Progressive Liberalism Or: How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Big Government

by Ted V. McAllister on October 23, 2009 · 21 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Politics & Power

American Liberalism:  An Interpretation for Our Time by John McGowan.  (Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

Moorpark, CA. If the current administration is liberal, it matters what kind of liberalism it represents.  I suggest that it is neo-progressive, which means that its philosophical origins reach back to John Dewey and other Pragmatists rather than John Locke and James Madison.  Unlike traditional liberals, Obama is not interested primarily in the natural rights discourse, he isn’t concerned with the individual as free and independent, or with the meaning and extent of liberty.  Rather he stresses the need for community and the proper place of individuals in their communities, local and national—face-to-face and abstract.  His administration pursues greater equality in search of the elusive goal of social justice.  Obama’s brand of liberalism stresses deliberation, which is the means that a community or public comes to self-consciousness and comes to understand its purposes.  Public deliberation is the alternative that progressives propose to individuals pursuing self-interest in a vast marketplace.

Progressive liberalism emerged in the early twentieth century as many intellectuals and political leaders had come to believe that inherited forms of democratic governance were outdated.  The forces of the modern world, including the Darwinian assault on the idea of a fixed reality and authority, the rapid transformation from a merchant to an industrial economy, and equally rapid urbanization, had so altered the American regime that a new science of politics seemed necessary to address problems altogether new.  This science of politics must rest, however, not on traditional forms of knowledge.  Indeed, the intellectuals of the Progressive movement begin by rejecting all forms of essentialism, all claims to knowledge of the universal, in favor adaptive knowledge—the science of living that helps one adapt or adjust to changing circumstances.  In the absence of traditional forms of authority, science will serve as the best guide to making public choices.

These early Progressives believed that the individual was no longer capable of fending for himself and needed the protective canopy of an empathetic government.  Given the greater complexity of the modern world and the greater scope given to the government, progressives called for rule by experts—people trained to apply evolving social science to policy making.  The need for specialized expertise, however, was accompanied by an appeal to a revitalized democracy.  By educating the public to approach life experimentally, like scientists, then they could be citizens capable of deliberating together based on facts, on evidence, rather than on prejudice, inherited ideas, or fuzzy values.  These basic characteristics of progressivism are part of the new generation of neo-progressives.

It is worth reflecting on this new version of a century-long American political tradition, now temporarily ascendant. We live in a time when our political ideas are more complex, more differentiated, then we can recognize with our public vocabulary.  For at least fifty years, the center of our political debate has been between centrist liberals and paleo-liberals, progressives and conservatives have participated meaningfully only by making common cause with a more centrist ally.  It is possible, however, that for conservatives especially, the rise of progressivism presents opportunities to engage meaningfully about the nature, purpose, and size of communities; to re-think the individual in the context of a larger spheres of obligation and responsibility; and even to imagine an Aristotelean renewal of the virtues of deliberation.  But even as new areas for renewed conversation appear, so also do the dramatic differences concerning both ontology and epistemology make it doubtful if any serious conversation is possible even in areas of potential consensus.

John McGowan has provided, I believe, a forceful and coherent defense of his species of liberalism, which I’ve called neo-progressivism.  An English professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, McGowan’s  American Liberalism:  An Interpretation for Our Time, is a powerful defense of what he calls “egalitarian liberalism.”  Without losing sight of the ideal of self-creation, historically linked with Liberalism from Locke through Mill, McGowan stresses the modern liberal commitment to equality and distributive justice.  This puts him, speaking conventionally, to the left of most liberals, with a more full-throated defense of a liberalism cum progressivism that is currently ascendant.

McGowan’s neo-progressivism is really a child of American Pragmatism more than the outgrowth of Hobbes and Locke.  Anti-metaphysical (even anti-ontological), the liberalism McGowan defends rests on no authority and has no use for nature and therefore cannot meaningfully engage in the standard “rights talk” of the liberal mainstream.  Liberalism is a product of human choice, a vision of a desirable human order made possible by modern pluralism and by the collapse of a transcendent moral authority.  A new space opened up in the modern world for individual self-determination. This appealing and altogether modern prospect brought along a moral quest for equal justice, for fairness, or, to put it more precisely, for a social, economic, and political arrangement that gives maximum power to the individual to design her own life.

