The Lameness of the Progressive Lambs

I read an interesting piece by Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism the other day (which I encourage people short of time to read in its entirety rather than reading the blockquote below and my modest addendum), entitled Why Progressives Are Lame. A few blockquotes do not do the piece justice, I did particularly like:

Reviewing the summary above, it will be evident that progressives are ill-equipped by objective and inclination both to succeed in bare-knuckle political strife. One could say unflatteringly that the goal of ‘progressives’ in activism is to raise their personal karma by standing up for what is right. “Sinners repent,” is the substance of their message, and their best dream would be to have those in the wrong do just that, to embrace progressive issues and implement them. More cynically, one wonders whether progressives would be entirely pleased if all of their reforms were implemented, leaving nothing to inveigh against.

How did a great swathe of Americans sit back and let these hard-gotten gains be rescinded? While there are no doubt many causes, let me posit a few. One was that the middle class chose not to identify much with radical goals. The whole point of being middle class was to leave all of that behind, not just the poverty but the opposition to authority. Another was that it seemed inconceivable, at least for the post-war and Boomer generations, that these economics rights would be withdrawn....

So that takes us full circle to McKibben’s post, on leadership. I’d hazard that he’s wrong, that the only thing that might rouse downtrodden formerly-middle-class-in-denial Americans from their stupor is in fact the sort of charismatic leader he renounces as anachronistic and outré, say 21st century Huey Long or Jean Jaurès (or less ill-starred, David Lloyd George). The sort of distributed leadership that has become fashionable of late is well suited for local action or loosely coordinated movements. But the entrenched elites will require a visible show of force for them to cede any ground. That means key figures need to serve as lenses to concentrate the energy of ordinary citizens who no longer have outlets for their grievances.

More on the Argument

This piece is a reaction to a post by Bill Mckibben about social change and leadership. However, it sets off in a different direction than the McKibben, because she focuses on a comment to that post by Dan Kervick, which is really the foundation of this piece:

Others have already touched on this, but I think McKibben’s piece focuses too much on the question of whether or not it is important to have the single charismatic leader, and not enough on equally important questions about whether or not it is important to have organization, long-term plans and a grand political strategy. The picture I get from reading McKibben and many others is of a movement that consists in the spontaneous generation of organized resistance here and there to some of the projects of the powerful. The movement is successful in that instance if the project is thwarted, and fails if the project is carried through.

But resistance is what you have to do when you don’t have political power yourself. Isn’t there any left remaining out there that actually wants to achieve political power? It doesn’t seem so. Rather, it seems to me the contemporary left prefers to be powerless and prefers to be permanently on the side of the rebels and resistors, opportunistically throwing monkey wrenches into the inexorable progress of some alien Leviathan.

That can certainly be a useful orientation. But in some way it is not very ambitious. On the one hand there is a great deal of admirable energy and sweat going into such a movement, and there will be some successes here and there. But on the other hand the orientation of the permanent resistor defines itself by a kind of long-term surrender to the inexorable control by The Powers That Be. There is something fearful and weak in this attitude, an unhealthy embrace of outlook of the subordinated peasant.

Musical Accompaniment: Fight the Powers that Be, Public Enemy

Yves points to a 2011 post by by Richard Kline, Progressively Losing, and quotes a key point made by Richard Kline, which to my mind accounts for a large part of the success of the New Deal Coalition, which those who grew up under its watered down post-WWII form often forget brought independent progressives together with independent labor, populist and granger movements:

The first key point is that the tradition of progressive dissent is integrally a religious one. The goal isn’t usually power but ‘truth;’ that those in the right stand up for what is right, and those in the wrong repent. The City on the Hill and all that, but that is the intrinsic value. This is a tradition of ideas, many of them good, many of them implemented—by others, a point to which I’ll return. Coming forward to a recent and then present American context, consider these policies, all of which still hold for most who would define themselves as progressive:
  • Anti-colonialism
  • Anti-militarism
  • Abolition
  • Universal, secular education
  • End to child labor
  • Universal suffrage
  • Female legal equality
  • Consumer protections
  • Civil rights
  • Conservation/environmentalism

... A most relevant point is that these are value-driven policies. Notably absent are economic policies. I wouldn’t say that progressives are disinterested in economic well-being, but employment and money are never what has driven them. A right-living society, self-improvement, and justice: these are progressive goals. Recall again that many of them were already bourgeois; that most of historical notice had significant education; that their organizational backbone was women of such background. These conditions apply as much now as ever. Some progressives, many of them women, were radicalized by their experience of social work among the abused poor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Consider Beatrice Potter Webb or Upton Sinclair. Some progressives will fight if backed into a corner; many won’t even then, as there is a strong value placed on pacifism in this socio-community. Think John Woolman and Dorothy Day.

