The year when the word ‘progressive’ lost all its meaning

After the events of 2011, radical humanists will have to fight hard to reclaim the p-word.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics

After the experiences of the past 12 months, it is difficult to give meaning to the idea of a ‘progressive worldview’. Throughout history, progressives came in many shapes and sizes, but whatever their differences might have been, their convictions were similar – they were driven by a positive view of change, innovation and experimentation and by a belief that the world could be a better place tomorrow than today. Despite clashes of opinion over what progress would look like, they assumed that the future could be influenced by political action.

In 2011, the classical ideal of progressivism died, having been displaced by a zombie version that has little to do with the forward-looking, transformative outlook of progressives of the past. The only practical context in which the term progressive is used today is in relation to taxation. Progressive taxation makes sense, of course, because society is entitled to expect greater material contribution from those who earn more than others. But in recent times, progressive taxation has been transformed from a sensible fiscal policy into a naive instrument of social engineering. Historically, the aim of progressives was to realise a positive transformation, whereas today their objective is merely to rearrange the status quo through redistribution.

In recent years, the zombie version of progressivism has become closely linked with the idea of ‘social justice’. Social justice can be defined in many different ways, but in essence it expresses a worldview committed to avoiding uncertainty and risky change through demanding that the state provides us with economic and existential security. From this standpoint, progress is proportional to the expansion of legal and quasi-legal oversight into everyday life. From the perspective of those who demand social justice, the proliferation of ‘rights’ and redistribution of wealth are the main markers of a progressive society.

Paradoxically, the idea of social justice was historically associated with movements that were suspicious of and uncomfortable with progress. The term was coined by the Jesuit Luigi Taparelli in 1840. His aim was to reconstitute theological ideals on a social foundation. In the century that followed, ‘social justice’ was upheld by movements that were fearful of the future and which sought to contain the dynamic towards progress. Probably one of the best known advocates of social justice was Father Charles Edward Coughlin. This remarkable American demagogue and populist xenophobe set up the National Union of Social Justice in 1934. Through his popular radio broadcasts, which regularly attracted audiences of 30million, he became one of the most influential political figures in the United States. Coughlin praised Hitler and Mussolini’s crusade against communism and denounced President Roosevelt for being in the pocket of Jewish bankers. Here, ‘social justice’ was about condemning crooked financiers and putting forward a narrow, defensive appeal for the redistribution of resources.

Today’s campaigners for social justice bear little resemblance to their ideological ancestors. They’re far more sophisticated and middle class than the followers of Fr Coughlin. But they remain wedded to the idea that the unsettling effects of progress are best contained through state intervention into society. They also maintain the simplistic notion that financiers and bankers are the personification of evil. The current Occupy movement would be horrified by Coughlin’s racist ramblings, yet they would find that some of the ideas expressed in his weekly newspaper, Social Justice, were not a million miles away from their own.

The confusion of social justice with progressivism is symptomatic of today’s implosion of classical political vocabulary. Although this trend transcends left-right political affiliations, its most striking manifestation is in the disintegration of the language of the progressive. Recently, Francis Fukuyama, in his essay ‘The Future of History’, remarked that ‘something strange is going on in the world today’ – which is that despite the intensification of the global crisis of capitalism, anger and frustration have not led to an ‘upsurge in left-wing alternatives’. This ‘lack of left-wing mobilisation’ is down to a ‘failure in the realm of ideas’, he argued.

What 2011 has confirmed is that the way in which the term progressive is used today has little to do with how it was used in the past. The most striking manifestation of this can be seen in the utter estrangement of the left from the idea of progress. The left, classically a movement that was associated with change and progress, has gradually lost its capacity to believe in the future. For most of its existence, the left looked upon the future as a place that would probably be significantly better than the present day. Social change was perceived to be, on balance, a positive thing, and the left tried to harness it towards the realisation of progressive objectives. The present was seen as something which had to be improved upon, reformed or transformed. Today, by contrast, what remains of the left is just as uncomfortable with the future as are other sections of the political class.

Sadly, the confused state of the political lexicon was turned into a virtue in 2011. Political illiteracy came to be celebrated as ‘the new radicalism’. This was the year when commentators extolled the strength of a movement that ‘defies simple characterisations’ – that is, the Occupy movement. Many claimed that the virtue of these occupations is that they refuse to communicate a distinct political message. Instead of serving as a reminder of contemporary disorientation and confusion, political illiteracy was rebranded as a new and subtle form of communication.

2011 was the year when Hal Ashby’s 1979 comedy-drama movie, Being There, provided the model script for political communication. The film follows Chance, a simpleton played by Peter Sellers, whose banal words are interpreted as wise insights springing from a powerful mind. Suddenly, through a series of accidental events, this former gardener becomes a celebrity whose confused musings are held up as a new brand of prophetic insight. Today, ‘being there’ forms the entire basis of the new radical politics. And it is those who question the incoherent ramblings of the characters of ‘Being There 2011′ who are dismissed as hopeless simpletons. ‘Those who deride [Occupy] for its lack of concrete demands simply don’t understand its strategic function’, lectures Gary Younge of the Guardian. Apparently, its strategic function is to ‘create new possibilities’. One can almost hear Chance wowing his audience with inane talk of ‘creating new possibilities’.

The tendency to dismiss clarity of purpose and objectives as old-fashioned and unnecessary represents an acquiescence to confusion and ignorance. It is one thing to lack the political and intellectual resources necessary to formulate a new visionary politics – it is quite another to depict this deficit as a positive thing. When the American political consultant George Lakoff said ‘I think it is a good thing that the Occupy movement is not making specific policy demands’, he gave expression to a zeitgeist that is pleased just to ‘be there’.

But of course, being there is not enough. Public life needs to be refocused around the future, and the reconstitution of progressive politics and ideals is the precondition for making this happen. In the end, what matters are not the words we use to describe ourselves; no, the differences that really matter today are where one stands in relation to the past and the future. Those who are interested in the reconstitution of progressive politics must help to free humanity from its fixation with the present. They need to reacquaint the younger generations with humanity’s history and the lessons of the past, and also adopt a more robust and active orientation towards the future. In 2012, let’s not just pass time being there…

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics

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