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The Abandonment of Progress

PARIS – Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are remembered for the laissez-faire revolution they launched in the early 1980s. They campaigned and won on the promise that free-market capitalism would unleash growth and boost prosperity. In 2016, Nigel Farage, the then-leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) who masterminded Brexit, and US President-elect Donald Trump campaigned and won on a very different basis: nostalgia. Tellingly, their promises were to “take back control” and “make America great again” – in other words, to turn back the clock.

As Columbia University’s Mark Lilla has observed, the United Kingdom and the US are not alone in experiencing a reactionary revival. In many advanced and emerging countries, the past suddenly seems to have much more appeal than the future. In France, Marine Le Pen, the nationalist right’s candidate in the upcoming presidential election, explicitly appeals to the era when the French government controlled the borders, protected industry, and managed the currency. Such solutions worked in the 1960s, the National Front leader claims, so implementing them now would bring back prosperity.

Obviously, such appeals have struck a chord with electorates throughout the West. The main factor underlying this shift in public attitudes is that many citizens have lost faith in progress. They no longer believe that the future will bring them material improvement and that their children will have a better life than their own. They look backward because they are afraid to look ahead.

Progress has lost its shine for several reasons. The first is a decade of dismal economic performance: for anyone below the age of 30, especially in Europe, the new normal is recession and stagnation. The toll taken by the financial crisis has been heavy. Furthermore, the pace of productivity gains in the advanced countries (and to a large extent in emerging countries) remains disappointingly low. As a result, there is very little in the way of income gains to distribute – and even less in aging societies where fewer people are at work and those out of work live longer. This grim reality may not last (not all economists agree that it will); but citizens can be forgiven for taking reality at face value.