Why I am not a Progressive

At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organizational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent and lead them, are no longer recognized by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression. ― Antonio Gramsci

There is power in repetition. This is as true for the truth as it is for the lie. Not everybody reads the things you have already written. Nor does everybody hear the things you have already said. What is more, not everybody gets things the first time they read or hear them. I want people to understand why I am not a progressive. And why populism is the future of freedom and democracy.

I have said something about this a few times before (okay, more than a few times). But because I am still getting signals that people don’t understand me or progressivism, I feel the need to say them again. Because a lot of self-identified leftists also self-identify as progressives (and indeed many of them they are), they are either confused by my language or think that I am on the political right.

I am concerned with how people understand me. But I am particularly concerned that people who express populist sentiment self-identify as progressive. I am also concerned with the way populism is portrayed as a rightwing ideology and politics. This is corporatist propaganda designed to keep those with leftwing sympathies away from populist politics.

The short answer to why I am not a progressive is because I am a populist—and populism and progressivism are diametrically opposed. Populists profess a belief in individual liberty and democratic-republicanism. There are left and right expressions of populism. My populism is leftwing. This is in part because I am opposed to heterosexualism, patriarchy, and religion as organizing principles (these are, after all, harmful to individual liberty). Or course, I do not define my politics only in terms of what I oppose. However, left and right populists have a lot in common, so there is opportunity there. My view is that, despite my leftwing orientation, we should stop organizing our politics strictly around the left-right frame, since what is expressed as leftwing may be authoritarian in character and what is expressed as rightwing may be libertarian in character. The latter is useful. The former is terrifying. Hand over fist, rightwing libertarianism is preferable to leftwing authoritarianism.

The longer answer is that progressivism is the ideological-political position that accepts corporate governance, indeed enables and legitimizes it in practice by (a) fusing government and corporate power in regulatory bodies through which corporate power is able to control via the logic of state monopoly capitalism and (b) professionalizing the offices of government, and public institutions more broader, by adopting rationalist business-oriented management practices. Progressivism expresses an elitist faith of the competence and necessity of professional-managerial strata, which include the academics and administrators who run colleges and universities in line with the business community. This system also includes primary and secondary teachers. It’s through this apparatus that the offspring of the working class are prepared via indoctrination in pro-corporate ideology to reproduce the social logic of the bureaucracy throughout their lives.

One knows progressives by their support for technocracy, which suppresses government by, of, and for the people in favor of rule by corporate and government experts and officials. Progressives encourage citizens to defer to government agencies, such as public health agencies and figures, on questions of individual freedom, social interaction, and community relations, on the claim that these agencies and figures know what’s best for the ignorant masses. To accomplish this, progressivism defines social problems in technical terms, for example by deploying the language of medicalization, to expand and entrench control over the public, over its mind and behavior. Progressives use shame and fear to drive popular support for the elaboration of the technocratic control apparatus.

If one wants an example of what this looks like, perhaps one needs look no further than the COVID-10 pandemic and the lockdown of societies and forced mask-wearing of its citizens across corporatist nations. But another ready example lies in the technocratic approach to human relations seen in racial diversity training programs. Thanks to their own indoctrination in the prevailing ideology of their environment (they are zealous in their work), progressives assume a priori the public is racist and in need of collective discipline and rehabilitation. But tyranny lies in the preventative approach to thought and action. These trainings are also about transforming public consciousness and conduct in a manner conducive to deepening corporate legitimacy and control. The work of progressives is to condition the public to accept as normal a smooth Orwellian panopticism by changing the way we talk to and interact with each other in a myriad of extralegal ways.

I accept that there are people who self-identify as progressive who mean something different by that term. For some, progressive is a euphemism for socialist. But they are few in number and the progressive identity risks their enlistment in projects that are contrary to their expressed values. Moreover, socialist advocacy is rather frightening when accompanied by rhetoric soft on technocracy. However, at its core, progressivism concerns the management of people for the sake of the ruling class, i.e., the corporate class. Socialism in any emancipatory sense concerns the management of things for the sake of the people. But we must never forget that socialism sometimes comes in totalitarian forms. Socialist totalitarianism can hail from the left (the democratic centralism of the Soviet Union) and the right (the national socialism of Nazi Germany). Progressivism always teeters on the totalitarian pivot. Corporations are, after all, private tyrannies. Because they are not as crude ideologically as fascism, and because they often assert themselves as antifascist, their fascism flies beneath the radar. They nonetheless lean in that direction.

I want to conclude by distinguishing corporatism from capitalism. The domination of the corporate form such that it transforms capitalism in fundamental ways is a feature of capitalism at a particular stage of of development in this mode of production. Capitalism can and has existed without corporations as the dominant form of economic (and legal and political) organization, and, while I am not pro-capitalist, capitalist relations in their early forms were preferable to their current manifestation. In the current historical epoch, corporations are the dominant form and have assumed control over the legal and political apparatus. Because of corporate control over cultural production, corporations have assumed not only power over political economy, but command over pubic sentiment and values.

The rise of corporate power is why progressivism appears as the dominant form of governmental and public institutional organization. Populism was smashed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century while elites developed progressivism to circumscribe the range of options used to regulate the chaos of capitalist production and enlist segments of the working class in the corporatist project. In the process, the emancipatory socialist option was eliminated in the developed West. Progressivism allowed corporate elites to co-opt leftwing sentiments and put them to work for corporate power. Successive capitalist crises—war and depression—fully fused corporate power with the state in the twentieth century.

It was under Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party that a state monopoly model was fully implemented in a Western nation. Following WWII, steered by the United States, progressivism by another name (social democracy) achieved similar models throughout Europe. Progressives are keen on defending Roosevelt from charges of being a “socialist” by proclaiming that he “saved capitalism.” Actually, Roosevelt (who was not a socialist) served as midwife to the state monopoly capitalism that Eisenhower would alert the public to in his haunting farewell address in 1960, where he famously noted the fusion of corporate power with the military apparatus and, less famously, the fusion of corporate and government power with the production of scientific knowledge.

As for the transnationalization of this model, the subject of my last blog entry (Physical Capital, Human Capital, Technology, and Productive Work—These Drive the Real Economy), Mao’s communist revolution in 1949 led to the establishment of a state monopoly capitalist model there, covered by the rhetoric of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Beginning with the Kennedy-Johnson decade of the 1960s, with New Frontiers and the Great Society, among other things providing the capitalist class with access to more capital by slashing taxes and opening the country to mass immigration, followed by the opening of China by Carter and the Trilateralists at the end of the 1970s, a path prepared by Nixon and Kissinger, opening that country to foreign capital investment, the world was prepared for the melding of state monopoly models in a transnational system of global neofeudalism.

Progressivism is the faith behind the transformation of the world into a global corporatist order (the Democratic Party its political home). That’s the long answer to why I am not a progressive (or a Democrat).

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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