Progress, Progressivism, and Progressives: An Anthropologists’ Perspective

Political discussions within the United States quickly bog down into meaningless party partisanship, often utilizing labels without clearly elucidating what they mean. Here Dr. Maximilian C. Forte discusses the US Progressive movement — one of the two poles on the great imperial engine of US politics, Populism being positioned as the other. His piece is reproduced here with his generous permission.

“A great democracy has got to be progressive or it will soon cease to be great or a democracy.” (Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism Speech, 31 August 1910.)

Where does “progress” come from? What does “progressivism” mean? Which cultural tradition and ideological discourse makes “progressive” movements or parties thinkable? Why is it always important to be “moving forward,” as in the now clichéd phrase used by some many US politicians, journalists, and public commentators? When does thinking about “going forward” start to look like “going backward”? If the idea of “progress” cannot be sustained, what else might fall with it?


On the one hand, our “progressive” political elites tell us that, “you can’t go backward,” or, “you can’t turn the clock back,” and, “a return to the past is impossible”. Then they turn around and warn us that, “those who are ignorant of history are bound to repeat it”— suddenly, it seems possible to “go back,” when just a moment before we were told it was impossible. Which is it? Both the apparent confusion, and the constant repetition of old “truths,” stem from a common problem: the inability, or even the refusal to independently think though problems without rushing to ensure one’s adherence to an established ideology, always attending to the ready-made opinions of the followers of established ideological schools. The general lack of independent, critical thinking is a stifling feature of the current North American political environment, one that makes it oppressively thick, and the “progressives” are as much a part of the problem as anyone else. In some basic respects, the progressives may be culturally conservative in repeating salutes to the centuries-old idea of progress.

The Judeo-Christian Roots of Progress and Progressive Movements

Far from the product of secular thought, “moving forward” as in progressing, is rooted in the Jewish biblical experience, which was then adopted by Christians, and then by secular political thinkers in the Christianized, European(ized) West. The origin of the progressive idea is the flight of Jewish slaves from bondage in Egypt, otherwise known as the Exodus story, as explained in a book devoted to the subject (Walzer, 1985). As explained by Michael Walzer, “the Exodus is a journey forward—not only in time and space. It is a march toward a goal, a moral progress, a transformation” (1985, p. 12). The Exodus account introduced linearity and it transformed existing ideas of “revolution”. The classical Greek notion of “revolution” (as in revolving, returning) was about the restoration of a previous order. The post-Exodus idea of revolution became one about an abrupt departure, a journey to a new place, which was also a new condition of being. As Walzer argued, the Exodus story is,

“A political history with a strong linearity, a strong forward movement, the Exodus gives permanent shape to Jewish conceptions of time; and it serves as a model, ultimately, for non-Jewish conceptions too. We can think of it as the crucial alternative to all mythic notions of eternal recurrence—and hence to those cyclical understandings of political change from which our word ‘revolution’ derives”. (Walzer, 1985, p. 12)

The Exodus story “became part of the cultural consciousness of the West,” Walzer pointed out. The story made it possible to tell other stories and, “a range of political events…have been located and understood within the narrative frame that it provides” (Walzer, 1985, p. 7). Western political thinking has been deeply imprinted with the pattern of events laid out in Exodus: “the pattern has been etched deeply into our political culture” (Walzer, 1985, p. 134). Exodus is to be found almost everywhere in the Western language of progress and liberation (Walzer, 1985, p. 4).

The very idea of calling a collective social or political organization a movement is a product of Exodus. As Walzer explained, “the movement across space is readily reconstructed as a movement from one political regime to another” (1985, p. 14). Walzer added that, “change of position is a common metaphor for change of regime,” and that “much of the political language of the left has its origin in that metaphor” (1985, p. 14).

Exodus history is a linear one. Linearity is progressive. This linearity forms the basis of our ideas of progressive politics. Linear progress is at the root of political “movement”. Though not a theory of revolution, Walzer held that Exodus has become “a paradigm of revolutionary politics” (1985, p. 7). Walzer noted that we can find the Exodus notion about change of position in space as liberation embedded in “articles and essays about progress, progressive parties, advanced ideas, vanguard politics, revolution (in its current sense), movement itself, as in ‘the labor movement’” (1985, p. 15). “Exodus is a literal movement,” he adds, “an advance through space and time, the original form of (or formula for) progressive history” (Walzer, 1985, p. 15). As mentioned before, secular political thinking is not immune to cultural conditioning derived from the Bible: “Thus, when utopian socialists, most of them resolutely hostile to religion, argued about the problems of the ‘transitional period,’ they still cast their arguments in familiar terms: the forty years in the wilderness” (Walzer, 1985, p. 134).

