23 September 2015

Growth vs. Progress

Growth and Progress are two words that should or at least could be synonymous, yet in politics they're not. Notice how many right-wingers appear to despise "progressives," presumably the advocates of "progress," yet promise "growth" if they get power. A major fundraising group for Republicans, now turning its guns on Donald Trump, is the "Club For Growth." Notice how people as diverse as Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis, both considered progressives in their fields, criticize "growth as an end in itself." On some level growth is progress, but progressives increasingly question the notion while right-wingers wouldn't describe it that way. The Pope's position offers a clue to this increasing antonymity. His idea of progress, as compared to his recent predecessors, does have an important materialist aspect when it comes to providing to the poor, but his job inevitably encourages a more spiritual sense of progress. Likewise, if Sanders really is a socialist he must adhere to an essentially materialist philosophy, but I think that, as with the Pope, his idea of progress has a non-materialist element that makes it uninteresting if not threatening to the American right. On a secular level, the distinction isn't made between materialism and spiritualism, but "growth" can still be seen as essentially quantitative while "progress" is essentially qualitative. On the right, "growth" means more stuff, more wealth. It has to be something they can measure or see for themselves. It means baking a bigger pie in the hope that everyone gets more instead of dividing the existing pie into smaller, equal-sized pieces. It means the rising tide that lifts all boats, while progressives, both secular and spiritual, now tend to identify rising tides with the bad effects of climate change and the long-term consequences of "growth as an end in itself." For both Sanders and Bergoglio, I suspect, "progress" really means improved social relations as the precondition for necessary, just and sustainable growth for those who've been stunted by the current social order. For the right, this essentially qualitative aspect of "progress" is consistent with their century-old stereotype of the "progressive" as the busybody who tells everyone how to live without knowing how to provide for anyone. As for the Pope, the right probably would like to tell him that the only remedy for poverty is growth, that people have to become wealthy in order to help the poor, that "punishing success" in whatever way progressives propose ends up punishing everyone in the end. The Pope may have a different idea, in keeping with a tradition in his faith arguably dating back to its founder, a suspicion that the sort of growth the wealthy (and the would-be wealthy) idolize is a cause of poverty for many people. On the secular side, Sanders probably would agree that growth without some commitment to the well-being of all is not progress. It's fine to criticize growth as an "end in itself," as more people are doing these days, as long as we don't abandon growth, understood as a quantitative, material improvement in people's health, diet, etc., as part of progress. We'll have made real progress, on one level at least, when "progress" and "growth" are synonymous again.

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