A call for an end to 'progress'

We're all 'progressives' these days. But what does it mean? It's time to ditch this warped and empty notion, and re-invigorate a movement for the common good in Britain and the world.

Joe Cox
6 November 2012

New York after Hurricane Sandy. Image: Elliott Carter

Fuel shortages, no power or heat for millions, piles of uncollected waste, death and tragedy. On the one hand it’s exactly what you might expect when a ‘one in a hundred year storm’ hits a major developed city like New York. On the other hand, when a model of human development makes these storms far more likely then our whole notion of progress must be on the table.

Perhaps the greatest victory of neoliberalism has been that it has got many people to believe that the economy is a type of ‘other’ that exists separately from ourselves, our nations and our planet. I was reminded of this strange phenomenon when listening to the Prime Minister's speech at the Conservative Party conference here in Britain. Cameron told us "it was a time of reckoning", when the country would "either sink or swim, do or decline".

Yet what would sinking or swimming mean in reality? Progress as defined by David Cameron in his speech is a very subjective notion. He described those countries in decline as “fat, sclerotic, over-regulated, spending money on unaffordable welfare systems, huge pension bills, unreformed public services.” He juxtaposed these features with the countries on the rise who are “lean, fit, obsessed with enterprise, spending money on the future – on education, incredible infrastructure and technology.”

What I find interesting about Cameron’s small state, market utopian vision is twofold. Firstly, that he describes this vision as a means to an end but the end, to ensure that Britain is “on the rise”, is incredibly ill defined. Indeed, my interpretation of his speech was that he meant nothing more than ensuring a consistently high GDP growth rate (without any redistribution of wealth). Secondly, it relies on a concept of economics as detached from reality.

This notion of progress as narrowly defined in a cold and detached economic sense is completely disfiguring our politics and has become a definitive fault-line in the UK. It is interesting to note that the true economic liberals within the Conservative Party see free market capitalism as both a ‘natural’ way to organise society but also see unrestrained markets as a moralising force. This group can be heard in full voice in the recent book Britannia Unchained.   

Yet whilst being economically orthodox Cameron and Clegg come from a slightly different perspective and have gone on interesting journeys with regards to their approach to ‘the economy’. In 2005 Cameron said "Yes, we want to leave more money in your pocket, but we know the value of good public transport, too, so we'll share - that's right, we'll share - the fruits of economic growth between tax reduction and public services". Of course there is little growth at present to share around but the language was one of making political choices when it came to the economy and its relationship to society. Now he has largely reverted to the comfort blanket of T.I.N.A.

Nick Clegg seems to have gone on a similar journey. In 2009 he said “We remember the tumble-down classrooms, the pensioners dying on hospital trolleys, the council houses falling into total disrepair. We remember, and we say: never again. Liberal Democrats will do things differently. Not shaving a bit off everything, but asking fundamental questions about what the government should and shouldn't be doing.” Again, the language of political choices.

Contrast that with this year’s conference speech where Nick Clegg echoed a similar message to Cameron: “The choice between the party we were, and the party we are becoming, is a false one. The past is gone and it isn’t coming back. If voters want a party of opposition – a “stop the world I want to get off” party – they’ve got plenty of options, but we are not one of them. There’s a better, more meaningful future waiting for us. Not as the third party, but as one of three parties of government.” Although this was aimed at his own party the jibe at the “stop the world I want to get off” reaffirmed that there was an irresistible economic other which must be obeyed, either progress or regress.

Both these positions have echoes of New Labour and the stance that the economic sphere was somehow divorced from the rest of society. Clare Short famously described globalisation (or more accurately neoliberalism) as like “the sun rising in the morning.”

New Labour was at its worst when it used a reductive notion of progress to justify its actions. Capital couldn’t be curtailed, taxes couldn’t be raised, the public sector had to become ‘efficient’, skills had to be transferable. Those who felt uneasy about rapidly changing communities were ‘bigoted’. The message was, in short, ‘sink or swim’ as an individual.

Have Labour moved on from this? At first glance they appear to. Pre-distribution is in one sense about shaping the economic forces that govern our lives, to rely less on re-distribution via the state and ask more of capitalism by making it work for more people more often. Yet another interpretation of pre-distribution as offered by Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson and summed up here by Kitty Ussher is that “It is about striving to endow everyone - regardless of circumstances of birth - with sufficient weapons in their own personal armoury that they can achieve their ambitions and hopes even in the face of strong economic forces that seem daunting.” If you accept this interpretation then it seems Labour have moved on little.

