Fundamental flaws in progressive ideology

Published online 14 November 2009.

In my previous diary I asked progressive readers whether or not they really wanted power, since they seem to be willing to trust the actual handling of political power to the neoliberals.  This phenomenon was obvious in earlier election cycles: progressives supported Kerry for President, while Nader was labeled as a pariah.  Here I will try to identify the flaw in progressive ideology, which integrates it into the catastrophic path staked out by global capitalism.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

The dominant ideology in national-level policymaking in the world today is neoliberalism.  Now, there are indeed remnants of previous ideological trends in policy, to be found in specific policies (say, Social Security, which dates back to 1935), but this is what one should expect.  We might regard a policy environment as being like a landscape: if you were look at a landscape, you’d see what grew there over the last century or so, but if you were to dig into a stratum of its rock, you’d see remnants of rock deposits from previous geologic eras.

Policymaking in capitalist nations (and this goes especially for core nations like the United States) is dominated by the ideological trends of capitalist development.  The Wikipedia page on ideology summarizes this really succinctly:

Chronologically, the dominant ideologies in Capitalism are:

1. classical liberalism
2. modern liberalism [4]
3. social democracy
4. neo-liberalism

corresponding to these three capitalist stages of development:

1. extensive stage
2. intensive stage
3. contemporary capitalism (late capitalism)

Right now, we are at the last of each of these stages, with policymaking dominated by neoliberalism (aka the “Washington Consensus”) and with capitalism in its late, declining phase.  To quote from the source I just cited:

In an article on “The Centrality of Finance,” in the August 2007 issue of the Journal of World-System Research, MR and MR Press author William K. Tabb writes:

Real global growth averaged 4.9 percent a year during the Golden Age of national Keynesianism (1950–1973). It was 3.4 percent between 1974 and 1979; 3.3 percent in the 1980s; and only 2.3 percent in the 1990s, the decade with the slowest growth since World War II. The slowing of the real economy led investors to seek higher returns in financial speculation….[I]increased liquidity and lower costs of borrowing encouraged in turn further expansion of finance. The coincident trends of growing inequality and insecurity…and the spreading power of rapid financialization do not suggest a smooth continued expansion path for a society based on increased debt and growing leverage.

So that’s where we’re at now.  We can see the dominance of neoliberal ideology in the structure of health insurance reform, as passed by the House and currently being finetuned by the Senate.  The main premise of the reforms is the protection of insurance industry profits through the imposition of insurance mandates and a system of government subsidy to help people pay for insurance.

Now, neoliberalism is not a well-discussed ideology in American political culture, despite the fact that it’s the predominant political trend from the Reagan administration to the present day.  Suffice it to say that the elite managers of the world economy, faced with a vast surplus of capital and thus a problem with voracious demand for corporate profit amidst a shrinking global growth rate, have decided to toss the rest of the economy overboard, bit by bit, for the sake of preserving profit rates.  This, and not the “free market” or any of that, is what neoliberalism is really about.  The “free market” was just a pretext for the corporate penetration of markets in the global periphery, the Third World, the “nations of the South,” the poor countries, Africa/ Asia/ South America, or whatever you want to call them.

My point here, and throughout the essay, is that what matters in ideology is what is decided as policy and thus what determines outcomes.  Ideology is also something people believe, but ideology as a believe is typically more a matter of show-business: Ronald Reagan, for instance, telling us way back then that government is the problem.

Ironically, in another context Reagan’s defenders credited his increased government spending on “defense” (at an accelerated rate which continues to this day) as responsible for the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union.  Reagan’s own foundation today boasts that:

By the time President Reagan left office, the U.S. military budget had increased 43% over the total expenditure during the height of the Vietnam War. Troop levels increased, there were significantly more weapons and equipment and the country’s intelligence program was vastly improved.

“Government is the problem,” or so Reagan said.  “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” said the Wizard of Oz, in much the same vein.

