Why I don't claim to be a progressive

(crossposted at DailyKos.com and at Firedoglake)

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 this: Twilight of an Empire: More Than Just Bridges Are Crumbling In America. Eric Stetson, here, 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 is 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.





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Would it be quicker to say you don't call yourself a ...

BruceMcF's picture

... progressive because you aren't one?

It would be better all around if all the "progressives" who weren't progressives stopped calling themselves progressives, whether corporatists who are calling for the use of lube when screwing over the public or radical idealists who think of it as some kind of common front strategy.

Its not as if the need to engage in coalition politics goes away if two or three members of the coalition pretend that they are the same group, coming into the coalition with the same objectives and the same preferred political strategies. The need to engage in coalition building cannot be brand-named away.

In any event, Obama together with the next Obama and the Obama after that, if necessary, looks very much like a progressive wedge strategy, co-opting those progressive reforms that are compatible with corporatist authoritarianism and isolating those reforms that aren't, similar to the functioning of the Mexican PRI in its heday. In progressive populism, its the populism that clearly puts it on the opposite side of Obama's hedge fund wing of the Democratic party.

If a common front that the authoritarians are practiced in wedging does not seem to be a useful common front, then progressivism is no banner under which to organize a common front. It would be silly for progressives to claim to be anything else, but it would equally well be silly for other prospective members of a progressive change coalition to have to pretend to be progressives in order to engage in the coalition.

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There is a general problem of language and meaning these days

geomoo's picture

which I feel this comment points toward.  Obama can associate himself with MLK in the public mind, a man with whom he shares almost nothing in common.  Even the word "war" loses meaning.  The essay mentions the easy success with which the word "liberalism" has been demonized.  If "progressives" ever presented a real challenge to the power structure, we would find people fleeing being indentified with the word overnight as a result of the success with which mainstream media can cause words to carry whatever overtones they choose.  If they want you to have positive associations with a word, they might use it in connection with bikini-clad models; if they want you to have negative associations, how about showing a rotting corpse while implying this is what progressives are all about.  It can be patently stupid and still work.

Which brings me to what I believe:  a necessary step in creating an actual movement challenging the power structure, call it capitalism if you like, is to step away from the dominant narrative.  Stepping away from the dominant narrative, of course, means facing the challenge implied in the final quote of this essay--how does one then become heard?  My answer is that the only path to being heard is to convince enough people to step away from the addictive illusion of participation in order to listen to one another even when we're not talking on the big teevee or writing on a blog with thousands of readers.  Hence, my likely quixotic decision to participate only in this little place--it may seem hopeless and pathetic, but to me, it's the only way with any chance of success, with any chance of finding honest public discussion.  I'm not going to waste my time looking for my lost cell phone under the street light when I am certain I dropped it elsewhere.  Sure, it's a lot harder in the dark, but at least there I have a chance of finding it.

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Yes. Arguments over what to call the existing power structure ..

BruceMcF's picture

... don't have to be settled first before working together to change it, even if the first instinct of the academic is to have another round of that argument over what to label things.

But an agreement not to collaborate with the existing power structure seems like it does have to be settled.

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Hard-hitting--the implications are profound, and frightening

geomoo's picture

But these are frightening times and we must face difficult truths.  The world is not a fairy tale and, despite the drone of media, we are not meant to be happy all the time.  The world isn't like that, and there are problems to solve which would be nearly impossible even with common determination and functional instruments of public policy.

That opening quote is very powerful.

The closing quote compels me to point out that finding a way to be "heard outside our own circles" involves much more than courage--it involves finding a way to break through the tightly controled media.  It is hard to say how much we would already be on people's radar screens without the conscious side-lining of voices which would embrace the notions in this essay. Even as weather-related catastrophes continue to pile up, we see very little mainstream reporting, analysis, or even opinion putting these events in the context of climate change.  In a healthy culture, these events would all be feeding into an organically growing urgency to address the issue with ever greater commitment, as fires once caused Congress to act.  If the frightening global weather events we all live in fail to change the conversation, it is hard to see how a change in attitude among us--what will we call ourselves, realists?--would make any difference in getting our voices heard.  I'm not saying this isn't a goal that must be worked toward; merely encouraging realism about where we stand.

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We must build new media and new spaces ...

BruceMcF's picture

... and when they take those spaces, by hook or by crook, we must do it again.

If a post is at enough of a side-angle to the co-opt to conquer strategy that the hedge fund Democrats employ at dkos, I'll cross-post it over there, but it'll be one of those oh-so-terrible hit and run posts. Boo me.

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Game theory tells us the optimal strategy against exploiters

geomoo's picture

It is to be involved in multiple interconnected webs so that, if one web becomes over-run, there are others to turn to.  There are certainly mutliple webs these days, but the interconnectedness leaves much to be desired.  A more pressing difficulty is that the accurate judging of reputation is problematic, and this is crucial for identifying exploiters.  Look how successfully Obama's reputation has been continually falsified.

As to posting elsewhere, I make no claims to have an answer.  We obviously need multiple strategies.

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nemesis's picture

Want us bickering over labels, whether someone is getting a smidge more than you, whether you're in an in or out group, etc.  They laugh their asses off at us while we bicker about teabaggers and they bicker about the Kenyan mooslim.  


a until the working class realizes it's power in number over our overlords, we'll be arguing whether we're liberal or progressive, and they'll be arguing whether they're conservative or libertarian.  

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If we have a narrow aim that can be ...

BruceMcF's picture

... achieved by a single small group of people plugging away at it over a long period of time, then having a single, coherent "we" with a simple, coherent identity could perhaps be a useful thing ... it might help ensure the sticktoitiveness required to keep the small group plugging away ...

... but when the necessity is to pursue a radical reform and restructure of the fundamental basis of our material economic system, based on pulling and consuming all the nonrenewable resources available in a single step, mine to waste heap process ...

... no single coherent "we" is going to do it.

It would be absurd for me to argue with Cassiodorus that he should be a progressive populist, thinking that the first step is converting him and then the second step is social action. No single approach and philosophy of social change is going to garner the numbers needed in the time needed.

He is what he is, I am what I am, the country is fucked already and even more badly fucked if we don't work together to try to wrench the steering wheel from the psychopaths driving the car toward the cliff.

Which is a situation that calls for coalition politics rather than spending another two or five decades trying to convert everyone else on the left to the "correct" left wing position.

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I'm fine with coalition politics --

Cassiodorus's picture

but I don't agree with this:

Which is a situation that calls for coalition politics rather than
spending another two or five decades trying to convert everyone else on
the left to the "correct" left wing position.

The point of this diary was that there are quite a few INCORRECT "left wing" positions out there, and they all run under the heading of "progressive ideology," which I reject.    Here it must be noted that these positions are incorrect not because they are ethically impure, but because they are complicit with neoliberalism and the neoliberal agenda.

So I am telling the progressives this: "you've been voting for neoliberal Democrats for the past forty years, so if we form a coalition, your "vote for the lesser evil" position can't be the hegemonic one in our coalition.  And if that means I'm trying to convert them, then so be it.

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It doesn't matter what he SAYS, he's a hedge fund Democrat ...

BruceMcF's picture

... you can't be a corporatist toady and act as a progressive populist at the same time. No progressive populist appoints Geithner Treasury Secretary, or Reagan-appointee Eric Holder as AG.

But when seeking to distinguish yourself from the corporatist wing of the Republican Party, its often handy for the current leader of the corporatist wing of the Democratic Party to toss in some faux populism for the base.

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