Saturday, August 20, 2011


Defining terms is a nice thing to do when utilizing labels as shorthand for points of view, philosophies, ideologies, and the ways and means of getting things done.

The term "progressive" has been bandied about kind of willy-nilly -- and more and more incoherently -- on the internet as both a term of endearment as a denunciation as well as a means of identifying like-minded travelers on the pathways of life. It's used as a dreaded "tribal" marker.

Years ago, I started a series of essays on the Progressive Movement fully intending to get from its origin in the Republican Party to its present day locus largely within the Democratic Party as an answer to a former brand of Republican Conservatism, but I had to stop about midway because I really couldn't get from there to here. What passes for "progressive" today doesn't have much to do with any political philosophy or ideology, nor is it an operating system for government, nor does it have much to do with progress in a general or abstract sense.

Progressives and Progressivism are still around, of course, but many of those who claim to be "progressive" on the internet either know nothing about what Progressivism is or has been in this country, or they don't care, because they are now declaring themselves to be the "progressives" and whatever their particular desire might be is what "progressive" is.

Most of these people, as I've said many times, are some variety of Libertarian, which is not even remotely a Progressive political philosophy. Libertarians who try to mask their political interest and point of view by claiming rights to some other philosophy or point of view, such as those who claim to be liberals or progressives are what I call "faux-gressives."

False "progressives", in other words. They are trying to con liberals and progressives into buying their Libertarian snake-oil, and when they are exposed -- as they often are -- they screech and scream like naughty children who have been caught pulling the wings off flies.

But now I'm seeing the term "fauxgressive" used to describe any Democrat (who claims to be "progressive") who disagrees with the White House. Thus, in a form of ju-jitsu, the White House is trying to re-claim "progressive" for itself and its policies and deny it to all the others who claim to be "progressive," even the genuine ones.

In my view, the Democratic Party has long been the Conservative Party in the United States, not a Progressive Party or a Liberal Party. It is Conservative because it is primarily concerned with maintaining the status quo and with stability. The Republican Party is both Rightist and Radical, primarily concerned with forcing a very reluctant nation into a kind of twisted up modern version of a highly predatory past of depredation, exploitation, imperialism, and constant war -- in other words, instability and overthrow of the status quo -- whatever it may be, it doesn't matter, because the Republican Party has become akin to an Institutional Revolutionary Party constantly seeking to overthrow or overturn just about anything the Institutional Stability Party values.

Internet "progressives" find themselves left out of this uber-contest that goes on constantly way above us. With the White House claiming the "progressive" mantle, thus in effect denying it to others, the term seems to have little meaning at all.

A case could be made, I suppose, that the White House and its operatives and fans are re-claiming more of the original meaning of Progressive, which was a highly process oriented yet authoritarian way of doing things. It was highly organized and directed, too, and I don't see that from the White House at all. They seem to have no real direction of their own. They appear to be the pawns of other interests... the dreaded corporate sector.

Who are the Real Progressives? From my point of view, they are mostly the government drones and institutional operatives who do the real scut work to keep the system going at all. There are seemingly fewer and fewer of them all the time, inside the belly of the beast, if you will. They have largely been replaced by... well, con artists, whose primary belief system is based on falsifying facts to market fraud. They are everywhere in government, its bureaucracy and in institutions today, and they are simply overwhelming remaining Progressives inside the system.

Real Progressivism is a way of doing things, an approach, intended to yield positive material and social results -- ie: "progress", which over time is supposed to improve the lives of everyone. It is a way that relies on extensive regulation and control with an almost Puritan rejection of uncontrolled impulse. It is a way that relies heavily on the advice and often the rule of experts, on research, and on experiment.

It was at one time imperialist and racist to the core. (And that's part of how it has become conflated in the minds of some Rightists with Fascism and Nazi-ism.)

Eugenics and Social Darwinism were at one time accepted "Progressive" scientific points of view.

That's the Progressivism I grew up with and my parents came of age believing in. It was not necessarily socially "pretty," but it was a highly successful means of material progress for the many. It's hard to overestimate the material progress made during the 20th Century under Progressive leadership and ideals. But at the same time, there was a tremendous amount of destruction at home and abroad, some of which was corrected (such as through the agencies of soil conservation and pollution controls) and some of which ended in cataclysm (WWI. WWII. The various other wars of the era, etc.)