McGowan has a nuanced grasp of human flourishing as understood within this affirmation of individual self-determination.  He not only offers a compelling argument for the necessary connection between liberalism and democracy, but he describes in context the virtues of the rule of law, the important argument that pluralism and tolerance are necessary ingredients for a society that is capable of living forward, of adjusting to new circumstances, and that can learn from its ever greater cosmopolitanism.  Moreover the individual in McGowan’s account is not simply an atomistic, pleasure-maximizing being—she needs the help of a robust society in which she has a reasonable prospect of being recognized and noticed, of being loved and finding others to love.  Sounding in places more like a traditional conservative than he recognizes, the author stresses that humans are, above all else, social creatures and not primarily political beings.

But if modern progressives want to secure the goods of a healthy social order, one might wish to ask them difficult questions.  Many conservatives, for instance, will argue that social health is not easy to construct—indeed, to a great degree it must grow organically out of long experiences together, however carefully humans might cultivate and prune.  How many societies flourish outside of some generally received metaphysical vision?  This subject is an excellent intellectual crossroads for progressives and traditionalists to meet in healthy conversation.  Both groups emphasize robust local politics, careful deliberation among citizens about ends and means, a lively and thick social life that gives context and meaning to the lives of the community’s members.  The differences are also profound and while this conversation would not end in agreement, it would promote understanding and a degree of intellectual cross-pollination that liberals claim they so desire.  It might also create interesting political alliances of traditionalists and progressives against the more reckless right-wing (or paleo) liberals.  But conversation is impossible so long as the participants don’t listen.  McGowan believes that liberals are well-suited to tolerant listening.  I find little evidence of this toleration.

To be fair, McGowan attempts a much more complex engagement with a differentiated “conservatism” than one normally finds from progressives.  The various participants in the three conservative camps he identifies (Traditionalist, Laissez-Faire capitalists, and Neo-conservatives) would be well advised to engage seriously with McGowan’s critiques.  He notes, for instance, that people who concern themselves with the loss of authority pay scant attention to power.  Just so.  A more complex understanding of ways that economic power, particularly in a globalized economy, can threaten a variety of human goods would help various conservatives work through their own ideals.  But for conservatives of various stripes to engage seriously with McGowan’s critique, he must develop a more comprehensive understanding of the target of his attacks.  To call, for instance, Robert Bork and Allan Bloom “paleoconservatives” is to invite ridiculing laughter, as though one had called Stalin a Trotskyite.  More importantly, McGowan tends to make sweeping statements in which he cavalierly suggests that conservatives are uncomfortable with dissent (this claim borders on the absurd), that they have tend toward authoritarianism, that they call for a lost golden age, and that they are hostile to equality.  Complex differences in these subjects separate all manner of conservatives from progressives like McGowan, but the author employs labels rather than explaining differences.

If there is a sharp edge to McGowan’s argument it is that the noble pursuit of equality is the defining characteristic of twentieth century and contemporary liberalism.  Inequalities of various kinds pose the greatest threat to individual human flourishing and government has served, and will continue to serve, as the great equalizer.  The long history of modern equality in America runs through the Progressives and their spiritual heir, Franklin Roosevelt, to the civil rights struggle for racial and gender equality, (oddly he makes no mention of the Great Society), only to end with the rise of a new and anti-liberal Republican Party in the 1970s.  McGowan never considered whether Ronald Reagan and those who followed him, including Bill Clinton, were not drawing from another side of the rich liberal tradition.  Because modern liberalism means government imposed equality, McGowan had to see the last thirty years as a pernicious reversal in the egalitarian moral objectives of liberalism.  The government, it seems, is the best guarantor for a healthy liberal society.  If so, then McGowan cannot but be pleased with recent political events.

McGowan writes relatively little about the dangers of populism, though he clearly has fears about the populist right.  The fact that he proceeds as though this danger is present and real, and therefore not in need of extended diagnosis, is interesting.  Populism as a reaction to economic concentration of power is healthy, but populism directed at government threatens liberal ideals.  “Democracy ain’t worth a damn if it’s not liberal,” begins McGowan, and “liberalism isn’t worth much if it isn’t democratic.”  Indeed.  The mysterious abstraction “the people” is a necessary part of establishing the legitimacy of any regime, but McGowan is careful not to suggest that the people are sovereign.  Something about his account (and the author is brilliantly vague on this subject) of politics, policy making and populism suggest that a liberal democracy is possible because liberal sensibilities thrive in a large part of the electorate and because the complex process of making policy, which is only partially democratic, typically blunts populist instincts.

