Visions of progress: A surprising glimpse inside the mind of the technocrat

Progress is a powerful concept that is called on by politicians of all persuasions; indeed, we might argue that much of our everyday political debate is fundamentally about the meaning and desirability of progress. The details of what constitutes progress seem to capture the essence of  various moral and ideological divides. One person’s idea of medical advancement might well be another person’s idea of unethical meddling; where I see social progress, you may see the interference of the nanny state; in my desire for environmental regulation, you might see needless restrictions on economic growth.

Theories of progress

Anat Itay (2009) has tried to bring some order to political ideas about progress. Firstly she identifies two broadly optimistic approaches that believe in the possibility of endless improvement:

— A liberal theory of progress, focused on economic growth as an indicator of progress, and free markets as the engine of such growth.

— A social-liberal theory of progress, emphasising social justice and hence interested in social indicators rather than economic indicators.

Itay contrasts these with two broadly sceptical approaches that are concerned with the inherent dangers of seeking endless improvement:

— A green theory of progress, concerned with the problems of limited resources and with revising the liberal concept of progress.

— A conservative theory of progress, suspicious of social change as damaging to social structures and family values.

Another way of grouping at the four theories recognises that the liberal theory is generally regarded as the ‘mainstream’ view of progress, given that GDP growth remains the “the primary goal of the world’s policymakers” (p.534). Thus, by way of contrast, Itay labels the other three theories – social-liberal, green and conservative – the ‘alternative’ views of progress.

Using this framework of four theories as a tool for social research, Itay investigated the views of a group of people deeply involved in the day-to-day debate about the meaning and practical achievement of progress: statisticians, public administrators and policymakers attending an OECD conference on ‘Measuring and Fostering the Progress of Societies’ held in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2007. Of the 1200 participants, 93 people completed Itay’s survey.

The expectation might be that the mainstream liberal theory is utterly dominant in such a group of Establishment technocrats, but the results are more than a little surprising.

The technocrats’ priorities for progress

Participants were asked to freely define their goals for progress at the global, national and personal level. The leading priority for global progress is ‘environment’ (17%) with the economy only in fifth place. At the national level, however, the leading priority for progress is the economy (24%), and environment (10%) has fallen to third place. In terms of personal progress, the focus is on social issues (equality, education, human rights, etc) (33%) followed by spiritual issues. Economy was in third place and environment in seventh with just 2% of respondents selecting it as the priority issue.

What stands out for me here is the perception of the environment as not being a personal issue. This could be interpreted as a denial of responsibility, but the emphasis on environmental issues at the global scale suggests a recognition that the ecological crisis is a global collective problem that isolated individual actions, however well-meaning, cannot hope to address. It’s interesting that the technocrats see it that way; but I would guess they tend to put their trust in global institutions such as the UN, World Bank and so on, rather than collectives operating at a local level.

The technocrats’ preferred theories of progress

A set of 25 specific questions asked participants to choose between options which reflected (implicitly) either liberal or green conceptions of progress; the results show a “strong tendency towards the green theory over the liberal one” (p.539). A similar set of questions which reflected (again, implicitly) a choice between liberal or social-liberal theories brought out, in almost all cases, a preference for a welfare state over free market capitalism.

For example, 75% opt for assistance for Third World countries rather than an increase in First World quality of life, 65% prefer more leisure time over highly paid jobs, and 57% favour economic stability over growth.

This is remarkable when one recalls the survey participants are statisticians and bureaucrats at an OECD conference. Perhaps the hold of the ‘mainstream’ liberal view of progress is not so strong as the constant braying of mainstream politicians and the corporate media might indicate.

The technocrats’ preferred pathway to progress

Participants were asked to identify the best means of achieving progress; education (43%) followed by politics (31%) were preferred. Economics was seen as the best path to progress by just 11%.

It is not surprising that well-educated bureaucrats place great faith in education as a pathway to progress and I do not dispute that, at a personal level, knowledge can deliver understanding and critical insight. And knowledge can deliver power — usually to those who are already in a dominant social position. Greens, usually middle class individuals with a strong sense of meaning in and control over their own lives, might like to think that simply telling everyone that the environment is under severe strain is enough to change the way people behave. But, to take an urgent example, just knowing there is a climate emergency happening right now does not cause a single thing to occur in the political domain.

It is interesting, then, that the survey results indicate that the majority of technocrats recognise both education and politics, together, form the pathway to progress. As individuals working inside the Establishment machine, they recognise the importance of political power. And they certainly do not seem to believe the propaganda that ‘free markets’ alone deliver progress.

Final thoughts

In terms of the theoretical framework that Itay presents, my own feeling is that the green theory of progress is a little more sophisticated or nuanced than the model admits. In challenging the quantitative, economistic view of progress (ie, the liberal view) from an ecological perspective, it is certainly sceptical. But it must not be forgotten, as has been emphasised on well sharp before, that the green analysis also incorporates a social-liberal approach to social issues, and therefore is also optimistic. In challenging the Enlightenment view of progress in this way, green thinking might be said to be careful not to throw the baby (social progress) out with the bathwater (economic growth).

Despite that theoretical gripe, I find Anat Itay’s survey results fascinating. If the technocracy really is so open to green and social-liberal ideas about progress, then the insiders feel disquiet about neoliberalism too; they see priorities other than economic growth are important and other pathways to progress are more promising than the supposed objectivity of ‘free markets’. And remember, this survey was conducted in 2007, before the credit crunch and resultant recession hit the world, an experience which has only further increased doubts about the supremacy of the market.


Anat Itay (2009) Conceptions of progress: How is progress perceived? Mainstream versus alternative conceptions of progress. Social Indicators Research, 92, 529-550.


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