Rethinking Social Progress in the 21st Century

By Andrew Sheng, Distinguished Fellow, Fung Global Institute. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

What do we mean by social progress? That is the theme explored by the International Panel on Social Progress, a group of over 300 academics, including Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. After four years of work, their report has finally been published last month by Cambridge University Press, with a useful summary at

The definition of social change or progress is never neutral or value free, since different societies have diverse views on what constitutes a good or just society. As the report points out, the 20th century’s ideological struggles and two world wars and the 21st century’s global financial crises have caused many to lose faith in socialism as well as trust in capitalism.

Ideologically, liberals opt for soft options, whilst conservatives offer hard choices, often at others’ expense.

Indeed, the discourse on social change has moved from polite conversation to heated debate to, in many societies, outright civil war and geopolitical conflict. It is precisely because the world has never been richer and yet more unequal that makes the debate so confrontational. The divide is not just digital, but also generational, ideological, and cultural, along ethnic, religious, and other identity lines.

This report suggests that social scientists have become more open to humanity-based and dialectical systems-thinking, recognizing deep contradictions in all human societies and ecological systems. The Panel sees the underlying contradiction of development as “poverty amongst plenty, individual advancement versus collective regression, and repression intertwined with liberty.”

Technology has enabled humanity to increase the range of possibilities for progress, but growing inequalities, political conflict, and environmental threats constrain our ability to achieve such progress. Progress is defined as positive aspects of “equal dignity, basic rights, democracy, the rule of law, pluralism, well-being, freedom, non-alienation, solidarity, esteem and recognition, cultural goods, environmental values, distributive justice, transparency, and accountability.”

These objectives are well and good, but no two societies have the same ordered preferences to achieve what each considers the “right” balance. And because resources are increasingly limited, sovereign states are increasingly prone to fight or disrupt others who seem to have different values and priorities.

For example, Asians have always struggled with the view that modernity is understood “along the lines of a Western-liberal democratic nation-state, committed to individual rights and material opportunities guaranteed to all on the basis of their universal citizenship status.” As the Panel noted, “on every continent, modernization unfolded without modernity, and indeed even repressed or inhibited modernity.”

Interestingly, the Panel sensed that “globalization and the spiral of inequality and corporate political power have triggered a growing legitimacy crisis in old and new democracies, undermining the nation-state as the basis for democracy and welfare policy.” It sees transnational private actors and international financial institutions as new players in the global governance system.

It also doubts that the present international financial system based on “flexible exchange rates and footloose capital mobility, low barriers to trade and high barriers to low-skilled migration” can be sustained into the future.

It is always easier to criticize the old order than to build an alternative new order. The Panel is honest enough to admit that there will be multiple directions of social progress rather than a single pathway to an ideal society. Indeed, the different interpretations of progress must mean that the debate will be complex, multi-dimensional, involving diverse strategies, open-minded experimentation, and scientific assessment.

In other words, development is a process that must be different for different societies. Every society and generation must find their own path to progress.

Nevertheless the Panel has suggested some consensus tools, such as the adoption of a universal basic income to address economic inequality. Inequality is often the result of differences in collective bargaining power that lead to unfair and inefficient outcomes. For example, electoral democracy offers one means of negotiating better solutions, but because elections cost money to acquire votes, the funding of elections creates corruption opportunities that entrench inequalities and nullify solutions to address these imbalances.

Those looking for clear answers from the experts on how to achieve social progress in this Report will be deeply disappointed. The concluding chapter is highly introspective, asking how the social sciences can help contribute to policy and institutional change. It looks at six policy domains: economics, education, environmental protection, health care, development and science and technology.

There is one unifying theme across all six policy domains—the perennial debate over the role of markets versus the state. The laissez-faire view is that the state only needs to worry about infrequent market failures. But if market failures are frequent and built into the system, can the state effectively address these failures, and how?

This dilemma is critical in the tough issue of addressing inequality. If the state is itself ineffective because of corruption, capture, or incompetence, can the market or another mechanism be found to correct social injustice? The problem is more acute at the global level, because even the unipolar power has recognized it cannot afford unilaterally to provide global public goods. Without proper global governance, the global economy will be prone to more natural disasters from climate change that worsen global stability.

