Social progress
Overview
 
Social progress is the idea that societies can or do improve in terms of their social, political, and economic structures. This may happen as a result of direct human action, as in social enterprise
Social enterprise
A social enterprise is an organization that applies business strategies to achieving philanthropic goals. Social enterprises can be structured as a for-profit or non-profit....

 or through social activism, or as a natural part of sociocultural evolution
Sociocultural evolution
Sociocultural evolution is an umbrella term for theories of cultural evolution and social evolution, describing how cultures and societies have changed over time...

. The concept of social progress was introduced in the early 19th century social theories
Social theory
Social theories are theoretical frameworks which are used to study and interpret social phenomena within a particular school of thought. An essential tool used by social scientists, theories relate to historical debates over the most valid and reliable methodologies , as well as the primacy of...

, especially those of social evolutionists like Auguste Comte
Auguste Comte
Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte , better known as Auguste Comte , was a French philosopher, a founder of the discipline of sociology and of the doctrine of positivism...

 and Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer was an English philosopher, biologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era....

. It was present in the Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

's philosophies of history
Philosophy of history
The term philosophy of history refers to the theoretical aspect of history, in two senses. It is customary to distinguish critical philosophy of history from speculative philosophy of history...

.
Unanswered Questions
Encyclopedia
Social progress is the idea that societies can or do improve in terms of their social, political, and economic structures. This may happen as a result of direct human action, as in social enterprise
Social enterprise
A social enterprise is an organization that applies business strategies to achieving philanthropic goals. Social enterprises can be structured as a for-profit or non-profit....

 or through social activism, or as a natural part of sociocultural evolution
Sociocultural evolution
Sociocultural evolution is an umbrella term for theories of cultural evolution and social evolution, describing how cultures and societies have changed over time...

. The concept of social progress was introduced in the early 19th century social theories
Social theory
Social theories are theoretical frameworks which are used to study and interpret social phenomena within a particular school of thought. An essential tool used by social scientists, theories relate to historical debates over the most valid and reliable methodologies , as well as the primacy of...

, especially those of social evolutionists like Auguste Comte
Auguste Comte
Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte , better known as Auguste Comte , was a French philosopher, a founder of the discipline of sociology and of the doctrine of positivism...

 and Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer was an English philosopher, biologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era....

. It was present in the Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

's philosophies of history
Philosophy of history
The term philosophy of history refers to the theoretical aspect of history, in two senses. It is customary to distinguish critical philosophy of history from speculative philosophy of history...

. As a goal, social progress has been advocated by varying realms of political ideologies with different theories on how it is to be achieved, ranging from socialists on the left to fascists on the right.

Enlightenment

The big breakthrough to a new idea in Europe Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

, when social commentators
Social commentary
Social commentary is the act of rebelling against an individual, or a group of people by rhetorical means, or commentary on social issues or society...

 and philosophers began to realize that people themselves could change society and change their way of life. Instead of being made completely by gods, there was increasing room for the idea that people themselves made their own society - and not only that, as Giambattista Vico
Giambattista Vico
Giovanni Battista ' Vico or Vigo was an Italian political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist....

 argued, because people practically made their own society, they could also fully comprehend it. This gave rise to new sciences, or proto-sciences, which claimed to provide new scientific knowledge about what society was like, and how one may change it for the better.
In turn, this gave rise to progressive
Progressivism
Progressivism is an umbrella term for a political ideology advocating or favoring social, political, and economic reform or changes. Progressivism is often viewed by some conservatives, constitutionalists, and libertarians to be in opposition to conservative or reactionary ideologies.The...

 opinion, in contrast with conservational opinion. The social conservationists were skeptical about panacea
Panacea
In Greek mythology, Panacea was a goddess of healing. She was the daughter of Asclepius and Epione. Panacea and her five sisters each performed a facet of Apollo's art: Panacea was the goddess of cures, Iaso was the goddess of recuperation, Hygieia was the goddess of disease prevention, Aceso was...

s for social ills. According to conservatives, attempts to radically remake society normally make things worse. Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke PC was an Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party....

 was the leading exponent of this, although later-day liberals like Hayek
Friedrich Hayek
Friedrich August Hayek CH , born in Austria-Hungary as Friedrich August von Hayek, was an economist and philosopher best known for his defense of classical liberalism and free-market capitalism against socialist and collectivist thought...

 have espoused similar views. They argue that society changes organically and naturally, and that grand plans for the remaking of society, like the French Revolution
French Revolution
The French Revolution , sometimes distinguished as the 'Great French Revolution' , was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France and Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years...

