The problem with progress

Words: Olivia Billard

The idea of progress – that civilisation has moved, is moving, and will continue to move in a desirable direction – has been a central component of Western historical and political narratives since the Enlightenment period. But now more than ever, these narratives are toxic. From a young age, we are mistaught history based on an overemphasised sense of progress, one which makes domestic economic development the height of importance and thereby allows Western governments (in particular the British) to justify their atrocities. Entire histories are hidden and downplayed, reduced to a single page in a textbook or a half-hearted anniversary. 

The best illustration of this is the Industrial Revolution. The Revolution, which took place in Britain between 1760 and 1840, was a transitional period of mass progress towards modernity, the results of which left a lasting mark all over the globe. It saw the rapid advance of science and technology, culminating in the emergence of the modern capitalist economy. Inventions like Richard Arkwright’s water frame in 1769 and Samuel Compton’s spinning mule in 1779 transformed the British textile industry’s approach to manufacturing cotton, one of the Revolution’s driving forces. James Watt’s steam engine made steam power vital to British industry. The mechanised factory system saw urbanisation skyrocket, and mass production became the norm. 

Mass social and political progress, too, were inherent features of the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath. The British population more than doubled in the years 1801 to 1850, and more than half of those people lived in towns and cities. As a result, an increased focus on public health led to developments in medicine and sanitation. In 1854, English physician John Snow traced a cholera outbreak in London to faecal contamination of a public water well, leading to fundamental changes in the design of public water and waste systems. Alongside this, campaigns by hundreds of thousands of workers in key industrial cities such as Manchester helped to achieve the Representation of the People Act 1867, enfranchising part of the male urban working class in England and Wales for the first time. 

We are taught about the Industrial Revolution from the age of five or six. We revere the factories which today mass produce anything we could ever want, the workers who campaigned for our right to vote, and the individuals whose inventions and discoveries paved the way for modern science and medicine. But this utopian tale of progression through industrialisation to modernity omits how the Industrial Revolution in Britain was, quite literally, built on the backs of enslaved people. 

Britain formally abolished the slave trade in 1807, and outlawed slavery in 1834. The history we are taught places this fact at the centre of Britain’s involvement with slavery, a defence on the high moral plane aimed at downplaying our colonial past in favour of the progress we instead made. This is wrong. 

Slavery was an indispensable element of the industrialisation of the West. The Atlantic slave trade supplied premium commodities such as cotton, sugar, and tobacco, which saturated British metropolitan markets and allowed the manufacturing industry to expand rapidly. The industrial development of metalworking and the arms industry in Britain was also significantly stimulated by the slave trade, primarily due to the massive expansion in demand for guns to trade for slaves in Africa from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. The Atlantic economy was therefore integral to the growth of British exports, manufacturing and industry.

In 1840, Parliament reduced the duty on imported slave-grown sugar to the same rate as sugar grown by free workers, providing the economic motivation for continued British investment in slavery abroad. By 1860, eighty-eight percent of the textiles produced by British factories were made with US slave cotton, and British imports from Brazil, where slavery had not yet been abolished, were worth £4.5 million every year (over £550 million today). 

The reality is that British industry became more dependent on slavery after 1834 than ever before. Contemporary historical and political narratives highlight how the Industrial Revolution paved the way for the modern world, but they forget how in the process it established, and was contingent upon, worldwide racial hierarchies of inequality and exploitation, the legacy of which remains prevalent in British society. 

The centrality of this mode of thinking to how we are all taught and told history is dangerous. Teaching history as a mere series of progressive and transformative events distorts our understanding. It contributes to a rhetoric of British (and white) superiority, and it fails to equip us with the tools to understand our history or the knowledge to fully comprehend institutional racism and inequality. Our history is complex, and it must be taught as such. 

And, if history must be taught on the basis of progress, it must also be taught that progress within Britain did not come without horrific exploitation abroad. After all, the inventions of Arkwright and Compton would have been useless without the slave-picked cotton that served them.

learn more

  • BOOK: A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn
  • DOCUMENTARY: Civilisations (2018) – episode: ‘The Cult of Progress’
  • PODCAST: Living with the Empire – Kwasi Kwarteng

Olivia Billard is student at the University of Edinburgh studying MA History and Politics.