Friday, 22 April 2011

The Perils of Being a Progressive

Once upon a time, social and political action was defined in broadly economic terms:

In generalising hugely, we can posit that Leftism operated on the premise of collective action - that by banding together, those without power (in an economic sense) could provide a counterweight to the heft of those who dominated economic and political spheres. The greatest concern was the flow and control of capital, and the lack of capital opportunity available to those who were powerless within a capitalist paradigm. In that sense, regulatory and legislative action by Government was an adjunct to collective action by workers - it enabled and promoted their capacity to organise themselves, work collectively and consider their capacity to be treated 'fairly' in an economic sense by management.

Protecting the 'working class' was foremost a consideration for the Left - which is why policies which were protectionist (whether tariffs or the White Australia policy) were heartily endorsed by unions and unionised workers of the Left. Analysis of social aspects were often pushed to one side, as the operating paradigm was an economic one, one necessitated by the capitalist society in which workers existed. If the key indicators were job security, fair treatment, safe workplaces and equatable pay, then issues such as concern for homeless, unemployed or those needing welfare were considered to be issues of fair access to gainful employment and the creation of safety nets (health, education, welfare) for those still unable to benefit from the employment market as much as others.  Left Government provided a regulatory framework which backed up the capacity of society to enable equitable access to jobs and job security.

As political discourse increased through the 20th century, the capacity and role of Government became contentious.  In the examples of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany (plus Franco's Spain and Peron's Argentina), it could be seen that the Left-Right spectrum was too simple.  

You can have libertarian lefties (Gandhi) who would role back the capacity for government/the state to interfere on the premise that communal living and economic development is self-regulating in the best needs of the community, and the interference of government reduces the community's democratic nature.  You can have authoritarian lefties (Stalin, possibly Peron) who reduce everything to a command economy to ensure equality of the proletariat and erase class distinctions. But then the power of government officials becomes their own class system.

You can have authoritarian righties who assume control of the economy in order to build upon corporatist interest and actually divest the working classes of equality in the name of 'greater goods', often national interests in a time of constant war (Franco, Hitler).  You can have libertarian righties, who peel back government interference and endorse the capacity of the market as the best judge of value (Ayn Rand.)

Authoritarian generally means stronger government control, regulation and authority over the citizenry, the polis and the systems of business and corporatism. Lefties /tend/ to have /some/ authoritarian instincts as we recognise the capacity and need for government to protect the working and economically disenfranchised classes.  (Also a generalisation).  And righties in theory tend to be libertarian, with a visceral distaste for government regulation. In practice, of course, things are much different.

But a consideration of economic (left-right) and political (authoritarian-libertarian) views is limiting, because it fails to take into account the cultural desires to which government and economic structures will be put.  More recently, a further consideration has been placed into governance and political attitudes: cultural or social beliefs, such as gay marriage, drug usage, and treatment of refugees/free mobility of populations.

We label the poles in this case 'progressive' and 'conservative' and often they've become catch-all descriptions and replacements for Left and Right. In Australia, both the ALP and Greens compete for the 'progressive' label, but when you think about it, the current struggle of the ALP is because many of those in the ALP are economically Left but socially conservative, framing problems simply in terms of the struggle for scarce resources in a capitalist and consumerist society.

Progressivism is about looking to the future and believing that culture and society is an ongoing process of improvement; conservatism is about the language of having 'lost our way' and needing to return, to look back for inspiration. Progressivism makes an ideal that hasn't existed yet; conservatism turns what has existed into its ideal.

So instead of four quadrants, we have many different sectors and a greater understanding of the struggles internal to parties and between parties and affiliated organisations.

Personally, it's one of the reasons I hate the catch-all use of 'progressive' by individuals on the Left, as it says nothing about the whole picture of your political beliefs and stances. It only captures a social or cultural dimension, and its reductive in its suggestion that 'progressivism' is a singular category.

After all, we can have:
Progressive-Left-Authoritarians - those who are socially progressive in part because they identify economic equality with the ways in which minority groups are ultimately excluded from society, and endorse the need for government to Do Things to achieve equality and inclusion (gay marriage, targets for women on boards, use of government to promote acceptance of refugees etc).  Government is used to provide for universal equality.  The Left faction of the ALP could probably be placed here.