At least we now have some partial answers to three of our opening questions: Where does “progressivism” come from? What does “progressivism” mean? And, why is it always important to be “moving forward”?

Next we should consider how ideologies of progress were developed and applied, as formal projects of social and cultural engineering, especially narratives of “modernization” or “development,” which stem from the discourse of “cultural evolution”.

Progress: Eurocentric Development Ideology

E. Bradford Burns’ 1980 book, The Poverty of Progress, is a historian’s critical account of the work of 19th-century liberal elites in Latin America, who sought to mimetically transform their societies—which deeply embarrassed them—into replicas of western Europe and the United States. At the helm of government institutions, the arts, commerce, banking, and agriculture, varied elites sought to forcibly impose capitalist modernization on Latin American societies, in order to replicate European and American models (Burns, 1980, pp. 5–6). Indigenous societies and local cultural traditions were among the prime targets of the modernizing liberal elites (the progressives). Progress was equated with Europeanization, which under the tutorship of Britain, France, and the United States, also meant urbanization and industrialization. The result was increased foreign penetration of local economies, and dependency. Politics became authoritarian: “The governments of the elites had selected the North Atlantic model for their countries to follow and forced the opposition to bend to that decision” (Burns, 1980, p. 7). Embracing Enlightenment ideas, the elites adopted liberal political theories without much concern for their applicability or relevance to local social and economic conditions: they essentially copied the French and US constitutions; they ended restrictions on trade; they emphasized individualism, competition, and the pursuit of profit (Burns, 1980, p. 8).

“The elites spoke constantly of ‘progress,’” Burns tells us, “perhaps the most sacred word in the political vocabulary,” and certainly a heavily loaded one (1980, p. 8). Often “progress” was used interchangeably with “modernization,” and both implied an “admiration for the latest ideas, modes, values, inventions, and styles of Europe and the United States and a desire to adopt—rarely to adapt—them” (Burns, 1980, pp. 8–9). “To progress” for the elites meant “to recreate their nations as closely as possible to their European and North American models” (Burns, 1980, p. 9). The drive to replicate was also responsible for a greatly expanded capitalist penetration of Latin American economies (Burns, 1980, p. 10). As proof of “progress,” Latin American elites were keen to boast of the outward signs of development: “railroads, steamships, electricity, machinery, Parisian fashions, and English textiles” (Burns, 1980, p. 10). Modernization was synonymous with progress and both were represented by Europeanization, specifically the mimesis of Europe (Burns, 1980, p. 13). Meanwhile, the majority of the population experienced persistent or worsened poverty.

The politics of Latin American liberal elites in the 19th-century were also “progressive,” and that further marked not just their separation from urban workers, rural peasants, and indigenous peoples, it marked their opposition against such groups who resisted the rule of progressivism. The constitutions written by the liberal elites emphasized individual rights (still championed by North American and European human rights activists today); they also emphasized “liberty” and “democracy” (promoted as much by the left as the right in North America today); and, liberalism stood as an ideology that rationalized exploitation (as it does today). As Burns explained:

“the values the elites placed on abstract liberties and democracy conflicted with the values and experiences of the largest numbers of the population, who understood little of European theories and nothing of the European experience that gave rise to them….Not prepared for the values imposed by the elites, the masses could not hope to gain much from them. In fact, they did not. Liberty and democracy as they took form in nineteenth-century Latin America quickly became a sophistic rationale excusing or disguising an exploitation of the many by the few”. (1980, p. 11)

Progress as an elite preference drew from European sources, and stood against “provincialism” with which all things “inferior” were associated. As outlined by Burns in the Latin American case,

“The Latin American elites of the nineteenth century boasted of their European heritage….England and France, in particular, were their models….They readily understood what was happening in Europe and ably discussed the latest ideas radiating from the Old World, which they welcomed to the New. But European thought was no intellectual spring; it proved to be an ideological flood, which swept before it most American originality. Generally speaking, three major European philosophies shaped the ideology of the elites during the nineteenth century: the Enlightenment, the ideas of evolution put forth by Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, and Positivism. The concept of ‘progress,’ perhaps the key word for the understanding of nineteenth-century Latin American history, linked the three”. (1980, p. 18)

From the Enlightenment, these early progressivists emphasized the “truth” which was defined as the superiority of “civilization” over “barbarism,” with civilization identified with Europe. The elites’ “faith in science” emphasized the value of material change. They were especially attracted to the ideas of Darwin, particularly the idea of development over time through successive states progressing toward perfection. August Comte’s Positivism generated special interest among Latin American liberal elites (Burns, 1980, pp. 18–19).