Those outside the White House who claim the Progressive mantle today seem to want specific items on a fairly extensive menu of Things That Ought To Be, but in many cases their desires and their heroes look kind of whack from a distance. WikiLeaks style doc dumps and Bradley Manning style security breeches do not a stable governmental operation make. Someone like Russ Feingold, who speechifies real pretty but doesn't actually do anything for better or worse hardly seems like the kind of hero to follow. Ron Paul should not even be remotely considered in a Progressive pantheon. Please.

Real Progressivism is neither "left" nor "right" on the political measuring rod. It was at one time considered strictly non-partisan though its advocacy started within the Republican Party and only shifted over to the Democratic Party during the FDR period (and many old line Progressives stayed with the Republicans up to the era of Reagan.)

I tend to be far more "leftist" in my point of view than most Progressives these days, or historically for that matter. So it is with many who claim a "progressive" tribal affiliation, but many more who do so have no "leftist" sentiment or cred at all. To confuse actual Progressivism with "Leftism" is a fundamental category fault in my view. Progressivism is an operating system, a way of doing things, not a political ideology.

But as the political sector deteriorates and reconceives itself to serve the New American Imperial State, concepts of "left" and "right" have almost as little relevance as accurate descriptions and definitions. Post-modernism rules.

It is what you think it is.

Some recent uses of "fauxgressive:" [Courtesy of Teh Google Machine]

  • Naked Capitalism

  • Death by Trolley

  • The People's View

  • Roxie's World

    And so on...


    1. Thomas Frank goes into this a bit in The Wrecking Crew when Democrats are in power, they tend to appoint people to be agency heads who believe in the mission of that agency (an example would be Hilda Solis over at the Department of Labor).

      When Republicans are in charge, they do things like put someone in charge of the Department of the Interior who believes that pollution is God's will and it's blasphemous to try to interfere with it. "Reagan’s cartoonish Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, spoke publicly of Armageddon and the need to exploit as much land as possible before its coming," from the article "40 Years of Earth Days" by Brian Tokar.

      Of course, the upshot of this is that Republicans should never, ever be in power. Electing them is a kind of madness. That's why Noam Chomsky gave a backhanded endorsement to the current President. He may be bad, but at least he's not a cartoon supervillain.

      One of the things I hate is making comments clouded with emotion. I'm angry at the president, but thinking logically maybe I shouldn't complain? Do I really want some Frankenstein's Monster or Dracula, like Perry or Bachmann in there? No. I don't believe in the old Marxist idea "the worse, the better." I have a counter theory, "the worse, the worse, there's no bottom."

      Of course, if I really have the courage of my convictions, I should register Republican, vote for the least horrible candidate in every primary, and then vote for the best candidate (likely the Democrat) in every election. I get upset when some amusing monster rears its head and Democrats pray for the monster to be the candidate of the Republicans. Republicans get elected occaisionally, we should want more Charlie Crists on their side and fewer Rick Scotts.

    2. I don't believe in the old Marxist idea "the worse, the better." I have a counter theory, "the worse, the worse, there's no bottom."

      More and more folks seem to be waking up to the fact that the Crisis of Capitalism that we're in is being artificially and strategically prolonged by people in the financial and the political sectors who hope to gain from the Opportunity (!) it presents. It's been obvious for a long time. I'm hearing rueful laughter, mordant chuckles as it were, from Marxists under the circumstances. They're still looking for the Crisis to spur The Revolution, but if it ever does, the chances are it will go the wrong direction.

      My hope is that the People will realize that there is no political Saviour. Ain't gonna happen. They will have to take matters into their own hands, and it will require shutting down the System of robbery and pillage they are being subjected to day in and day out.

      David Harvey in the first video linked below gets into what has to happen (toward the end, about 35 minutes in). But pulling the plug on the System is a huge risk, and not enough Americans are quite willing to take it.

      The political system is what it is. We want it to be better, but for sanity's sake, I can't look to it to provide a Saviour. (Meanwhile, of course, there are those who will point to Washington, Lincoln, TR and FDR, surely they count, don't they?)

    3. Ché,

      You might be interested in this exchange, over at Crooked Timber. I know they're just labels, but it may be that your "progressives" are similar to "left-neoliberals." For whatever that's worth:

      I also think you're probably correct that when this whole thing blows up, we on the left may just lose again. The energy is on the right, as you've mentioned. They're more determined, obviously better funded, better organized, and more easily led. Their goals sync up naturally with the existing power structure as well.

