Pessimism of the Intellect, Pessimism of the Will 

Image by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona.

On November 14, 2019, Tim Wu, an NYU professor with a reputation for outspoken liberalism, delivered a talk on “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age.” Wu was accompanied by antitrust crusader Zephyr Teachout, attesting to his liberal bona fides. He gave a serviceable account of American history: the First Gilded Age’s capitalist excesses, Progressive Era reformers’ struggle to rein in the robber barons, the New Deal and the construction of the regulatory state, the postwar glory days of antitrust legislation, the Great Society and the high-water mark of American liberalism, and then the long march of deregulation and laissez-faire orthodoxy which culminated in the 2008 disaster. Then, he discussed the need for progressives to reinstate Progressive Era controls on monopolies to, Sisyphus-like, roll the rock of regulation back up the hill of capitalist resistance to regulations that would harm their profit margins.

It all sounded innocuous enough, but I had some doubts. I raised my hand and said, “The conservatives have undone most of the Progressives and New Dealers’ successes. Suppose we have a second Progressive Era and a second New Deal. What’s to stop them from doing the same thing? In 2060, will our children be having another discussion like this one about how to reverse the Third Gilded Age? Is slapping a regulatory Band-Aid on capitalism genuinely the best we can hope for?” Wu shrugged, smiled wryly, said something to the effect of “Yes, I think so,” and moved on to the next question.

Wu served as Joe Biden’s National Economic Council as a Special Assistant to the President for Technology and Competition Policy from 2021 to 2023. Liberals initially cheered the Biden administration on, hailing its surprising taste for Keynesian stimulus and asking breathlessly if Biden would become a second FDR. Such a line of thinking demonstrated a clear blind spot, an odd memory-holing of the recent past. Obama, Biden’s former boss, was also welcomed as FDR’s second coming. Newsweek ran an 2009 article which went further than that, declaring that “We Are All Socialists Now.” Based on their appraisals of what was politically feasible, Larry Summers and other White House economic advisers presented stimulus options between $650 and $900 billion, despite Obama economist Christina Romer’s estimate at the time that $1.8 trillion was necessary. Obama’s resultant failure to pass a large enough stimulus—and his unwarranted obsession with deficit reduction—doomed us to a lost decade and a half and set the stage for the rise of Trumpism. As Biden’s “disappearing welfare state” and the continued concentration of our economic life in the hands of oligarchs of Bezos, Musk, and Zuckerberg has demonstrated, contemporary liberals like Wu and neoliberals like Biden still suffer a poverty of political imagination. They lack the appetite to pursue permanent, long-term fixes to the corporate chokehold which plagues American life.

One might attribute this to the power of capitalist ideology and leave it at that. But I think the full answer is more interesting. As Wu suggested when he compared today’s grotesquely unequal, monopoly-ridden society to the First Gilded Age, revisiting politics at the turn of the 20th century can help us make sense of politics in the 21st. It isn’t a coincidence, I suspect, progressives like Wu admire the Progressives of the 1910s and 1920s and question the feasibility of genuine economic democracy today. Reexamining the Progressive Era will help us understand exactly where the American left went wrong and what we can do today—at least in the realm of ideas—to get things right.


In 2011, Barack Obama explicitly drew inspiration from Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech by traveling to Osawatomie, Kansas, to deliver a speech on the fate of the middle class. It’s understandable that Elizabeth Warren, Tim Wu, Barack Obama, and other self-styled progressives look to the original Progressives for inspiration. They accomplished a great deal: they laid the foundations for the New Deal, began to tame the great corporations, and passed a raft of laws regulating labor and rooting out corruption. And there is much to admire in the Progressives’ fiery denunciations of corporate power, especially in an era where—with the notable exception of Bernie Sanders—our politicians have accustomed us to rhetorical timidity. In the New Nationalism speech to which Obama alluded, Roosevelt declared that “our government, National and State, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests…now the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit. We must drive the special interests out of politics.” Even a much more conservative Progressive like Woodrow Wilson called it “absolutely intolerable” that the federal government was “under the control of heads of great allied corporations with special interests.”

