Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Third thoughts on a limited understanding of "the progressive": the dark future


In exploring the “progressive” idea (here and here) I have stumbled upon two important aspects of the concept:

1. Progressive thought places individual rights below group rights – the rejection of individualism is central. Thus the “left” (if that is synonymous with “progressive”) place the interests of the group – however defined – above the interests of individual members of the group.

2. Since this idea runs counter to a liberal view there are considerable grounds for confusion over what are thought to be universal ideas – non-discrimination, choice and rights. Put simply the liberal places these rights with the individual whereas the progressive places them with the group.

Although I am clearly on the liberal side of the fence, it is important to understand this distinction from the progressive viewpoint. Policy choices by the left are directed to groups not to individuals – we are defined by the groups to which we belong (whether or not we have a choice in so belonging). Thus progressives see nothing wrong with granting specific privileges to a given group – as is the case, for example, with trade unions. The rights granted to unions by “progressive” governments only adhere to the union as a group – individuals do not have those rights as individuals only as members of a union.

Of course the left quite correctly point out that other (not progressive) governments have granted special privileges to businesses – indeed the Progressive movement in California grew from the corruption of regular party politics by business interests (and in particular the Southern Pacific Railway). This problem – the corruption of representative government by group interests – was not addressed by the anti-individualist progressive idea. One collection of groups – business, landowners, commercial guilds – was replaced by another collection of groups – trade unions, the muckraking media and academics: the corruption of representative government continued. The system of competing interests that we see in the polarised US and UK polities (and less clearly in European regimes) is profoundly illiberal largely because the resistance to powerful groups has been to create other powerful groups to capture political parties – or in the case of the Labour Party for the powerful group to establish a party to serve its interests.

So where are we headed with all this? Given that group politics pervade all the main political parties – certainly in the USA and UK – the likelihood is that the granting of rights to groups - the progressive approach – will continue because those groups are so powerful. Despite Adam Smith’s warning, greater credence is still given to the comments of “business leaders” and we are still expected to view the remarks of Brendon Barber, the TUC boss, as representing the views of “workers”. And to this classic division we have now added faith leaders, community leaders, the spokesmen of NGOs like Oxfam, Shelter or Greenpeace, and the vast “quangocracy”.

This corporate state – where policy discussion is mediated through interest groups with access to the rulers and where communication with the wider populace is done through granting privileged access to selected speakers in those interest groups, in the media and through the structures of political organisation. The “progressive” idea – founded in great hope at the improvement of man and man’s organisation – has become a monster. The individual has no power any more to say: “no, I don’t want to do that.” That right does not belong to him but to the group he belongs with – who have of course negotiated a “compromise” with the rulers.

Of course we remain mostly free – we don’t yet have to sign in every morning – but with each passing year that freedom becomes more curtailed. Most importantly, our economic freedom is undermined by our being more and more dependent on the state – for roughly a third of the population this is absolute since they either work for the government or are reliant on government handouts.

So a glimpse at the possible future. In his monumental “History of Government”, Finer used the Greek word oikos to describe ancient world governments. Oikos means “the household” which for the Greeks meant family under a male head including slaves and other dependents. We are headed back towards such a polity – where we are free in our daily actions within the constraints placed on that freedom by the government and its advisors. And the product of our labour belongs not to us but to the group and to the state – not through confiscation but through a combination of taxation and benefit dependency. It may even be the case that those out of work will be directed toward “socially useful” labour – a precursor of which we see in Labour’s “Future Jobs Fund”. Future jobs are not wealth creating but have a social purpose paid for either through taxation or (less likely) through philanthropy.

The idea of Liberty has always struggled next to the powerful group interests that dominate our political systems – today we are granted superficial freedoms while the real rights to free speech, free assembly, free movement and free trade are eroded in the interests of “fairness”, “security”, “society” or “community”. Were it not for my anger at this I would like Cincinnatus, return to my plough.



Anonymous said...

What a strangely confused and confusing article this is.

Progressive is such an ill defined word politically - as is Conservative (or should that be conservative ?). You seem however to be starting out with an erroneous impression of what progressive means, and then setting about condemning it.

To my mind "progressive" means moving forward, and that ultimately means accepting that all knowledge is provisional - rejecting ideologies as a mechanism which can only root us in the past.

It follows that there can be no sacred cows in a truly progressive school of thought - Progressivism is about neither thesis nor antithesism, but synthesis. In essence a critical science re-focusing the present, through the lens provided by our past experiences, in order to improve the future.

The does not presuppose any superiority of the individual over the group - or vice versa - I would suggest however that true Liberty can only exist within societies that do not threaten other individuals, and that this can only be achieved through consensus and collective action.

It strikes me also that you haven't twigged that the "Progressive" wing of the Labour party tends to be viewed as the more Right wing element of the party.

marksany said...

What a brilliant piece.

Simon Cooke said...

Fear Northern Heckler - not as confused a you seem to be!

Unknown said...

Interesting article. I have been reading Jonathan Sacks 'Clash of Civilisations' book this Christmas. A lot of what you discuss is in there. Certainly very topical