      The left, OTOH, has a tradition of being cats who won't be herded. I think Mario Savio complained about this in his day, if memory serves.

      (It's both a sign of our evolution and maturity that we won't be led by the nose, but it also makes achieving our goals rather difficult, if not impossible.)

      Anyway, great point about "progressives" being overwhelmed in government by the new breed of radical postmodernist gunslingers. Obama seems to be a hybrid of this to me. Both "progressive" in the technocratic, left-neoliberal sense, and postmodernist in his belief in his own above-the-frayness, in his ability to forge agreements between ideologies, without asserting his own, despite the fact that his belief is an ideology itself.

      Oh, well. Viva la Musica!!

    4. Oh dear. Drum and Yglesias pontificating. The mind congeals.

      How on earth did "neo-liberalism" become conflated with any version of "the left?" This is just absurd on its face, and of course the conflation is what fuels the endless dispute among that effete class of... well, I wanted to say "idiots," but that would be rude; after all, most of them have their doctorates!

      Now questions of who should be first against the wall, though, that's another question altogether...

      What I can say in defense of many online "progressives" is that they can and sometimes do acknowledge the potential that actual people are likely to be affected by whatever policies they are advocating.

      There are no people at all in the airy confections being inflated and deflated among the the cognoscenti pondering the "question" of Left Neo-Liberalism.

      It's stunning.

    5. I had never seen the term until I read the piece in Crooked Timber. It makes zero sense to me as well.

      "neoliberal" is a rightist economic vision. It's Thatcher/Reagan/Chicago School, etc.

      Slash taxes, subsidize business via the tax code, privatize the hell out of everything, deregulate everything in sight, and when it all goes south, blame the government for not following this very prescription.

      That's another stunning aspect of it. Its advocates believe they can fool the public whenever it fails. They're mostly right, tragically.

      I keep bumping into people who actually think Greece, Ireland, Portugal, et al, got into trouble because they had too much Keynesian stimulus. And when it comes to America, these same people confuse and conflate deficit spending (due to massive tax cuts and endless wars) with Keynesian economics. They don't ponder how the money was spent or who got to spend it. Did it go toward "demand" or "supply"? To them, it doesn't matter. If it failed, it's Keynesian. If it succeeds, it's just capitalism doing what it is supposed to do.

      We have all of this access now to a wealth of knowledge, with the click of a mouse button, but it seems like people are more ignorant now than ever before.

    6. I'm sure that all those who are joining in the debate over "Left Neo-Liberalism" know that the matter under discussion is self-contradictory. Well. They must. They can't be that out of touch. Like the rest of us, they have Teh Google.

      But it's clear enough that part of the exercise is intended to reconcile opposites, something like the Obama White House is trying to do. Shouldn't it be possible to maintain an adequate market based social safety net -- hey!*idea!* -- while hobbling democracy so that the wrong sort of people don't get it in their heads that they have power and authority?

      In other words, their argument devolves into finding a means to doll up capitulation to Neo-Liberal Power, since the only alternative to it is Neo-Conservative.

      Put another way, there is no Left.

      The technocrat serves Power. And if Power is only recognized to be in the hands of one or another faction of Rightists/fascists, then the technocrat finds a way to serve -- while trying to maintain some sort of "leftist" cred for the day when the pendulum finally swings back that way.

      Practical to a fault.

    7. "The technocrat serves Power. And if Power is only recognized to be in the hands of one or another faction of Rightists/fascists, then the technocrat finds a way to serve -- while trying to maintain some sort of "leftist" cred for the day when the pendulum finally swings back that way.

      Practical to a fault."

      Can you send that to the White House?


      That is very well put.

      As in, if we were magically somehow in lefty land, Obama and other technocratic Dems would be serving that power instead.

      Kinda like salesmen. Say, car salesmen. Their absolute favorite all time car is the one made by the owners they serve at that moment in time.

    8. True that.

      The scope of the con this time is so enormous they like to claim: Nobody's right if everybody's wrong..., so laugh while you can...

      Somehow I doubt the White House is in a mood to listen to people like you or me if they send out their polemicists and propagandists to slice and dice someone like Brother Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman -- who has long offered the gentlest suggestions on matters economic.