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The Contaminated Progressive "Reaction"

An addendum to Section 10 of Democracy STRUGGLES!

Gabriel Kolko not unjustifiably understood the Progressive Movement in the United States (c 1890-1917) as a “Triumph of Conservatism”. But intentions can be considered separately from results, and the motivations of Progressives (past and present) are complex and far from monolithic.

Progressivism, as distinguished from Populism, is generally a middle-class phenomenon. And the middle class, with all its anxieties, does tend to be beset by certain senses of responsibility, varying degrees of affluence, and uncertain levels of “achievement” in “higher” education. The idea of “responsibility” is crucial because members of the middle class are encultured to feel its weight no matter how helpless they may feel themselves to be in actually exercising it - and no matter how they may flagrantly flout, glibly fend off, surreptitiously evade, or complacently ignore the naggings of its pressures.

Middle class “responsibility” encompasses a wide range of considerations. Certainly, there are professional and social pressures to maintain at least some appearance of probity, sobriety, and stability which may become especially acute when considering the prospects for our offspring. But these may also become enmeshed with what might be termed a “social consciousness”.

This *can* happen due to influences from a liberal education that actually “took”. It may be supported by a certain measure of leisure for reading and contemplation. And it might be reinforced by some hard-earned understandings based on grueling experiences in how modern institutions actually work - and fail to work in terms of achieving their ostensible purposes. A “social conscience” can also be bolstered by anxious concerns regarding the futures to which children and grandchildren might be condemned. Even then, there’s always some amount of status seeking (and appearance keeping) within any self-styled group identity. (But that’s not always a “bad” thing.)

No matter the level of “social consciousness”, there’s often legitimate worry about the disruptive tendencies of both the “lower orders” and the plutocratic elite. Continuously dashed between Scylla and Charybdis, some in the middle classes feel driven to support various manifestations of authoritarianism while others are drawn to reformist “do goodism” (a term not intended to be purely derisive).

It’s not totally disingenuous for reactionaries to deride the naïveté of progressive “snowflakes”. But dulled anomie or enthusiasm for repression can also emerge from naïvetés too much brutalized by acutely perceived indifference - or sadism - in their formative environments.

Is it unfair to claim the gross measures of the naïveté displayed by ordinary citizens with progressive tendencies are flavored by imagination, idealism, and compassion which subsume many elements of fear? And is it unjustified to suggest that a naive embrace of authoritarianism represents the potency of fear to wither the compassionate or hopeful aspects of imagination? And is not any descent into anomie a self-annihilating surrender to similar types of dread?

Classical Conservatism lies somewhere between liberal progressivism and reactionary authoritarianism. But sober conservatives do share principle motivations with honest reformers. They differ mainly over methods for best preserving imperfect institutions. These institutions constantly need guarding against creeping careerism, opportunism, and the mindless inefficiencies of obsolete practices. But they also need to be preserved from the grasping perversions of relentless plutocrats.

How wise is it to demand well-meaning improvements for removing inefficiencies, correcting injustices, and adapting to rapidly changing times? Can desired reforms be actuated without generating unfortunate unintended consequences? Neither conservatives nor progressives are immune to special pleading.

Conservatives may be more interested in protecting their own situations while progressives may (overtly or covertly) be seeking better positions for themselves and their children. The key (“sincere”) difference lies with contrasting faith in the need for planned, concerted actions to ameliorate injustices and inefficiencies v. faith in organic evolution towards whatever asymptotic limits exist for human perfection. At the level of sincerity this difference might be relatively superficial, but human perversity has a dismal propensity to make sincerity difficult to distinguish from its many less well-meaning counterfeits. And the heat of argumentation can make any one of us more or less prone to undermine our own credibility through intemperate claims or invective.

Interesting speculation can be found to describe inherent and formative differences between ordinary “liberals” and “conservatives”. One line of reasoning proposes “disgust” (or fear of contamination/infection) is relatively stronger in conservatives and could be related to claims progressives are more “creative” and “open to experience”.


But however much could be learned through pursuing valid lines of research into such questions, there are also important political and economic distinctions that might be considered. These involve the apparent gulfs between the leaderships and popular bases of both factions. Elite theory proposes these differences (in times of political stability, at least) dramatically dwarf the disagreements between the respective leaderships themselves. The same can be said about the *fundamental* differences between (even the “politicized”) factions of their grassroots support - who often share many significant interests and sentiments generally obscured by unreflective antagonisms.

