It's time for deep transformation in society – not merely material changes

Are we ready for deep changes in society, beyond all its superficial changes? Progressives need to ask themselves some serious questions, going beyond cost-benefit analyses to rationalise progress.

Marco Senatore
31 August 2017

Protestors dressed as skeletons hold a banner with the slogan 'capitalism kills' at the 'Borderless Solidarity rather than G20' demonstration in Hamburg, Germany, 8 July 2017. Kay Nietfeld/PA Images. All rights reserved.If by “progressives” we mean people who want to fight both neoliberal dogmas and populist demagogy, then the question that progressives should ask themselves, in the 21st century, is: are we ready for a deep change in society, beyond all its superficial changes?

Are we ready for a deep change in society, beyond all its superficial changes?

Elections held in Netherlands and France this year have somewhat inverted the trend observed in 2016 with Brexit and Trump’s elections. Populist candidates have been defeated, like in Austria last December.  

However, so-called progressives have performed quite badly in Germany. On the other hand, the Labour party surpassed all expectations in the recent general British election, winning its highest number of seats since 2005 and its biggest share of the popular vote since 2001. This result has been largely due to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who has been able to motivate young people to vote.

But, in most countries, progressives are dealing with a crisis of identity. The opposition to intolerance and racism seems to be better expressed, in the eyes of most voters, by neoliberalism and politicians like Emmanuel Macron. And billionaires like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg are the living proof, according to mainstream media, that capitalism can be human and compassionate.

One of the things is that, while democracy and freedom are an important reality in most developed countries, we are experiencing a particular version of them: the market version. Elections take place after debates that are focused more on candidates than on programmes for change. Leaders are chosen by parties on the basis of their ability to foster consensus, represent interests and differentiate themselves from competitors – just as it is with products chosen by companies. The stability of governments and the very content of policies are priced by markets, and in particular spreads on sovereign bonds, as it happens with commodities. And our freedom is in a great part the possibility to choose what work we can do, what products we can consume, and who can improve our welfare.

Moreover, important choices such as fighting climate change and advocating for multiculturalism are made – when they are made – mostly on the basis of cost-benefit analyses, and, therefore, the paradigm of economic rationality. Against this backdrop, what does it mean to be progressive? Is it about mere changes in society or a change of society?

Against this backdrop, what does it mean to be progressive? Is it about mere changes in society or a change of society?

As far as change in society is concerned, market economy seems to bring it about quite well. Even better than politicians. Capitalism, as argued already by Karl Marx, leads to constant innovation of process and product. Nowadays, social enterprises and the sharing economy constantly create new forms of interaction among individuals.

Change in society is everywhere. It deals with new opportunities and more acceptable modalities to perform old activities, and also with inventing new activities having the same old aims (mostly material welfare and fulfillment of other desires).

Meanwhile progressives, in fighting against post-truth, suffer the consequences of a relativism that they had played a part in creating in the area of ethics. For instance, what objective, shareable arguments can progressives provide against saying that there is nothing wrong if just eight individuals, all men, own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world's population?

The very concern about fake news, while fully understandable, reveals a conception of truth as mere factual correspondence of opinions with reality. The discursive, cooperative search for truth advocated by Jürgen Habermas should be considered more deeply. In a nutshell, as long as democracy is about confronting opinions and not only about counting them, progressives should strive to disseminate their ideals and convince their opposers of their validity.  

While Corbyn’s success has been the outcome of a strong resistance to neoliberal policies, in the 21st century it is time for progressives to advocate a change of the whole society and a full, not merely material, transformation of our relationship with the world around us. This would imply changing several elements: social assumptions (such as the methodological individualism deeply embedded in our minds); self-perceptions and identifications (both at the individual and collective level) that have merely an egoic nature; aims limited to material welfare (invariably used to support policies that foster the welfare of a few); perspectives that see freedom in purely economic terms.


A beehive: a eusocial formation. devra/Flickr. CC BY 2.0. Some rights reserved.Some of the priorities progressive should think about include the following:

  1. 1. First, remind people that societies, whatever Lady Thatcher said, do exist. And understand that more than a mere society, a community is needed to ensure authentic individual freedom, as wished by William James. By community I mean a particular form of society, that has a perception of its own dignity, and that goes beyond the mere function of reconciling individual needs. While every society can have common values, only a community allows the presence of what is called a strong public sphere, and rational debates on what is right and wrong. A community has an idea of where it wants to go, and can change its whole social structure, because, first of all, it perceives itself as more than a tool needed to get out of a dangerous state of nature. As I have argued in my book 'Exchanging Autonomy: Inner Motivations As Resources for Tackling the Crises of Our Times', a society can become community only if individuals are “functionally autonomous”. By functional autonomy I mean the condition whereby values are not merely subordinated to performing a certain social role, as they are general criteria to judge reality, and can inspire the free choice of one’s roles.
  2. 2. Second, interpret politics as a way to plan, conceive of new realities, and also educate. While ideologies proved detrimental for a free approach to politics, progressives should strongly oppose the idea that humans can be slaves of their own inventions, and that, for instance, the role of artificial intelligence in our lives must be decided only by economic forces. Fighting against conflict of interests is necessary. But it is not sufficient to get back to a politics that is really independent of private interests, as it was in Ancient Greece, according to Hannah Arendt.
  3. 3. Third, foster an information culture that does not focus only on the latest news. The constant stream of information that we receive discourages long-term analyses and projects, based on the assumption that we will know, day by day, minute by minute, whatever happens in the world. Which means that we do not have to worry so much about the effects of actions carried out right now by ourselves and other people.
  4. 4. Fourth, put an end to the monopoly held by technical, hyper-specialised, quantitative analyses of the issues at hand. An interdisciplinary, holistic approach to issues such as inequality, climate change, and democracy is of the essence, in a world that has been accustomed to take seriously only ideas that can be measured or quantitatively modelled. Progressives should be concerned not only about the dominion of economy on our lives, but also about the dominion of quantitative models and the marginalisation of ethics in economics.
  5. 5. Fifth, try to work, along the path indicated by Immanuel Kant, for a cosmopolitan order, with a view to connecting individuals beyond their nationality and going beyond a merely economic globalisation. This is needed to show that nationalism is not the only alternative to neoliberalism.
  6. 6. Sixth, put an end to the paradigm that I call “poor abundance”. Quality should be at least as important as quantity. But this is a world where social media, that connect us with the whole world, reinforce our own ideas without any possibility to revisit them; this is a world where we identify ourselves with our own opinions and, while we can choose among a big variety of alternative products, we cannot have a public role beyond being mere consumers; and this is a world where polarised, conflicting narratives increase the risk of a merely passive delegation of politics to either neoliberal or populist leaders.

By community I mean a particular form of society, that has a perception of its own dignity.

Progressives have to choose: either they disappear definitively, or they get to a higher level. A level where “being” is as important as “doing”. This may require more of what Michel Foucault defined as spirituality – the search, practice and experience by which the subject carries out the necessary transformations of himself in order to have access to the truth. Indeed, when freedom is considered as mere acceptance and expression of one’s attitude towards oneself and the world, there is the risk of overlooking one’s conditionings and prejudices. Progressives should also reach a level where individuality, as the ability to choose new aims for one’s life, is as important as individualism, as the ability to choose means; where lower inequality and greener technologies are not just something to be sought after, but spring naturally from rational debates and from overcoming greed; where society can also be changed in its basic structures, and not only be a place for superficial changes.

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