, National Socialism and Communism
Communism
Communism is a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, revolutionary and stateless socialist society structured upon common ownership of the means of production...

 hurt society by removing the traditional constraints on the exercise of power.

The notion of freedom

This new idea implied a new concept of human freedom, i.e. people independently making their own lives using their own judgment. Initially, this concept appeared rather paradoxical; thus, Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer of 18th-century Romanticism. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution as well as the overall development of modern political, sociological and educational thought.His novel Émile: or, On Education is a treatise...

 wrote, "People are born free, but are everywhere in chains". A big breakthrough was the French Revolution
French Revolution
The French Revolution , sometimes distinguished as the 'Great French Revolution' , was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France and Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years...

 of 1789, which inspired a lot of new philosophical thought. In the philosophy of the German thinker Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher, one of the creators of German Idealism. His historicist and idealist account of reality as a whole revolutionized European philosophy and was an important precursor to Continental philosophy and Marxism.Hegel developed a comprehensive...

, history radically recasts itself as the continual development of humanity towards ever-greater freedom, continually extending the limits of freedom. This philosophy is still religious and mystical however, insofar as Hegel sees history as culminating in the unity of God with the world, but at the same time, Hegel also affirmed and imputed a Logos
Logos
' is an important term in philosophy, psychology, rhetoric and religion. Originally a word meaning "a ground", "a plea", "an opinion", "an expectation", "word," "speech," "account," "reason," it became a technical term in philosophy, beginning with Heraclitus ' is an important term in...

 or teleology
Teleology
A teleology is any philosophical account which holds that final causes exist in nature, meaning that design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions are inherent also in the rest of nature. The word comes from the Greek τέλος, telos; root: τελε-, "end, purpose...

 to human history, and fully recognized that both evolutionary and revolutionary transformations took place in history. This was a hopeful philosophy, which in a rational
Rationality
In philosophy, rationality is the exercise of reason. It is the manner in which people derive conclusions when considering things deliberately. It also refers to the conformity of one's beliefs with one's reasons for belief, or with one's actions with one's reasons for action...

 way sees real progress occurring in history.

It was possible to detect human advances, as well as human regressions to an earlier state. In Hegel’s view, if something existed, it was rational. If it passed out of existence, that was because it had become irrational. This contained a very important idea, however poorly expressed, namely that history was not a fluke of fate (a kismet
Kismet
Kismet may refer to:* Fate or Destiny in Turkish and Hindi-Urdu, a predetermined course of events, from Persian qesmat, from Arabic qisma, lot, from qasama, to divide, allot...

) but that it could be rationally understood, at least in principle.

Marxism

Marx developed a theory of historical materialism
Historical materialism
Historical materialism is a methodological approach to the study of society, economics, and history, first articulated by Karl Marx as "the materialist conception of history". Historical materialism looks for the causes of developments and changes in human society in the means by which humans...

. He describes the mid-19th century condition in the Communist Manifesto as follows:

"The bourgeoisie
Bourgeoisie
In sociology and political science, bourgeoisie describes a range of groups across history. In the Western world, between the late 18th century and the present day, the bourgeoisie is a social class "characterized by their ownership of capital and their related culture." A member of the...

 cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all which is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind."


Furthermore Marx described the process of social progress which is in his opinion based on the interaction between the productive forces and the relations of production:

"No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces
Productive forces
Productive forces, "productive powers" or "forces of production" [in German, Produktivkräfte] is a central idea in Marxism and historical materialism....

 for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production
Relations of production
Relations of production is a concept frequently used by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their theory of historical materialism, and in Das Kapital...

 never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society."