Yet there are a rag-bag combination of groups that contend this warped notion of progress. Here we have radical social democrats and those further to the left, environmentalists and those conservatives that believe in conserving institutions, ways of life and relationships even at the expense of economic growth (although it is getting harder and harder to find examples of these people on the Tory benches we can still highlight honourable exceptions like Jesse Norman, Zac Goldsmith and John Gummer).

Progress is and has always been contested but right now the notion seems particularly toxic. In a recent documentary about deregulation of fish porters’ rights in Billingsgate a porter ironically described losing his secure employment status as ‘progress’. The notion of progress touches a nerve as it seems to reinforce the fact that people’s lives are out of their own control in 21st century Britain. Progress to a lot of people now means something being done to you by forces more powerful than yourself. What’s more, it is a value judgement; if you oppose it you are wrong because progress is good, right?

Culturally, progress is having a tough time. There seems to be more and more nods toward apocalyptic and dystopian stories. Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia (2011) is the best example of this that I have seen in art house films of late. I share Nina Power’s interpretation that the film is not just about depression in human terms but contains a critique of modernity. Power highlights a superb scene where the upset and agitated protagonist Justine swaps reproductions of abstract contemporary art for those of Bruegel the Elder and Caravaggio. In more mainstream film/books we see popular dystopias like ‘The Road’ and the ‘The Hunger Games’. Add to this new TV shows like JJ Abrams ‘Revolution’ and we can certainly see a cultural trend.  I’d argue that at a very basic level we feel that the future will be a version of these dystopias and we almost want to fast forward this descent in our minds. We know we live in unsustainable ways and this disconnected economic juggernaut has got away from us. If there is no conservation then there will be destruction.


A scene from the film 'Melancholia'

This is perhaps just one interpretation of a seeming cultural shift. On the other hand ‘The Road’ and ‘The Hunger Games’ can be interpreted in right wing Darwinian terms. If only the meddling state got out of the way then we could find the Übermensch. It seems more and more of us from across the political spectrum are finding solace in apocalyptic tales.

Of course very few people really want to see the downfall of modern civilisation. Yet the alienation from the products we consume and the people we live near is palpable, and not only expressed in our art and cultural products. To quote the highly flawed but in many ways emotive pamphlet, The Coming Insurrection“Two centuries of capitalism and market nihilism have brought us to the most extreme alienations – from our selves, from others, from worlds.”

So how do I think that the left should respond? Much of the left throughout history, especially the Marxist left, had a vision of a ‘telos’, an end point. I would argue that because of the catastrophic failure of state communism and the inevitable temptation of those who hold a teleological vision to sacrifice means for ends we should reject any notion of an ‘end game’ as being a feature of our politics. A vision of a better society is important as a yardstick but the ends can never justify the means, indeed they are inseparable.

What do the following have in common: Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, David Cameron, Len McCluskey? They have all described their politics at one time or another as ‘progressive’ and for that reason I think the term is now largely meaningless. I used to think it was good short-hand for those who believed there should be limits to markets but it seems many equate progressivism with modernism and some equate it with social liberalism, many just use it lazily. Let’s say socially liberal if that’s what we mean, or social democratic if we mean that. Why not abandon the term ‘progressive’ altogether?

Then we could have a meaningful debate about conservation and change in society. The Conservative Party seem to have abandoned any notion of conservation; they are happy to privatise the forests and the white cliffs of Dover and are diluting planning regulations. This gives the left an opportunity. Of course we must conserve the planet but we must also conserve institutions, vocations and ways of life that people value. There is of course a tension here. We should never be in the business of conserving privilege but let’s not confuse disruption with egalitarianism. This is a debate we need to have in full.

I also think it means a difficult conversation amongst the left about economic growth. How many times have we heard the mantra over the past few years that ‘we just need to get back to growth’ forgetting that economic growth is not an end in itself? The more the left talks about growth the less it talks about what the economy should be for.  Furthermore, we know that economic growth cannot go on forever. I believe we are approaching (or even at) that point in history. It also presents a strategic difficulty for the left as it makes joint action between those who believe in a ‘steady-state’ economy and those who see the need for economic growth difficult.

I wrote most of this piece before Hurricane Sandy hit, but the images of New York being battered by the storm appeared to me as life imitating art. Indeed some the memes of fake images that circulated on social media were less apocalyptic than some real pictures from recent extreme weather events. It may turn out that the storm is significant in the battle against runaway climate change but it’s hard to imagine an adequate response to the threat without a conversation about the warped notion of progress that we have lived under for the past few decades.

A conversation about what progress should mean in the 21st century could be the starting point for a genuine re-invigoration of a movement for the common good in this country. It would make sense to start with those from the traditionally opposing ‘red’ and ‘green’ perspectives, as the whole could be so much more than the sum of the parts. Time is running out, friends and comrades, are you up for it? 

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