Thus what matters is not what people claim their ideologies are, but what decisions get made, who decides them, and how the outcomes of policy decisions match up with particular ideologies.  The people may have various and diverse ideologies: Bush may have claimed to be a neoconservative whereas Obama claims to be a moderate, and so on.  But what matters today is that we are still, today, in the neoliberal stage of the development of the capitalist system, and so neoliberalism (for the most part) decides policy.  The other ideologies are simply show-business reflections of how government, as the steward of the neoliberal state, sells its policies to the rest of us.


So what is ideology?

Well, let’s start with the simplest definitions.  From

–noun, plural -gies.

  1. the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.

Well, OK.  That can be a number of things.  What we’ll be looking at, here, is American political ideologies, and specifically why said ideologies result in a general acquiescence before the one ideology which really matters: neoliberalism.

What’s the problem with ideology?

There really isn’t a problem with ideology in itself.  I am not going to tell you to be ideology-free, I am not going to tell you that ideologies are evil, and (most importantly) I am NOT going to tell you that the believers in ideologies have some sort of “false consciousness” in which they can be denounced for their stupid belief.

Ideologies get us in trouble because their undue influence can result in “discussion-on-the-cheap,” in which ideological cant is made to substitute for face-to-face discussion, among empowered participants, about what to do.

Look, I think that if all of us, all seven billion of us, were to sit down and thrash things out, we could probably come away from the eventual long, tedious discussion (as would then occur) with most of us thinking in the end that things wouldn’t be too bad.

But that’s not the way things happen in the real world.  Instead, world capitalism is on a collision course with the ecological limits of what sort of “industrial development” planet Earth is willing to tolerate without jettisoning most of its human inhabitants.  I have already discussed how industrial society has already pumped enough CO2 into the atmosphere to (at least) catastrophically impact world agriculture through abrupt climate change.  We are, in short, locked into a course which Kees van der Pijl calls “suicidal.”  No ideology will provide us with any easy escape-hatch from this course.

The other thing that we need to have to deviate from the neoliberal course is power.  I’ve discussed power in a number of other diaries here — in them, I’ve argued that we don’t use all of the powers we have, and that getting power is more a matter of insisting upon real solutions to problems than upon “doing what’s realistic.”  But let’s go back to ideology, and specifically progressive ideology, to figure out how it operates to promote this “discussion-on-the-cheap” which I’ve discussed above.

American ideology

There are four fundamental ideological groups in American political discourse:

  1. The libertarians, fighting against government intervention for the right of every citizen to imitate the Marlboro Man.  Look how well Reagan co-opted them with a regime which told them that “government is the problem” while at the same time instituting a vast expansion of government spending and making government into the problem.
  1. The neoconservatives, now called “the Republicans,” believers in various self-serving packs of lies.  This ideological trend picked up the remnants of racism and sexism as they once justified actual political stances (e.g. George Wallace’s 1968 Presidential run).  Most of them are doubtless insane and in need of therapy.
  1. The “moderates,” which is the noble name America’s business faction gives itself.  Neoliberalism is their real banner.  Chomsky has a bead on this group — everything they propose is about the privatization of benefits and the collectivization of risk and expense.
  1. The “progressives,” a group with a broad range of political thought, to be sure; broader, to be sure, than the others.  They definitely subscribe to an ideology, however, and this is what I hope to ascertain here.  Progressives are afflicted with an allergy to the shark-tanks of neoliberal power.  Perhaps they are so afraid of power that they would rather have neoliberals such as Michael Dukakis/ Bill Clinton/ Al Gore/ John Kerry/ Barack Obama do their real political work.  Phil Ochs also nailed them in his song “Love Me, I’m A Liberal.”  Loud in verbal defense of “social justice,” they disappear from the scene when push comes to shove.

Now it’s easy to see how the first three ideologies result in an acquiescence to neoliberalism.  Neoliberalism promotes the “free market” as a solution to social problems.  Libertarians like the “free market” because it’s “free,” neoconservatives celebrate it as a “traditional American value,” and the “well-regulated free market” gives moderates the ideological ballast they need to look better than the first two groups.  The “free market” supposedly stands for good-old American competition, which brings American consumers the cheap goods they supposedly need.  Any Wal-Mart ad can tell you that.