There are no such answers from this report of experts, although there are elegant questions and perspectives on how to think about these problems. But if the experts themselves cannot agree, then is it not surprising that history has thrown up charismatic leaders who promise to make change?

Those who watch the most powerful man in the world repeatedly jumping on the cracked glass of the old order must wonder what social science theory can explain the impact of idiosyncratic behavior on future stability.

Change is coming, but whether the old order will shatter and reform into a more just and orderly future, the one comfort we have is that the experts are no better than any one of us.

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  1. Disturbed Voter

    There has been great progress in economics. But not so much in politics. But much of this is due to technological and agricultural progress. But such progress is dual-edged (see Indian or Mexican farmers). And nobody is interested much in political progress. There has been a great reaction against political progress since the fall of the Soviet Union and the defection of Red China.

    1. JTMcPhee

      I’d challenge the use of “progress” above. “Development,” maybe. “Innovation and disruption,” which used to have negative connotations in a lot of instances, but not “progress” as it is so blandly and blindly thought of by most folks.

    2. Richard Kline

      ” . . . [T]he world has never been richer and yet more unequal . . . ” That is a highly debatable assertion; in fact, it is false in my view. The grandee in Mughul India, Ottoman Turkey, or Tang China stood farther above the average than the average billionaire does today. The absolutely landless and poor in societies of mass subsistence agriculture were as or more desperate than the poorest of the poor in conflict states as of 2000 CE, and far more numerous. There were trivially small ‘middle classes,’ mostly small merchants who could be destituted at any time or petty bureaucrats wholly at the (lack of mercy) of cabal power struggles far above them. Most in every major society could be executed at any time for ‘religious crimes’ as deemed by the powers that be. Even as recently as 500 CE, most major societies not only practiced legal human slavery en masse but depended heavily upon it for agricultural production. The exceptions were societies such as Sui-Tang China or the major states of Mesoamerica were population so infringed upon productive capacity the the ever-present risk of mass starvation disciplined the poorest to keep their noses to the soil and expect nothing. Malnutrition was pervasive (in contrast to prior hunter-gather societies, where individuals ate better and lived better). Infectious disease trajectories could at any time kill one in four or five, no one knew how or why.

      Those who say ‘progress’ as a concept is meaningless simply know nothing of history. It isn’t all roses, these times we’re living in, nor is change necessarily a function of wisdom and intent—at all. But the fact is, that by any standard of the last 4000 years most in the world live better now with more potential outcomes possible for themselves personally, if not necessarily their societies.

      To me, the angst evidently rife at the conference referenced in the post derives exactly from this fact, “poverty amidst plenty” [emphasis definitely added]. Plenty is much more in evidence now than at any point in the millennia of institutional state societies. And that eats at the many who have nothing. When there was little, and that monopolized by small coteries of elite actors, the situation seemed natural, or at least inescapable, and so inured the many to want an lack of opportunity. Now amidst wealth, sufficient to clothe, feed, and provide a modicum or leisure to all, inequality, want, and exploitation seem not merely un-natura but intolerable. It is a context of changing expectations, to me—and that is good. All should expect more, and view the exploiters with less tolerance. But take care, for most all of us can easily become ‘the exploiters,’ even when not intending to at all; as those at the conference are well aware, I feel sure.

      I think that mass migration, a truly remarkable function of the last 300 years, will become less acceptable in the future. Not that I wish this, the great majority of societies have benefited considerably from migration. In a world disrupted by climate change and very likely under increasing pressure regarding sufficient provision by nation-state authorities, migration is more likely in the immediately coming generations to be resisted. Probably unsuccessfully, but migration as a driver of conflict and reflexive repression is all to great a risk.

