Monday, April 23, 2018

Monday Forum - have we seen the death of progress?

I have continued deeply embedded in the past, not just the immediate past but the deep human past. Our views of the world are deeply embedded in the present in ways that we don't always recognise. In trying to illustrate part of this, I wrote in a recent paper:
We now come to another thread in New England history, the nature of environmental change. We do not know when people first arrived in New England. My present best guess based on dating patterns is between 30 and 32,000 years ago . The millennia since have seen many dramatic environmental changes. Sea levels have varied from perhaps 60 metres below current levels to 120 plus metres below to one to two metres above. Rainfall, wind and temperature patterns have varied greatly over this long period, with consequent changes to vegetation and animal life. Water courses have shifted, changed.  
There is a saga here of human adaptation, of survival and change. To understand this, to explore the deep New England past, requires us to drill down, to look at the detail of change. It also requires us to put aside sometimes deeply held preconceptions. The geographic and human patterns that existed in 1788 were not the same as those that existed 6,000 or 30,000 years before. The visual images we hold today provide no real guidance to that past.  
To illustrate this, take your picture of the Tablelands and strip away most of the current vegetation, replace it with tundra with periglacial conditions in spots. Or perhaps as an even more dramatic example, replace your images of the beaches, rivers, forests and estuaries of the entire North Coast with a more rugged coastline dropping sharply to a cold and more distant sea. 
To the Aborigines, the past was a living element within a moving present. They preserved memories of the past through stories that recorded past events, explained life and were attached to the world around them.

The British settlers took a very different view. To them, the present was a step towards a still to be defined future. They were not blind to uncertainty and risk, to the likelihood of failure. How could they not be? Infant mortality rates were falling, but most families still faced the probability that some of their children would die in infancy. They faced the risks of nature, of economic collapse, of death by misadventure. A browse among any of the older Australian graveyards will clearly reveal the number of and variety among those who dyed from misadventure. As another illustration, at the middle of the nineteenth century the chance of a mariner dying at sea was one in four.

Despite all the problems, there was a pervading belief in the possibility of progress, in the chance for individuals to redeem themselves, to establish establish futures for themselves and their families. This was in many ways an optimistic age. It took a particular form in the United States partially expressed in the concept of the self made man. There the idea that individual destiny rested with the individual carried with it the connotation that since success was open to all failure was the individuals fault. This gave a certain harshness to social policy that survives to this day.

The attitude in Britain and the evolving Empire was different. There in the midst of a general belief in progress was a recognition that progress was not inevitable for all, that individuals and society had a responsibility to those and their families who were disadvantaged to provide support. This recognition took many forms including cooperative action, the rise of unions, the development of Government policies intended to support families and ameliorate disadvantage. One Australian version of this was the Deakinite social contract.

I have opened a large subject here, but for this Monday Forum I pose three questions:
  • Has modern Australia and indeed the Western World lost the belief in the possibility of progress?
  • Has modern Australia and indeed the Western World lost sight of the inevitability of risk and individual failure replacing it instead with an approach focused on risk minimisation rather than advancement?
  • Has modern Australia and indeed the Western World lost the idea of the social contract, of the importance of cooperative and collaborative action, of Government social policies based on the combination of individual effort and social advancement so that all benefit?
As always, feel free to go in whatever direction you want regardless of the questions.


2 tanners said...

Australia (all of the following in my opinion) believes in the inevitability of progress, defined as better standards of living for the vast majority of those currently classed as Australian. Governments of both stripes have been successful in selling the story that this requires the weakening of the social contract and the move to risk mitigation has been a growth industry for some decades. Generally risk mitigation strategies are aimed at the wrong things anyway.

There. That should trail enough bait through the water.

Jim Belshaw said...

Morning, 2t. I fear the trout are not biting! I will trail some more bait through the water, while also extending my thinking. As is normally the case, the topic represents something I have been mulling over.

The idea of progress itself is something of a slippery concept. I agree with you that this is often phrased today as improved standards of living, but the concept was not just limited to that but extended to all parts of the human condition. Associated with the broader concept was a belief that while progress may have been achievable its benefits would not be equally distributed. For that reason, action needed to be taken to assist those left behind.