Of course, the main virtue of the “free market,” for the politicians and their corporate owners, is not competition but, rather, consolidation.  Consolidation is the outcome of competition — as competition drives out losers, and as Wal-Mart drives out smaller businesses because it can make bigger bulk deals and thus operate on smaller margins, you end up with industries dominated by a few large corporate players.

Yet the “progressives” represent a problem for the neoliberals in power, and so they actually have to be shut up so that business as usual can continue upon its merry way.  Progressives represent a problem because they actually demand things now and then which interfere with the neoliberal agenda: health care for all for instance.

Progressive ideology, however, offers only a half-hearted resistance to neoliberal power.  Here are some of the ways in which it succumbs:

  1. Minimal demands — here, for instance, we can observe the progressives at Firedoglake “whipping” a public option which will be designed by the insurance companies themselves, thus assuring that the public option will not stand in the way of corporate profits.  Ironically enough, Jane Hamsher, the founder of Firedoglake, in her own writings describes a sort of “veal pen” culture in Washington DC in which elite representatives of supposedly “liberal” groups are bribed into muting the demands of their supposed constituencies.  I’ve heard it suggested that the political climate in America is in a revolution of lowered expectations, in which Americans are asking less of their government, their corporations, their jobs, and their lives.  Single payer, by the way, would be “unrealistic” (see below) as against neoliberal governance — but definitely more of a collective approach.
  1. Aversion to the class struggle — as I’ve pointed out in this earlier diary here, progressives from the beginning of the 20th century onward have attempted to avoid the class struggle, in favor of solutions which promote class harmony.  The winners in this aversion are, today, the banks which are the main beneficiaries of Obama’s financial policies today.
  1. Incrementalism — in politics, incrementalism is the advocacy of a piecemeal reform approach to social change.  Incrementalists argue for “baby steps” toward social change.  As progressives imagine a utopia of peace, freedom, and equality to be achieved while leaving capitalism intact, incrementalism is to be expected from progressives, as only incrementalism will “make things better” while leaving existing structures intact.  The main problem with incrementalism is that the window for piecemeal change often closes because the existing structures are the main hindrance to change.
  1. “Realism” — we are asked, for instance, to support “cap-and-trade” schemes as “remedies” for abrupt climate change because this is what is “realistic” to demand given that the present-day political system is rotten through with lobbyists for the fossil energy industries.  The problem, of course, is that “cap-and-trade” schemes will not reduce Earth’s retinue of greenhouse gases sufficiently to avoid catastrophic climate change.



As I’ve suggested above, ideology gives us a “discussion-on-the-cheap” about real political problems.  Progressives use ideology in a number of ways to avoid asking government for what they want or need, thus facilitating acquiescence in neoliberal governance.

I am not going to suggest a sweeping abolition of the “free market,” here, as the solution to everything, nor am I going to suggest anything which looks like “Marxist dogma.”  We get out of “discussion-on-the-cheap” by real discussion, discussion between actually existing people and not utopian constructs, about what has to happen if the political/ economic situation is to get any better.

Stan Cox points the way at the end of his book Sick Planet:

We have to work from the beginning to develop smaller organizations and structures that are specifically intended as parts of a system to succeed capitalism. (175)

There are a large number of obvious ways in which we can do this: collectives, for instance, and modes of “exchange” (or, more straightforwardly, gift) which are independent of the regimes of corporate production and of money.  I am currently researching the Zapatistas, in Chiapas, Mexico, as the impetus for post-capitalist social organizing.  In the discussion section below, I’m going to ask respondents to spin out their own ideas.

For the now, of course, breaking through progressive ideology requires a fundamental change in political culture, in which ordinary people are empowered to “do politics” rather than politics being a horse-trading affair between elites in a political class.  A similar transformation will be needed in the economic world, in which “jobs” need to be replaced by modes of living off of the land.


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