It’s the money, though, isn’t it? The substance that makes the world real.” Connell Waldron, a character in the BBC Three series Normal People, based on Sally Rooney’s novel by the same name, says in a matter-of-fact tone. He plays a Trinity College student, counting on his privileges and conscious of those struggling for two square meals a day.
Waldron’s dilemma of an upwardly mobile youth surrounded by even more affluent students gives us an insight into what wealth and progress, or the lack of them, can do to an ordinary mortal. An element of guilt is evident in his expression as he detaches from the roots that made him what he is, ironically on his way up. There is also the consciousness to thank the heavens for improving his lot while millions continue to suffer.
While we consume incessant headlines announcing new millionaires now and then, it is worth asking whether wealth and progress are the only sum and substance of our worldly pursuits. At one level, material comforts and pursuits are the outcomes of market forces manipulating our consumerist instincts. These are objects of desire at another level that make us weak, dependent, and perhaps even greedy.
In his essay – The Idea of Progress: Reality or Myth? – American sociologist Theodore Fred Abel adds an interesting dimension to the idea of progress and how we perceive it. According to him, the goals and standards of progress refer to particular things or areas of achievement. Abel also posits that to be relevant to the idea of progress, “a goal must refer not to particulars, but to a totality, which is mankind.”
Abel’s assertion raises a pertinent question: Is there a collective human goal that can provide a standard for evaluating improvement and progression in human living? Here is how he answers it. “Unfortunately, most of the goals that have been formulated, commendable as they may be, are too vague or too general to provide a means for measuring the progress of the human race,” he says. Abel also says that “happiness for all” and “universal harmony” are typical examples of such goals.
In other words, we are continuously in the process of defining and re-redefining the parameters of progress. This is where the element of renunciation surfaces to create a necessary balance. Mexico-born and London-based economist Rodrigo Aguilera’s book – The Glass Half-Empty: Debunking the Myth of Progress in the Twenty-First Century – rejects the argument that the world is getting better.
One excerpt from Aguilera’s book sums up his argument: “At a time when liberal democracy appears incapable of stemming the tide of authoritarian populism, and when laissez-faire capitalism is ill-equipped to deal with critical socio-economic problems like climate change, inequality, and the future of work, the real advocates of progress are those willing to challenge established orthodoxies rather than hope that the policies that got us this far are the best to lead us into an increasingly uncertain future.”
One school of thought says that human beings are often deluded into believing that things around us are improving and that we are on a journey to a perfect state where irrationality and injustice will vanish. It is also true that the idea of progress was perceived differently in ancient times. By progress, they meant an improvement in specific areas, concerning mainly the material life, and without any ideological or pseudo-religious meaning.
After the Middle Ages, “progress” slowly became a new idea the way it was not known before. In the words of researcher Giovanni Monastra, “this took shape, as a unique, absolute, omni-comprehensive, linear, deterministic and mechanical process, all within an increasingly humanistic view of history, culminating in the 18th Century.”
Amid this deluge of progress, we need to rethink how renunciation is defined and, more importantly, is losing relevance. There is also the need to delink renunciation from inactivity as it should be viewed more as detachment. Overall, it makes sense to balance progress with renunciation. Just as the forgiver is bigger than the aggressor, one who renounces will have to be ranked above the consumer. That may be a difficult pill to swallow in the modern world, but as they say, true success comes with renunciation.
—The writer is a senior journalist based in Dubai
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