“Reason” was the exclusive claim of Eurocentric political thought, as expressed by Latin American elites. The elites who aped Europe and sought to graft European institutions onto Latin American roots, proclaimed themselves “gentes de razón” (the peoples of reason). “Democracy” therefore could not mean the masses would rule, but rather those who owned “reason” would be in control—the few would govern the many, because the many lacked the inherent capacity for “progress”. In the Latin American case, the forces of reason, of enlightenment, progress, and Europeanization, dominated in the big cities and on the coasts; the interior, vast rural plains or tropical rainforests, the countryside generally speaking, were home to the forces of “ignorance, barbarism, and primitivism” (Burns, 1980, p. 22). The rural “ignorant” were denounced by the elites for their support of populist caudillos. If the masses continued to refuse the civilization of Europe, then the only solution was to essentially breed them out of existence, through immigration. Hence a number of countries began to encourage waves of European immigrants (Burns, 1980, p. 23).

The forces of reason also laid claim to time and space: their condition was representative of modernity, and only they could lead the nation forward to the future. They were the conductors of progress. The others? They were stuck in the past (see Burns, 1980, p. 29).

Latin American Echoes in the North American Present

Juan Manuel de Rosas, Cadillo of Argentina 1829–1852.
By Cayetano Descalzi, circa 1840. Wikimedia Commons.

That the North American present allows us to hear echoes of the Latin American past is logical, since we are dealing with familiar cultural and ideological materials common to both cases, even if the social topographies differ somewhat, and some of the relations have been inverted. One writer goes as far as asserting that we are witnessing the, “the gradual but certain Latin-Americanization of U.S. politics”. This is allegedly all Trump’s fault—Trump apparently placed himself in this tradition (without even knowing anything about it), rather than the author of the accusation placing him there. Instead, let’s focus on the source of the assertion: liberal elites. In the contemporary US we can hear coastal liberals sounding like their 19th-century coastal liberal counterparts in Latin America. We can witness the snobbish New Victorian contempt for the interior (“fly-over country”), and the derision of the working classes. In place of the gaucho we have the cowboy, a figure now reviled to the point that a few publicly took comfort in seeing attendees at a country music concert in Las Vegas getting gunned down, most notoriously a legal executive for CBS. Another form of elimination occurs symbolically, as in Hollywood’s recent remake of The Magnificent Seven, where the exception has become the rule: following the new code of progressive diversity, seven white cowboys become three, with the others becoming indigenous, black, Chinese, and Mexican. One wonders if soon we will see films of the antebellum South showing that only a small minority of slave-owners were white [See: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton]. The provincialist caudillo has been replaced by the populist businessman—indeed, as if reflective of the spirit of these times, an article in Foreign Affairs about Donald Trump was unashamedly titled, “American Caudillo” (with a previous title apparently being: “Trump and the Caudillos of Latin America”). Of course this assumes that it would be legitimate to class Trump as a populist, rather than one who cynically capitalized on the populism of others (events show the latter to be more accurate). As for likening Trump to a Juán Domingo Perón, all one might say is that this could only be wishful thinking: Trump possesses neither the substance, the social following, the origins, nor the concrete programs to make such a comparison even remotely credible—and it would only have been a major improvement if he had been like Perón. The liberal progressivist echo can also be heard when the author of “American Caudillo” blamed caudillos for the “economic backwardness” of Latin America—language that resonates with the arguments of 19th-century liberal elites in Latin America, while whitewashing them of their legacy of forced dependency and genocide. Ironic then that it is the accuser, the one drawing comparisons between Trump and the caudillos, who becomes the perfect representative of the actually tenable comparisons between the 19th-century and the present. Foreign Affairs has an ideological mission, thus these realizations will be banished from consideration.

