Monday, 9 June 2008

What does it mean to be progressive??

. I am probably pretty rare amoung Liberal Democrats in that I am happy to self-identify as left-wing and progressive. Also, I tend to view the two things as being intertwined. It's not hard to see why people don't always view the two terms as being interchangeable though; numerous ideological faultlines exist on the left which have historical origins. Liberals, socialists, Marxists all view with each other to be crowned the 'true' champions of progress.

Liberals face the dilemma of defending capitalism as a more democratically structured society but managing an economic system that persists in creating a greatly unequal society. Statist socialism or social democracy; ironically mimicking communism sees the state as the vehicle through which Utopia would be delivered, gift-wrapped in suitably radical blandishments as it is handed down to the grateful masses. Communism meanwhile became the exact opposite of what it was intended to be; far from an ideology of liberation it became a tool of vicious repression, of the very people it was supposed to liberate.

Somewhere along the way the very idea of progress became tainted and then perverted as rabid right-wingers stole it off the battered body of the left. Why did they bother? Put purely and simply they bothered because there is something inherently human about the cause of progress. At the very core of it all is the notion that we can do better; that we are on a constant quest for self-improvement as a species. If you get down to brass-tacks then that is the motor force of evolution. Where would we be now if some force hadn’t compelled our ancestors to rub together two flints or move into oral communication? Progress is primal; its part of human nature.

Politically speaking, of course, that recognition does little to help us chart a course. It does however explain why the language of progress is such potent political currency and how so many great, epoch shaping, movements of the past have taken the cause of progress as there starting point. This is not to be confused with the recently popularised perversion of progress; namely the neo-conservative dictum that progress is delivered from high by the mighty onto a supposedly gratefully waiting population. Sad to say it but the notion is not ‘new’ at all. It stretch’s back all the way to the beginnings of civilisation; to the time when the ‘glorious mission of Rome’ was to civilise the world under its tyranny. In so much that progress presupposes the destruction of the old it is true that to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. However, the way we go about that should be a tad more sophisticated nowadays. Rome knew little better; America, steeped in a history of rebellion against unjust rule, not delivered from a foreign power but fought for by its people, should know a lot better.

Right-wingers often over emphasise the competitive element to progress. Little would have been gained in terms of human progress if we had simply isolated ourselves and competed as individuals. Effective competition can only go hand-in-hand with cooperation. Brilliant breakthroughs are possible on an individual scale but for them to achieve critical mass they require cooperation and implementation from other sources. Here we see the second fundamental strength of the left’s vision of progress. Strength comes from when we unite together. Division makes us weak; however unity cannot be gained at any price, it has to be built around strong foundations of shared values and goals. Society is our strength and in turn society protects its weak and raises them above the lowest level. We are only as strong as our weakest link. This is not to say individuals cannot prosper; they can and would better within the framework of a strong society.

A strong society does not necessarily mean a strong state though. The state is a guide, a builder of the framework. It does not, and cannot, impose that framework on the unwilling. It is also a guardian of society’s, and individuals within that society, rights against infringement even by the state itself. The state’s role in promoting a strong society should be extremely limited; it should not even try to impose an identity but allow a society to develop healthily its own identity and voice and only take measures which facilitate that. Coercion should be a weapon of last resort against those who threaten social cohesion (not necessarily the position of the state) and against whom no other means work. Other than that, the role of state should be to integrate itself more fully with its citizenry; they is nothing fundamentally wrong with wanting the state to, eventually, wither away. In essence what we are talking about is an enabling state.

This balances the liberal/authoritarian equation which I often hear on the Liberal Democrat blogsphere is what allot of people, certainly around the Lib Dem blogsphere, feel is the main ideological divide in society. I think there is still an ideological divide between those who want to emphasise in their policies either the primacy of the market or the need for the state to balance the inequities it creates; David Cameron maybe a social liberal but it is totally fair to say that given the Conservatives policies he sheds 'crocodile tears' for hard working families. Where to strike the balance between individual liberty and wider social responsibility is always a tricky question which we face day-to-day and often the underlying tension in the debates we have. How they are resolved will determine how our policies are shaped and how we keep carrying the banner of progress.



Anonymous said...

I think you make some good points in this. I feel that the greater good is something we strive for individually and while we can collectively help each other more there is no way to curtail those that want more power and will use the collective people to their advantage. This is why most progressive advances have ended in communism.

Anonymous said...

socialism does has not and does not work anywhere in the world..and if you wanna bring up places like france that have universal healthcare, research it and find out how its doing.. The biggest problem we have that ohter countries dont have and is the main reason progressive socialism wont work is that we have way more welfare receipients then all the other countries put together, people dependent on someone else and making more dependents. I f you cant feed yourself dont create MORE dependents. just sayn...