If you follow politics, you are probably aware of the emergence of people who claim to be “progressives”. These people aren’t referring to the American Progressive Era of the 1890’s to the 1920’s they're referring to neo-progressivism, a political movement that isn't new but has only recently found itself at the forefront of Western politics. This ideology is often conflated with liberalism, especially by people who consider the left to be a monolithic political position. This has not been discouraged by neo-progressives themselves. As this allows them to use people’s positive predisposition to liberalism as a sort of Trojan Horse by which to inject illiberal neo-progressive ideas into circumstances in which they would otherwise be rejected.
I would like to examine neo-progressivism in detail, from a liberal perspective. This will be done to ensure a distinction between the two, distinctive, competing political philosophies of the political left.
There is an excellent and concise description of neo-progressivism on the website of the conservative think-tank, The Heritage Foundation. It states, “Beginning in the 1950s, a more radical form of liberalism emerged in the academy that sowed the seeds for the sexual revolution and multiculturalism. Neo-progressivism mobilized the New Left of the 1960s, transformed American politics, and continues to dominate the cultural and political conversation today. It combines what neo-progressives call personal politics (the idea that American citizens have a right to all forms of self-expression) and cultural politics (the idea that cultural groups are entitled to special status) together as the twin pillars of a new identity politics. As a result, citizens today have more, not less, freedom from government in the realm of sexual expression, and the American electorate has been fractured into various groups.”
Later in the article, there is an excellent synopsis of one of the primary identifiers of neo-progressive thought, “The new progressivism divides Americans into categories of race, class, and gender. It renews the specter of race conflict by rejecting the goal of civil rights, in which individuals achieve equality under the law; instead, the goal is political racial solidarity against what is viewed as an inherently racist American system.” This is an excellent description that is unfortunately, not limited to the United States. The author is describing what is commonly referred to as “Identity Politics”. Identity Politics is the first of the three pillars of neo-progressivism.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s definition of Identity Politics is as follows, “The laden phrase “identity politics” has come to signify a wide range of political activity and theorizing founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups. Rather than organizing solely around belief systems, programmatic manifestos, or party affiliation, identity political formations typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger context. Members of that constituency assert or reclaim ways of understanding their distinctiveness that challenge dominant oppressive characterizations, with the goal of greater self-determination.” Identity Politics is the rallying cry by which neo-progressivism attempts to gain mass appeal, through recruitment by association. It is not through fine argumentation, clear-headed empiricism or accurate reason that people are persuaded to join the neo-progressive cause. It is rather by playing a game of Snap with people’s physical characteristics.
The purpose of Identity Politics is, ironically, to remove the individual from the equation when calculating the experience of the individual. No longer is the question, “What is Bob’s experience?” the question is now, “What is the experience of Black men?”, as if this is somehow a universal constant. The appeal to the collective is intended to give issues more weight, more urgency and more legitimacy. To appeal to a collective, is to magnify the problem. Thus maximizing the attention drawn to it. It relies on the individual not to examine to the pretext of this approach too carefully. There is no attempt to use any form of intellectual engagement, instead the attempt is to gather appeal on the most base level by asserting the claim, “we look alike, therefore we must think alike”.
It is this appeal to demography that ties in most potently with the second pillar of neo-progressivism. If Identity Politics is the clarion call to action, then Political Correctness is the sword they use to strike down their opponents. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines politically correct as “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people”. Surely, anyone who has read the book “1984” can recognize thought terminating rhetoric when they see it. Thought termination, and the notion of “wrong think” are precisely the point of political correctness. It is the appeal to avoid the potential collective offense of people who can be defined, but not identified and who are left deliberately intangible, in order to enable claims of “offense” without anyone actually raising a complaint. Thus, any comment or action taken against a member of a given demographic which is protected by identity politics can be obfuscated and “astroturfed” by counter claims made against that person’s demographic identification.
The most striking example of political correctness in action may have been the case of the “Rotherham Rape Gangs”. These gangs, comprised entirely of immigrant muslims, were able to plague the UK for over a decade because the police were afraid to take action, knowing that any action they took would be colored by the lens of political correctness. The authorities knew that any action they took, no matter how legitimate, would be condemned as “racist”.
This is the danger of political correctness, although probably not originally designed for such a job, it has been repurposed as a weapon to be used against dissenting viewpoints and actions taken by individuals who were born into non-protected demographics. The very act of doing this is a demonstration of the third and final pillar of neo-progressivism, “Postmodernism”.