So progressives can plant the seed, but are not well suited to the hard knuckles politics required to harvest the fruit. And Richard Kline points to radicals:

The key point is that the tradition of radical activism is integrally an economic one, and secondarily one of social justice. It was pursued by those both poor and ‘out castes,’ who often had communal solidarity as their only asset. It was resisted by force, and thus pursued by those inured to force who understood that power was necessary to victory, and that defeat entailed destitution, imprisonment, and being cut down by live fire from those acting under color of authority with impunity. This was a tradition of demands, many of them quite pragmatic. Few were wholly implemented, but the struggle to gain them forced the door open for narrower reforms, often implemented by the powers that be to de-fuse as much as diffuse radical agitation. Consider these policies, all of which still hold for most who would define themselves as radical:
  • Call off the cops (and thugs)
  • Eight hour day and work place safety
  • Right to organize
  • Anti-discrimination in housing and hiring
  • Unemployment dole
  • Public pensions
  • Public educational scholarships
  • Tax the rich
  • Anti-trust and anti-corporate
  • Anti-imperialism

To see a current example of the distinction here in the politics of fighting the Climate Suicide Pact, consider the Keystone XL fight. The point of the Keystone XL fight is that its a demand. Its a demand that the Administration can grant, without the excuse that Congress won't let it, since the current rules of the game say that the Administration currently has the say, and there is no veto-proof majority in both Chambers to over-turn an Administration decision to block it. The Keystone XL pipeline mobilization is the politics of resistance, using one of the tactics of the politics of resistance, which is to put one of the Powers That Be that claims to be an ally and put them on the spot, where they cannot hide behind the actions of one of the others of the Powers That Be, "oh, we wanted to, but they wouldn't let us.

Anyone who has been resisting the Climate Suicide Pact over the years will recognize supposed allies in the fight who act like Atlantic City bootlegger "Nookie" Thompson in HBO's Boardwalk Empire talking to the Ladies of the Temperance League about how he supports Prohibition, but some of his colleagues will be slower to change. The Keystone XL fight is the kind of "put up or shut up" confrontation that tackles that commonplace two-faced behavior by politicians.

But you don't just find the Climate Kamikazes in opposition to the mobilization in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline extension. You also find self-identified progressive voices, arguing the stopping the Keystone XL pipeline will not cut CO2 emissions by much, and so it is unreasonable to make such a big deal about such a modest impact. David Robert at Grist has an excellent piece, The virtues of being unreasonable on Keystone, that focuses on the establishment critics along these lines, highlighting the fact that these critics don't actually point to an alternative fight to engage in that promises a prospect to cut CO2 emissions by more. After all, mobilizing to actually cut CO2 emissions by something is better than waiting around spinning with our thumbs up our posteriors waiting for the perfect opportunity to have a big impact to come along.

The Progressive Veal Pen

This discussion brings to my mind Jane Hamscher's analogy of the relationship with self-identified "progressive" groups and the Democratic Establishment as a "Veal Pen". A real veal pen is an enclosure in which a calf is raised for three or four months to be slaughtered for veal, which is too small to turn around in or even to sit down. Jane Hamscher's Virtual Veal Pen is:

Soon after the election, the Administration began corralling the big liberal DC interest groups into a variety of organizations and communication networks through which they telegraphed their wishes — into a virtual veal pen. The 8:45 am morning call co-hosted by the "liberal" Center for American Progress, Unity 09, and Common Purpose are just a few of the overt ways that the White House controls its left flank and maintains discipline.

My own experience with the Veal Pen came indirectly, when some of them had the temerity to launch a campaign against Blue Dogs. They were rebuked and humiliated in front of their peers as a lesson to them all at a Common Purpose meeting, which is run by lobbyist Erik Smith. White House communications director Ellen Moran attends. It isn’t an arms-length relationship between these groups and the administration.