These come into conflict with:
Conservative-Left-Authoritarians - those who believe that government should use its regulatory power to enable greater power and economic strength to the 'working class'. They also tend to see social issues (gay marriage) as a distraction from government's core business of helping them, and consider potential actions from this economic lens. Migrants are then seen as a threat and a competitor for increasingly scarce resources in a capitalist society; and green movements threaten the viability of industries and jobs by putting the long-term sustainability of the planet ahead of the short-term consequences to workers.  Government is used to provide targeted support for union and working class interests, especially when they are under threat (manufacturing subsidies for example)  These are often the cohort of former ALP members who have reacted most strongly to the ALP's movement on social issues over the past thirty years and may now vote for the LNP as they see the LNP as providing the most economic security through tax cuts.  They also tend to view the ALP and the country through a cultural lens in which things were better 'back in the old days' as the party simply protected a unified cohort of workers regardless of the environmental or social consequences of their industry.

Then there's Progressive-Right-Libertarians.
These are the Malcolm Turnbull's and David Cameron's of the political world, those who believe social equality is achievable and doable in a world where economic equality is a matter of individual attainment. They view government's place as removing barriers to achievement and opportunity, rather than enabling the polity to achieve and gain access.  They believe in the power of the market and the individual and disdain the need for collective action.

They conflict with Progressive-Right-Authoritarians.
I'd say Sarkozy is one in some ways. Wants to get the government out of the economy, but utilise it to achieve socially acceptable (acceptable, not necessarily just) outcomes through regulation and imposition which create a unified culture.  There's a new wave of right-authoritarians in Europe who are progressive on social issues and don't see the need for government to deal with the individual, but do see the need for government to impose identity on the community (Muslims, migrants, etc) in order to maintain order and compliance.

I'd suggest the Australian Democrats were most likely Progressive-Left-Libertarians, in that they had a distrust of government and its institutions ('Keep the bastards honest') which meant they preferred individual responsibility with collective action in order to ensure the best and most equal polity.  I also think this categorisation of them is a bit iffy and doesn't touch on their internal policy divisions.  Some of the Australian Greens are also here, but there's also a healthy recognition of the potential and value of good governance associated with the Greens.  The UK Lib Dems tend to be hazily here, although close to the centre economically, which causes tension (as it did with the Australian Democrats).

Conservative-Right-Authoritarians tend to be the populist lot who want Government to do all it can to preserve existing societal conditions and who venerate their own culture, and therefore disdain government attempts to achieve economic equality or social inclusion.  One Nation, for example.

Conservative-Right-Libertarians are those even crazier mob who tend to exacerbate the potential for Government to do anything wrong and distrust any form of social change. They worship at the altar of the individual and tend to place responsibility for status and wealth on individuals (ie. if you're not employed, it's because you're a bludger.)  Society should be dismantled as a concept as it compels individuals to give up their norms to a larger whole. There was elements of Thatcherism which met this model but she was also Authoritarian in some impulses.  The One World Government conspiracy theorists are at the extreme end of this categorisation: the existence of government as an implicit and existential wrong which threatens individual freedom (see also: Party, The Tea.)

And yes, there are Conservative-Left-Libertarians somewhere, although their wish for economic equality and the removal of government go hand in hand with a halcyon perspective on communal living. They still believe in the need for social boundaries and structures: it's probably a bit Old Labor, really.

This post however, was supposed to be all about why I think 'Progressivism' is an empty suit of a word, and misses most of its point in the current political discourse.  In the US it's gained fashion as opposed to saying 'Liberal'; here it's used to indicate something in opposition to conservatism. It also reveals the split within the Left (in western social democratic tradition) between Left Conservatives and Progressives - but it also parades an individual's social stances  before their economic stance.  It assumes you can enact progressive social change without touching on or explicitly promoting the need for economic equality: that you can be Progressive without having to actually call yourself (or be) Left.

And that, I think, is a mistake.  But that's a post for another time.

Anyway, where does everyone sit on my hideously complex schema?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Progressive-Left-Authoritarian! This is actually a useful schema.

  3. I am constantly reminded of how many people claim to be 'progressive' but define it in consistently different ways.