Published online 27 May 2013.
Back in 2009 I wrote a diary over at Kos: Fundamental flaws in progressive ideology. The point was to show how the idea of being a “progressive” contained the idea of selling out within it. The actual record of “progressives” in this era speaks for itself — forty years of decreasing global growth, neoliberal economic policy, and so on. We’re not really progressing toward anything — unless you count the future described by Gopal Balakrishnan:
We are entering into a period of inconclusive struggles between a weakened capitalism and dispersed agencies of opposition, within delegitimated and insolvent political orders. The end of history could be thought to begin when no project of global scope is left standing, and a new kind of ‘worldlessness’ and drift begins.
Against this background, progressivism appears as a sort of holdover from a previous era.In the midst of all of this, in progressive blogs you have recognitions such as: Twilight of an Empire: More Than Just Bridges Are Crumbling In America. Eric Stetson recognizes that austerity planning is already hurting America, and will get worse in the future. Here is his lament:
Schools, libraries, parks, advanced weather forecasting, and other features of great modern civilizations? Forget about it! All being cut to the bone.So few jobs being created that labor force participation is the lowest since 1979 and food stamp eligibility is the highest ever?
Who cares! It sure isn’t the government’s responsibility to do anything
about unemployment, right? — the reaction from America’s politicians
on this score is as deafening as John Cage’s infamous symphony of silence.
Even spending money on disaster relief for American cities destroyed by a hurricane or a tornado is no longer
an automatic thing, but instead a political football. Our politicians
are so tight, the unreformed Ebenezer Scrooge would be proud.
Eric Stetson, however, simply does not imagine more in his conclusion than that America should “demand more of its leaders.” What makes Stetson think that America’s leaders are at any point going to pay attention to such a call to action?Meanwhile, at the Atlantic, the complaint is now that we have Presidents who routinely break the law, and nobody really cares. Or rather, I suppose, nobody with a shred of power really cares. Our most progressive journalists are telling us: we can expose it, at least for now, but we can’t do anything about it.
And then you have climate change. Climate change is going to be dreadful if we stick with capitalism, as there will be crop failures and famine, and it’s not going to be mitigated by any climate change bill written by the fossil fuel industries, nor will just a bill for a bill’s sake do. While the progressives were applauding the EPA’s assertion of its right to regulate “carbon emissions,” what was strictly necessary, as James Hansen was telling us we had to get back to 350 parts per million in atmospheric content, was that we have some sort of phase-out of fossil fuel production so we can keep the grease in the ground. While radical transformation is necessary, the progressives at DailyKos.com are arguing that “fixing the economy first is not the best way to pass a climate bill.” How is a phase-out of fossil fuels not “fixing the economy”?
Let’s move, now, to FDL. Michelle Chen, a name I don’t see a lot at Firedoglake, tells us that we have “a budget that tightens belts by emptying stomachs.” Chen ends her lament about proposed cuts to the food stamp program with a pointed criticism of “free markets”:
So that’s the theme of this year’s budget debate: that millions of people can’t afford to eat is not a cause for alarm for politicians so much as a burdensome line item. And erasing public benefits make it easier to make the poor invisible in the public mind. After all, food stamps symbolize not only the failure of “free markets” but the power of social policy to reduce endemic human suffering.
Well, OK, social policy to reduce suffering is good. Is that what the progressives have gotten for us?Well, not a whole lot of it, unless you’re counting a watered-down and inadequate stimulus (now being erased through sequester) or a Heritage Foundation-inspired health insurance bill. Generally speaking, what progressives do every election year is to retreat on all of their presumed off-season goals and to declare themselves firmly in favor of the Democrat and against the Republican, without any serious consideration of what the Democrat actually supports. This is how the progressive vote was delivered for Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, Kerry, and Obama and for numerous lower-ups in Congress, and this is how said vote will be delivered for the next neoliberal austerians who plan to run for Federal-level offices in 2016.
Even worse are the conceptual schemes progressives have had to invent in order to defend their political choices. The Democrats are better than the Republicans, stop whining and start working, you can’t have everything you want, and so on. The result is stuff like this: we didn’t like it under Bush, but now we’ve changed our minds, say many progressives.
Now, the idea of calling liberals “progressives,” if I recall correctly, started out in the late 1980s as a result of the senior Bush’s campaign against “the L word.” The idea, then, was to identify liberals with the promoters of what was once called the “Progressive movement” during what was once called the “Progressive Era” (fundamentally, from 1890 to 1920).
In general, the progressive critique of American society’s political dysfunction cannot bring itself to name, correctly, the design flaw operating in both politics and the economy. The name of this design flaw is “capitalism,” and understanding it as an operating principle of the capitalist world-system is quite necessary to understanding why progressives may have had success in the Progressive Era, but cannot seem to find much of it (outside of legislation protecting gay rights, and a few initiatives here and there to legalize marijuana) today.
Progressives in the Progressive Era confronted a young, expanding capitalism that had not yet experienced two world wars, nor had it fully established the consumer economy of the golden age of capitalism (1948-1971). This explains, more or less, their success in getting reforms enacted in that earlier era. Their success was just beginning!