Just as the “gentes de razón” claimed ownership of “reason,” today’s North American liberal elites claim to own “truth”. They announce the dark arrival of their populist challengers as the rise of “post-truth”. Some anthropologists and other academics in the Anglo-American world argue that we are suffering from the onset of a “post-knowledge” environment. Fortunately, some see straight through the “bullshit” that has been fed to voters, from all sides, including the “post-truth” claim. Just as Latin American coastal elites claimed ownership of time—their present was civilized and modern, they would lead the way to the future—liberal American coastal elites do much the same, accusing their adversaries of wanting to “turn the clock back”. That is the language of progressivism once more. Finally, though the relationship between cultural superiority and inferiority has been inverted by American liberals when speaking of the skin colour of immigrants—this is the only difference between them and their Latin American counterparts. Otherwise both share a faith in immigration as the way of the future (what I call immigrationism), as a means of cleansing the backward nation, replacing hostile and recalcitrant people with better, more diverse peoples who are now hailed as the peoples of progress.

Cultural Evolutionism and the Victorian Ideal of Progress

“It was only around the beginning of the 1800s,” the historian Iwan Rhys Morus explained, “as new attitudes towards progress, shaped by the relationship between technology and society, started coming together, that people started thinking about the future as a different place, or an undiscovered country—an idea that seems so familiar to us now that we often forget how peculiar it actually is”. The “future” was to be achieved through technological innovation, or what some also refer to as material development. Today, innovation is still the buzzword—the creation of the new, which is also deemed to be better. Not much has changed since the commercial advertisers of the 1950s announced that “Product X” was now “new and improved”. Likewise, H.G. Wells has been succeeded by Star Trek and now Elon Musk. The New Victorian continuum is a progressivist one, through and through. The “cult of progress,” as Morus put it, understood that, “that the future’s technology and its culture were one,” so that a change in technology would require a change in the type of society. Progressive optimism also required, as Morus explained, a faith in science (as ironic as that sounds, since science supposedly abjures faith and mere belief).

“Just as they invented the future,” Morus pointed out, “the Victorians also invented the way we continue to talk about the future”. Much of Morus’ important essay is about the close ties between the Victorian tradition of linking technology with social progress, and our own futurism. Morus is not alone in recognizing the Victorian bedrock of contemporary progressivism. Another historian, Ronald Wright, in his A Short History of Progress, noted the following:

“Despite certain events of the twentieth century, most people in the Western cultural tradition still believe in the Victorian ideal of progress, a belief succinctly defined by the historian Sidney Pollard in 1968 as ‘the assumption that a pattern of change exists in the history of mankind…that it consists of irreversible changes in one direction only, and that this direction is towards improvement’”. (Wright, 2004, p. 3)

“Our practical faith in progress has ramified and hardened into an ideology,” and Wright argued that this has become, “a secular religion which, like the religions that progress has challenged, is blind to certain flaws in its credentials”. Progress has become “‘myth’ in the anthropological sense: ‘Myth is an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that reinforce a culture’s deepest values and aspirations’” (Wright, 2004, p. 4). This myth of progress is not just a capitalist myth, but also a Marxist one: “In both its capitalist and communist versions, the great promise of modernity was progress without limit and without end” (Wright, 2004, p. 6).

In anthropology, the faith in progress was reflected in Cultural Evolutionist theories, which dominated US anthropology from the late 1800s through the 1960s, with multiple incarnations as Modernization Theory, and as the guiding doctrine of numerous international development agencies and international financial institutions. It is also arguably reflected in the phenomenon of people from the periphery voting with their feet, taking a short cut to development by moving to the centre of what they identify as the high point of progress: the United States. One can summarize this paradigm with a simple illustration, as much Old as it is New Victorian, representing virtually a logo for the West’s orthodox faith:

Critiques of Progressivism in US Anthropology

In North American anthropology, as elsewhere, there has not been a shortage of critics of progress, just as there has not been a shortage of upholders of progressivist cultural evolutionism. Treating cultures like organisms in the natural sciences could only be rationalized as a political move, an analogy that ideology made possible. And the result has been a long litany of some of the worst social and economic policies, some of the greatest development failures, and a range of predictions that never materialized.