McGowan envisions an activist liberalism that possesses a moral ideal, chastened by procedures and by popular, and sometimes populist, sentiments.  Absent the certainty of a dogmatic religious code, liberals nonetheless feel an assurance that theirs is a superior way.  Having eliminated divine rules, having forgotten, insofar as possible, about the limits of human nature, having found in themselves possibilities enough to occupy a lifetime, liberals can feel comfortable in a world of their own making and indulgently dismissive of people who labor before the recognition of imminent death.  Finding themselves by historical accident in a stable liberal regime, liberals can find deep moral purpose in struggle to overcome ever-smaller forms of inequality even as they can rest comfortably in the belief that a liberal government, animated by righteous empathy, will promote greater social justice without threatening our freedoms.

But what if the ideal of self-determination is problematic?  What if some forms of equality lead to new forms of social strife? What if expanding government threatens the primacy of the society?  What if empathy is a moral virtue inappropriate to government?  What if the intolerant love of tolerance blinds us to other ways of being?  What if the people need the guidance of a governing and divine moral authority?  What if we have souls, and the tragic nature of human history is supposed to teach us something deeper about ourselves?

McGowan claims that we are at a crossroads in history.  Perhaps, then, it is time to deliberate about ends and means.  To deliberate well, progressives like McGowan must hear people whose experiences lead them to moral and ontological commitments that differ dramatically from Progressives.  To hear the “other” requires a less procrustean tolerance than progressives typically preach in their disdain for populism.  But, if talk and listen we truly can, and if free from restrictive taxonomies we are, then we may find real people, not ideologues, who want to speak and listen, to argue and persuade.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bob Cheeks October 23, 2009 at 6:18 am

I much enjoyed this essay/book review.

Dr. McAllister touches on two problems related to the contemporary problems of political order; first, the collapse of the transcendent where the truth of the symbol exists in the world but “belongs to the nonexistent experience.”

Any restoration of political order is predicated on the reemergence of the transcendent and the re-establishment of existential consciousness as a reflective self awareness of human existence within the tension of the finite and the infinite.

And, second, the rise of what Dr. Voegelin referred to as “Second Realities” where the matrix of reality is rejected in favor of another mode of existence primarily defined as “ideologies” which inevitably result in the breakdown of rational discourse. This phenomenon explains Dr. McAllister’s comments on the difficulty, if not impossibility, people have in engaging in political discourse.

Here I might suggest that McAllister would have better served his readers by fully explicating the idea of the “debate” as “the essential dimension of existence” in the quest for truth and in rejecting error. Without the debate, without the foundation of existence in truth as opposed to existence in untruth, we do not have the means to recognize the order of being.

Consequently, there is a tension inherent in the question(debate) where the actors are engaged in what Voegelin described as a ‘healing process’ and are required to first, analysis the noetic structure of existence and second, analysis the applicable “Second Realities” currently in vogue.

avatar Russell Arben Fox October 23, 2009 at 7:13 am

As Bob says, Ted, this is a fine review/essay, fleshing out some of the important contributions which McGowan’s argument makes, as well as highlighting some of it’s weaknesses.

You’re correct that progressives and egalitarian liberals–or “neo-progressives,” if you prefer–that would do well to listen to and learn from traditionalist and conservative critiques of the status quo. A few have done so (mostly in the areas of food and agricultural policy, in which areas of discussion it is no longer rare to here someone describes themselves as a member of the “Wendell Berry Left” or the “Michael Pollan Right”). The great majority, though, have not. The same can be said for traditionalist and conservatives. FPR has been a wonderful (and often solace-providing) website for left conservatives and communitarians like myself, because here we can occasionally find traditionalists thinking about and learning from various Greens and radicals and even, occasionally, neo-progressives themselves (though usually only of the European variety). But still, even here, it is an uphill battle–primarily, I suppose, for the reasons which you again correctly identify: ontological and espistemological differences of the first order.

If I could speak and be heard by every person who thinks themselves on the left, I would ask them why they don’t take the idea of authority seriously. It is this resistant, meritocratic, pragmatic individualism deep within neo-progressive thinking which makes them dismissive of populism and its drive for local, cultural, and economic sovereignty, and thus prevents from learning the best thing conservatives and traditionalists have to offer. If I could speak and be heard by every person who thinks themselves on the right, I would ask them why they so appalled by equality. Their resistance to sometimes even the most minimal universalist implications of fairness as a component (not even necessarily the whole story, but just a component) of justice makes them dismissive of some very plain and simple collective actions which would make local democracy and sovereignty much easier for many to achieve, and thus prevents them from learning the best thing neo-progressives and egalitarians have to offer.

