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History: The cost of progress

The idea of progress came into being in the 18th century Europe, when the European society was advancing without any impediment. Popularised by anthropologists, this ‘Eurocentric’ concept of growth and development indicated the superiority of Europe over others.

With the discovery of America, Australia, New Zealand, Caribbean and the Pacific Islands, a variety of new cultures with alien customs and traditions came into the purview of European anthropologists who studied them and arrived at the conclusion that there was a difference in the development of each civilisation.

They observed that civilisations developed in stages. Some of these cultures were in the stage of infancy, while others had reached adulthood but had not fully matured yet. According to them the Western society matured after earlier development while the Chinese, Indian and Middle-Eastern civilisations had degenerated. They believed that the old civilisations of the East were exhausted, had lost their energy and vitality and were no longer in a position to compete with the West.

The idea of progress was strengthened by scientific, technological and philosophical development. The enlightenment movement produced new ideas and transformed the European society. The superiority of the West was further consolidated when European countries colonised Asian and African nations. The resources plundered from the colonies enriched Europe and accelerated progress.

The enlightened philosophers and thinkers admired the progressive era but there was one voice which disagreed with the whole process of civilisation. Rousseau (d.1796), the French thinker, wrote an essay for a competition and argued that instead of providing contentment, development in a civilisation damaged human beings, depriving them of their liberty and freedom.

According to him in the early period of history, the primitive man was free because there was no authority to control him. There were no gender rights issues, nor labour problems or turf wars. People enjoyed the beauty of nature at leisure. They could spend their time singing, dancing and entertaining themselves. But the development of civilisation ushered in competition, rivalry, envy, hostility and social, political and economic conflict which demotivated people.

In another essay on equality, he argued that the institution of private property led to inequality in a society and disturbed harmony and brotherhood among people.

Although Rousseau romanticised ancient society, he understood well that the society could not return to the past. He believed that it should be reformed in such a way that a greater number of people would benefit from development and progress.

Nietzsche (d.1900), the German philosopher also criticised the idea of progress. According to him, each generation received a cultural legacy from its predecessors and made advancements which wiped out the social class differences giving rise to democratic and liberal values.

In his view, progress damaged and harmed the talent and intellect of individuals, leaving no space for creativity. Nietzsche was against democracy and liberty which he believed equalised all individuals, depriving the talented ones from playing a constructive role.

Despite all the criticism, the development of civilisation flourished in science, technology and intellect. But in 1914, the concept of progress and development shattered when the rivalries among European nations led to one of the bloodiest conflicts of history: World War 1.

When the war ended, an entire generation had been laid waste and Europe was in shock. The European nations experienced the dismal results of new inventions such as tank, grenades, shells and poison gases. Millions of soldiers died in trenches and on the battlefront, thousands were wounded and maimed. People were disillusioned and those who thought that the progress of a civilisation would only bring peace and harmony were disappointed.

Little was gained in the war but as an outcome the freedom movement emerged in the colonised countries. It challenged the political hegemony of the West, heralding a new era for Asia and Africa. It was an end, yes, but also a new beginning.
By Mubarik Ali:
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