I used the word inevitability. Two other words are possibility and desirability.

Progress may be possible but not inevitable. I think that we may have lost sight even of the possibility, at least as defined broadly. We may still believe that national wealth can be increased, we may believe that action can and should be taken on particular matters, but we have lost sight of the possibility of progress in a broader direction. In part because progress is narrowly defined to measures of economic progress, some now argue that progress while possible is not desirable.

I'm not sure that you would disagree with any of this, mind you.

2 tanners said...

My narrow definition of progress is not in my view inevitable, but I suspect will carry on for decades. Your broader definition includes the social contract which I argue is being bartered away in a more sophisticated and less intelligent version of the old 'hip pocket nerve' response. You'll note my narrow version does not include benefits for non-Australians or potential Australians. (Not arguing right or wrong, just this is what the polls say to me and why the two major parties are in lockstep - it is what the majority of what the population want). So I think we are in agreement. My personal history of Australia says this started under Hawke and Keating.

The White Australia policy was a misnomer, especially considering the last person to be subjected to it was an anti-Hitler, white unionist. It was more like a regulatory version of the US House Committee for UnAmerican Activities, and was intended to keep out all kinds of troublemakers, not only cheap Chinese labour under the guise of a language test. (Language test - is this ringing any bells?)

This comes back to my belief that your picture of us as having emerged from under Britain's shadow in the 1950's is mistaken. The cultural cringe, Menzies' worship of the monarchy and more and the prejudice against Asians, Aboriginals and non-English Europeans that I grew up with and unquestioningly adopted in my childhood took a long time to change.

Jim Belshaw said...

Couple of possible differences in views 2t. I don't see the idea of progress in terms of the nation state, but more broadly. I once tried to get this across in an industry policy context by posing these question: accepting that open markets etc will maximise global benefits, what makes you think that Australia will maximise Australian returns? What will stop Australia to the world becoming like Adelaide to Australia, a declining entity? This didn't mean that that I was opposed to change, just that it was a process to be managed, to be aware of different outcomes.

I'm sorry. I have to pop out. Continue this comment tomorrow!

2 tanners said...

Same here. Cooking roast chook, potatotes, carrots, pumpkin, onions and beetroot. Plus gravy and broccoli. :)

Jim Belshaw said...

Still into food porn, I see 2t! Absolute yum. I was forced to make do with Malaysian.

One of the difficulties in discussions like this is the question of time. Many of the things I most dislike including some that I once supported strongly are actually quite new in historical terms and will fade, some are fading now, as so many have done before them. Example are some of the fetishes dealing with measurement and risk and indeed the whole "neoclassical" school. I find myself in the odd position, and perhaps this is a feature of increased speed of change, of having promoted, then attacked, then wishing to defend some key elements that I support now in danger of being thrown out in the revulsion against the whole.

I still wish to defend the concept of at least the possibility of progress so long as this is understood in broad terms as compared to the more micro level of particular nation states or at a more micro level still of regions or institutions. Here my belief is that progress is not inevitable at a micro level, that it has to be created.

2 tanners said...

Progress in your sense is quite possible.

However I don't think I've actually seen it systematically in any governments from Fraser onwards. Keating, although smart, was sold a pup by Treasury neoclassical ideologues and being the man he was, was unable to change his view or walk it back. Hawke bought the reform agenda (a lot of us did) but the results never came through. Howard was a rank opportunist. Rudd was too poll driven, Gillard had a minority government and I think still bought the reform argument, Abbott and Turnbull, well words fail me.

Shorten may end up being dragged kicking and screaming to a progress ticket for fear of the Greens. I imagine the next election is going to be a bit of a spectacle for policy geeks.

Jim Belshaw said...

You may well be right on the last, 2t!

I, too, brought the reform agenda and still support many aspects of it. What we could never get through properly was that the reforms of themselves were necessary but not sufficient to bring about positive change because they ignored adjustment issues and assumed that the reforms of themselves were sufficient, that they provided a total solution. My argument today against the "progressives" is that in responding they have gone to the opposite extreme.