Among the leading critics of progressivist evolutionism we could cite Stephen Jay Gould and John H. Bodley. In particular, Gould was,

“a major critic of the biases that assume a progressive nature to history and the inevitability of the present. These biases can be seen in the common view in evolutionary theory that more recently emerging species are superior to their predecessors since surviving species have won out in the struggle for existence. Given human arrogance and the prevalence of progressivist ideology, it is commonly presumed that the emergence of Homo sapiens is the inevitable apex of evolutionary processes. Counter to this view, Gould argued that, although natural selection led to some degree of ‘progress’ on short timescales in the limited sense that it dialectically adapted creatures to their environments, over longer scales of time there was no deterministic direction to the history of life”. (York & Clark, 2011)

Given Marxism’s own adherence to evolutionist thinking, it’s not surprising to see a Marxist publication pay such close attention to works challenging older theories of evolution. As York and Clark pointed out, Gould’s work does not involve remote and irrelevant points: “questions about the nature of history go to the heart of assumptions buried in Western culture”—specifically, progressivist, unidirectional, teleological assumptions. “Progress,” Gould said, “is a deep cultural bias of Western thought,” and it is the hallmark of deterministic evolutionary thinking, one that can lead us to accept “survival of the fittest” as doctrine, one that indicts those who failed to survive as somehow being “failures”. It is the presence of these assumptions that causes its bearers to react with such incredible horror at anything that represents a rupture to history’s alleged progressive movement, like dealing with a freak not of nature but something worse: a freak against nature itself.

When it comes to imposing progress by force, whether in the form of dictatorships backed by western interests, or through invasions and occupations, or “humanitarian intervention,” and when we consider the self-interest that is obscured by this faith in progress, Wright argued that, “the current ideology of progress resembles the missionary projects of past empires, whether seventh-century Islam, sixteenth-century Spain, or nineteenth-century Britain” (Wright, 2004, pp. 6–7). John H. Bodley in particular attacked such progress on numerous grounds, in a book that has been reprinted and revised through multiple editions: Victims of Progress. Bodley links the industrial revolution, commercialization, and dramatic increases in both consumption and population with “progress,” whose origins he dates to the mid-1700s (2008, p. 15). His point that progress is graphically demonstrated in dramatically escalating levels of energy and food consumption in the US is striking, and he shows that such consumption far exceeds what is naturally produced within the US (or Europe for that matter), and thus requires a high level of imports in order to sustain itself, artificially (see Bodley, 2008, p. 17).

Colonialism, especially in the 1800s, was justified on the basis that it spread progress to backward peoples. As Bodley explained, many colonists assumed that indigenous peoples would voluntarily reject their own cultures after they came into contact with “superior” cultures, and that they would do so “in order to obtain a better life” (2008, p. 18). In addition, the right to exploit indigenous peoples and their resources was rationalized on the following grounds:

“Arguing for efficiency and survival of the fittest, early colonialists elevated this ‘right’ to the level of an ethical and legal principle that could be invoked to justify the elimination of any societies that were not making ‘effective’ use of their resources”. (Bodley, 2008, p. 18)

Progress was an argument for dispossession, casting others as inferior and thus deserving of displacement in the name of efficiency. This was constructed as if it were a process of natural selection (Bodley, 2008, p. 18). Cultural evolutionists equated colonialism and genocide with evolutionary progress. Bodley also notes that the basics of such thinking were resuscitated in developmentalism (which he rightly understands as ethnocentric) and in neo-evolutionary cultural theory in US anthropology in the 1960s. Specifically, he cites the “Law of Cultural Dominance”:

“That cultural system which more effectively exploits the energy resources of a given environment will tend to spread in that environment at the expense of less effective systems”. (Quoted in Bodley, 2008, p. 19)

Scholars and administrators in India also shared the ideology of progress, citing “progress” as a “basic need” for all humans, while decrying “traditional” societies in their own country as sunk in ignorance, primitivism, and of course backwardness (Bodley, 2008, p. 22). Being a “progressive” requires the presence of inferior others, usually traditional, crude, custom-bound types, according to the progressivist mythological framework.

Taking a phrase from article 22 of the 1919 League of Nations Covenant, Bodley writes about progress and the “sacred trust of civilization” when he explains how ethnocentrism was enshrined in international law:

“the modern civilizing mission undertaken by governments against tribal peoples was supported by a variety of ethnocentric assumptions, some of which were recognized as principles of international law. Not surprisingly, therefore, prestigious international organizations such as the United Nations initially threw their support behind official attempts to bring civilization to all peoples—whether or not they desired it”. (Bodley, 2008, p. 25)

In the 1945 United Nations charter, as Bodley points out, tribal peoples were identified as those who had not progressed to the point of attaining self-government, and who should be helped to advance along that path by their guardians, “by constructive measures of development” (2008, p. 26). It was widely assumed by a range of western governments that indigenous peoples would always “choose” to assimilate, that they would naturally opt for progress (Bodley, 2008, p. 27). Progress effectively reduces choice to just one: itself.

