Progress and its Implications

By: Jeremy Kingston Cynamon

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[1]W. Benjamin


How do we determine whether our society is getting better or worse? Have we experienced progress or regress in the last 100 years? 1000 years? Ever? Herbert Marcuse writes that critical thought when: “confronted with the given society as an object of reflection…becomes historical consciousness; as such it is essentially judgment.”[2] However, this does not suggest relativism, continues Marcuse, because “in the real history of man” we can find “the criteria of truth and falsehood, of progress and regression.”[3] Perhaps Marcuse is too optimistic in his belief that the criteria of truth and falsehood can be found in history, or anywhere else, but he is on to something useful with his historicized notions of progress and regress.

Any claim that something has progressed requires a value judgment. Since progress denotes something good we must have some notion of what is good (or ‘the good’), however vague, in order to defend our claim. For example, one cannot say that community X has made progress when it builds new housing developments unless one believes that new housing developments are something good for the community. It might be the case that the construction of these homes has destroyed something believed to hold great cultural/historical value and so the construction actually indicates a regress.

The need for a value judgment attached to any claim of progress becomes even more obvious when we consider an example like technology. We might say: look how far we have progressed, our phones are so small and powerful now. But, that unexamined notion of progress as equated with development becomes rather dubious when the object in question is something like a weapon. It does not seem right to say: look how far we have progressed, our bombs can kill so many more people now. Therefore, we might usefully distinguish development from progress. Whereas the former simply implies a pattern with a particular direction, the latter suggests that the direction of the development is indeed a good one.[4]


A constrained notion of progress need not devolve into a vulgar relativism. History provides us with a constantly growing well of data from which to fashion our normative criteria for progress. Nonetheless, those which we decide upon cannot be universals for: “History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now.”[5] Otherwise, it might be possible to transcend one’s context to that Archimedean point which Anglophone philosophy, a hardened addict, cannot rid itself of the desire to inject at each fleeting opportunity

While we must acknowledge that a relativistic nature to historicization always persists, this does not inevitably lead into the realm where ‘anything goes’. Although we cannot reach the summit of the philosopher’s tower of Babel, we can stand high enough upon platforms of our own design to gaze upon the surroundings and pass judgment upon them. Our view might be updated, revised, or rejected, but it can never be refuted wholesale from the perspective of one platform or another. Although the person sitting atop might be able to make judgments about history and about societies past and present relative to his or her own position, they can never extricate him or herself from their socio-historical context. However, our historical contingency need not render us mute. When the language of the divine is unavailable we must seek recourse in the ephemeral language of man.

Simply put, middle grounds can exist between universal truths and absolute relativity. Here we can erect platforms to stand upon from which to assess societal developments. Our construction can consist only of the criterion which we decide upon and is in this narrow sense, arbitrary. However, simply because our category cannot escape the tainted touch of human will, simply because it cannot emerge as the pure result of an inevitable historical process or an a priori derivation of Reason – does not mean that it cannot be qualitatively judged. Should we err in our designs, choosing a value inadequate for parsing the contemporary moment, our edifice will be useless. Alternatively, if we carefully reason our way to useful criteria then our framework will be effective.


Insofar as we accept the theoretical possibility of constructing transient foundations, we must then proceed to determine their content. Marcuse again offers us his help. He explains: “The quest for criteria for judging between different philosophic projects…leads to the quest for criteria for judging between historical projects and alternatives, between different actual and possible ways of understanding and changing man and nature.”[6]

We might craft an argument suggesting that contemporary American society is better than colonial America by referring to a criterion of structural domination. For example, it is reasonable to say that though structures of domination that enmesh the black population in America still exist, the more egregious ones from the colonial era (e.g. chattel slavery) have been done away with. This category, in its most stripped down sense, is our best choice for judging progress in the capitalist era for a few reasons. The value of non-domination can be justified on liberal grounds, as well as on the terms of most alternative philosophical frameworks. Moreover, as Marcuse rightly tells us the closest we can come to a true a criterion is one that emerges as a result of a struggle against an irrational society, and against the irrational structures partially constitutive of it.[7] Surely the struggle against domination fits this mold. Only from within such struggles can a critique of the status quo be healthily developed. By contrast, those critiques which begin within the system simply reproduce it under varying pretenses.

