What does it mean to be Progressive?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

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Written by Tristan Dineen

It is increasingly fashionable in politics today and regardless of which side of the political spectrum a politician or political commentator happens to come from, to speak in terms of “threats”.

When in December of 2007, Richard Mottram, a former member of Gordon Brown’s government in the UK, effectively attacked his government’s fixation on the threat of international terrorism to the exclusion of all else he had little constructive to say beyond highlighting several other threats besides terrorism. Instead of attacking the scare-mongering policies of the Brown government which, in keeping with the policies of Tony Blair, basically have succeeded in transforming Britain into an island fortress that positively bristles with anti-terrorism measures, Mottram elected to scare the public about global warming and weapons of mass destruction instead. I can’t say I’ve ever met the man but he doesn’t seem to be a terribly deep or creative thinker by the looks of things and hardly original for that matter.

The rhetoric of the early 21st Century politician is consistently dominated by talk of threats and the language of fear and has been since the earth-shattering terrorist attacks of 2001. Calling it the 9/11 syndrome would hardly be far from the mark and it certainly isn’t confined to neo-conservatives. Whether we are taking about fears about global warming, terrorism, rogue states, flu pandemics, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or whatever, these threats are continuously pressed home from politicians and commentators on the left, on the right, in the middle or wherever. Whether it’s in the media, during election campaigns, in the White House, in the British or Canadian Parliament, the Bali Conference on Climate Change, or any number of other political forums across the world the focus of the discussion is on the existence of threats, the causes of threats, and responses to threats.

The ability to scare the public, especially into voting for political parties with uninspiring political platforms and leaders, has been perfected into an art form. When rival candidates’ debate each other it is generally over what threats should be taken more seriously than others and what should be done to keep the economy growing and occasionally (as an afterthought) they might talk a bit about public service delivery and healthcare, but that’s about it – no projects, no great dreams, no plans to build a great society that will be the envy of the world and usher in a new golden age for human civilization (many of you will likely be shaking your heads or laughing that I have even mentioned such a “utopian” idea). Everything is either scary, or very mundane, now do we really have to ask why whole populations in general and young people in particular across much of the developed world are increasingly not voting? People just are not fooled by politicians whose main point of disagreement is whether global warming or terrorism represents the greatest threat to humankind.

What is really lacking in this entire debate is the entire concept of what it means to be progressive. Progressivism is basically the lifeblood of the modern era, beginning in the 18th Century and fuelling the French Revolution, industrialization, major political and social transitions, the adoption of things like universal education and public healthcare and so on. All of these changes, brought about by innovation and by the conviction that we can improve human affairs and make things better represent the essence of what we call modernity and while certainly some aspects of the modern project have turned out disastrously, who today would want to give up all the benefits of modern society such as education and healthcare and return to a feudal existence – no one that I know of. And yet, for all our technological development and scientific advancements, politics and social development in the 21st Century seems incredibly stunted by comparison and political development seems almost frozen. While scientists are as curious as ever and inventors as innovative as ever, political theorists and social commentators are remarkably conservative and those who dislike the status quo overwhelmingly cannot lay out a blueprint of a future society as an alternative we should aim for – they simply complain and complain and complain until they are blue in the face. Naomi Klein can talk all she likes but she doesn’t have the answers.

This is what I mean about not being progressive. Being progressive means more than just having good ideas, it means having a great dream. I’m not talking about dreams in the sense of someone wanting to make it big in sports or in music or film or in whatever field – I’m talking about a vision of a new society that is better in every respect than what we have now and that we should aim for and try to build.

This will seem very radical to a lot of people and it is. Progressive thinking is idealistic and idealism (now that communism is effectively dead) is in many ways a bad word when used in a general context and people brush off the idealist as a nut and as a potential mass murdering Stalin if he ever got into power. They do not realize that the entire modern project was born in revolutionary idealism. In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries people’s minds were overflowing with new ideas, new dreams and visions and they refused to accept the traditional constraints placed upon them. They made their visions come true and even if they didn’t make their visions come true they often succeeded in changing the world forever anyway. Revolutions were not just political as in the French, American and Russian Revolutions but economic, social, cultural and so on. Even now I don’t think we fully appreciate just how much as changed over the past three centuries, indeed we take it for granted and this is how we get caught in traps like this where we are constantly looking over our collective shoulders at real or perceived threats instead of striving to build a better world. Being afraid to work for change or not believing that positive change is even possible is living like a medieval serf, not an educated modern citizen.

The language of threats is now all pervasive, from the right’s constant warnings about terror threats and security threats to the left’s constant warnings about the threat of global warming, environmental degradation and human rights abuses. From all sides in the debate we keep hearing “threats” and the result is an increasingly bitter sense of pessimism among the general public all around the world: the elite consistently fails to give them something inspirational to believe in. What we need now more than ever is an all-encompassing progressive vision for a better future. We need to tap into the great revolutionary spirit of modernity and see through to its conclusion what our ancestors began. If today’s elites and their ideas can no longer carry the ball of modernity so to speak, then who picks it up and runs with it now? The answer has to be us as the young generation. History is far from over, indeed, it is only the beginning.

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  1. Posted by: on Jan 21, 2008 @ 12:24pm

    Agreed. There is a reason those who act on their vision of a better humanity avoid politics and work in NGO's. The prevailing psychology of liberal democratic goverance is "change is generally bad". Think about it, the only times in history when governments enact truly significant legislation or progrommes that alter the way we live life is when the people demand it. (eg. abolition of slavery, civil rights movement) In short, politicians only embrace change when not changing will result in being unseated from the power structure.

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