      In my view, capital mobility around the world is likely to be increasingly taken by the collar and checked by nation-state authorities. Money has ways of worming through the cracks even so, but action by state authorities to prevent this will become far more prevalent in the future than now. Anyone who thinks that ‘corporate actors’ are or could possibly supplant nation-state institutional authorities is fantasizing. Nation-state authorities can seize most of the assets of ‘corporate actors’ any time they so choose. ‘Corporate actors’ were helpless when their assets were nationalized in many post-colonial societies. Putin’s popularity rests very substantially that he decimated the Russian oligarchs handily, driving into exile all but those ‘tame boyars’ reduced to dependence upon him and his governing cabal. The alternative to this is where ‘corporate actors’ have captured institutional authority, pertaining to them, or generally. That is to a considerable degree what we presently have in the USA—and this will inevitably lead to a major reaction, though the progress and outcome of that confrontation is not something I care to predict in any simple fashion. The exception to the comparative weakness of corporate actors is where the latter have persuaded or captured a state actor to act for them. United Fruit in its day, Aramco in its Day, Apple in our day, can relay upon its host nation-state to act blindly in its favor and defense. This Corporate Parasite Syndrome makes corporate actors seem more powerful than they are by the implicit defense of their interests by the nation-state behind them. Smaller nation-states around the world at times tolerate corporate parasites because of this; in particular, American corporate parasites have seemed powerful beyond their actual strength exactly because it was American state power as a threat which made their petty, plutocratic whims gain traction. To a point, but not too far. Even the most powerful American corporate actors are dragged about by their nose rings by the Chinese state, or kicked into a smaller corner by the EU. Don’t anyone bet on corporations taking over any time soon. Frankly, American Big Spy could wipe the floor with them in 18 months, I’d bet.

      Change will come not because we will it but because condition matrices of any particular moment are destabilized when that moment changes. The sand shifts under their feet, more or less, when their production regimes don’t simply mature, saturate, stale, and de-profit out.

      I believe that physical technology is VASTLY over-rated as a driver of change. We are mesmerized by toys without realizing how little difference they make, in the main. In contrast, cognitive technologies and practical economies are vastly underestimated in their impact. Mass literacy has likely had more impact upon modern societies than television ever could. Being able to send a message to the other side of the world in a matter of seconds has real impact, even while the means by which this is achieved if functionally irrelevant. Mass vaccination, and the attendant childhood survival rates have been hugely impactful without most in any society understanding in the least the science or technology behind these programs. And so on. An efficient, inexpensive, decentralized energy storage medium would have vast, vast impacts upon most all current societies, when, if, and as we get it. That would be ‘technology,’ yes, and I’d give credit where it is due. The main changes, though, would be exactly in the potentials of ‘decentralization’ not in ‘tech,’ i.e. in the social changes potentiated.

      If I were a betting man, this last possibility is where I would see the greatest potentials for a fairer and more just world: get everyone off the grid, on the nets (plural definitely intended), and able to flip bird to the corps and the slow-moving parts of the state. The less dependent we are on them, the more choices we have, so the more we choose, to occasionally come wisely and with intelligence. . . . When we don’t simply become more efficient at killing each other and ourselves off.

  2. Newton Finn

    “What do we mean by social progress? That is the theme explored by the International Panel on Social Progress, a group of over 300 academics….” Much of what looms ahead for American and Western civilization is unclear to me, but one thing I do know. The answers to our existential dilemmas, if there are any, will not come from academics. From time to time, it is useful, as a reality check, to revisit Teddy’s “Man In The Arena.”

  3. Indrid Cold

    There is this crazy idea that history moves along some trajectory called ‘progress’. Liberals are supposed to be so science friendly but the first thing a hard science person will tell you is to get telos out of your pretty little head. There is no meaning or purpose or plan. So this notion amongst Democrats or wanna be marxists that the triumph of the human spirit is inevitable alway puzzles me. It’s not. It seems that when they really started graphing out the future in the 70s, some conclusions were drawn; the planet simply cannot afford to support 11 billion people at the lifestyle of a citizen of Iowa circa 1968. There’s not enough copper, bauxite, high grade iron, &c. Notice that immediately after you start heaering politicians preahing austerity. ‘Individual Initiative’ and ‘Diminished Expectations.’ Living conditions in the first world start drawing down for the 99.999% while a vanishingly small group of interbreeding neo aristorcratic families live a science fiction utopia future. Sorry to be a big bummer.

    1. James McFadden

      Well said.
      It reminds me of the same human-centered-progress narrative about evolution having some direction – the silly tree of life with humans at the top – which is also nonsense – debunked by Gould.

      That said, we do have some agency and we could, however unlikely, find a less dystopic path in the infinite tangle of possible futures that might allow humans to exist for a bit longer. In principle, humans could choose to abandon the consumer culture and growth-oriented capitalist society and settle down into a minimalist, sharing, life-of-leisure that values the future rather than choosing the sociopath economist “discounting the future” of capitalism. Capitalism is not inevitable. It is just another experiment in nature that could doom humans to a fast flame-out — extinction in the next few hundred years — a shorter run then most species – but the inevitable fate of all species.