The capitalism
Capitalism
Capitalism is an economic system that became dominant in the Western world following the demise of feudalism. There is no consensus on the precise definition nor on how the term should be used as a historical category...

 is thought by Marx as a process of continual change, in which the growth of markets dissolve all fixities in human life, and Marx admits that capitalism is progressive and non-reactionary
Reactionary
The term reactionary refers to viewpoints that seek to return to a previous state in a society. The term is meant to describe one end of a political spectrum whose opposite pole is "radical". While it has not been generally considered a term of praise it has been adopted as a self-description by...

. This is an almost absolute rejection of the conservative ethos, according to which nothing really changes in human life. Marxism
Marxism
Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

 further states that capitalism, in its quest for higher profits and new markets, will inevitably sow the seeds of its own destruction. Marxists believe that, in the future, capitalism will be replaced by socialism
Socialism
Socialism is an economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy; or a political philosophy advocating such a system. "Social ownership" may refer to any one of, or a combination of, the following: cooperative enterprises,...

 and eventually communism
Communism
Communism is a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, revolutionary and stateless socialist society structured upon common ownership of the means of production...

.

Modernism

Many advocates of capitalism such as Schumpeter
Joseph Schumpeter
Joseph Alois Schumpeter was an Austrian-Hungarian-American economist and political scientist. He popularized the term "creative destruction" in economics.-Life:...

 agreed with Marx's analysis of capitalism as a process of continual change through creative destruction
Creative destruction
Creative destruction is a term originally derived from Marxist economic theory which refers to the linked processes of the accumulation and annihilation of wealth under capitalism. These processes were first described in The Communist Manifesto and were expanded in Marx's Grundrisse and "Volume...

, but, unlike Marx, believed and hoped that capitalism could essentially go on forever.

Thus, by the beginning of the 20th century, two opposing schools of thought - Marxism and liberalism - believed in the possibility and the desirability of continual change and improvement. Marxists strongly opposed capitalism and the liberals strongly supported it, but the one concept they could both agree on was modernism
Modernism
Modernism, in its broadest definition, is modern thought, character, or practice. More specifically, the term describes the modernist movement, its set of cultural tendencies and array of associated cultural movements, originally arising from wide-scale and far-reaching changes to Western society...

.

Modernism is a trend of thought which affirms the power of human beings to make, improve and reshape their society, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation. It reaches its extreme limits with the Russian Revolution
Russian Revolution of 1917
The Russian Revolution is the collective term for a series of revolutions in Russia in 1917, which destroyed the Tsarist autocracy and led to the creation of the Soviet Union. The Tsar was deposed and replaced by a provisional government in the first revolution of February 1917...

 and the third Chinese revolution, inspired by Marxist ideology.
Here, people claimed such confidence in the ability to change their world for the better, which they thought that, in a relatively short time, largely illiterate peasants could begin to build a just, egalitarian and socialist order in a conscious way, armed with science and technology.

Postmodernism

In the postmodernist thought steadily gaining ground from the 1980s, the grandiose claims of the modernizers are steadily eroded, and the very concept of social progress is again questioned and scrutinized. In the new vision, radical modernizers like Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin
Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was the Premier of the Soviet Union from 6 May 1941 to 5 March 1953. He was among the Bolshevik revolutionaries who brought about the October Revolution and had held the position of first General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee...

 and Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong, also transliterated as Mao Tse-tung , and commonly referred to as Chairman Mao , was a Chinese Communist revolutionary, guerrilla warfare strategist, Marxist political philosopher, and leader of the Chinese Revolution...

 appear as totalitarian despots, whose vision of social progress is held to be totally deformed.

Postmodernists question the validity of 19th century and 20th century notions of progress - both on the capitalist and the Marxist side of the spectrum. They argue that both capitalism and Marxism over-emphasize technological achievements and material prosperity while ignoring the value of inner happiness and peace of mind.