That’s how I see it this morning, anyway. In the meantime, we all just keep plugging on.

avatar Ryan Davidson October 23, 2009 at 8:48 am

In discussions like this one I’m consistently reminded of the Scriptural warning that anyone who does not bow down to and bear the mark of the dominant humanistic ideology of the day will find it difficult to participate in society. This seems to be growing increasingly true. Anyone who refuses to acknowledge that individuals do not inherently have rights, denies popular sovereignty, or asserts that sexuality is subject to more restrictions than personal preference is barred from participation in many public activities. This is even starting to come with outright economic penalties.

This oughtn’t to be surprising or even discouraging, but it still ought to inform the way we think about our relationship with the world. Just because the state or the world enacts policies which seem to help the church, for a time, doesn’t mean that this is their intent. We must not allow policy or politics to obscure metaphysics.

avatar Weasly Pilgrim October 23, 2009 at 8:51 am

For myself, I find it difficult to muster much enthusiasm for engaging in debate over the merits of a political system that springs from basic assumptions radically different from what I believe to be true. At the risk of trampling the nuances of the various liberal traditions, I see any worldview that somehow believes in the auto-perfectibility of man as a false worldview arising from a false assumption, and the merits and demerits of that assumption is where the real sticking point exists. If we disagree on so basic a point as whether man can or cannot perfect himself (the affirmative underlying pretty much any progressive view of man), then I see little point in debating the political systems that arise from the various views of this question except insofar as these systems illustrate the truth or falsehood of the central assumption. In other words, without some foundational truth held in common, what exactly is there to debate? We just end up talking past each other.

That is not to say that there may not be significant overlap in the systems that result from the different views of this central assumption. For instance, Catholic social teaching and liberal social policy have many points in common, though they arise in part from radically different views of man. But precisely because they have such a radical contrast at the core, they ultimately cannot be reconciled to one another. There comes a point of disagreement on which there can be no compromise without one or the other becoming self-contradictory.

We humans do share a great deal in the trials and travails of the world, and therefore, we can, to a certain extent, find some common ground from which to debate means and ends. But that debate is always “local”, in the sense that it is conditioned by the core principles, and will always run up against the wall those principles define at some point. What do we do then?

avatar D.W. Sabin October 23, 2009 at 10:43 am

Russel,
“Equality” is a conceit. A lovely conceit but a conceit nonetheless. The bureaucrat will attempt to enforce the conceit through policy and while there may be some efficacious outcome, there is frequently a leveling that is put in motion that deflates the original aspirations of “equality”. Compounding the problem, we see identity and partisan politics confuse the leveling process and frequently distort it to such an extent that dysfunction becomes deeply embedded and held rigorously by the political factotums.

Hence, as Ryan ably puts it, the salutary effects of metaphysics are ignored in favor of a checklist and its gatekeeper.

Discourse for the discursive government, a good start and a good essay.

avatar Ted V. McAllister October 23, 2009 at 11:40 am

Russell,
I appreciate your comments and the spirit behind them. On the subject of equality, it is very difficult to have a serious conversation because the word is a screen behind which hundreds of often conflicting meanings hide. So rich a word is equality that a conversation about it, if it were to make any progress, requires the time and focus to define terms. I don’t despair that people of good faith could do this, but rather I doubt that very many of them are willing to work this hard. Pity.

Beyond equality, I think McGowan is correct to note that the conservative emphasis on authority sometimes blinds them to the complex issues of power. If I understand McGowan, a deeper analysis of the ways that power relations affect our lives is necessary to have a meaningful discussion about equality. Perhaps this is one place where our conversation can begin.

avatar Russell Arben Fox October 23, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Ted,

On the subject of equality, it is very difficult to have a serious conversation because the word is a screen behind which hundreds of often conflicting meanings hide. So rich a word is equality that a conversation about it, if it were to make any progress, requires the time and focus to define terms. I don’t despair that people of good faith could do this, but rather I doubt that very many of them are willing to work this hard. Pity.

