The word “progress” is used as an antonym for “backsliding”. Therefore, being a progressive implies a positive connotation, while everything outside that limit has a negative meaning, synonymous with backwards, outdated or, in political terms, almost reactionary conservative. These last words are the ones that are of interest in this article.
Roughly explained, during the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, the use of the term “progress” began to spread. Until that time, in a linear conception of history, there is an idea of ascent and decay according to the proximity or remoteness with respect to salvation; to life after death. On the other hand, from the Enlightenment, what was previously called “ascent”, with an ultraterrestrial meaning, became known as “progress”: an improvement on earth. There is a substantial change here, not only where that status is better located, whether on earth or in life after death. The fundamental modification is that of the objective, understood as that state which is better than anything else. If previously it was something determined (eternal life), since the eighteenth century we have observed talk about the good here on earth, although it is not specified what it may consist of. This gives rise to a variety of opinions about what is best in each specific circumstance.
After this historical preamble, what happens today? A number of Spanish political parties calls itself “progressive” and describes its measures and programs as “government of progress”. At the same time, in the field of culture, there is a platform of left-wing intellectuals who protect themselves under that name and the subtitle referred to as “form governments of progress and in defense of democracy”. Despite this, none of the parties that belong to that political sector have the word progress in their acronym, nor any derivative. They offer, instead, “worker”, “socialist” or conjugations of verbs that let you guess an action from power to change the system. So much so, that the Spanish political formation that used the word progress to be baptized was a nineteenth-century party. It was liberal, and very much so, but it did not resemble current socialism, nor the nineteenth-century workers’ struggle.
This analysis, as scholarly and unnecessary as it may seem to the fluctuations of current politics, is of great importance. It shows how language and its use can be treacherous. Specifically, how a political trend is able to monopolise a concept much broader than its own existence.
A political trend is able to monopolise a much broader concept than its own existence
None of the current frontline formations, whether left or right, holds the word “progress”. Despite this, specific parties come to mind when pronouncing that word. Quickly, in our daily use of the language we associate “progress” or “progressive” with the political group “left”, either as a very positive added value, or as a pejorative characteristic that should be removed in the case of those who consider themselves as “right-wingers”. The first conclusion that emerges from these statements is that there is only one way of progress —the so-called “left-wing” progress— and that those who get out of that delimitation cannot be considered supporters of progress. Moreover, in many instances, they themselves will be proud of not being included in that group.
But then, who are these people? If they are not in favour of progress, they are against it. Do they, then, recoil? Is it not that they propose another type of progress? This illustrated desire for progress on earth provides a huge range of possible improvements to daily problems. Each “progress” is measured according to some parameters, so all parties can be considered “progressive” so long as they achieve their objectives, because, for them, they do constitute improvements. But not only for them, but also for their voters. Therefore, denying that conservatives or “the right” is capable of progress would amount to condemning half a nation to be reactionary.
However, where is the measure of progress? If for each one of as something may imply an improvement or the opposite, is there an objective improvement? This could be equated to a greater common good. That which respects human dignity more in its various aspects: health, work, education, etc. In each historical circumstance, the defense of that human dignity will be done differently. As a result, the proposed measures will be equally valid as proposals and all of them, which are reasonable. The best will be the one that best suits reality and the common good, according to the public order in place.
According to these arguments, paradoxes may arise, such as that a party proclaimed “conservative” does not reveal itself incompatible with the word progress. Perhaps, the specific circumstance requires improvements based on more traditional and less disruptive views. On other occasions, a political formation recognised as “progressive” may alter the status quo with its government agreements. And this, from its criteria, would constitute progress. However, by undermining the current order outside the legislative path, opposing a particular idea to reality, one runs risks generating problems of social coexistence, and this does not generate progress, but divergence or stagnation, very contrary to the common good.
In conclusion, given an objective problem, there are many ways to solve it. All these hypothetical solutions constitute possible progress, albeit in different directions. Two questions are thus raised: why can a single political group uniquely appropriate the concept of progress? And on the other hand, why does this political tendency also permeate the intellectual-cultural field, linking it to its idea of progress? Someone’s proposals will be optimal, but always from his or her point of view. However, they are not the only viable options nor, perhaps, the best. That is one of the riches and renovations resulting from the Enlightenment in Western thought: the multiplicity of progress on earth. The belief that there is only one way forward is equivalent to a setback. A position that easily leads to dogmatism and unique thinking, whatever the sign.