Saturday, 7 November 2009

Let's not talk about progress

This is a guest post about today's Global Change We Need conference, from Paul Sagar, cross-posted from his Bad Conscience blog.


Today I attended the Fabian Society’s The Global Change We Need conference. With an impressive performance from David Miliband kicking things off and two excellent debates, it was a day well spent.

However, during the exchanges one thing kept coming up again and again: the issue of what progressives want to bring about, of how to encourage the wider population to accept progressive goals. The final debate was even called “Progressive Economy: How to get there”.

This P word. We need to talk about it.

First off some etymology. The word “progressive” entered the leftist vocabulary of self-definition when the American right did a successful hatchet job on the word “liberal”. It’s an American import, and the product of a very American political history.

That “progressive” is a response to a hatchet job is instructive about the way the word is now used: as a fluff term which is warm, cuddly, nice-sounding and most importantly, vague. After all, nobody’s against “progress”, or in favour of regression are they? You can’t be attacked for wanting “progress” because surely everyone agrees that – the world being the nasty place it is – making progress is a good thing. That’s what progress means, right?

Well perhaps it is, though the philosophers out there are likely to be pretty sceptical. But let’s ignore the philosophical deep waters, and worry about this instead. When we’re all talking in fluff-terms about “progress”, we’re not talking about these things: redistribution, equality, fairness, tax justice, the role of the state in correcting the market, gender and race rights, and all those other issues which were central to what used to go by the name of “the left”.

Instead, we talk about being “progressives” and our wonderful “progressive” goals, shying away from stating what those goals might actually be or how they might be brought about. In turn, we don’t argue for them, but rather leave the traditional goals of the left as implied by what “progressivism” is vaguely gestured to involve, for fear of making the horses bolt.

Except here’s the catch. Because “progress” is a fluff term which itself doesn’t mean anything, anyone can use it. And they do. That’s why David Cameron has claimed that the Conservatives are not only compassionate but progressive. It’s why Nick Clegg declared that the Lib Dems are now the true home of British progressives. Because nobody is against progress, and because it doesn’t mean anything and simply invokes vague feelings of warm fussiness, the term is co-opted by opponents, and can’t carry any meaning for those in favour of the ideals listed above.

Perhaps even worse, use of the term may not just hollow out the left and hand useful rhetorical ploys to opponents, it may also be self-destructive. Barack Obama campaigned under vague terms like “Change”, “Hope” and “Yes we can!”, driven forth by the enthusiastic masses of American “progressives”. But a year down the line, he finds himself with an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, a broken economy, and healthcare reforms that teeter on the edge of disaster. If Obama’s presidency fails to live up to the (unrealistic) hopes it raised, what will become of the concept of being a “progressive” in (American) politics? Without any sort of stated ideology to fall back on – egalitarianism, collectivism, social justice or whatever – the whole thing will look like the vague fluff it arguably always was. No prizes for guessing which party will suddenly find itself easing back into power.

So, The Global Change We Need? To stop using the damn P word, and have the courage of our convictions to actually say what we believe, and say why we’re right. If that means long, difficult and complex thinking about what equality, justice, fairness and the rest mean in the 21st Century, then good, let’s have that debate. Better that than the vacuous fluff of “progress”.

By Paul Sagar

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