Unlike Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, most Progressives weren’t politicians. Many of them were reformers, political and community activists. Some of them, like Jane Addams, dedicated themselves to the “settlement house” movement which provided cultural and economic uplift in immigrant communities. Others worked on promoting food, factory, and drug safety regulations, abolishing tenements and unsafe housing, and putting an end to child labor. As author Joshua Zeitz writes, “The typical progressive reformer was young, college-educated, and middle-class. Reformers tended to value scientific studies and the recommendations of professional ‘experts’ whether they were promoting efficiencies in society or fighting corruption in politics.”

Nothing’s inherently wrong with coming from a middle-class background, of course. Many prominent leftists and revolutionaries throughout history—Leon Trotsky, Eugene Debs, and Karl Marx, to name just a few—have. But members of the upper middle and professional classes tend to universalize their points of view. They often act as if they are bias-free arbiters of objective truth instead of bearers of subjective, class-conditioned, education-dependent perspectives.

Reflecting this rationalist bourgeois naïveté, many Progressive reformers behaved as if they were unimpeachably civic-minded. They tended to presume that the new sciences of sociology, psychology, political science, and epidemiology were pure sources of truth, generally uncontaminated by prejudice, racism, or economic incentives. They often succumbed to the savior syndrome, viewing the immigrants and workers whose interests they purported to represent as less than fully developed citizens who were dangerously susceptible to European doctrines like socialism, anarchism, and communism, in need of American teachers to instruct them in the etiquette and practice of democracy (this despite socialism’s deep American roots). Progressives were proud Americans, believers in American exceptionalism. The fact that Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, both ardent imperialists, were also progressives is instructive.

Many Progressives dismissed socialism as excessively anti-individualistic, reliant on the theory of class conflict as opposed to consensus and disinterested decision-making in the public interest. Famed Progressive Robert LaFollette gave voice to this suspicion when he proclaimed that “the Progressive Movement is the only political medium in our country today which can provide government in the interests of all classes of the people. We are unalterably opposed to any class government, whether it be the existing dictatorship of the plutocracy or the dictatorship of the proletariat. Both are essentially undemocratic and un-American. Both are destructive of private initiative liberty.” In the name of the “general will” and civic republicanism, the Progressives declared a ceasefire in class conflict—without consulting the working classes.

LaFollette made it seem like the Progressive movement was unified and easily defined. But as Joshua Zeitz nicely observes, “Historians have struggled for decades to characterize the progressive movement. Was it a coalition of middle-class reformers dedicated to good government? A top-down drive by politicians and businessmen to smooth out the sharper edges of industrial capitalism and blunt the appeal of socialism? The political project of urban working men and women who demanded better working and living conditions? A full assault against concentrated economic power? A case could be made for any of these interpretations.”

The fact that it’s difficult to characterize Progressivism is telling. In this, the Progressives differed greatly from the Populists, who famously vowed to “raise less corn and more hell” and whose 1892 platform railed against Wall Street and called for postal banking and the nationalization of railroads and telecommunications. Progressives were willing to combat vested interests, but only to a certain point. Their taste for disruption to the status quo was limited, attenuated by a desire to avoid strife. The ideals of technocracy and disinterested bureaucracy exerted a sirenic appeal upon the progressive imagination. Progressives found the promise of resolving social discord through social scientists’ ministrations; government adjudication between capital and labor; and bureaucrats’ expert, competent administration immensely more pleasant than the clash of class conflict, the rough-and-tumble of combative politics. They preferred to stay aloof from the conflict between capital and labor, advocating compromise because such a resolution seemed more statesmanlike.


All this should sound familiar. It describes bien-pensant liberals of the Obama-Clinton-Biden persuasion to a tee: their aestheticization of politics, their fetishization of entrepreneurialism and expertise; their studied avoidance of polarization, partisanship, and partiality; their distaste for class conflict; their elevation of technocracy and science as beacons of reason; their belief in the pretense that politics can be reduced to interest-group bargaining and consensus seeking; their desire to keep the labor movement at a distance; their continued fealty to American exceptionalism even when looking to European models would be exceptionally edifying; and their general attitude of deference towards big business. Neoliberals’ demography—disproportionately white, upper middle class, professional, and college-educated—also parallels the original Progressives.

