THE RISE AND FALL

OF MODERN PROGRESSIVE LIBERALISM

A Reflection on the Endgame

By Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law

 

We are witnessing the inexorable collapse of modern, progressive liberalism. It’s like watching a demolished building collapse in slow motion. The Greek riots and that country’s likely separation from the EU, coupled with the collapse of Greece’s vast system of subsidies, early pensions and other entitlements are but one vivid example of the trend.  Because of internal contradictions built into the structures of governance in Europe, other examples are queued up to follow. As Europe was first into the progressive orbit, the death throes are manifesting there first.[1]

This is not the end of the world.  It is the end of an era.  The progressive era began when communism failed to take hold in Western Europe and the USA, and it became dominant when democratic socialism began to work out a détente with capitalism. The trend accelerated after WWII when Labour Party socialism flourished in England and was widely copied.  The American “progressive” movement has roots in both political parties from the 1920’s.

Most of us, including conservatives, are liberals in some sense of the term.  But I have chosen the term modern progressive liberalism carefully.  Classical liberalism, the assertion of individual freedom against the state and other repressive institutions, is embraced by modern conservatives. Populist liberalism, which asserts the equal human dignity of the so called “common” workers, artisans, truck drivers and so on, overlaps with modern conservatism as well and with elements of the “old fashioned” liberalism of the 1940’s and 1950’s. 

Modern, progressive liberalism is the form of liberalism that feeds on attachment to an unattainable agenda, to wit: the erasure of human differences on idealistic egalitarian grounds. It is the Grand Agenda of modernity, pushing “equality”- whether in accomplishment, material well-being, social standing or cultural distinctiveness.  In its 20th and 21st century settings, this Grand Agenda was to be accomplished by violent revolution, or gradually over time as in the British Fabian socialist model. In either case the Grand Agenda enlisted the power and resources of the nation state. Never mind that the ultimate goal is inherently unobtainable, or that no state can ever assemble and utilize sufficient resources and power to make equality actually happen. And never mind that most people, most of the time do not support the ultimate goal.

The term “progressive” is a tell.  The goal of progressive liberalism is an ever receding mirage, the pursuit of which is based on a faith stance indistinguishable from that of religions.

Progressive liberals are animated by the faith-based notion that human equality is an inevitable, inexorable measure of human progress. Never mind that their goal always hovers tantalizingly out of reach, just over the horizon.  Most progressives are comfortable with the idea that the very pursuit of the goal is progress itself. Modern liberals rarely seriously entertain the notion that there are ultimate limits to the progressive project. 

The European welfare state model has exceeded its resource limits, as any democratic or quasi-democratic system in the throes of the progressive ameliorative equalization of the human condition inevitably does.  The tax revenues needed for subsidies and other remedial measures for the less-than-equal among us are finite. But the perceived need for equalization is infinite. The equality goal is a vast black hole of unmet needs and wants with a truly unlimited capacity to absorb human energy and resources – it will never, ever be satisfied.[2] 

Enter the totalitarian state model, the proponents of which attempt to advance the Final Stage in the agenda. This is a full-on effort to remake human nature in the service of true equality, using any means necessary. I say attempt because such projects are almost certainly doomed from the start, however bloody and protracted the struggle.  Modern, progressive liberalism is faltering at the moment because most intelligent people with a sense of history have already learned of the horrors attendant the “remaking human nature” projects of National Socialism and Communism in Germany, Russia and China.  These members of the intelligentsia are thankfully pulling back before taking that last, bloody step. Other progressive liberals embedded in the Western intelligentsia persist in the human engineering project because they believe that, through the manipulation of information, psychotropic recreational drugs, and other “scientific” measures, human nature can be gradually modified to accommodate the Grand Agenda. 

Decadence is achievable by this latest progressive project, but reconciliation to human equality is not. The progressive agenda will fail…again. The two questions that remain are not trivial: How much long term damage? Will freedom survive? 

We can identify several distinct stages in the failure/collapse process.  In the fiscal-crisis stage, democratic and quasi-democratic populations become fractured, naturally dividing into the high-achieving productive set being bled and the highly-dependent, non-productive set being fed.  Eventually the former group declines to pay the bills for the latter, and the conflict precipitates a governance crisis. 