Progressives in this era, on the other hand, are being asked to defend a doctrine of incremental change leading to a better world, when nowadays declining rates of economic growth clash with increasing demands for corporate profit. As the resultant neoliberal political economy facilitates the theft of everything that isn’t nailed down for the sake of meeting this demand for corporate profit, progressivism is increasingly being forced into either of two directions: 1) the general apparatus of apologetics with which the Democratic and Republican Parties (and other parties, elsewhere) defend reactionary legislation designed to privatize and deregulate the economy and subject it to fiscal austerity while the whole of society is militarized in anticipation of public dissent against the abolition of the middle class, or 2) a general sense of distressed spectatorship as the worlld gets worse, accompanied by a growing sense that something fantastic has to be proposed to cure the disease (such as what one sees in a recent diary of One Pissed Off Liberal).
An interesting discussion of the original Progressive Era in this light can be found in Cecelia Tichi’s collection of biographical sketches titled Civic Passions: Seven who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us). In this regard, Tichi views the Progressive movement of 1890-1920 as a reaction to the “Gilded Age” of the 19th century, and regards our era as a new Gilded Age, one of corporate hegemony and political corruption. Tichi can find corruption in both eras, as well as muckrakers.
Reading history can be comforting, and engrossing, as Tichi’s book amply demonstrates. The reformers Tichi depicts were able to “get the ball rolling” on concrete efforts to change living conditions for American society’s worst-off individuals, and to instill some humanity into America’s emerging consumer society. In reading Tichi’s biographical sketches, one can’t help but want to duplicate their successes in today’s society. One would, for instance, like to campaign much as Alice Hamilton did against unsafe conditions in lead mines, or as Florence Kelley did in organizing against child labor. One would like to conduct the sort of worker-empowering social science that John R. Commons conducted in Pittsburgh, or pursue the same sort of pioneering efforts for social justice for Black people that Tichi depicts in her biographical sketch of Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
Some of the activist strength Tichi extols may still be useful today — but we are no longer in the Progressive Era, and that the efforts of the original Progressive Era activists earned their successes through an emergent, felt need for a class compromise that circulated in the halls of the wealthy and powerful in that, adolescent, emergent stage of the expanding capitalist world-system. The problems of child labor, horrific work conditions, and excessive poverty merited fresh efforts at reform in light of the increasing prosperity of the capitalist system at that time. We are no longer in that era, and so if progressive efforts are to continue to have success, they need to be underwritten by some other way of thinking than progressive ideology. In saying this, I am in solidarity with writers such as Aaron Schutz, whose book “Social Class, Social Action, and Education: The Failure of Progressive Democracy” described progressivism as a “middle class utopia,” (28) and Shelton Stromquist’s Reinventing “The People,” in which progressive reformers are said to pursue “an ideal of social harmony in which the interests of labor and capital would be reconciled.” (23) I also agree to a certain extent with Chris Hedges, whose Death of the Liberal Class complains of the resistance progressives no longer offer corporate elites. Mild reformism was, without doubt, both effective and beneficial in an era in which the capitalist system required a “middle class utopia” if the crises which it generated were not to overwhelm the system as a whole. Our era, on the other hand, is an era of a declining middle class, of deepening poverty for the multitudes, and increasing poverty amidst record profits for the super-rich. The reconciliation of class interests is off the table. The consumer society no longer serves as the pretext for profits among the wealthiest when the wealthiest can just compel the government to print money for their enrichment. The dire poverty of urban immigrant populations at the turn of the 20th century may not be part of our landscape today, but this fact itself forms a pretext for keeping present-day poverty off of legislative agendas, to the detriment of all of us. What we need today are more movements such as the Zapatistas, or the various movements for ecological justice, or the MST.
In this environment “progressivism” appears as a sales-pitch for the Third Way. Progressives are now people who tell you to vote for the Democrat because she/ he is better than the Republican — it might still ring true, but it becomes less and less important with each passing election, with each issue that becomes vitally important everywhere but in Washington DC. Once progressivism was robust; today it has reached a cul-de-sac. If anything, today’s world needs a class struggle more than ever, and a vision of civilization free of capitalism and the crises it promotes with increasing frequency (see e.g. Greece, Spain, global warming, pollution in China, war in Africa) today. When the capitalists, with their governments in tow, are forcibly undoing all of the good done by the progressives and social democrats around the world, while at the same time bringing Earth’s ecosystems into increasing crises, another compromise is not going to restore the world to stability.
Indeed a recent Gallup poll tells us that the number of liberal Americans is growing. But this poll result is itself the product of an impoverished political discourse both with the Gallup pollsters and with America as a whole. So, for instance one can also read of polls that say that “young people are more likely to favor socialism than capitalism” as well. What I’d like to suggest, here, is that an opposition to the 7% at the top (as their fortunes improve) will have to be made up not just of progressives, nor even (perhaps) mainly of progressives, but of people with a diversity of political beliefs (socialists, anarchists, post-capitalists and so on) outside of progressivism. These people exist already — the leap forward is not that a non-progressive Left needs to be created from nothing, but rather from the mere discussion of theory to an engagement with the world. Bhaskar Sunkara:
After all, the problem with the Left isn’t that it’s too austere and serious; it’s that it doesn’t take itself seriously enough to make the changes necessary for political practice. We can be rigorous and ideological — without being afraid of being heard outside our own circles. Mass exposure wouldn’t spell the end of a vibrant socialist critique.
The future of resistance is in the diversity of non-progressive Left approaches, and in making that diversity actionable, not in progressivism or liberalism. Being a “progressive” or a “liberal” is easy, but obsolete. I’d like to think I can do better, so at this point I don’t claim to be a progressive.