I agree–it is difficult to do, and those of us who try (or think we are trying) almost certainly don’t get it right, and anyway we have relatively few people to productively share our ideas with. Or rather, there are plenty of people on the left happy to discuss equality, but they rarely are interested in the deep role which culture, identity, and personality play in all this. Lasch did, for one, though many people dislike the psychology which he used to get at these points, and of course you have the personalism shared by many left-leaning Catholic thinkers, both Vatican-favorites and liberation theologians alike. But by and large, I think a good, productive conservation about equality has mostly been derailed by liberal modernity–and too many conservatives of various stipes think that, thanks to liberal modernity, there’s no point in even discussing it: it’s been turned into a “conceit” employed by progressives as a club, as D.W. suggests, nothing more. I think that’s a loss, but confess I don’t have an argument to convince them otherwise.

I think McGowan is correct to note that the conservative emphasis on authority sometimes blinds them to the complex issues of power. If I understand McGowan, a deeper analysis of the ways that power relations affect our lives is necessary to have a meaningful discussion about equality.

I also think this is probably correct. However, at least conservatives still recognize that authority plays a necessary role in the shaping of the human person and of decent communities; too often the left flees from anything that makes normative claims which are not indexed to a prior individualism. There will probably always be a tension here; defending an authority and tradition will risk defending power being used in deeply unequal, deeply unjust ways, but rejecting authority means your ability to respect standards, respect limits, will be lost. I keep hoping to find a way of talking about a good balance; I don’t think I’ve found it yet.

avatar William Randolph Brafford October 23, 2009 at 12:37 pm

Prof. McAllister,

Thanks for this review: I read the book some time ago and wished it had gotten more attention.

I’ve found that pragmatist-traditionalist debate gets into some very interesting territory. In a similar vein, I’d love to see someone on this site write about Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition.

-wrb

avatar Ted V. McAllister October 23, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Russell,
Something about what you wrote reminded me of something one of my mentor’s stressed to me–it is good form to be more critical of one’s own (own ideas, own in the sense of one’s friends on the side of an argument, and so forth). Being critical of one’s own not only helps to sharpen one’s argument, helps create a healthy debate among those of a certain perspective, but also demonstrates a spirit of inquiry and openness that is pleasantly aggressive. I think, for instance, that most progressives are less thoughtful about authority than conservatives are about power, but conservatives should be more interested in learning from anyone and everyone than in focusing on the blind spots of one’s intellectual opponents. This is generally true of people who belong to institutions, like universities. To be a good citizen requires that one be most critical of one’s own (as well as appropriately affirming). My thoughts about this have become reanimated in the last few years as I’ve encountered an intellectual inflexibility among people who are, broadly speaking, “on my side.” This is one of the reasons FPR is such a find for me–has a point of view, allows for the arguments expressed in the most forceful matter, and fosters, in the midst of aggressive debate, self-criticism and intellectual diversity.

William–I’m ordered Stout’s book today (no promises about writing on it, though).

avatar D.W. Sabin October 23, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Also….National Socialism, Stalinism and Mao pretty well set the benchmark for authoritarianism in the last century and so it seems any franchise on excessive use of authority by “conservatives”, say as practiced by the Franco, the Peronists or Pinochet would have an awful lot of company from the left. Authoritarianism would seem to be the most bi-partisan of policies. Centrists are not even immune as indicated by the current behavior of the U.S. government.

avatar Caleb Stegall October 23, 2009 at 3:16 pm

An old take on Stout, though only a glancing blow, to be sure …

http://www.newpantagruel.com/issues/1.2/swarming_the_public_square_a_c.php

Russell, Ted, these are key issues to labor through, and it cheers me to see it begun so well. Russell and I have had our bouts over equality, and I have been convinced for a while that power and identity are more important than, or rather, are prior to, authority.

avatar Bob Cheeks October 23, 2009 at 3:18 pm

“Centrists are not even immune as indicated by the current behavior of the U.S. government.”
Whas up wid dat? You got the flu or something? “Centrist”???? What are you talking about…Centrist indeed!
And, I’d be hard pressed to describe Peron, Franco, or Pinochet as “conservatives” in any sense of the word I’m familiar with.
You’ve been running with Peters too long!
I can hear you guys singing, “Obama, Obama, mmmm,mmmm, mm!”

avatar Steve Berg October 23, 2009 at 5:08 pm

It seems to me that the concept of human auto perfectibility is essential for Progressives as it is the only way that their views on meritocracy and equality can possibly be reconciled.

avatar Mark Shiffman October 23, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Ted: thanks for this, which has led to a good conversation.