Obama and Biden’s desire to portray themselves as above the fray clashes with labor unions’ traditional question “Which side are you on?,” and that’s no accident. Progressives sought a third way between collectivism and individualism, hesitating to fully embrace the workers’ movement and policies administered directly through the federal government. This “third way” became a straitjacket which has constrained mainstream progressives’ imagination for many decades, well before the term “third way” was coined to describe neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s. Recently, it’s the reason that the Obama administration never attempted to fight for “Medicare for all” or nationalize the banks, it’s the reason Obama reneged on his promise to pass card check legislation which would have strengthened labor unions immensely, and it’s the reason that Joe Biden resisted Medicare for all and had to be cajoled into countenancing even very incomplete student debt relief.

The love of triangulation—the original Progressives’ vestigial attraction for unfettered capitalism and individualism and their wariness of forthrightly socialist economic policy—also helps explain why liberal economic policy has long been so confusingly inconsistent vis-à-vis monopoly and oligopoly. Two major approaches to monopoly predominated among the Progressives: one camp advocated strict regulation but no limits on size, while the other advocated “breaking them up” and then championing free-market competition.

As the famous Progressive Louis Brandeis described it, “Those who advocate ‘regulation of monopoly’ insist that private monopoly may be desirable in some branches of industry, or is, at all events, inevitable; and that existing trusts should not be dismembered nor forcibly dislodged from those branches of business in which they have already acquired a monopoly, but should be made ‘good’ by regulation. The advocates of this view do not fear commercial power, however great, if only methods for regulation are provided.” On the other hand, he wrote, those who sought to break up large corporations “believe[d] that no methods of regulation ever have been or can be devised to remove the menace inherent in private monopoly and overweening financial power” but wanted the government to simply restore the initial conditions of markets before monopolies began forming. This tension persists to the present day. It played out in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, with Bernie Sanders largely playing the role of break-them-up progressive and Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden playing the role of (not particularly credible) advocates of subjecting Big Business to stringent regulation while permitting it to exist.

Both these positions are incomplete: the strict-regulation position is overly blasé about the dangers of concentrated private economic power, while the break-them-up camp romanticizes market competition and individualism. The break-them-up Progressives did have a better appreciation of the possibilities of public ownership, though. As Brandeis notes, they believed that “if, at any future time, monopoly should appear to be desirable in any branch of industry, the monopoly should be a public one—a monopoly owned by the people, and not by the capitalists.”

But it is there—in their refusal to forthrightly champion the socialization of key industries—that we see the Progressives’ squeamishness about following their analysis through to its logical conclusion. We will never be safe from capitalist assaults on our economic security and democracy as long as capitalism exists. This requires us to strive to end capitalism altogether; liberalism leads logically to socialism. The famed liberal philosopher John Dewey acknowledged this when he wrote in 1935 in Liberalism and Social Action, “If radicalism be defined as perception of need for radical change, then today any liberalism which is not also radicalism is irrelevant and doomed.” Reinhold Niebuhr, Obama’s favorite theologian, agreed and wrote in Moral Man and Immoral Society that, in human societies, “conflict is inevitable, and in this conflict power must be challenged by power.” But the unwillingness to admit this truth, which both Niebuhr and Dewey readily accepted, manifests in liberal political analyses like Tim Wu’s to this day.

We are only condemned to Wu’s Sisyphean vision of history as an unending cycle of reform, regulation, reaction, and deregulation if we accept capitalist domination as an essentially unchangeable feature of American life. Contemporary liberals’ choice to hearken back to the original Progressives imprisons them in this traditional center-left acquiescence to the status quo. Yet even during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, millions of Americans, Populists, trade unionists, and socialists alike, recognized that this was a false choice and that there was an alternative: taking control of the economy and running it for the people, not for profit. Many years ago, the great Progressive Louis Brandeis said, in words which ring equally true today, “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Whether our democracy survives our Second Gilded Age may well depend on whether the center-left recognizes this fundamental truth.

Scott Remer has published in venues such as In These Times, Africa Is a Country, Common Dreams, OpenDemocracy, Philosophy Now, Philosophical Salon, and International Affairs.