Progressivism as Conservatism
February 26, 2012 - 11:00 am
After reading Ed Driscoll’s excellent column on nostalgic progressivism, I’m tempted to add my own two or three cents to the topic he broached.
Ed calls his article “The Paradox of the Nostalgic Progressive.” But it is only a paradox if we take the label “progressive” seriously in the first place. An unfortunate aspect of political debate is that we are saddled with vague, meaningless, often contradictory labels. Thus the term “right wing” can refer to Russell Kirk, Milton Friedman, Adolf Hitler, Francisco Franco, Irving Kristol, Ayn Rand, Osama bin Laden, and Lyndon LaRouche. The term “left wing” is more unified: it’s much easier to predict what someone’s political beliefs are when all you know about them is their identification as “left wing.” If we remove the forward-looking connotations of the word “progressive” and look instead at what progressives actually believe, the paradox disappears.
Ed writes, “Perhaps that’s one explanation why so many liberals, as they get up in years, have both a surprising nostalgia for the past, and a “you kids get off my lawn” crankiness about contemporary society.” First, I wouldn’t extend this critique to all liberals. I don’t know about others, but I draw a distinction between the words “liberal” and “progressive.” This distinction is often not made by the Left in general (e.g., progressives often refer to themselves as liberals and vice-versa), but it’s my own personal way of carving up the Left. A liberal is not opposed in principle to capitalism and Western civilization; they just want regulation and a welfare state. Progressives are hostile to the very idea of markets and thus to the idea of the West in general. Joe Lieberman, Ed Rendell, and Arthur Schlesinger are/were liberals; Naomi Klein is a progressive. All are considered to be on the “Left.”
So the phenomenon of the reactionary leftist is a phenomenon of the hard left, not of liberals (if you’re using my arbitrary terminology, that is). Nonetheless, this distinction aside, I don’t think this nostalgia is restricted to the aging Left. I think it’s pretty safe to say that the unifying theme of the progressive/hard Left, whether young or old, is an opposition to free enterprise (Occupy Wall Street is mostly young people). Thus they oppose the fruits of free enterprise as necessarily tainted. Thus they oppose modern technology and modern society. Thus they are reactionary. It’s obvious when you consider the range of their views: the developed West is evil; the primitive Third World is virtuous. Europeans stole Indian land; the Indians who murdered and pillaged other Indians before the Europeans were just practicing “their culture.” The Mahdi Army are freedom fighters; the Board of Directors of Wal-Mart are terrorists.
The recurring image in all these absurdities is that of the noble savage: the person untouched by modern capitalism.
Reactionary progressivism is therefore not a peculiar aberration but a redundancy: reactionary progressivism is progressivism. These people are conservative in the most literal sense. Oddly, it wasn’t always this way. Karl Marx was not a Luddite; he reserved harsh words for what he called “barracks communism”–the idea that communist society would involve a primitive existence of regimented communal living. Hard leftism until the 1950s was similarly hostile to primitivism. The eugenics movement prided itself on its dedication to technology and genetic science. Mao and Stalin, murderously anti-capitalist though they were, nevertheless spoke the language of modernization and industrialization.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the welfare office. Maybe it was the Frankfurt School’s push to shift the image of the proletariat from the white industrial worker to poor minorities. It suddenly became virtuous to push for primitive existence. Nowadays, the farther left you go, the more likely you are to bump up against someone who thinks we need a De-Industrial Revolution. The most extreme example is someone like John Zerzan, whose anarcho-primitivist movement seeks the destruction of all modern civilization and the adoption of a kind of vegan Robinson Crusoe existence.
My essential points are: (1) We ought always to distinguish between liberals and leftists/progressives; (2) progressives are always reactionary because of their views of capitalism.
Just my opinions. I could be wrong.