A few weeks ago, Rahm Emanuel showed up at a Common Purpose meeting and called these liberal groups "fucking stupid" for going after Blue Dogs on health care and ordered them not to do so any more. Since that time, to the best of my knowledge, none of them have.

Musical Accompaniment: Power and the Passion, Midnight Oil

In my experience, many focus on the establishment side of the Virtual Veal Pen: why it is that politicians who identify themselves with Progressive values and promise Progressive policies on the campaign trail turn around to neuter and strip the power of progressive groups when they come to power. But my attention is drawn to the progressive groups.

The key problem with the Virtual Veal Pen is that it is a self-organizing system. That is, independent of any establishment individual or group with the straregic capability, strategic intelligence and tactical finesse to maneuver "Progressive" groups into a Virtual Veal Pen, we will still see Progressive Groups forming into a Virtual Veal Pen. Indeed, it may be a Red Herring to focus on what the establishment has done to disempower "Progressive" groups, when the "Progressive" groups left to their own devices so often disempower themselves.

Part of this is the Adjective Problem.

“Progressive” on its own is meaningless. If one had a bunch of white power neo-nazis collected together, and presented a proposal to improve transportation infrastructure that was both more environmentally sensible and also offer greater economic independent from oil countries overseas …

… why, you’d likely find some who would admit (at least in private) that they liked it. Especially of the policy advocate, aware that the audience was a bunch of white power neo-nazis, pointed out how much money we spend on petroleum from African nations.

Voila, you have (transportation infrastructure) Progressive White-Power Neo-Nazis. Likely primarily because they like the idea of not giving money to Ay-Rabs, Venezuala and especially Nigeria or Angola.

So you have a particular objective that you identify as progress. And you agree with the need to reform a wide range of other things. You can:

(1) Focus on your highest priority. But to pursue your highest priority, it seems like you don’t want to piss off people willing to support this objective, but not willing to support any or all of the other of that wide range of other things. Or,

(2) Build a movement in which those supporting a range of reforms all work together to pursue the whole set as a program.

Only the second approach included taking power as a possible strategy to pursue, since the first approach requires that you refrain from pissing off those who may support your main priority in some way, but already have access to power and don’t want to risk any shakeup in how power is distributed in the current establishment.

And the result is easily self-imposed divide-and-conquer. You have a set of people who’s reforms focus on things so fundamental to the establishment that they can only be seriously pursued by organizing to try to take power to put them into place. And you have a wide range of issue groups who imagine that their particular reform may be attainable by influencing those in power rather than by taking power …

… and the latter set of people avoid the first set of people like the plague, to avoid pissing off those in power.

And so even if there is a latent potential for a progressive-change coalition that would be able to build a movement and eventually take power, those who imagine that appeal to the existing authority offers a path to success often seek to actively avoid that kind of coalition.

And the actions of self-definition to make it clear to all observers, "oh, we aren't like those radical groups" ... they themselves form the walls of a Virtual Veal Pen.

What to Do About It

Unlike real veal pens, those in the virtual Veal Pen are there by choice. Those of us not in the Veal Pen are also there by choice. It is (to choose a more accessible popular culture reference than "Nookie" Thompson) a bit like the red pill and the blue pill in the Matrix, except everyone starts out with both a red pill and a blue pill in their pocket.

Musical Accompaniment: The Long Way Home, Faithless

What each of us does about it is, of course, part of the struggle to build a movement that is able to take sufficient power to force through the moves required to achieve our objectives. And many of us have different priorities, so one of the things we have to do is to not only understand the upsides and downsides of forging the required alliances from the perspective of different priorities. Those with the reducing the severity of the coming climate catastrophe as our first priority will due to that priority have a different perspective from those of us with the dismantling of the United State's bloody International Base Network Empire as a first priority. Those with Equality of Economic Opportunity in opposition to this nation's entrenched Aristocracy of Wealth will have a different perspective again.

To be clear in what I am saying here, we might all agree on all three, but still have different perspectives because of different priorities among the three.

We do have to engage with those presently in the Veal Pen, and find those who are open to seeing how futile a position in the Veal Pen is in terms of actually achieving any broad set of Progressive aims. Sticking with the analogy, at least some of us have to go into the Matrix.

But we also have to build and work outside the Veal Pen. In the Matrix analogy, we also have to build Zion.