Russell: I’m curious about the apparent equation of equality and justice in your last comment. Justice is a complex thing (Aristotle distinguishes about 11 different kinds), and I think equality has a very limited relevance to it. Equality before the law is, I think, a noble goal, though never perfectly attainable; but in all other aspects I think justice is more often undermined than well-served by equality. Justice concerns what is owed to someone, and it is a virtue of the exercise of judgment to recognize what is owed in individual cases, which will often have much to do with what one has earned, what is good for one, what one is capable of making good use of, and so on. All that being said, it is undoubtedly true that conservation of tradition and authority bears many injustices along with it; but this does not make it different from any other form of human action and interaction, in which injustice predominates and the exercise of virtue and wisdom is always the exception.

avatar D.W. Sabin October 24, 2009 at 9:54 am

Now Cheeks, are we going to once again split hairs narrower than the cilia emanating from the barnacles that coat your reeking skull? Your at several fathoms deep with this accost and the bilge pump has crapped out. I suppose you think Pinochet and the gang are “leftists”. Maybe we can also call Vlad the Impaler “benevolent if a tad capricious”.

As to “centrism”, you may elect to characterize this current government as “socialist” or “commie-pinko” but with the FED and Wall Street continuing in its role as most favored Rasputin, the name don’t seem to fit. These kinds of confusions are a continuation of the last Administration when we were treated to a supposed “conservative” government that was about as conservative as a Skull and Bones Induction Ceremony after the first seven rounds of martinis.

But to be sure, this is part of the ongoing discussion, the current political categories have been roundly mashed into a formless gruel of unsatisfying taste. This is precisely the kind of atmosphere that favors creeping authoritarianism…not for justice sake but for the maintenance of a justice perverted by the State. The discursive government and its Separation of Powers buttressed by the original doctrine of States Rights were intended as a counterweight to precisely what is now occurring under the rubric of “Efficient non-duplication of services”, “national equality” and “preserving our way of life”.

avatar Bob Cheeks October 24, 2009 at 11:34 am

Oh, my Obama!
DW, that last paragraph gave me a warm feeling down my leg and I haven’t had that since the spring of 72′! You are starting to sound like the beloved and irascible Jackson giving his peroration at Chancellorsville with the comment to Rhodes that, “VMI will be heard from this day!”
Alas, our “discursive” gummint with its “states rights” and Separation of Powers has, as you’ve long declared, left the scene. So maybe the dichotomy is ‘statist’ and ‘anti-statist’ or republican and commie-dem?

avatar D.W. Sabin October 24, 2009 at 12:08 pm

Cheeks, pppsssst…check the Depends.
But, as to Dichotomy…there is none..it is simply “Big Government” with the two parties providing the entertainment redolent of Show Trials. One cannot be police to the world, imperial caregiver, listening post, standards and measures official, currency printer, and the de facto replacement for the rights and obligations of the States without Big Government. It is a foregone conclusion with a professional class of subalterns and satraps who are impervious to change. It is like the apotheosis of the Czars, post Peter when they managed to merge the tyranny of the despot with the tyranny of the bureaucracy, piquantly meshing imperial prerogative and whim with the grinding machinery of a republic while gaining the benefits of neither. Thus springeth the resignation, paranoia and dark humor of the Russian.

Actually, there is a quibbling difference. The “Democrat” embraces big government and loves it, feeling it shall actually work if they strive long enough toward it. Let no Bill go un-amended. The “Republican”, on the other hand embraces big government but professes to hate it while claiming they shall tear it asunder while doing nothing of the sort. One can judge the two as one sees fit but they are siamese twins, joined at a vacant head . Best intentions, once a sleepy cottage industry on the Potomac is now a high holy cult operating within a ghetto where the name of the deity is Mammon.

At least the Weimar possessed good cabaret.

avatar Kevin Carson October 25, 2009 at 1:50 pm

It’s useful to view Progressivism, and the 20th century liberalism that grew out of it, as the ideology of the professional/managerial New Middle Class. The corporate revolution, imposed top-down by the state in collusion with the plutocracy in the latter half of the 19th century, led to a society dominated by giant, centralized, hierarchical institutions: at first giant corporations and the regulatory state needed to correct the instabilities of the corporate economy; then large universities, public school systems, think tanks, and charitable foundations. The class that administered these organizations, originally recruited from the engineering milieu, had a distinctive ideology. And it centered on the idea of ideologically neutral, disinterested expertise as a way of transcending politics and class conflict, and managing society the same way corporate managers managed industrial processes.

