Return to Progress : The United Nations and World Civilization

The World

About 200,000 years ago a group of hominids somewhere in south central Africa decided that life could be better if certain things were done differently. This was probably the greatest, yet most under-rated and contested, event in our history. From that moment, that group of our ancestors began to develop what we would now call culture. They learnt things, developed ways of doing them, and most important of all, developed methods of passing on the knowledge of these actions to successive generations. In some generations then, developing on the heritage given to them, the successors of these first ancestors began to move. They travelled far from their homes, guided by their capacity to learn, to adapt to changing conditions, they travelled through the thickness of tropical Africa, up the flood lands of the Nile valley, through the fertile crescent of the Middle East, across the ice bridge of Siberia and the waters of South East Asia. In time, about 10,000 years ago, a second threshold would be crossed, some of our ancestors began to grow their own food out of the Earth.

From the first agrarian civilizations, to the classical empires, to the industrial revolution, our species has followed a trajectory which was, till the middle of the last century was called progress. Events, however, have led us to question this idea. The idea of progress is an essentially contested one, and judging by the development of the last century, one could argue, rightly so.

The idea of progress, is also, however, a lost ideal. And by moving away from that commitment to progress, I believe we as a species, have more to lose than gain. The reason for our critique of the idea of progress is mainly that all justifications we have given for it till now have been flawed. They have been motivated, propagated and justified only by a few and for that few.

But in this moment, we have an opportunity to rethink the idea of progress. And develop it to suit our times. The millennial development goals of the UNDP offer us a roadmap to develop an idea of progress for our times. Here, I do not think it is necessary to detail the goals and plans, etc. for their implementation. I have often found that too much detail can be off-putting. Let me broadly state what we can call the ‘Goal’ of the goals. The ‘Goal’ – I think this should be generally agreed upon by all, across the political and ideological spectrum – is to provide each person with an opportunity to live a wholesome life. Again, detail is not important, but a wholesome life should be built upon the crucial base of a healthy body in harmony with a healthy mind in an environment free from violence. (An aside – in our age of material abundance, the fact that we are still speaking of these as goals which we ought to work towards never ceases to shock me!)

The conditions of a wholesome life are, I believe, more important than any larger political or ideological project. It is the tendency of political discourse to offer dreams, to sell visions which promise such a life only if – and when – some larger political project has been completed – utopia after the revolution, so to say. These arguments are wrong and, in my view, criminally manipulative, mere agenda in the cloak of activism. I do not mean to say that in the larger historical context there haven’t been fundamentally unjust power relations and social structures the such which necessarily must be dismantled before any progress is possible – slavery, for one, or caste systems, or, even colonialism. What I assert, however, is that in the churn of the twentieth century we have already had an interlinked, sort of chain reaction of global revolutions, which, if not totally, at least very substantially, has dismantled the ideologies of oppression. The war of ideas has been won by us – on the side of justice.

However, the victory threatens to be a pyrrhic one. Perhaps for the first time in the history of our species we are capable of meeting the greatest challenge of all – of scarcity. It is scarcity and the search or resources that pushed our hominid ancestors down from the safety of the trees into the terrors of the savannah. The challenges of management of scarcity gave rise to rulers and social stratification in agrarian civilizations – and the rest, let us say, is history. But, as is evident from a casual reading between the lines of this argument, with the problem comes its own solution – our ability to innovate. But when it comes to meeting the fundamental challenge of our age – mass poverty in an era of mass abundance – we tend to be very conservative – bound up, as we are, in our narrow, domestic walls, in oases of consumerist somnolence amidst the vast desert of misery.

Global Wealth Distribution
Global Wealth Distribution

We do not need radical ideas. We do not need drastic policies. We do not need, last thing of all, another war of ideas. We do not need anybody to tell us to be good despite our inherent fallen natures. We do not need sacrifice ourselves at the altar of propagandist prophets of the new age. We do not need sermons.

I like to think in, what I call, basics. Reduce complexity to its constituents, concepts to their meanings, dialogue to its essence. At the larger political level, it is always helpful to think in terms of power. At the level of individual associations, I think the question of ethics is the most important. Goodness is a scientific fact, something we have developed through evolutionary pressure in thousands, tens of thousands of years. Being good is a very successful strategy of survival, we should assume. But the existential dilemmas of our times arise from an unequal relationship between the pursuit of power and the question of ethics.

If we move one dialectical step forward from this basic interaction – between power and ethics – we enter the domain of politics. From there, into policy. Since it is the pursuit of power that drives the first movement, it is the interest of power that predominates throughout the chain, from idea to action. But if we can weigh in on the side of ethics right at the first step, when we form our worldview and the consequent understanding of the nature of the world and how we should deal with it, we change the equation. From idea to action, the movement will de driven by ethical concerns.

When policies are made by those whose primary interest is the pursuit of power, we witness the first chain. This has been the norm, with very few challenges, throughout world history. The very few, they who occupy the so-called positions of power, have driven the movement of politics. But, in our times, especially since the churn of the twentieth century which I mentioned above, more and more policies are driven by concerns of ethics. This is the second chain. Of course, since both chains operate in the same global space, they share certain links, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on which chain limits the other or which keeps the other in check. Maybe we can visualize this interaction through the model of a DNA molecule with its intertwined strands of chromosomes.

Anyway, this discussion seems to have taken a life of its own and before it mutates into something else, let me bring back the point about the idea of progress in the Millennium Development Goals. I spoke earlier about the potential of the project, about the larger ‘Goal’ of the goal, about the possibility and necessity of a wholesome life if we are successful, about the fundamental problem of acute poverty in an era of abundance. I believe in the power of these commitments because the project of the Goals is driven by an ethics based commitment towards making the world a better place. In these Goals, in addition to the actual possibility of their improving the lives of real people, we also have a sort of model for building ethics based policies for the world. This is a great possibility.

The idea of progress predominant in the Age of Empire of the long nineteenth century, with its vestiges reaching into the mid-twentieth century in modernization theories, etc., was challenged due to its inherent flaws which were due, primarily, to its implicit aims – the pursuit of power. Now, in the beginning of the twenty first century, we have an opportunity of re-visiting the idea of progress – one that is built on the concerns of ethics. It is only through the ‘power’ of such an idea that we can meet the challenges of our world.

A new world?


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