Postmodernism is a slippery concept, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes as “That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.”
To the uninitiated, this is a very complex definition. Described more clearly, postmodernism is a style of debate used to disrupt the foundations upon which an argument rests rather than addressing the argument itself. This is achieved through constant questioning of the certainty of the argument’s presupposition in an effort to undermine the unambiguity of the concepts from which it is formed. The postmodernist will start big and gradually reduce their line of questioning to the very granules upon which an argument it made, until such time that the target is unable to provide adequate detail or is simply exhausted from explaining the minutiae of each and every stage of their argument.
Put more simply, postmodernism is deliberately designed to win a debate without actually having the debate. It should be self-evident that this is intellectually dishonest. It is the shield by which neo-progressivism prevents, diverts or deflects any legitimate criticism of its precepts.
Postmodernism is the result of “critical theory” a description of which can be found in college courses across the western world. The narrow sense of “critical theory was coined by a group of german philosophers and social theorists known as “The Frankfurt School”. It began with Horkheimer and Adorno and stretched to Marcuse and Habermas. They distinguished “critical” from “traditional” theory by saying that a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation, to “liberate” human beings from those circumstances which enslave them. More broadly, critical theories seek to explain all the circumstances which enslave humans.
The “circumstances that enslave humans” is called “the Totality”, which is modern society. People like Horkheimer and Adorno saw a system of enlightenment that had become tighter in its organization, more global in reach and more powerful in its ability to control people. They saw modernity and enlightenment joining hands to create a universal myth that entrapped all people with its appeal whilst controlling us and limiting our freedom at every step. Although other members of the Frankfurt School thought differently about enlightenment, they also saw a growth in the global accumulation of power from which it was becoming increasingly difficult to escape.
The theme of these philosophers is that, ironically, attempts at liberation ultimately wind up being steps towards oppression. Postmodernism is adopted by neo-progressivism for a number of reasons. The foremost is that neo-progressivism seeks to outright reverse and destroy that which could be broadly categorized as “traditionalism”. This can most effectively be achieved by applying postmodernist ideas. Often, this is done by petitioning for the rights of individuals, which is a perfectly laudable goal.
For example, take the gay rights movement, While politicians such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton opposed gay marriage only a decade ago, they are now on the forefront of neo-progressive politics and helped to get gay marriage passed. In reality, this change is most likely just politicians being politicians, but it demonstrates the rapid rise of neo-progressivism and the good it can achieve.
However, the flip-side is the primacy of the collective above the individual. This can be seen in the example of Diane Smith-Gander, the chairman of Transfield Services. Ms. Smith-Gander, who is also the president of the Chief-Executive Women Group said that to reach their target of 50-50 representation of women on business boards and in senior roles, capable men would have to make way for capable women. She said, at an Australian Institute of Company Directors luncheon, “If we’re going to get six and six it means that four of those ten men who are inevitably qualified and well-intentioned are going to have to lose their gig.” She continued by saying “They are not going to want to lose their gig and that’s a sad and sorry thing, but that’s just the way it is. This is the problem we are actually dealing with. Some men are going to have to give up their hard-won roles to allow equality.”
In this example, it is axiomatic that in the pursuit of advancing women as a demographic there will be many individual men who will be subject to injustices simply because of the way that they were born. This is how the system that neo-progressivism is creating works. The injustices to individuals are irrelevant, so long as the collective goals remain intact. Furthermore, any system designed to perpetuate injustices will, naturally, be taken advantage of by opportunistic people who will lie and manipulate the system for their own purposes.
To a liberal, like myself, the definitions of the principles of neo-progressivism are in and of themselves transgressive. In order to understand neo-progressivism, one must focus on the collectivist nature of the ideology, putting it in direct odds with the individualist ideals of classical liberalism. Everything about neo-progressivism, political correctness, postmodernism and identity politics hinges on taking advantage of the good-will of the subject. Each pillar of neo-progressivism relies on the willing cooperation and participation of the individual. If no good-will is extended to neo-progressivism then there is no method by which to operate.
“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” This quote is often mis-attributed to Joseph Stalin, but it remains memorable because it contains within it, an essential truth. It is impossible to truly care about a large group of people, because it is impossible to conceive of them as individual human beings. Individuals who we may choose to like or dislike based on their own unique attributes, the very basis of empathy. In future writings, I will demonstrate that these fallacious appeals to collectivism are the primary means of propagation for activists of neo-progressivism. These activists are most commonly known by their colloquial name… “Social Justice Warriors”.