It might be useful to examine another possible criterion to gauge the strength and limitations of our own. For the mainstream economist engaged in a vastly different project than that of a critical theorist it is reasonable to suppose that progress can be judged in terms of economic development. But aside from the obvious normative weakness of that criterion relative to structural domination, it suffers from the same problem as all other criteria. A society is not a thing – a single entity, a coherent totality – and so cannot be judged as such. It is a vast set of individuals, rules, roles, and structures that are often in contradiction with one another. Therefore, economic development in one area might totally ignore another and as such only appear as progress to a particular group.[8] Though the non-domination stance suffers from this same tendency to treat societies as coherent totalities, it seems better equipped to navigate that dilemma. Unlike economic development, domination can be studied analytically, structurally, or phenomenologically.[9]

Still, there will never be a society completely free from all forms of domination.[10] Structures of domination can be reduced, made more plastic, and generally weakened, but will nonetheless endure in some forms. And this holds true regardless of our economic system. Inherent in the human relationship to nature, to others, and to society is the potential to dominate and to be dominated. In a popular version of the narrative society itself emerges as a result of humans struggling to overcome nature’s dominance. If the engine of history only stops when the struggle of the dominated ceases then history has no end.

As a consequence, we are left with the need to make another value judgment (note we have already accepted that domination is bad) in deciding which sorts of domination are more and less acceptable.[11] For example, we might feel as Plato did that a structural domination of the wise over the foolish is a suitable way to organize a society. At the same time we might believe that the domination of the wealthy over the poor is totally unacceptable – and thereby make a progress judgment. Plato’s Kallipolis might then, crudely, be considered a better society than one in which the minority rich exploit and manipulate the majority poor.

This latter prong of our project, the secondary value judgment, presents the more elusive normative question and bears directly on the political project of the left. Most will agree that domination in general should be avoided where possible and reduced when necessary, but determining which areas are more and less pressing – which sorts of domination are more and less egregious – will surely be a contentious process. Our deepest concern must be avoiding hasty political decisions that regress into identity politics. Instead, the sorts of domination that are targeted for immediate remedy must be those that have the greatest potential to transform the underlying structures of society so that their emancipatory potential can be realized.


Once we have overcome particular structures of domination a constrained notion of progress offers us a philosophical tool to prevent, or at least to argue against in an attempt to prevent, regress. In this respect we learn from history. We can rightly claim that although American society might still be wrought with unnecessary structures of domination, it has progressed since its inception. This position stands in stark contrast to the vulgar relativism sometimes polemically associated with post-modern thinkers, which suggests that because we cannot determine with philosophic certainty whether we are progressing or regressing we ought to take a hands off approach and simply ‘let things play themselves out’.

We have good reason to continue pursuing a notion of progress that seeks to reduce domination, and as a result we need to formulate a political strategy. Again, in order to be successful the strategy must curtail our tendency to fall into identity politics. That route, as history can attest, does little to address the deep structures of domination in our society.[12] Instead, it focuses heavily on recognition politics and in doing so remains within the bounds of bourgeois justice. Identity politics is able to gain traction within market society, because it does not threaten any underlying structures.

Our situation is best understood within the larger context of capital’s contradictions. The increased material wealth that a society enjoys brings with it a heightened potentiality for progress – and even to increase the pace of that progress. Simultaneously, the upsurge in material wealth allows the system to better protect itself from critique and thereby maintain the status quo.[13] Although the depth of our potential reforms grows, their political tenability becomes increasingly difficult. In lieu of deep reforms we are left with the aforementioned identity politics, enervated of any transformative potential.


Thinking of progress in terms of universality is not only misleading, it is also politically dangerous. When we take stock of our socio-historical context, it becomes apparent that we will not be able to make the sorts of grand ahistorical claims for which philosophy itches. Responsible theorizing must accept the limits of its horizons, and focus instead on constrained notions of progress. Any claim of progress can be countered with a different criterion that suggests regress. Nevertheless, it is possible to compare one criterion for progress to another and determine which is more appropriate for the moment.

