I have often referred to myself as a progressive but I have felt increasingly uneasy doing so. The word ‘progressive’ like nearly every other term which refers to a political ideology has become so broadly applied as to become virtually meaningless.
Historically, the term conjured images of Teddy Roosevelt and “Fighting Bob” La Follette. Progressives were seen as outspoken and fiery advocates for the common man. They were trust-busters, anti-monopolists, and anti-corporatists. In terms of foreign policy they were at times divided, but when it came to economics their voice was loud and clear: “We demand that big business give the people a square deal.”
The rest of that Roosevelt quote reads as follows: “in return we must insist that when any one engaged in big business honestly endeavors to do right he shall himself be given a square deal.” So progressivism was hardly anti-capitalist by any stretch of the imagination. It was simply a movement which sought to rectify the imbalances of power that had been usurped by the business elites. In the context of the era, this often happened through compromises, picking out “good trusts” from “bad trusts,” and later through the mixed bag of the New Deal.
In the present day, the Democrats have dusted off the progressive moniker and appropriated it for themselves. At their best they see themselves as nostalgic curators of the memory of the post-war economic order. The one which propelled the longest period of sustained rising wages and growth in US history. At their worst, Democrats are merely the friendlier face of corporatism. Unfortunately, if opinion polls are to be believed, the image which seems to be prevailing is the latter one. Thus, the good name of progressivism has been dragged through the mud, and all the Democrats have to say to their disappointed public is, “stop whining.”
Even if we for some reason concede the best of intentions to the Democrats, and conclude they are hoping to achieve progressive change through corporatist means, it is self-defeating lunacy at best. Defending these lunatics gets us nowhere. Virtually nothing hoped for by genuine progressives will come to pass unless our discourse changes dramatically, and we once again find that fighting anti-corporatist spirit.
Perhaps it is blasphemy to say, but what if progressivism’s historic achievement, the New Deal economy, is no longer viable? Kevin Carson has written a number of damning critiques of the progressive movement. Instead of engaging in the quixotic task of perpetually reforming bureaucracies that will inevitably corrupt, we must recognize that the era of big business, big bureaucracy, and big infrastructure needs to come to an end. There are no “good trusts.” With its crowning invention of the Internet, the corporate-state apparatus has laid the seeds for its own obsolescence.
I suspect Carson is wrong when he says that progressivism was fundamentally misguided from the start, considering the realities of the Gilded Age through the WW2 era and the fact that it’s doubtful the Internet would be here so soon otherwise. Though, since the Internet has arrived, perhaps it is time to recognize that now more than ever we need to re-orient our economy towards Lewis Mumford’s neotechnic ideal.
We must usher in an era of flexible manufacturing networks, digital fabrication, and distributed production. This sort of resilient model is our only hope against the converging crises we are experiencing, from the economic to the ecological.
Can progressives take the lead? We cannot go on defending the ever more draconian nature of the so-called “Intellectual Property” regime, the enormous corporate-captured regulatory system, the blood-sucking finance sector, and the gargantuan military-industrial-complex. We must stand firm against them, like a bull moose!