And finally, we have to remember that this is not the Matrix. We are not going to win these fights by getting to the core Power That Is, and persuading it to let us survive if we make a sacrifice that allows it to achieve an important objective. We are only going to win these fights by grabbing a sufficient measure of power.


Well, I've been holding the floor for quite long enough. What do y'all think?




Your rating: None Average: 3 (4 votes)


Nice essay.

Big Al's picture

I don't know.  I don't identify much with the terms progressives or liberals anymore.  Too watered down, claimed by so many that it just seems easier to go by what one's opinions are on key issues.  If someone supports President Obama and claims they are a progressive then I can't identify as a progressive.  If someone supports the electoral system and claims they are a progressive then I can't really identify with progressiveness because I don't believe in "our" electoral system. 

Everyone wants to know what to do and everyone has their ideas.  Overload.  Perhaps its all going to happen based on inertia.  No planning, it just happens.  The problem with leaders is they're human.  Humans are trouble. 

I think the main problem is that there are small numbers of people out of our 7 billion who via their long term wealth and power have virtually made us all slaves and they seek to further their control over the planet forever.  We don't have democracy and we don't have a say in how the world or country is run.  That has to change for humanity to finally shine thru in this world, if it ever can.   We have to take away their power.   Who "they" are has been pretty well defined by now, it can be done.  But it won't be done by progressive Americans.  They might help but this has to be a global effort.  And that is starting.

Your rating: None Average: 3 (3 votes)

On identification with 'Progressives' ...

BruceMcF's picture

... the establishment is going to try to co-opt every term adopted by a large enough group of people to matter for electoral outcomes.

But "Progressives" is particularly easy to co-opt, because in its relative sense, it has no anchor at all. A political banner with "Progressive" on it can as easily be flown by a billionaire who wants the peasants to live modest lives with only a bit of quiet desperation as opposed to the vicious preferences of his fellow billionaires, as by someone who wants to fight the biggest extinction event of the past quarter billion years.

Your rating: None Average: 3 (1 vote)

I've been saying

nemesis's picture

Electoral politics is irrelevant to the movement right now. Keystone protests and Occupy Homes is where it's at now. Identify an issue, shed your labels, and get to work on right/wrong instead of right/left. Our future coalition will be with some libertarians and maybe peel off some teabaggers. The dem party is an enemy of the left as much as the republican party.

Your rating: None Average: 3 (3 votes)

Does the final statement follow from the rest?

BruceMcF's picture

... if it means the democratic party establishment, much of the democratic party establishment are the enemy, but even there treating them as a monolithic block is a strategic mistake, since it blinds us to potential wedges.

It may be that "relevance" is not the crux of it. If Keystone protests and Occupy Homes are where its at, then electoral politics may at times be quite relevant. However, what defines anything involving electoral politics as important or not is determined by the needs of the movement, rather than whether the movement is important being defined, as so often at Veal Pen communities like Agent Orange, in terms of their potential impact on electoral politics.

One thing that is clear to me is that any effective progress in fighting the Climate Suicide Pact will cause increasing stress inside the Democratic Party establishment, which will itself generate headwinds at Veal Pen blogs such as Agent Orange and from those who are still boarding themselves into the Veal Pen.

Your rating: None Average: 3 (1 vote)

The problem I have with Keystone protests and Occupy

Big Al's picture

Homes, while worthy actions, they won't solve the real big problems like preventing the ruling class from destroying the world.  There was something that came out yesterday showing the ruling class plans to improverish the world.  These bastards have fantastical plans that go back over a century with Eugenics. Then there's climate change and world war, nuclear war.  If we don't stop them, that stuff might happen, could very well happen.

I worked for the Forest Service for 20 years during my Fed career.   Saw many environmentalists protesting clear cuts of old growth, etc.  Marching in downtown Portland.  One time a guy name Tre Arrow camped out on the 2nd floor of our building for about 10 days protesting something.  Constant stream of people for that period of time for ten days in downtown Portland.  This is all good, I'm for it.  I'm for people spending their time helping food banks and the like.  But imo it won't solve the big problems that might eat all of us.  And those problems are tied directly to managing the planet which can't be done when an evil group of people hold all the power.  

Your rating: None Average: 3 (2 votes)

Though the early 20th century equivalents of ...

BruceMcF's picture

... actions like the Keystone protests and Occupy Homes were part of the process of laying the foundation of the New Deal ...