We are now enduring a time when political stability appears gravely threatened. Is it a cause or a symptom of this turbulence that comity in Congress is, once again*, evaporating (along with shared social and workaday collegiality)? What about funding sources? How much do the funding strategies of the Koch brothers (and their plutocratic ilk) represent a dangerous departure from the relative even handedness of corporate “investment” in the legislative sausage factory during the decades following the last world war?

There are even more fundamental questions. These relate, in part, to “Casino Capitalism” or the diversion of once productive resources to the vagaries and speculations of complex (and non-productive) financial instruments.

  • Is wealth inequality a natural outgrowth of state capitalism as suggested by Thomas Picketty?

  • To what extent are globalization and automation behind the stagnant incomes of a majority of waged and salaried workers?

  • To what extent are these factors generating the growing number of the dispossessed and the economically superfluous in developed economies?

  • To what extent is Casino Capitalism driving up the numbers of discouraged workers no longer counted as part of the labor force.

  • To what extent is this same Casino Capitalism behind the stagnation of wages and salaries even as per worker productivity increases?

  • To what extent is Casino Capitalism supported by government “too big to fail” bail out policies which transfer all the downside risks for the growing financial sector to struggling taxpayers?

There are a number of other questions, perhaps less argumentative than the above, but the answers to all of the above questions pale in significance compared to the following:

· To what extent can government address the suffering and desperation caused by the increasing loss of income and dignity to an ever-growing number of people - no matter what the causes?

· To what extent SHOULD government spend taxpayers’ money to ensure the maximum possible number of people are able to live with some measure of security and dignity - or at least attempt to guarantee equal opportunities to lawfully attain sustaining levels of self-worth and hope?

And lastly:

· Does there now exist a consensus answer to the above two questions?

or if not:

· Could such a consensus be achieved without cataclysmic disruption?

As to whether government (formalized collective action) should provide a basic safety net along with equal opportunity to all, the popular consensus has always been fairly clear. This consensus becomes even more overwhelming once certain elements are assured such measures will be extended only to “good” people, where “good” is naively(?) intended to mean “honest, peaceful, and hardworking” more than it might possibly refer to religiosity - or skin color.

At the level of elected officials and their backers in the plutocracy, it is less clear if any consensus exists. The “movement conservatives” now in power bear little resemblance to “classical conservatives.” Instead they are shills for neoliberal Disaster Capitalists who are often brazenly open about their preference for a “Politics of Abandonment” where those left behind are simply left to fend desperately for themselves. But the upper tiered insiders who might be called “liberal” or “moderate” do not offer much of an alternative.

The “progressive” elite who currently form a “loyal opposition” at best wring their hands. They seem indebted (if not committed) to kleptocratic donors whose interests they apparently prioritize over common needs and concerns. Whatever worries they may have about the likelihood of current instabilities to spiral out of control and threaten civil society and/or democracy, they are not expressing them publicly. At best, they seem oblivious.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to suspect the above characterization of the progressive elite might be overly charitable. The transition from New Deal liberalism to predatory Neoliberalism which took place during the 1970s is, superficially, most evident in the Democratic Party.

The history of elite progressivism is actually a troublesome one, as has often been highlighted by leftists. This goes much further back than concerns raised by 1960s student activism against the Vietnam War and for Civil Rights. But who listens to leftist students? On the other hand, when other, less protected, elements make the same points, there can be a very decisive reaction (R.I.P Dr. Martin Luther King).

Decades before the 60s, though, the labor movement was induced to purge itself of leftist elements who could have criticized the progressive wing of the “establishment”. This purge, starting in the late 40s, accompanied a willed amnesia of America’s recent labor history. It was also subsumed into the too often enthusiastic support of the most vile malignities of US foreign policy with some US labor unions participating quite shamelessly.

Going back to the early 1870s and not ending until the late 1930s, US corporations, backed by the full ferocity of local, state, and federal governments, waged a ruthlessly bloody war against organized labor - and workers frequently did their best to give as good as they got. Racism and fear of the constantly “revolting” lower orders sparked the “eminently reasonable” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. to endorse the idea of “clear and present danger” along with the practice of eugenics the NAZIs were so enamored of.

Progressivism, Social Democracy, and Liberalism can be excused and/or condemned for its acquiesce to the inequities and iniquities of predatory State Capitalism. The most naive among us flail between the realism of Alexander Hamilton and the cant of Thomas Jefferson. The former strove mightily to forge a union including commoners of some means and grandees whose wealth was based on commerce or slavery. The latter penned inspirations to far future generations while warming his toes near slave stoked fires. We continue to flail in noble hope that we may actually be finding our way.


*this happened most dramatically in the past as the Union neared dissolution and Civil War.

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