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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 7/15/10

Is liberalism an idea whose time is past?

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A recent Gallup Poll showed widespread uncertainty about the "progressive" political label, with the majority of those responding (54%) saying they are unsure what "progressive" means. 31% felt they knew enough about "Progressive" to say that it doesn't describe their views, while 12% said that they were themselves progressive.

Looking on the bright side, for those of us in that 12% minority of self-described progressives, I'd say these results indicate an opportunity for us to define "progressive" to mean what we think it should mean, since most people don't seem to have any fixed ideas of their own. And if we want "progressive" to be more than a stand-in for "liberal", we should all give some thought to how "progressive" and "liberal" differ - or how we'd like them to differ.

I know exercises like this can seem divisive, and it's certainly not my intention to set self-described liberals and progressives at one another's throats, but there are real ideas at stake, and sometimes a discussion that starts with labels can go much deeper.

Here an attempt at clarification, made while looking forward to others thoughts on the subject:

I think classical liberalism is based on the idea of an accommodation, or balance, between state power and corporate power. Under the liberal ideal, the vast bulk of the economy remains in private hands, and the private economy is pretty much a "no-go" zone for the ideas of democracy we take for granted in the political realm - i.e., economic decisions are not made democratically, and there's no expectation they should be - but this private economic power is held in check by government power and the power of organized labor.

If there was a golden age for this view, it was the 1950's and 1960's, when even many labor leaders (but probably not many of labor's rank-and-file) came to believe that a tacit agreement have been reached with corporate elites, with generous union contracts tied to large increases in worker productivity, in a "win-win" arrangement that seemingly could go on forever.

Of course, we all know what happened then. Corporate power rose up, crushed the unions, and then took control of our government. Today, there is no "accommodation", no "balance", corporate power is in control, unions are virtually powerless, and every government regulatory agency has been captured by the industry it is intended to regulate, with the Minerals Management Service being a prime example.

Modern progressivism is built on an understanding of this state of affairs. Recognizing that there can be no balance between corporate power and the people's power - because corporate power will never tolerate a balance and will always use every tool at its disposal to become ascendant - progressivism seeks to attack corporate power directly, by attempting to bring the economic sector under democratic control and by replacing private ownership with public (or even worker) ownership. A liberal would have no objection to maintaining the private, for-profit health insurance industry, as long as there are strong government regulations in place to control it, but a progressive, understanding that any regulations will eventually be circumvented, corrupted and even repealed, will demand that the entire health insurance function be taken over by the state through a single-payer plan. Under the progressive view, because corporate power can never be trusted or reined in, except briefly, life or death decisions must be taken entirely out of corporate hands and put in the peoples' hands.

You might argue, "That's not progressivism, that's socialism!" And, as an avowed socialist, I'd be hard-pressed to disagree with you. But the discussion I'm trying to initiate here is as much aspirational as it is definitional. That is, we should be talking as much about what we want "progressive" to mean as we do about what progressive, at this point, actually means to anyone (especially since it appears to mean not much at all to most people.)

Most of all, we should avoid the simple-minded task of placing progressives and liberals on a linear "political spectrum", with progressives a few notches to the left of liberal ("They want a 20% cut in carbon emissions by 2020, we want a 40% cut by 2015!") Instead, I'm arguing for a clean break from liberalism because I believe it is a dying philosophy which attempts to restore us to a time that can never be again (and maybe even wasn't there in the first place.) If progressivism has a future, it must be based on repudiating the liberal model and creating a movement for a democratically-controlled economy that can rise up and defeat corporate power, as decisively as corporate power has crushed all else before it. Given the shifting attitudes of our nation's youth, who have only known a world ruled by corporations, there may even come a day when we can call this program "socialism" and be done with it.
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Steve Burns is Program Director of Wisconsin Network of Peace a Justice, a coalition of more than 160 groups that work for peace, social justice and environmental sustainability.
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