When it comes to progress in the form of “development,” Bodley’s ninth chapter in particular is especially effective as a detailed empirical critique. Rather than the worship of rising GDP and increased consumption, Bodley brings up questions about happiness, health, self-sufficiency, and self-determination. Ranging from an overview of ecological destruction, to disease, and the spread of poor diets, Bodley’s picture of the actual march of “progress” is appropriately grim. It could also have been expanded to his own country, where diseases associated with malnutrition, plus drug addiction and other factors have combined to produce consistently declining life expectancy rates.

Imperial progressivism, or what Bodley calls the “realist” school of ethnocide (joining humanitarian imperialists, scientists, missionaries, anthropologists), justified the destruction of millions of indigenous lives as an “inevitable” outcome of evolution, and then extended the argument further by insisting that all indigenous societies would therefore become extinct. Myths of extinction, which I directly challenged and reversed in the Caribbean case, while acknowledging the real damage done to indigenous peoples simply went too far in backing what was ultimately an ideological narrative. One of the more outlandish claims of the progressive realists, from the Royal Anthropological Institute, was that the mere contact of races would generally lead to extermination of one of them (Bodley, 2008, p. 255).

A Note on Those Deplorable Shitholes

There is an unmistakable stink of Eurocentric orthodoxy to ideologies of progress. That stink continues to linger in current political debates. Hillary Clinton labelled herself a “progressive” during the 2016 electoral campaign, and then lambasted half of Trump’s supporters as belonging in a “basket of deplorables”—a classic progressivist move. There is no contradiction there: she spoke with the authentic voice of the Old Victorian progressive, with all its contempt for the dirty and dangerous masses. Donald Trump said he would be the voice of the voiceless, standing for the forgotten men and women, and he proudly championed the deplorables—but then he proceed to slap a label on a range of African and Caribbean nations: “shitholes”.

Deplorables and shitholes—they are equivalent: they both stigmatize dirty and dangerous masses, the first at home and the second abroad. Clinton and Trump have something in common, both being neo-Victorian progressives. How “resistance” from the well of “progressivism” is supposed to challenge this, is something that defies logic.

Having a “deplorable” or a “shithole” as a reference point serves to place the speaker at a higher stage of human achievement. Even critics of Trump’s shithole remark, such as CNN, nonetheless chose in the recent past to label life in El Salvador as “hellish”. Being deported back to El Salvador is thus a step down, a reversal of progress, something to be dreaded, a nightmare. CNN is the same network that would then complain loudly and repeatedly about Trump labelling such countries as “shitholes”. Both Trump and his opposition—the most complicit opposition I have seen yet—share the same basic American faith in the USA as the high point of human “progress”. They all agree that places like El Salvador are “shitholes,” and so do the progressives who defend amnesty for these “dreamers” who themselves see America as better (despite its own internal shitholes of abject poverty). The only disagreement then is whether to label countries such as El Salvador politely or impolitely, whether to be “offensive” or “respectful” in one’s condescension. It simply boils down to a matter of etiquette—in other words, no real disagreement.

Progressives and their “Resistance”: Concluding Thoughts

Since the vocabulary of progressivism stems from elite liberal ideas of the Victorian era, which are themselves rooted in the Judeo-Christian Bible, this should tell us that the reaffirmation of “progressivism” can also be a culturally conservative move, one motivated by the worry of the future of “civilization,” and in particular worries about the hegemony of a particular civilization.

While it would be a mistake to think that all “progressives” are ideologically the same, one cannot dispel the “common ancestry” either. Marxists are as much fans of linear teleology as capitalist modernizers. Efficiency is not just the concern of antique progressives either—witness the “socialist” Bernie Sanders outlining his logic of progress in terms of improved productivity, worker loyalty, and an unleashing of the “entrepreneurial spirit”. The idea of progress may belong to no one ideological camp, but all ideological camps seem to subscribe to the idea of progress. The bind in which western culture has found itself is that when concrete problems are created by one ideological camp, we believe that the solution is to be found in a neighbouring ideological camp. The problem is that all the ideologies we have are fundamentally related in terms of some of their most profound roots, leaving us to deal with the problems of progress by becoming more progressive. That does not sound like a solution; it sounds more like a spiral of repetition.

