Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Against 'Progressivism' ...

Back in late 2010, the UK's Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg announced that he wished to be seen as a 'progressive'. The New Labour Party displaced its old commitment to democratic socialism with the claim that it was 'progressive'. There have been 'progressive' mutterings in the Tory Party.

But what is this thing called 'progressivism' and why should we be wary of taking it at face value? Are we not being conned once again by simplistic rhetoric?

Progressivism is an ideology with a history and a tradition that is as distinct as, say, neo- conservatism with which it converges in practice at the highest state levels in liberal internationalist practice.

The Communists has perhaps the best description of it - bourgeois liberalism at the point of transition between laissez-faire and fascism, a response to threats from below to property and to 'culture'.

Progressivism was initially a creation of the federalisation process in late nineteenth century America when the 'moral' bourgeois, having not quite lost God and Church, sought to reform capitalism in direct opposition to the self-organisation from below of competing radicals.

In fact, effective self-organisation was under way through early trades union, socialist and anarchist movements and even through 'welfarist organised crime' such as Capone's (analogous to Hamas or Hezbollah but built around services to migrants rather than to besieged faith groups).

Capone ensured soup kitchens for the poor and was the major figure in dealing with adulterated milk supplies in Chicago in the 1920s. On the other side, the democratic Socialist Eugene Debs achieved a million votes in the 1918 Election before Edgar Hoover destroyed the movement in the 'Red Terror'.

The period from the 1860s to 1890s and later had been a period of 'settlement chaos' in the West and of migration chaos in the East of the United States. Political dissent was expressed as banditry and racism in the country and mobsters and strikes in the cities.

Progressives were simply high caste East Coast and Mid-Western liberals terrified of the potential threat to property from disorder and of the rise of anarchism and socialism. The American Left tradition had to be appropriated before recalcitrant bosses brought chaos to the country.

Instead of permitting organisation from below to redistribute power and resources as in the European Labour or Social Democratic Parties, the progressives intervened both to reform but also to control.  A classic progressive imposition would be the prohibition of alcohol ... rule by matriarch.

For them, the masses could not be trusted. Because the bankers and trusts were behaving provocatively towards the masses, the Federal State had to be brought in to play in order to restore order. Government authority was the solution to chaos ... for progressives as much as Bismarck

Just as neo-conservatism has its base in the German conservative philosophical tradition, the progressive mentality has its base in American philosophical pragmatism, reaching its epitome in John Dewey, interestingly mildly seduced by the Trotskyist camp in his later years.

The high point of American progressivism was perhaps the New Deal but this attempt to create a corporatist partnership with trades unions has to be seen in the context of Woodrow Wilson's earlier consciously progressive admiration for the early Mussolini.

Progressivism had its English analogue in Fabianism in the UK which played gadfly and junior partner alongside Social Liberal thinkers such as Beveridge to the post-26 organised labour movement. In both traditions, the flirtation with Mussolini was a shared interest in corporatism.

Unions were certainly not regarded as positive forces until they had been 'reformed' into partners of the corporatist State. Progressives were Statist, media-driven and 'top-down' - which brings us to our modern day British examples.

Forms of welfare-warfare state emerged when economic dislocation and war permitted an alliance between 'progressives' (aka social stabilisers through concession) and union movements to impose a social liberal (US) or social democratic (Europe) consensus.

But, as New Democrats, New Labour and now Liberal Democrats have quietly dismantled what remained of this consensus in the UK after the depredations of Reagan and Thatcher, we can see that the alliance between progressives and trades unions has shifted to the detriment of the latter.

British organised labour is no longer in a position to assert itself in the street and has not been so since Orgreave. The intellectual approach that dominated the American Left has now come to dominate the British Left, its current leader being the quintessential scion of Hampstead revisionism.

Each imposition of progressive policy by the intellectuals has been a revolutionary act that created regimes that controlled society from the top and provided service delivery without democratic consultation or engagement. It is a political culture that imposes 'oughts' on the population.

The welfare state, for example, was merely the adjunct to the warfare state of total social mobilisation - mobilisation by the state for order and not mobilisation of the state for the people. This perhaps over-simplifies the story but social services only ever appeared as a reward for engagement in war.

War is, in fact, central to progressivism. Hard power is there to be used to impose its idealism and the 'sacrifices' required of the people need to be rewarded as payment for services rendered in sustaining a cohesive polity that protects property and culture.

