perpetuation of the market economy at the heart of society is certainly connected to meeting underlying human needs. But it is also intrinsically bound to the threat-focused element of our nature and the protection of concentrated private wealth. That picture and its pursuit has been shown to be an obstructing force against a more comprehensive and widely enjoyed meeting of shared human needs. There are some encouraging signs of change within elected government, including greater transparency and public involvement in decision making. Indeed the bare admission of a vote is a sign of progress in itself. But it is a constant battle and essentially the core establishment program remains intact throughout the world.

Some people have taken more strident steps. Bergmann (2013) presents a fascinating history of the trials and tribulations of the forming of a new 'crowd sourced' constitution for Iceland – the country that let the banks go bust following the financial collapse in 2008. The new highly progressive constitution approved by the public with a two thirds majority in 2012 still awaits ratification by parliament. The left wing government at the time dragged its feet particularly over the clause of making natural resources publicly owned. Now more recent right wing government manoeuvrings have put in place laws that make the popular constitution's official adoption rather unlikely. This recent history is a clear example of the nature of government as a protector of privately controlled wealth above the common will. But it also shows through the subsequent election of a party who were against the new constitution from the beginning, how some part of the public share similar establishment values and beliefs about 'progress'. Nevertheless, the extensive involvement of the public in the process of forming the draft constitution is a significant precedent.

Another encouraging indication of a collaboration-focused shift in the concept of progress is the forthcoming Swiss vote on an unconditional basic income, not for bare subsistence, but for a figure more in line with median income. There is a related ongoing initiative to develop the idea of unconditional basic income through the European Union.

In more fraught circumstances are the popular uprisings in the Middle East, against the totalitarian regimes in power there, in response to oppression, common human rights violations and increasing economic struggle for the majority. Since 2010, the rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen have been forced from power, with uprisings and major protests in other countries throughout the region. This is an example of how widespread access to instant communication can enable popular movements to grow and affect change despite the efforts of authorities to suppress them.

From the business world, even though the incidence of psychopathy amongst CEOs is estimated to be 4 times greater than in the general population (Ronson 2011), there are also encouraging shifts in the concept of progress. Notwithstanding the nature of business being to make a profit, an increasing number of corporations are exploring giving more autonomy to employees, reframing management as a facilitating rather than commanding role, focusing on increasing intrinsic motivators of work and personal development for employees over the extrinsic motivator of money, and taking somewhat seriously the idea of social responsibility. The International Institute of Management is even hosting a survey of 'Gross National Happiness' (based on the measure used by Bhutan), and offering entrants a chance to win a free ticket to their conference in Las Vegas. Of course, there is a very long way to go.

Without getting into the specifics of some ideas for progressive change just yet, or the challenges and possible strategies involved in making a transition, it is clear that a more collaborative, less threat-focused way of co-existing is called for. The longer it takes us to escape the threat-focused miasma, the darker our future becomes.

By focusing more on a collective, shared-needs based understanding of progress, 'progress' will really mean progress for everyone, and the collaboration-focused element of our nature may again flourish, with potentially staggering benefits.

Bergmann, E. (2013) Reconstituting Iceland – constitutional reform caught in a new critical order in the wake of crisis Political Legitimacy and the Paradox of Regulation
Broadberry, S. & Klein, A. (2012) Aggregate and per capita GDP in Europe, 1870-2000: continental, regional and national data with changing boundaries Scandinavian Economic History Review, 60, 79-107
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Cohen & N., M. (1989) Health and the rise of civilization Yale University Press
Dutt, A. K. & Radcliff, B. (2009) Happiness, Economics And Politics - Towards a Multi-Disciplinary Approach Edward Elgar Publishing
Easterbrook, G. (2005 Jan) Money: The Real Truth About Money, TIMES Magazine
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Gurven, M. & Kaplan, H. S. (2007) Longevity Among Hunter- Gatherers: A Cross-Cultural ExaminationPopulation and Development Review, 33, 321-365
Hayden, B. (1990) Nimrods, Piscators, Pluckers, and Planters: The Emergence of Food Production. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 9/1: 31-69
Lee, R. B. & Devore, I. (1968) Problems in the study of hunters and gatherers, in Man the Hunter Chicago: Aldine, pp. 3-12
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Ronson, J. (2011) The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry Picador
Rosenberg, M. (2003) Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life PuddleDancer Press
Stevenson, B. & Wolfers, J. (2008) Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox National Bureau of Economic Research
Tay, L. & Diener, E. (2011) Needs and Subjective Well-Being Around the WorldJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2, 354-365
Wadley, G. & Martin, A. (1993) The origins of agriculture: a biological perspective and a new hypothesis Authralian Biologist, 6, 96-105


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