One can argue that it is a mistake to simply draw a big equals sign between the “progressivism” of 19th-century Latin American liberal elites and say supporters of Bernie Sanders. Like many other terms, “progressive” has become overloaded with multiple, often divergent meanings. The actors who are said to champion “progress” may change, as well as the instruments for achieving such progress. However, it’s not a mistake that they choose to label their agenda as one that is progressive. “Progress” is still seductive, because it is culturally rich. Americans like to think that, one way or another, they stand for “progress”.

While progress has produced diverse ideological meanings, it can produce agendas that are nearly devoid of significant substance, valuable more as rhetoric than policy. As the historian Jackson Lears recently pointed out,

“Amid the general recoil from Trump, they [Democrats] can even style themselves dissenters—‘#the resistance’ was the label Clintonites appropriated within a few days of the election. Mainstream Democrats have begun to use the word ‘progressive’ to apply to a platform that amounts to little more than preserving Obamacare, gesturing towards greater income equality and protecting minorities. This agenda is timid. It has nothing to say about challenging the influence of concentrated capital on policy, reducing the inflated defence budget or withdrawing from overextended foreign commitments…”.

That some people may have problems with conceptualizing progress, does not mean we get to ignore the historical and cultural materials to which we limit ourselves when formulating ideologies. Ignorance of the cultural and historical provenance of progressivism can result in nonsensical practice that produces phoney half-solutions. A recent, tiny, example of this involves an American Indian student, in a US anthropology program, hailing as “progressives” those who renounced use of the word “savage”. That is like taking one step forward (to stick with progressivist metaphors), and then two steps backward. “Progress” is just as anti-indigenous as “savage,” perhaps more so, and US anthropology is itself home to piles of American Indian bones. Debates that demonstrate a fastidious over-sensitivity to only certain words, but not other historically and culturally related terms in the imperial lexicon, result in petty, feelings-based struggles, where “compassion” and “empathy” become weaponized. Such superficial struggles become fertile and futile ground only for particular personalities to compete for some invisible and unfeasible crown.

One question remains: how are we “progressive” in repeatedly rerunning the cultural paradigms of the past? In this sense, how is this supposed “going forward” not in fact a cyclical return, a “going backward”? Perhaps one way out is to acknowledge the cultural history of our politics. In addition we should recognize all of our ideologies—even ideology itself—for what they are: well worn tools that give birth to conservative tendencies, that often prove themselves to be useless when not outright destructive, or dumb in the face of new problems. Meanwhile loyal partisans spend an inordinate amount of time policing the borders of their party, searching out internal dissenters who with a single word or gesture are said to have betrayed party principles, while demonizing all outsiders for the simple fact that they do not uphold their ideology—as if it was mandatory to do so, as if it was their personal failure for not being convinced. It’s tiring, obnoxious, and no wonder such activity/activism may be helping to alienate so many from politics as a whole.

Personally I think the deepest problem we have is with a system where parties dominate, and where we people think that to be political one must think both in ideological terms (as if ideology were the highest form of thought) and in deference to a party. At the very least we should question our ideologies and the simple geometric figures they are built upon (whether it’s upward/forward pointing arrows or circles), or the notion that we must be contained within the known spectrum, because nothing else is thinkable beyond that. This is not an argument for “centrism,” which only replicates the same problems above. One can also be a non-partisan (no party affiliation) and yet remain very ideological. While totally dispassionate neutrality may seem impossible, or even undesirable, does it mean we should therefore militate against critical distance, scepticism, intellectual independence, attempts to improvise new conceptualizations and ways of rearranging the materials we have received? I am not optimistic that a way out of ideological straightjackets will be found—but let’s remember one basic fact: ideologies, like any other form of ideation, require that they be taught and learned. In the absence of effective teachers, means of socialization, and learners that are willing and able, spaces beyond the grip of known ideologies are opened. In the meantime, until a way out is clearly seen, certain realizations are needed.

First, there is no point in demanding that westerners give up the ways of thinking that they have cultivated for themselves as ways of addressing the needs and demands of their own cultural contexts and social histories; rather, the objective ought to be a more realistic one. Such an objective would include getting westerners to realize that they cannot continue to speak for the rest of the world; they cannot continue assuming/asserting their values to be universal; and, they should understand that their experience is not representative of the rest of the world’s. Again, this does not mean that Europeans should reject European experience and European philosophies. Second, the west had a history of extensive internal cultural self-criticism, and that should be rekindled so that we can begin to think beyond some of these extremely tired ideological straightjackets which we have inherited, and which we maintain as if an inertial state heading towards a dead-end.

