Progress and its Discontents

The ‘New Optimists’, and their narrative that the world has never been better, have have gained significant support from the likes of Bill Gates and the Koch brothers. But is this a last-ditch battle cry for the status quo?

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating progress. Humanity has made some extraordinary gains in recent history that deserve our attention. But that’s not really what New Optimism is about. The movement’s core argument isn’t just that things have improved, but rather that the progress we’ve seen has been fuelled by the spread of capitalism around the world. As Pinker puts it: ‘Industrial capitalism launched the Great Escape from universal poverty in the 19th century and is rescuing the rest of humankind in a Great Convergence in the 21st.’ Some prominent voices within the movement take this further, and argue that it’s not just capitalism that we have to thank, but specifically the neoliberal variety that has dominated the world economy since the 1980s.

It’s a powerful story. In today’s political climate, New Optimism is routinely weaponized by those who seek to defend an economic model that has otherwise been haemorrhaging credibility. It has become a kind of last-ditch battle cry for the status quo.

Despite their insistence on ‘reason’, the New Optimists are often strikingly uninterested in the nuances of the historical evidence they invoke. In their hands, the story of human progress has been distorted into a cartoonishly simple narrative wherein capitalism is responsible for virtually everything good that has happened in modern history and nothing bad. The fact that the most important gains in human welfare have been won by labour unions and social movements, enabled by publicly funded research and secured by public healthcare and education systems, almost always in the face of determined and even violent resistance from the capitalist class, is never acknowledged. Egregious disparities in social indicators between classes and nations are papered over in favour of aggregate trends. And the decidedly regressive sides of capitalism – colonization, genocide, plantation slavery, oil wars, regular attacks on workers’ rights and welfare systems, and, perhaps most damningly, climate change and ecological breakdown – are either downplayed or ignored altogether.

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