The philosopher John Gray is out with a new book, tantalizingly named Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. This is not a review (I've not read the book, due out today in Britain), but a comment about what he says is one of his central points.
Progress is chimerical, he says. It is delusional to think that history has a direction. This is reminiscent of the late Stephen Jay Gould's argument that complexity is not the direction of evolution.
It seems to me that both ignore a central point of evolution. Species adapt (or, in the case of social evolution, institutions and peoples adapt) to their environment. It may be true that the adaptation that will prove advantageous is random rather than teleological, but the environment to which the species is adapting is continually more complex. What this means, practically speaking, is that there is a direction in evolution - towards greater complexity.
John Gray may argue that such a direction does not constitute progress, but it would be hard to imagine a scenario in which species (or institutions and processes and cultural norms) didn't become more intricate, more complex, and more able. To my simple mind, that's close enough to progress.