    2. Summer

      “the planet simply cannot afford to support 11 billion people at the lifestyle of a citizen of Iowa circa 1968”

      The current global economic system has built in mechanisms for population control.
      Isn’t that also what remains unspoken? There are no plans to sustain over 10 billion people.
      There are theories on how to do it, but no plans.
      There is only an alleged move to give people “access” to sustainability.
      Throw people in a ring to let them fight it out. You get access to the ring to fight it out. This is sold to people as “civilization.”

    3. Enquiring Mind

      Notice that immediately after you start heaering politicians preahing austerity. ‘Individual Initiative’ and ‘Diminished Expectations.

      When George H.W. Bush spoke about a thousand points of light, I thought that he really meant to signal a shift in outlook. He was telling people that they would be on their own, at least those outside a small circle of friends. That was a message hiding in plain sight, followed by the re-engineering, downsizing and euphemizing that seem positively quaint and humane by comparison to modern expectations.

  4. Livius Drusus

    I don’t think that all technology has been positive. Many of the recent developments in infotech and telecommunications are either overrated or absolutely pernicious. In addition to allowing for more surveillance and control of human beings by large organizations (predominantly governments and corporations) there is now a good deal of evidence showing that too much Internet, smartphone and social media use can be detrimental to your mental and physical health. Unfortunately it is hard to limit your use of these technologies because they are so widespread and addictive that they have become part of the social fabric.

    Blogger Ian Welsh has written some good pieces of some of the negatives of the infotech/telecom revolution.

    The refusal to look critically at technology is one of the biggest blind spots of modern people and for progressives in particular who tend to assume that all technological progress is good and we just need to have the right technocrats in control to make sure everything runs smoothly and fairly. I think this is naive in the extreme.

  5. Tomonthebeach

    The vast majority of science-fiction movies and TV series in the past 20 years seem to take place in contexts where corporate dictatorship has replaced representative democracy, or even nation states. Maybe Hollywood knows something we don’t?

    1. Summer

      One film from over 40 years ago did say it already happened and details hkw we watched it happen: “Network.”
      It was called satire in the 70s and now it looks like a documentary, with only a few variations in political sentiment.

      1. Dan

        And “Three Days of the Condor” is an excellent documentary on CIA control of…everything.

        “Our project will be complete when nothing the American people believe is true.”

        The United States is simply one gigantic psychological operation. A huge psyop, that’s all.

  6. Jeremy Grimm

    The IPSP report heralded by this post appears to me long, word rich, with something for everybody:
    “The underlying hypothesis for social progress is that development is, and always has
    been, contradictory.”
    “The ancient hierarchies and exclusions of gender and race were shaken in their foundations.”
    “The crucial issues seem to be two. First, how are the costs of limiting global warming to
    be allocated globally?”
    [from 2nd draft of the 1st chapter of the report available for download from []
    I wonder where the author of this post saw a basis for making this claim: “This report suggests that social scientists have become more open to humanity-based and dialectical systems-thinking, recognizing deep contradictions in all human societies and ecological systems.”
    What social scientists were previously closed to these insights?
    I just scanned around the 2nd draft for chapter 1 a little and immediately spotted references to cost, markets, capitalism and democracy and started to wonder just what kind of philosophy directed this exploration of social progress. I had to stop further investigation of this report to quell an overwhelming desire to grab a soft drink and sing about teaching harmony to the world. It’s definitely time for another cup of coffee.

  7. JP

    The label “economist” is not understood. It is thought that these are experts in the flow and metrics of goods and services. While this is true for the micro-economic field of number crunchers that use math models to try and constrain many millions of irrational decisions of millions of people, by and large economics is all about social engineering. For instance here is a good link concerning the roots of neo-liberalism:

    In any case socio-economics is a moving target because it has an evolutionary nature. So any “economist that hits the nail today may well be wrong tomorrow. Take John Keynes. He made all of his models when the world operated on the gold standard. The very nature of money has changed since his time. Money is not backed by gold or any other substance. Money is created by loans from private banks. The loans that are productive add to the overall health of the economy and the ones that are not productive deduct. The evolutionary aspect is that unproductive money tends to die on the vine and productive endeavors will continue to expand. Never the less Keynes would probably agree that what’s wrong with capitalism is not capitalism and socialism and capitalism are not mutually exclusive. The problem is most people including corporations are corrupt and often wrong but never uncertain.

