Against progressivism

Against progressivism

A critique of progressivism (latter day atheoretical approaches to social improvement peddled by contemporary reformists) focusing on its practical weaknesses in pursuit of the social changes it promises.

We are told that the left is dead, and that we are all now progressives.

What do progressives stand for? A decent society.

How do they understand this decent society? A decent society is one in which everyone is paid a wage they consider “reasonable” (how this is calculated, no one knows) and in which everyone, regardless of class background, race, gender or sexuality has an equal opportunity to become a boss or a politician. A decent society still has bankers, but they are less greedy. A decent society punishes wrongdoers, though gently.

To the extent progressivism is put into any theoretical framework at all, it is vague. Conservatives are inclined to support a harsh, mean and unhinged society, whereas progressives support a soft, nurturing and sensible society. Lakoff built on this point of view by suggesting that at root conservative ideology suggests the state should be a strict disciplinarian father while progressive ideology suggests the state should be a nurturing parent.

Contemporary progressivism isn’t intellectually compelling. I will not aim to demonstrate this through argument because it is evident empirically. People are not excited by progressivism even if they may be excited by the individual causes it champions. Compared to the spectacular theoretical edifices of Marxism and of Neo-Classical economics it’s a bundle of strings held together with a little tape. To the extent that it compels at all, it is purely on a sentimental level.

Perhaps because of this lack of theoretical substance, progressives are loath to try and link campaigns. Ask a progressive how they think labour rights and same sex marriage are linked. They’ll give you a blank stare, or spin something entirely abstract about fairness, equality or justice.

But progressivism has a further problem. It’s not particularly good at motivating people. The first reason for this is that it’s hedged. Bankers are bad people on the whole, but we still need them. There’s too much inequality, but we don’t want to get rid of it entirely. Progressivism proposes a vision of society which is only quantitatively different, but not qualitatively distinct. This is no banner to gather under.

The second reason it fails to motivate because of its limited emotional palate. Progressives often hold up their calm as an achievement. This is naive. Not only love, but also rage- hateful anger- has been historically indispensable to progress.

Such fiery emotions as the progressive has are those of the debater, disappointed that their opponent has ignored their rebuttal or engaged in a logical fallacy of some kind. It’s almost as if they think conservative politicians are stupid, as if this could be the only motivation for evil. Without access to darker emotions, it falls into a model of politics as philanthropy. It has no momentum and tends to be isolated from the multitude of people it claims to stick up for.

Leftism is an alternative to progressivism. Here I mean leftism in its original sense, an approach which sees society as riven by class conflict, and places itself on the side of the exploited classes. Leftists are not progressives. They do not trace the problems of society to a failure of compassion or decency, but to fundamental state of conflict between those who control wealth and power in society, and those who do not. In turn, they trace the source of this conflict to an irresolvable difference in interests between those who live by working, and those who live by their privileged relation to the means of production.

As a theory it has vibrated through society, rousing struggle and putting in motion many of the great social and industrial movements we all know. Even when it has not been fully believed it has encouraged discussion, debate and finally action. Where progressivist ideologies have “spun” and “framed” social movements, leftism acted as a great current for social change throughout the 20th century. To steal from Marx, leftism has itself been a material force, when grasped in the hands of the masses.

Leftism isn’t dead despite the battering it received from neoliberalism. The ideas of leftism clearly ran through Occupy, despite the admitted murkiness of that movement. If we want to shift the heavy stone of domination we need a worthy lever and as best as I can tell there is no alternative.

Posted By

Antonio de cleyre
Apr 16 2013 06:15


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