The outcomes of such crises will vary significantly.  Sometimes a given society will lurch into the authoritarian model; sometimes it will mutate into a freer social order, no longer captive to the Grand Agenda.  At the moment, the progressives are trying to forestall the crisis by creating divisions among the high-achieving productive set. But this game has its own limits.

AMERICA, THE ELECTION & OUR FUTURE

To stave off the moment of reckoning, American progressives have used stealth, with the ongoing complicity of conservatives in both parties.  Government regulatory power has been used as a “cost free” measure to enforce the Great Agenda. It was popular in the USA for several decades because the imposed monetary costs on the high-achieving productive set were hidden. Early on, deficit spending was an unexamined magic solution.

In 21st century America, progressives have coordinated three strategies:

·         social and economic regulation (the effects of which we can detect in the culture of “political correctness”);

·         concealing appropriation costs (i.e., avoiding taxation via borrowing and offloading the costs via inflation);

·         promoting divisions and disputes among the productive set (as in pitting labor against entrepreneurs, for example, and exploiting divisive social issues). 

These were temporary fixes. A reckoning will not be avoided. The problem is structural, and a progressive win in the 2012 presidential election will simply present the progressive elites-in-charge with the same vexing problems that will face the conservative elites, should the current administration be defeated.  …More on that scenario in a moment.

The early stages of the Grand Agenda include a period of early, relatively painless implementation that is followed by a time when rising costs ignite a popular pushback. Eventually, a genuine or immanent fiscal collapse looms.  This becomes an inflection point that can precipitate a full-on governance crisis. The resolution of governance crises can be violent or non-violent, gradual or swift.  The outcomes can be long, stagnant, dreary periods of authoritarian rule or a renaissance of freedom.  

There are no guarantees.

Modern progressive liberalism is a creature of well-off and well-educated elites in the West, a response (if we are to be brutally honest) of imputed colonial guilt.  For the moment, and pending collapse of the Great Agenda, the modern progressive liberals are in charge:

·         of the media;

·         of the cohort of popular celebrities;

·         of the educational establishment;

·         & of the political-bureaucratic classes.

In spite of their cultural and institutional penetration, modern progressive liberals do not constitute a majority of the general population. 

In today’s (September 10, 1012) San Francisco Chronicle there was a color spread covering the Opera Gala.  So many beautiful, rich people were having such a good time that in an earlier era we might have been tempted to label the pictures, “republicans at play.”  But with very few exceptions, these were democrats.  Nancy Pelosi and her very wealthy spouse (Nancy P. is one of the wealthiest elected officials in the government) were clearly having a great time as card carrying members of the glitterati. 

And this is the dirty little secret: Modern progressive liberals no longer believe in human equality as an attainable goal – even a genuinely desirable one. What they really seek is sufficient political control to impose the maximum measure of equality on others. 

If the Obama economic team is returned to power in this election cycle, it will because the progressives desperately need control above all else.  If there is to be a fiscal reckoning, these elites do not trust anyone else to manage it.  And they certainly do not want to lead us to an outcome in which the Great Agenda can be discarded by others.  This inevitably means the imposition of a version of authoritarianism Lite, because the coming populist anger cannot be allowed to dethrone the kings and queens of progressivism. 

Moreover, the coastal progressive elites see this as a test of the “reforming human nature project.” They are calculating that sufficient progress has been made. They hope/believe that widely diffused achievement-guilt and political correctness has softened American opinion just enough for one more progressive victory. Some even hope that the progressives can so solidify their grip on the ruling bureaucracies that even a few electoral defeats along the way will not derail the inevitable march towards progress.  In this they are nearly correct.  The governing bureaucracies are already issuing edicts that would never survive robust congressional debate.

THE REAL STRUGGLE AHEAD

An epic struggle awaits us.  Its historical trigger lurks just out of sight, and I can’t tell you when the moment will come. But do know that this conflict of visions engages the very prospect of human survival or extinction. State imposed equality, even in its “Lite” versions, is the mortal enemy of human creativity.  And without smart, robust, life-affirming creative adaptation, humanity will not flourish, but perish. We need our creative communities and they need protected freedom. Freedom, in the form of constitutionally protected, ordered liberty, remains the most durable and effective friend that the human creative spirit has ever enjoyed.[3]

For unique, historical reasons the USA became exceptional in much the same sense that Athens was exceptional in the golden Age of Greek civilization. But we are more than a beacon.  The USA remains necessary to the future of liberal civilization in much the same sense that we were essential for the survival of liberal civilization between 1940 and 1990.  The outcome of both WWII and the Cold War would have been dreadfully different had we not been as engaged as we were.  Imagine a world without a USA that is committed to the preservation of freedom, and you are imagining a world without realistic hope.  We Americans, above all, need to emerge from the collapse of modern progressive liberalism as a bulwark against authoritarian excesses, and as the epicenter for the recovery of robust, free creative civilizations everywhere.

