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Whiggery and progress. By Jacob Williams

by on June 23, 2012

“The history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years”, pronounced the Whig statesman Thomas Macaulay in the introduction to his 1848 History of England, “is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement”. This neatly sums up what has become known as the Whig interpretation of history. The society of the present day represents the culmination of human achievement; studying the past reveals reveals an inexorable trend towards the values, culture, and political arrangements of today in accordance with some cosmic law of historical development. The present thus represents the long-sought realisation of ideals held throughout all of human history

This view has been largely discredited among historians since the 1920s; but it is still all-too-easy to think of the past in Whiggish terms. Its influence can be detected, and its assumptions are implicit, in the pronouncements of liberal and progressive politicians even today. Blair frequently referred to the imperative of ‘modernisation’ in his early years in government; Cameron is keen to reassure voters of his government’s ‘progressive’ credentials. These concepts, however, make little sense without the framework provided by a Whiggish view of historical change. If modernity brings with it no inevitable, pre-determined pattern of change, on what basis can we assert the need for such-and-such a reform to bring our institutions into line with its dictates? If there is no universal direction in which societies develop, what is there to distinguish progress from its inverse? To claim that a ‘progressive’ policy is simply one that makes the country a better, happier place to live is clearly intellectually dishonest. Whatever one’s political views, no reasonably impartial observer could doubt that conservatives and reactionaries also believe their policies will achieve this; but they do not describe them as ‘progressive’.

But recognising that our belief in progress is dependent on historical Whiggery will do little to dispel our belief in it. Whig history is without a doubt the history of the non-historian: it seems manifestly obvious to all of us who have not studied the issue that societies do progress according to a pre-determined pattern; that the present is better than the past; that our ideals of equality and human rights are universal and do apply, at some level, equally to all civilisations. After all, is it not obvious that we are, on the whole, richer, freer, and happier now than we were three hundred years ago? Who would want to live as a medieval peasant?

It seems that the appeal of this view rests on two facts about our historical situation. First, we necessarily view the past through the medium of the present. Nobody can go back in time and see for themselves what the past was like; all we have is evidence from which to infer various things about it, the interpretation of which is inevitably coloured by the values and norms of the society in which we now live. Insofar as it proceeds purely from the interpretive biases inherent to a culture, Whiggery seems unavoidable. But there is another source of this tendency that is peculiar to the present era. Over the last two-and-a-half centuries or so, the industrial revolution has created unprecedented improvement in our material standards of living, delivering unforeseen and unforeseeable rates of increase in GDP per capita and creating a level of prosperity surpassing anything dreamt of in pre-industrial societies. It is tempting, therefore, to suppose that this pattern of improvement is something common to all aspects of life in all epochs. Almost as soon as the assertion is made openly and frankly, however, its falsity becomes apparent.

Whilst material improvement may be occurring now, in the grand scheme of human history two-hundred-and-fifty-years is a blink of an eye; indeed in much of the world, the industrial revolution began far later. Periods of material improvement occurred in the past, albeit at a pace slow by modern standards, but were inevitably followed by periods of decline; with environmental problems on the horizon it seems far from certain that the same will not happen again. Neither has industrialisation been accompanied by any unambiguous improvement in our politics, value systems, or culture. To suppose, then, that the mechanisation of the Lancashire cotton industry placed us on the road to continuous improvement in quality of life is ridiculous in the extreme. How implausible would Whig history seem to a witness of the collapse of the Roman Empire? Civilisations rise and fall, economies grow and shrink, societies thrive and decay: and they do so according to no universal pattern. Progress, then, is a concept whose realisation depends on a historical myth.

What, if anything, can learn from this unfortunate truth? Very little. No grand truths of human nature, no intricate theories of politics follow from it. This need not be a problem, for justified scepticism is more valuable than pretended knowledge when it comes to unmasking the pretences of ideologues and demagogues. But the unmasking of Whig history and the notions of progress that proceed from it may help show us just how easy it is to construct pleasing theories on the basis of groundless speculation, and how important it is to be vigilant in accepting supposed universal truths. At a practical level, however, rejecting Whig history may help us guard against the machinations of politicians who assert the necessity of destroying institutions that have long proven their usefulness on the basis of the need for so-called modernisation. We must be wary of politicians who peddle the snake oil of progress.

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