As pointed out by critics like Christopher Lasch, the kind of “egalitarianism” promoted by McGowan has a blind spot: the way it empowers managerial bureaucracies at the expense of the individual. In fact the kind of social management presumed by Progressivism can’t coexist with genuine democracy. Meaningful, i.e. direct and bottom-up democracy, in which the agenda is set at the grassroots level, is impossible in a society managed by large organizations. Galbraith’s “technostructure” can only survive when it’s insulated from genuine, messy democracy. That’s why Progressives a century ago supported at-large representation, citywide school boards, etc. They wanted to preserve the semblance of democracy — what Chomsky called “spectator democracy” — but with the proles on rubber-stamping what was done by the “properly qualified professionals” who ran the machinery of government.

avatar Steve Berg October 25, 2009 at 4:32 pm

I used a similar argument to Mr. Carson’s on my doctoral comps in public administration. I even got away with writing that “corruption” and “the Spoils System” were Progressive code words for “Irish”. Somehow, I passed. The focus of the public administration group at my university has long been on local government, where you at least stand a chance of retaining, if not fostering grass roots democratic institutions. The more I look into the politics of human scale, the more I appreciate Thomas Jefferson’s early efforts to establish township government in this country, and the wisdom of his idea of ward republics.

avatar Bruce Smith October 26, 2009 at 10:55 am

The life blood of a modern economy is the value of its currency, or money. This is particularly important, for example, when that country is highly dependent upon foreign oil imports. What most citizens forget, or don’t understand, however, is that money is based on belief. This belief is that the bearer of this bank note, or promissory note, is offering the value written on the piece of paper and that exchange can immediately take place for this value. This is true also of the much greater stores of digitized virtual money that exist within a country and flow around that country and the world at the touch of computer buttons. However, what most citizens also don’t seem to understand is that in order to maintain this belief it requires that nobody, or no organization or organizations, should be able to manipulate a country’s economy to undermine that belief. It is also why it is important for a country to have a centralized coercive force called government to prevent this. But a centralized coercive force is of no use just for the sake of it, there has to be a fair and logical set of rules and belief systems lying behind this force to support its effectiveness. It is this latter absence in the United States that has allowed a private capitalism run by elites such as the US banks and reinforced by an unaccountable Federal Reserve run by these same banks together with politicians subscribing to a neoliberal, or market fundamentalist, philosophy that has now done so much current and potential long term damage to the value of the dollar. Amongst the main causes of this damage is their persistence in the following; allowing the manufacture of excessive private and public debt (very profitable to the banks), suppressing real growth in wages (that will facilitate repayment of that debt) through bank rate manipulation and permitting unfair global trading terms (suppression of currency revaluation through purchase of US Treasury bonds) by some of its main economic competitors. Fully, or partially, sensing this corruption and maladministration of its economic affairs is why the economic competitors of the United States are now losing belief in this country’s ability to sustain the value of the dollar and why they are looking to diversify out of it as the world’s reserve currency. It is why those people with big money in the United States have been divesting into gold. In reality, knowingly or not, it is a vote against unfair capitalism! This is why it also makes sense to criticize the philosophy of the Ludwig Von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman’s of this world and their supporters for their naivety in misunderstanding the role of central government and loudly and misleadingly banging the drum that an ailing economy is always the fault of Big Government.

avatar Jane January 11, 2010 at 11:05 pm

Equality, ha! It does not exist in nature or in human beings – not that humans are not nature, we are from the world around us and we are all different. We have deformity, illness, weakness, strength physical and genius, beauty, we are diverse as individuals and as groups; family, race, culture, species. Equality means diffusing all diversity.

Pretending that everyone is the same and therefore equal is ignoring these inherent differences – and making things worse for the sufferers. For the end result is that there is something wrong with having something wrong. Instead of accepting and acknowledging limits, and therefore not fearing them, you say ‘this is so bad that we cant even talk about it, we must pretend it doesnt exist and you are the same as every 2 legged man’. It is absurd and embarrassing for the individual. It breeds an entitlement victimised outlook which crushes true self-confidence.

You must be treated as you deserve to be treated not with a long list of rights by default. Just as children attain rights as they grow older, so too should adults lose and attain rights as they make or break the rules we agree to live by.

The Liberal progressives that infiltrate every corner of our society certainly have a lot to answer for.
My generation is beginning to see that.
Jane, 26.

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