I hope that you share with me the firm intention that, when the progressive project comes to an end, an enduring renaissance of freedom will take its place. Much depends on the fate and character of the United States over the next two decades. And much depends on you, me those who follow us. Even my non-religious patriotic friends will understand the force of my sentiment when I say, God bless and protect the United States of America.

JBG

FURTHER READING

I recommend Victor Davis Hanson’s brilliant essay, The New Reactionaries, for an historical perspective on liberalism, - < http://www.victorhanson.com/articles/hanson090712.html >,
 

My article, Creativity and Survival - < http://jaygaskill.com/CreativityAndSurvival.pdf  or http://jaygaskill.com/CreativityAndSurvival.htm >,

…And if you haven’t actually read the classic book, The Road to Serfdom, by the Austrian economist-philosopher Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992), a liberal who addressed this masterpiece to “my fellow socialists”, you are in for a treat. {The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition, University of Chicago Press 2007, 1944.} Hayek’s main thesis, well and clearly argued, is that the very essence of the progressive socialist project was the conceit that central, top down planning can be accomplished without perverse, inhumane results. Its failures are built into the very scheme.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law

For permissions and comments, contact the author by email: law@jaygaskill.com



[1] The Economist has just published an intriguing survey of the welfare copycat nations in Asia (hint: they are less generous than the West, but bent on “catching up”). Here is a telling example -“…as latecomers to the welfare state, Asian countries also have certain advantages. They can learn from the West’s mistakes, and they can leapfrog some of its obsolete practices. The starkest lesson they can learn is fiscal. Bambang Widianto, the head of Indonesia’s task-force against poverty, confesses to being scared by the example of Greece. Unlike Singapore, where citizens are required to contribute to a provident fund from which their pensions will be drawn, the pensions Indonesia has promised to offer to the nation in 2015 will be partly on a “defined benefit” basis, under which a person’s pension may not necessarily match his contributions. The government thus has crucial decisions to make about the size of the benefits and the distribution of the burden. Unfortunately, Mr Widianto says, ‘no one is doing those calculations right now.’” From The welfare state is flowering in Asia. Will it free the continent from squalor? Or sink it in debt?, The Economist, Sep 8th 2012.

 

[2] Over the centuries, conservatism and liberalism have operated like cooperating antagonists, one (liberalism) always challenging boundaries and the other (conservatism) always defending boundaries. Yet each has traditionally acted as a check on the other, restoring a condition of balance. The 6th century BC Greek philosopher, Heraclitus (“The road up and down is one and the same”) advanced the insight that opposites are unified at a higher level, symbolized in the Logos. Conservatism and liberalism at their optimum are in an eternal dialogue, and as a result arbitrary boundaries are transcended and essential boundaries are strengthened.  At the present moment in history the liberal tendency – under the spell of progressive ideology – has pushed us past reasonable boundaries into a dangerous imbalance.  Recall the Greek legend of Narcissus and Nemesis. Narcissus, who was impossibly vain, disdaining everyone else (recognized no boundary or limiting principle to his beauty/virtue), drew the attention of the goddess Nemesis, who was the agent of divine justice.  She sat him down next to a reflecting pool and, in love with his own image, he starved to death.

 

[3] No thinking liberal lusts after true solidarity, though he or she might wish it inflicted on someone else.  No thinking conservative wants the nasty, brutish and short life of the “free” savage. None of us can survive for long without the blessings of civilization. Liberty is a precious and intensely valuable condition that is enjoyed by the individual or not at all.  But it exists only under modern conditions and only when a given civilization is committed to its protection.  When we speak of ordered liberty we are describing the result when liberty is held as a reciprocal value, protected by law on condition that one may forfeit one’s claim to liberty by trampling on the liberty of another.  In the most sophisticated, liberty-friendly civilizations, liberty is protected vis-a-vis other citizens and from the depredations of the government itself – accomplished through a robust protective legal mechanism like the US constitution.