What Kind of Progress do we want?

It’s time to stop perpetuating perceived practical constraints, insists Matthias Machnig. New progress calls for political initiative, debates about the future direction of policy, and a passionate commitment. At stake here is nothing less than a more just society.

The hope was that technical advances would also enable us to achieve social progress for people along with environmental sustainability. That hope is now being put to the test – and not just since the shockwave of Fukushima.

“Progress” was the promise of a better future, of more opportunities for personal development, of a more just society. It was also a promise that hard work brings its own rewards in terms of more security, more opportunities and more prosperity for all.

But now progress is often seen as a threat. Today we can no longer be certain that progress goes hand in hand with a good job, a good income, social security, sustainability and democracy. People feel themselves to be at the mercy of markets and perceived technical or social constraints. They feel abandoned, helpless in the face of a society that is ruled by nameless processes and agents.

We are living a contradiction. On the one hand, growth appears to be necessary in order to deliver on the modern promise of affluence for all. But on the other hand we see the negative consequences of this same economism every day, in the shape of environmental and social damage.

Globalization is here to stay, and states, businesses and people supposedly have no alternative but to adapt to it. But there is a steadily growing awareness that this is causing serious economic damage, imposing high social costs and leading to the fragmentation of society.

Economic growth has reached the limits of what is ecologically viable. The financial industry is now decoupled from the real economy, and the financial markets have mutated into a self-referential system. The splitting of labour markets into well-paid jobs and casual employment is creating a serious social divide. And in the face of this development, democracy is entering a crisis of legitimation and confidence.

We need a new understanding of global and social progress. We have to reinvent the idea of progress. It must become a project for hope and for the future again. Where progress fails to deliver hope, prosperity for all, a better quality of life and more participation, democracy and progress soon find themselves on a collision course. I firmly believe that new progress is possible as a new, forward-looking project, which can succeed provided we imbue progress with its productive, liberating power again and define the direction it must take.

The future lies open before us. This is an opportunity to change our existing model of progress. Progress of any kind is always new: but not everything that is new counts as progress. The obvious ecological and social limitations of an industrialization based on the consumption of natural resources and raw materials are forcing us to revise and update our understanding of progress.

What can we expect from the new progress?

Any new understanding of progress must take human beings as its starting point and put the ideal of the good life back at the centre of political action.

There are many areas where a change for the better is not only desirable, but also possible. For the necessary debate about progress to take place, we need critical thinking in science and academia, in politics and in our social organizations. We also need our politicians to find new and different ways of using science, expertise and marketing.

The notion of a better society must be put back at the heart of political debate.

New progress means:

– guaranteeing a safe and functioning banking system
– developing a proactive and future-proof economic policy
– putting in place a fair labour market policy and social security system
– making it possible to invest in the future.

We need a bold government policy for Germany that is prepared to consolidate, regulate the financial markets, encourage innovation and generate growth. This calls for a new understanding of the connections between the economic, ecological, fiscal and social challenges that we face.

A just society committed to the new progress is more stable, more productive and more democratic. It is a society based on cooperation and equality for all. It opens up more opportunities for the individual to develop and prosper, and it provides collective safeguards for this personal development.

Only in such a democracy, founded on solidarity, can the idea of a society committed to the new progress be taken forward and developed. The strengthening of co-determination rights in business and industry, the establishment of direct democratic mechanisms in legislation, the extension of the rights of the European Parliament and the guarantee of equal opportunities based on sound social and education policies – these are just the beginnings of a comprehensive democratization of society, of a society committed to the new progress.

In this way the new progress can become a project for hope and for the future, a cause for which it is worth entering the arena of political debate. It rejects the conservative belief that all we need to do is to nurture the status quo and develop it further. It rejects the liberal belief that the hope of upward mobility and social participation is a matter for the markets to sort out. It distances itself from “green” thinking, which preaches self-denial from a position of material security. And it distances itself from “left” thinking, which persists in lamenting the present sorry state of affairs instead of taking the initiative and fighting for a better world.

So the central challenge is this: we must dare to become more political and more democratic again. Now is the time to ask the key questions about the future direction of policy, so that our basic beliefs find focused expression in political demands. We must be passionate about those beliefs, and willing to engage in a substantive debate about a better society. Only by doing so can we put ourselves at the head of a new progressive movement.

This post is part of the ‘Basic Values Debate’ jointly organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Social Europe Journal. The German original first appeared in the Fortschrittsforum (translation by Allan Blunden).