Progressivism is the theory that the professor knows best and ill-fits liberal values even if it accords with the actual values of its high caste intellectual gentry. It is an ideology of psychological manipulation and of negotiations between the educated (not to be confused with the intelligent).

The pragmatic commitment to the masses soon drifted with the acquisition of power. Once power was attained and the progressive state in command, then a bastardised form of pragmatic populism allying political intellectuals, techno-bureaucrats and media was all that was required.

We must stop here and remind ourselves that the progressives 'cared' about the population but through the prism of social order. The theory was that social order required 'care' but when it became clear that social order no longer required 'care', the incentive to 'care' began to dissipate.

Instead of the ideological comitment to care found amongst socialists, progressives became interested instead in responses to sufficient wants and needs that would ensure power was retained in a democracy. If that meant the lumpenproletariat could now be ignored, so be it. 

Warfare also changed. The mass of the population became spectators again instead of participants. Having captured the machinery of hard power, the progressive ideologist could use it selectively for idealistic ends, knowing that, without direct pain to themselves, the voters would sign it off.

Social services as the price for total social mobilisation under Liberal Militarism collapsed because 'care' was no longer a central value in its own right. 'Care' strategies switched from caring for the indigenous working population to caring for people in faraway countries - as potential threats.

As the organised union component has weakened under conservative pressure and its own sclerosis, the atomised masses were left vulnerable to crisis, a crisis which appeared in 2008 but was underway for some time in the relative and growing pauperisation of significant sections of society.

Contemporary post-1992 British progressivism is thus just the latest adaptation of essentially the same phenomenon that I described above that emerged in the US: reactionary, authoritarian and statist - the precise opposite of what was intended by the Labour Representation Committee.

To be progressive is also not what is meant by the Liberal Democrat ideology of localist and individual freedom. And the adoption of the term (admittedly without enthusiasm) by left-conservatives (actually communitarians) is the last phase of our upper middle classes' decadence.

The organised mass component of the Left has now been removed by history, to be replaced by a vague form of populism. Once, progressives provided the devious shock troops for working class entry into the establishment. Now, public school liberals and conservatives compete for the label.

Clegg's claim is a demonstration of the meaningless of progressive rhetoric. New Labour was captured by a small 'progressive elite' by 1998 which ran it into the ground and the 'Orange Book' network surrounding Clegg briefly thought that they could capture the model for their own purposes.

Clegg's desperate grab at the term was an attempt to identify his Party to a gullible centre as the natural reformist wing of the propertied in a world where all see themselves, naively, as propertied and with 'something to lose' from a radical re-thinking of our declining imperium.

The lack of real progress in Clegg's vision can be summarised in one policy issue - tuition fees. In one lie to the student and middle and working class family vote, Clegg showed that he had no conception of the role of education in 'progressing' the best and brightest in a society.

Take away access to credit, reduce the value of property, remove the implicit property rights in state service delivery (including the imposition of tuition fees!) and the idea that Clegg (or indeed New Labour) represents the forward march of progress becomes a truly absurd proposition.

Indeed, there is a sign of a realisation of the vulnerability of these claims in the economically dangerous strategies of letting cheap credit continue to defer an inevitable reckoning for many households and the dangerous unsustainable boom in house prices that must crash after 2015.

Progressivism is very much at the centre of the crisis surrounding democracy and competency within Anglo-Saxon Western politics. It is not the solution to the crisis. Its strategy of order and control to preserve property is actually reaching the point where it endangers property.

The obvious danger arises from our analysis of progressivism as bridge ideology between laissez-faire liberalism and fascism. Right-wing populism already shows the troubled middle voting with its feet and the alliance of Western progressives with Ukrainian fascists is troubling.

At least the unreformed piratical propertied ideology of the truly liberal centre-right is innovative, creative and forward-thinking economically, Progressivism represents, on the other hand, sclerosis ...

... ideologically-driven war, bureaucratic federalism in Europe as well as the US, detachment of politics from the people in favour of bureaucracy, serious errors of judgement arising from grand narratives and the infantilisation of peoples who should learn from the experience of struggle.

Above all, it castrates specifically working class struggle and community self-organisation. The dead hand of the liberal intellectual activist results finally in little more than warfare-lite states poddling along on the rhetoric of freedom but terrified of giving individuals any real choices over their lives.