A Concrete Agenda for Progressives

Photo by Timothy Krause | CC BY 2.0

The party system in the US is based on a false dichotomy between Neo-classical and Keynesian economics.  Republicans push for unrestricted corporate control of policy and the Democrats push for the same thing implemented in a softer, gentler fashion.  Both parties have been compromised by corporate money into accepting the same ultimate goals; so anyone telling you that you must support the lesser of two evils in this system – as Bill Maher has recently been rabbiting on about – is arguing for corporate control of the country.  Whether he’s a Democrat or Republican only indicates how fast his choice will push us down that road, and a faster tack might be more likely to provoke an effective response than the slower, boiling frogs approach.

Of course, this false dualism currently fuelling the drive to further levels of oligarchic control is based on a shared dogmatic, even religious, conception of capitalism as the only valid mechanism for distributing wealth.  According to this credo, class can be safely ignored since the gates of prosperity are open to everyone (leaving us free to crap on anyone without a job since it must be their own choice), and a top-down flow of authority is assured by limiting democratic participation to a carefully devised two-party political system and banishing it from the workplace.  A more comprehensive dualism would balance the current top-down approach against a bottom-up approach.  But what would that bottom-up approach look like?

The difficulty in defining what this bottom-up, ‘progressive’ approach is concretely can be traced back to the deceptively obvious observation of 19th century British novelist, Anthony Trollope, that conservatives (using the traditional meaning of the word) will always be able to rally around a common goal: maintaining the status quo.  Liberals can agree on what they’re against but are forever arguing with each other about what they’re for.  And even when significant numbers of people manage to unite behind efforts to find an alternative to accepted dogma, the status quo has been able to divide, co-opt and eventually quash these movements.

On the right, Trump’s promise to the disaffected that he is the champion of an anti-establishment solution to their woes has been shown to be a lie by his capitulation to any and all corporate interests.  Sanders’ caving in to the Russia-gate nonsense, his support of Zionist geopolitical calculations, and his general acquiescence to the Democratic party indicates just how far the progressive left has been swallowed up by the two-party political machine.  Both these movements on the left and right have provided tantalising views of how things might be changed, but they were both murdered in the cradle; and this demonstrates that a political solution in the current environment is probably doomed to failure.

Perhaps if we manage to avoid a major war long enough, political options may become viable as the ranks of the disaffected grow; but in the meantime anti-establishment movements on the right and left must do a better job of elaborating comprehensive bottom-up policies they can both agree on.  And this gets us back to the economic solutions that are and aren’t allowed to be considered in polite society.

The current choice presented to Americans is limited by a failure to come to terms with capitalism’s failings.  Since Marx elaborated the first comprehensive, convincing critique, supporters of the status quo have managed to prevent honest discussion of capitalism’s drawbacks by demonising the man and all historic attempts to reform economies in his name.  But simply because there are still disadvantaged people in Cuba is no reason to adhere to an unquestioning acceptance of capitalism.  This unfortunately is the logic of the establishment’s refusal to consider or even teach alternative means of wealth distribution and class consideration.  And it’s what has created the preconditions for oligarchic takeover we’re now experiencing.

From a theoretical perspective, a party supporting bottom-up policy formulation, an extension of democracy to the workplace, …etc. is needed to represent the economic losers in the current system.  Balanced against an establishment Dem/GOP alternative, such a party would reflect the real economic and class conflicts in society.  The practical challenges of establishing such a party or movement, however, must be better understood in order to be overcome.  Otherwise we’ll end up with another  politician raising people’s hopes only to dash them as he is ground to bits by the machine.

The most immediate challenge is the establishment driving wedges to divide and co-opt the new movement.  To counter this, a clear set of basic principles must be established: something like what Alain Badiou – former chair of Philosophy at the École normale supérieure (ENS) – formulated with his four principles.  This will provide an objective measure that the new platform and anyone claiming to represent it can be judged against.

But the biggest challenge is the unwillingness of people to assume the responsibility that a bottom-up approach requires.  They will not be convinced by intellectuals setting themselves above them spouting pretty theories, and they won’t act if they don’t see anything concrete in it for them.  Bernie Sanders’ campaign promises showed that people are willing to be convinced, but that convincing will involve demonstrating that alternative ways of doing things will work for people.  Strengthening alternative news outlets and undermining mainstream media will help by opening people up to analysis and narratives that better explain the reality they’re experiencing.  Becoming involved in efforts to promote Democracy in the workplace will show that worker-owned companies can compete successfully while offering a higher standard of living to their employees.  These and many other initiatives need to be elaborated once the basic set of principles has been established, and through their evolution and success (as well as the growing ranks of the disaffected), people’s unwillingness will gradually dissolve.

All this work needs to begin now.  And we don’t need to wait for a leader to push it forward.  It just requires concerned people to start communicating and formulating a plan.