The path of progress

Uneven progress will always lead to a correction where societies reconnect and re-establish shared values. But that doesn't mean it will be pretty.

Have you ever watched a lava lamp? When a big bubble of wax is rising from the heat, sometimes the temperature differential means the top separates from the bottom and leaves it behind.

I’m not sure I understand the physics, since the heat is at the base. But I like it as a metaphor. Looking at the voting patterns for Trump and Brexit, it feels like our society has separated. There are those that have benefited from progress and those that have been left behind.

These aren’t absolute states, they are relative: it’s about the change you have experienced in recent years. The benefits of change have been very unevenly distributed. Those that have benefited, economically, or through greater equality, have voted to maintain the direction of travel. Those that haven’t benefited, or feel disenfranchised by the change, have voted to throw things into reverse.

This is why you have weird coalitions on both sides. The wealthiest and the poorest coming together based not on their condition but how they have experienced and perceived change.

Progress, for those seeing progress, will slow. On many fronts, economic and social. There will be a period of reconciliation, and though that word sounds soft and friendly, it won’t be. Hard battle lines have been drawn. There’s a fight breaking out about the social values of both the US and UK, along very similar lines.

I’m not looking forward to this fight. I was a net beneficiary of progress. I would have been quite happy for things to keep rolling along. That sounds selfish, but as the voting stats on both sides of the Atlantic show, I was only barely in the minority. In the echo chamber of media, polling and social networks, it was easy to believe we were in fact, the majority.

Perhaps, with different economic policies distributing the benefits of progress more evenly, things could have continued as they were. Instead, we will have a bloody few years where we thrash out what it means to be British, or American — something this year’s Reith lecturer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, has been addressing.

Only once society has been reformed into a more coherent whole can we return to the path of progress. Unless this time we do things differently, the cycle will repeat itself once again.

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