Progress as the reduction of structural domination shows itself to be a more salient criterion than an economic indicator such as development or industrialization. These sorts of alternatives, developed from within the framework of the status quo, consistently fail to address underlying structures – and as such fail to bring substantive change. It is irrational to rip up the ground which one stands safely upon; only the experience of systematic denigration can consistently produce the lenses that allow us to see beyond our present institutional formation.

Jeremy Kingston Cynamon is a PhD candidate in Political Theory at Brandeis University. He did his undergraduate work in Political Science at UC Berkeley. You can follow him on twitter @__JKC__.

Image: A portion of Angelus Novus by Paul Klee The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.


[1] Benjamin, Walter. 9th thesis on The Philosophy of History. 1955.

[2] Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1964. [99]

[3] Ibid. [100]

[4] World War I is often cited as a moment when society realized that development ≠ progress. Though technology may have developed (e.g. become more sophisticated and effective), most would agree that did not bring with it social progress. Progress is no longer viewed as the simple conquest of man over nature.

[5] Benjamin, Walter. 14th thesis on The Philosophy of History. 1955.

[6] Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man [217]

[7] Ibid. [222]

[8] Amartya Sen’s capability approach is an interesting case that arguably avoids these pitfalls. However, I believe his framework can be subsumed within the more general non-domination approach.

[9] Economists themselves will readily admit that their metrics of development miss important features of social life. Beyond that however, the economists’ criterion lacks the tools to incorporate the experiences of marginalized groups in its calculations.

[10] Domination cannot be an ahistorical & universal criterion for progress. It is possible for a society to minimize most detrimental structures of domination, and so transcend the non-domination project.

[11] Just as the economist would be forced to determine what sorts of development (development for whom) counts toward progress. However, the weakness here – in relation to the criterion of domination – is that economic development is much harder to understand by studying the experience of certain groups. The evidence for economic development is found, in recorded numbers and calculated metrics as opposed to lived reality.

[12] We end slavery, but get Jim Crowe, end Jim Crowe but get mass incarceration.

[13] The internet is a good example of a vector where this plays out. It allows for an increase in intersectional communication and experimentation. However, it also gives the state and other large corporate entities the ability to continuously monitor persons


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  1. Evie.J

    Really interesting and potentially useful distinction between prog/development. Would have liked to hear more about Marcuse’s views, but still a very interesting and intelligible article.

  2. From Reddit: u/CoffeeStrength

    I think an evolutionary standpoint offers a much simpler and easier to explain counterpoint to this. If we accept the author’s distinction between progress and development as the former having a “good” connotation, then apply good at the fundamental level of life itself, we could say that good in that sense is survival of a species. Development still maintains it’s meaning in this point I’m making.
    With that said, humanity is still here, and has therefore progressed by definition in our development.
    The fluid, ever changing nature of evolution through natural selection refutes a claim that the survival of a species is stagnant.

    • From Reddit: u/frnakleyr

      The author is looking for a judgment progress/development of society, so I don’t think an evolutionary standpoint would be of much use, since the society would always be in progress if it still existed, right?

      • From Reddit: u/CoffeeStrength

        Right, but of what “use” is evolution?
        I wasn’t trying to refute what the author was arguing. To accept what he’s proposing you have to make a lot of concessions, like agreeing with his differentiation between progress and development, dismissal of vulgar relativism, and definition of “good” (to name a few).
        The point I was making was questioning this fundamental concept of “judging” progress of society through arbitrary parameters of goodness.
        I know my argument is useless in a judicial sense, but this is a philosophy forum right?

    • From Reddit: u/jezza310

      judging progress by our continual existence means that any time we have the capacity to judge (ie. we exist) we are “progressing” . That seems like a useless notion. I think the point here is to find a more useful framework

      • From Reddit: u/CoffeeStrength

        Oh I agree, it’s absolutely useless.

        • From Reddit: u/jezza310

          then i’m not sure what point you’re trying to make

          • From Reddit: u/CoffeeStrength

            My point was to free the idea of progress from both universalism and relativism, but in a simpler, more more fundamental way. You said my comment seemed like a useless notion, which I still agree with.

  3. Marylin

    Your argument is clear, concise and compelling. Thank you.

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