Postmodernism posits that both dystopia and utopia are one and the same, over arching grand narratives with impossible conclusions. The romanticism of our past due to present discontent has set western society into a state of nostalgia where modernism is feared. Here the past is re-presented as solution to our current problems.

Contemporary trends

In the present time, this trend of thought about social progress leads to five main kinds of responses:
  • Neo-conservatism, which returns to the old idea that nothing ever truly changes in the human condition, and the eternal values of religion
    Religion
    Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

    . The ability of people to change anything other than themselves is vastly overrated. Here, the emphasis is on honoring a traditional way of life which proved itself as superior in the past, to which we should adhere.
  • Neo-liberalism, which affirms the power and potential of change, but only on a personal, individual level. The idea that the state should be an instrument of social betterment in society as a whole is totally rejected; only free choices made in markets can hold any promise of social progress.
  • Socialism
    Socialism
    Socialism is an economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy; or a political philosophy advocating such a system. "Social ownership" may refer to any one of, or a combination of, the following: cooperative enterprises,...

    , which argues that state direction of social progress could have very important positive results; at the simplest level, would be able to help the poor by taking from the rich. This leads to the defense of public services and assets, and the case for heavy regulation of market activity.
  • Resource-based economy, A resource-based economy would replace the need for the current monetary economy, which is "scarcity-oriented" or "scarcity-based". The concept creator Jacque Fresco argues that the world is rich in natural resources and energy and that — with modern technology and judicious efficiency — the needs of the global population can be met with abundance, while at the same time removing the current limitations of what is deemed possible due to notions of economic viability.
  • Various strands of new radicalism
    Radicalization
    Radicalization is the process in which an individual changes from passiveness or activism to become more revolutionary, militant or extremist. Radicalization is often associated with youth, adversity, alienation, social exclusion, poverty, or the perception of injustice to self or others.-...

    , which begin to question again the objective criteria by which we could measure human social progress. For example, labor productivity might be a criterion of social progress, but how about infant mortality
    Infant mortality
    Infant mortality is defined as the number of infant deaths per 1000 live births. Traditionally, the most common cause worldwide was dehydration from diarrhea. However, the spreading information about Oral Re-hydration Solution to mothers around the world has decreased the rate of children dying...

    ? This kind of thinking rejects the political traditions of the past, and argues that a variety of criteria must be applied to assess social progress. In some cases, this leads to new charters for the moral criteria to which a society should aspire; in other cases, authentic lived experience in society with all its complexities is emphasized.

Further reading


See also

  • Constitutional economics
    Constitutional economics
    Constitutional economics is a research program in economics and constitutionalism that has been described as extending beyond the definition of 'the economic analysis of constitutional law' in explaining the choice "of alternative sets of legal-institutional-constitutional rules that constrain the...

  • Idea of Progress
    Idea of Progress
    In historiography, the Idea of Progress is the theory that advances in technology, science, and social organization inevitably produce an improvement in the human condition. That is, people can become happier in terms of quality of life through economic development , and the application of science...

  • Progress (history)
    Progress (history)
    In historiography and the philosophy of history, progress is the idea that the world can become increasingly better in terms of science, technology, modernization, liberty, democracy, quality of life, etc...

  • Social development
  • Social change
    Social change
    Social change refers to an alteration in the social order of a society. It may refer to the notion of social progress or sociocultural evolution, the philosophical idea that society moves forward by dialectical or evolutionary means. It may refer to a paradigmatic change in the socio-economic...

  • Social order
    Social order
    Social order is a concept used in sociology, history and other social sciences. It refers to a set of linked social structures, social institutions and social practices which conserve, maintain and enforce "normal" ways of relating and behaving....

  • Social regress
  • Sociocultural evolution
    Sociocultural evolution
    Sociocultural evolution is an umbrella term for theories of cultural evolution and social evolution, describing how cultures and societies have changed over time...

  • Technological progress
  • Myth of Progress

External links

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