Finally, sharing both my pessimism and critique of progress, is what many have claimed to be the best calypso of all time, by the Trinidadian calypsonian whose stage name was “King Austin” (Winsford Devine). It’s titled “Progress” and was recorded in 1980. Several years back I made the following video to accompany his song, and the lyrics are beneath it.

Today, when I look around in the world,
What do I see?
I see footprints that man have left on the sand,
While waking through times.
I see fruits of our ambitions,
Figments of our imaginations.
And I ask myself,
When will it end? When will it end?

It is plain to see,
Universally this land is not bountiful as it was,
Simply because in his quest for success,
Nothing stands in man’s way.
All rivers run dry,
Soon the birds wouldn’t fly,
The mountains will be no longer high.
And when I really think of it,
I does wonder why, oh why?

I see charity deplored,
Equal rights totally ignored,
Wisdom and ingenuity working in accord,
Simply to afford,
Such inventions as thermo-nuclear warfare,
And environmental warfare.
And I wonder now,
Where do we go from here?

Prophets everywhere,
Gaze upon the horizon and declare that judgment will come.
At the savage hands of unscrupulous men who defile everything they pass by.
Time is running out,
As we eat and drink species at the brink of being extinct.
And I think no one can deny,
That the price of progress is high,
Real high.

I see consciousness abate,
As today we live recklessly.
Money make egos inflate,
And thereby create a turbulent state.
I see a struggle between the sexes,
New hang-ups and old complexes.
Now the question is,
Right in context,
What shall be next?

I’ve already seen,
This world have come divided between race, colour, creed and class.
And some of the things the scripture predict truthfully come to pass,
Soil that wouldn’t bear,
Children making children to be a part of this growing mass.
And I ask, if this is progress,
How long will it last?

Further Reading


Anti-Media. (2018). “Miss Him Yet? Majority of Democrats Now View George W. Bush Favorably”. Anti-Media, January 23.

Bodley, John H. (2008). Victims of Progress, 5th ed. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Burns, E. Bradford. (1980). The Poverty of Progress: Latin America in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Curiel, Bárbara Pérez. (2018). “Post-Truth is the Truth as He Sees It”. CounterPunch, February 15.

Deaton, Angus. (2018). “The U.S. Can No Longer Hide From Its Deep Poverty Problem”. The New York Times, January 24.

Encarnación, Omar G. (2016). “American Caudillo: Trump and the Latin-Americanization of U.S. Politics”. Foreign Affairs, May 12.

Forte, Maximilian C., Ed. (2006). Indigenous Resurgence in the Contemporary Caribbean: Amerindian Survival and Revival. New York: Peter Lang.

————— . (2016). “Anthropologists and ‘Illegal Immigrants”. Zero Anthropology, December 27.

————— . (2016). “Immigration and Capital”. Zero Anthropology, August 3.

————— . (2011). “The Exodus Story and Western Conceptions of Progress, Movement, Revolution”. Zero Anthropology, March 12.

Hamilton, Amelia. (2017). “Social Media Hate for Conservative Victims of Las Vegas Shooter”. Truth Revolt, October 2.

Lears, Jackson. (2018). “What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Russian Hacking”. London Review of Books, 40(1), 15–18.

Morus, Iwan Rhys. (2014). “Future Perfect: Social progress, high-speed transport and electricity everywhere—how the Victorians invented the future”. Aeon, December 10.

Navarrette, Ruben. (2014). “Fast-tracking children to possible death”. CNN, October 31.

Ricciardella, Will. (2017). “CBS Legal Exec: No Sympathy For Vegas ‘Because Country Music Fans Often Are Republican’”. Daily Caller, October 2.

Street, Paul. (2017). “The Not-So-Radical ‘Socialist’ From Vermont”. CounterPunch, October 20.

Walzer, Michael. (1985). Exodus and Revolution. New York: Basic Books.

Wright, Ronald. (2004). A Short History of Progress. Toronto: House of Anansi. [Also as audio lectures on the CBC]

York, Richard, & Clark, Brett. (2011). “Stephen Jay Gould’s Critique of Progress”. Monthly Review, February 1.

About the Author:

Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013).

See his publications here; read his bio here. He writes at the Zero Anthropology website, which is described on the About page :

Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.

Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.

Max’s interviews by various news media are listed here.

For select listings of his online essays, see:

See his page.

For more, please see the main site for the Zero Anthropology Project.

He can be reached at

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