... which was successful in constraining income inequality and opening up economic opportunities for over three decades.

We can't do a xerox copy of the New Deal, since one legacy of its success is that the Aristocracy of Wealth devoted considerable effort to working out how to undermine that particular win ...

... but there is no hope of building a movement capable of taking on the current political system and rewriting the rules of the game once again without people learning how to mobilize to win successes in the face of opposition from the Corporate party. And learning by doing is the only effective way to learn that.

There are going to be increasing opportunities to wedge the US portion of the Aristocracy of Wealth over the coming two decades, given both the increasing severity of climate catastrophes and the increasing cost of maintaining the overstretched US Imperium. It is, however, only movement institutions built outside of the Veal Pen that can take advantage of the momentary openings that may arise.

Your rating: None Average: 3 (1 vote)

Well then, I'll wait for the movement.

Big Al's picture

Or my children and grandchildren will wait for it.


P.S.  I don't believe all the hype about the New Deal and the movements. 

Your rating: None Average: 3 (2 votes)

If everyone waits for the movement ...

BruceMcF's picture

... there's nothing to wait for.

The impact of the New Deal on income inequality is not hype. We can't look at the income share of the top of the income ladder without stumbling across it:

Your rating: None Average: 3 (3 votes)

I know the effects or changes that occurred aren't

Big Al's picture

hype.  Certainly.  I'm grateful for the time period I've lived in, to an extent and as compared to past and future generations. 

What I'm talking about is natural progression along with managed breadcrumbs.  But it doesn't matter.  Because you're right, all we're doing is waiting.  I've given up today.  Today is a day I don't see hope, so far.  And that's because of people.   Maybe later it's still early.

Your rating: None Average: 3 (2 votes)

Well, it's later and I feel a bit better. :)

Big Al's picture

Sometimes I forget things.  Like what's happening in Latin America.  But then again, they've been under the gun for so long that it may be that natural progression thing too.  And the banks largely still own the place.

But on Aug 6th there was a UN Security Council meeting chaired by the Argentine President.  12 other latin american countries were represented and they all lambasted the U.S. and it's imperialism, spying and espionage.  They didn't mince words and they laid out an agenda that the UN should take on to basically end the superpower nonsense and bring peace and equality to the world.  They plan on submitting an official resolution at the next UN General Assembly session.  I think that is on Sep 26th.  So fireworks are coming.  I was planning on writing about it, haven't had a chance but will try this weekend.  

So there is hope.  People around the world are fighting back and we can join them.

Your rating: None Average: 3 (3 votes)

Even in Australia, a long-time ...

BruceMcF's picture

... "loyal dominion" of the US Imperium, my experience is that the contrast with the mainstream news I was exposed to in my decade there and the mainstream news after I returned to live in poverty in the US is dramatic. On the anti-imperialism front, its important to understand that the role for radicals in the United States may be to be the wedge that we wish to see. Its not common for the break-up of an Imperium, even one as badly overstretched beyond its capacities as the US Imperium is at present, to begin inside the Imperial Center.

Your rating: None Average: 3 (2 votes)

But why?

neroden's picture

I'm not actually sure why elected officials join the "veal pen".


It means they get less money.  I can say this quite clearly as someone who was on the "major donor" lists for several years, and whose money has stopped flowing to Democratic candidates entirely.  If Democratic politicians are wondering why the money dried up, it's because they're betraying their base.


And it means they get fewer votes, too.

It's very clear why Mike Arcuri lost his House seat -- voted for too much authoritarian bullshit.  People in this area were grumbling about it.  The dictum attributed to Harry Truman applies: if you act like right-wingers, people will vote for the real right-wingers.


I think they must not be thinking clearly.

Your rating: None Average: 3 (2 votes)

The Veal Pen is actually referring to ...

BruceMcF's picture

... issues groups, but it seems like it could be extended to self-identified progressive politicians.

And if you want my view on why they do it, its up there. Given the large number of low information voters who do a first cut based on a vague impression of serious versus fringe candidates, they are pissed scared of getting tagged by the mess media as fringie.

And its a self-fulfilling prophecy as long as the media just covers the horse race, covering the fact that a pollie is "in trouble" because of the "gaffe" of their "extreme views" when it is that coverage with that framing that is putting the pollie in trouble.

No votes yet