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This text is a response from Alain Accardo, a French sociologist, to Bernard Legros, about the article  » The end of the free market and the laws of history? Remarks on the dialectic « (Kairos 17, February/March 2015).

To make a long story short, I will stick to what seems to me to be the clearest at the moment: the question of progress, which you yourself place at the heart of your problem. 

I didn’t have too much trouble in the last few years to get rid ofa certain ideology of progress, the very one you denounce (as metaphysical, inherited from classical rationalism and then from 19th century scientism, Marxist or not, linear, mechanistic, productivist, etc.) This idea of progress has obviously had its day. The pursuit of such « progress » can only aggravate a regression that is increasingly damaging for humanity. Your position on this is perfectly clear and I agree with it. 

What seems less clear to me, in a more general way among growth objectors, is the answer to the question of whether challenging the conception of « progress » that was and still is that of the industrialized world because it is at one with capitalism is tantamount to challenging the very idea of progress. Doesn’t this word (with all the related vocabulary) also designate a kind ofstructural invariant, of dynamics pushing forward, to surpass and surpass oneself, intimately linked to the capacity of the human species to learn and understand rationally and therefore to correct, improve (not inevitably, but often) the practice. Is becoming a better person a thing of the past? 

There is, it seems to me, something like a fundamental anthropological fact , which undoubtedly has to do with the biological roots of human culture (of the « social animal »). This anthropological fact seems to me neither good nor bad in itself. It is an objective reality which founds the relative perfectibility ofHomo sapiens. It is neither to be condemned nor praised, but to be considered as one of the mainsprings of its history. The question of its value is really that of the use that human groups make of it. The question of progress is not metaphysical: it is the question of the concrete organization of a society at a given moment. It is a question of appropriation, production, distribution, etc., therefore political, economic and social, and corollary a question of defining the real needs of a given population at a certain stage of its development. We can be grateful to Marxism for making us aware of these structural issues. It is obviously more than regrettable, even if it is explicable by the historical context, that a productivist-industrialist interpretation has prevailed in the vulgate of the international labor movement. But this cannot be attributed to the vision of Marx, for whom the meaning of history was not the establishment of a generalized consumer society, but of a society without private property, without wage labor and without classes, where each individual could develop freely. Why would such an ideal be outdated? 

Why should progress be reduced to the insane race for wealth at any cost that it has become in the capitalist market? Teachers like us (along with many others) have experienced personal progress which, at best, has enabled them to emerge from misery, ignorance and superstition, to conceive and aspire to a simple, sober, convivial, balanced way of life, etc., and to help a few others to progress in the same direction. If, for contingent reasons, some have not been able to go as far in the realization of their ideal as they would have liked, is the ideal of progression invalidated? Why, once we have understood that there can be no unlimited material progress in a finite world, should we give up growing, personally and collectively, in knowledge, wisdom and humanity? Is the world of the mind also finished? In what sense? It seems to me that the degrowth movement would do well to question the polysemy of the notion of progress, which is too systematically reduced today, as if it were self-evident, to a quantifiable, mechanical and technological accumulation of material goods and paying services as understood by the capitalists who speak of growth and development. What progress are we talking about? There is still far too much vagueness on this issue, which makes it easy for the proponents of growth at any price to caricature it. How can we measure progress? Is knowing how to read and write a step forward? Is the rabies or tetanus vaccine an improvement? Is Social Security and old age pensions progress? And if a Wall Street trader touched by grace were to convert to the growth objection, wouldn’t we think he had made serious progress? But in relation to what? Doesn’t progress imply an increase in the value involved in or targeted by the action considered? And conversely, doesn’t refusing to see progress in each of the cases mentioned amount to putting everything on the same level and considering that everything is equal? 

[…] The question of progress has not ceased to be asked, in one form or another, throughout the centuries. Especially from the moment when humans understood that they had the capacity to act on things by improving their knowledge of them. Certainly, it is allowed to share the feeling that Alfred Métraux confessed sometimes, « that the Humanity perhaps was wrong to go beyond the Neolithic ». Chimerical regret! For centuries, the representation of progress (the idea-intuition of positive change) has haunted the best minds. From Epicurus and Lucretius to Max Weber, through St. Augustine, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and the nineteenth century of Comte, Hegel, Darwin, Marx, the question of the perfection of all things and all human beings, has not ceased to haunt the understanding. The Christian response has had a particular impact on the idea of progress in the West. But one can no more get rid of progress by turning it into an eschatological fantasy than by turning it into an ideology useful to bourgeois domination. 

I am well aware that we are now on the edge, because of the demographic bomb, because of the irreversible ecological damage already caused, etc. Time is running out, that’s for sure, maybe it’s not even time anymore… But does this entail the theoretical abandonment of the regulating idea of progress? I call it « regulating » to avoid any reification. Even if progress is only materialized in a given social practice at a given moment, it cannot be reduced to this empirical and provisional inscription in the facts. Even in traditional, static societies, those less disposed to change, there has been progress, Solon, Hammurabi, etc., whose concern was to improve social relations, living together as we now say in the fashionable jargon, not to disintegrate them by transforming the means into ends. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, this was also the goal. The philosophers had unfortunately not yet understood exactly what the capitalist mode of production was. Nevertheless, the ideology of Human Rights came out of it (is it a progress?). To avoid this ideology being neutralized, mocked and perverted as it was from the start, the legislator should have suppressed at the same time the right of property which, by creating new classes of exploiters and exploited, ruined the true progress and transformed the ideal into a lie, the sketch into a caricature. But the legislator was careful not to do so, because it was precisely an Assembly of owners… This means that the question of progress is inseparable from the question of power: who exercises it and to what end? 

One more question to finish: by peddling a critical vision of the current society, aren’t we trying to make it « progress » towards a « better » world? 


Alain Accardo

Is notably the author of Journalistes précaires, journalistes au quotidien ; Le petit-bourgeois gentilhomme, sur les prétentions hégémoniques des classes moyennes (Agone, 2007, 2009). He also writes a column in the French newspaper La Décroissance.

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