    This then points to two possible solutions: The all knowing benign dictator (king). Or an ever more informed and educated electorate. Good luck.

    1. JTMcPhee

      So many definitions to argue over, and about that creation myth for “money” coming from bank loans… And Trump just signed a bill for $7 trillion in not-bank-loan-created money to fund the most unproductive (for most people) activity in the world, making destructive sh!t and using it to blow stuff up and kill people.

      Small groups of humans seem to have done pretty well at maintaining themselves in the past. Though of course some of them opted to pursue hegemony, and push “progress,” so stones and clubs to spears and atlatls and bows and arrows and crossbows and armor and swords and guns and nuclear and chemical and biological and drone swarm and nanotech and cyber weapons, and little smart-a$$es going to their labs and benches and keyboards and processors and screens every day in a tail-chase race to the dead-end bottom…

      1. JP

        I would refer you to the work of Cullen Roche at

        Read his various well informed and researched papers and educate yourself as to the nature of money.

        Secondly, the treasury borrows existing money to fund government expenditures it doesn’t print it. When a sovereign starts “printing money” to pay its debts it usually leads to hyper-inflation. see Germany and the roots of Odo-liberalism, see various South American currency inflation causes. And please don’t tell me how the Fed printed money to bail out the banks, that’s not what happened.

  8. paul

    Ideologically, liberals opt for soft options, whilst conservatives offer hard choices, often at others’ expense

    At what point do the latter become ‘hard’ and the former ‘soft’.

    Vice Vera.

    Try to compare building a wall with destroying one.

    A quite different set of skills.

    1. JTMcPhee

      Operating hammers and front end loaders — mostly the same skills for either building or demolishing…

  9. JTMcPhee

    More and more it sounds and looks to me like my little notion that the species has a death wish is on the mark. And that the Futilitarians are the only ones who get what’s going on, and have in hand the psychological responses that have any applicability:

    Telomeres and apoptosis, indeed.

    Of course, in our micro views of the world, it is important that the sun shines through the green leaves in the tree in front of my dwelling. That the tide brings in magical organisms for the delight of my grandchildren. That music stirs chords in my heart. That I can still dream that everyone can gain real security from deprivation, if not from cosmic events like cosmic ray lances and asteroid strikes and volcanism. So all of us can eat to our actual hunger and drink to our reasonable thirst.

    That’s the soft part, as I see it. Too bad there are so many ‘hard” people out there, driven by other hungers and thirsts…

  10. Scott1

    Systems Engineers create systems human beings have to believe in in order for those systems to work. Essentially the political system of Democracy in the US is degraded by those that do not believe in it but are allowed to use it for self interest and the purposes of privatization.
    William James said in his Harvard Lectures of 1905 “Democracy is delicate.”
    I admire Aviation Systems including the Airport Authority.
    I’ve noted that the likelihood of famine is reduced amongst the Western Democracies.
    The other commentators hit a lot of points. Thanks

  11. John Wright

    I disagree with the assertion that “the world has never been richer and yet more unequal that makes the debate so confrontational.”

    “Richer” implies to me some maximization of stored up value that can be used in the future, not a bookkeeping value in real estate or a brokerage or bank account.

    We have predictions of 60 years left of topsoil ( and we are in an era where newly extracted and burned hydrocarbons are predicted to lead to ever more climate change problems in the future,

    The oceans are warming and acidifying, over-fishing is occurring, deforestation continues and we have newly highlighted dangers such as plastic pollution.

    And some are suggesting that we are in the Sixth mass extinction.

    If one can assert the “world has never been richer” I would like to know how this is measured.

    I believe the world was “richer” at the beginning of the 20th century when much oil was still in the ground, the forests were larger and the oceans and farmland were healthier.

    And we had far fewer people competing for resources.

    When viewed from the animal kingdom, I suspect THEIR world (other than domestic pets/livestock) looks ever more poorer, not richer.

    Humans may be following other animals’ path..

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