What Is Progressivism?

Published on Dissident Voice, by Kim Petersen, co-editor of Dissident Voice, January 29, 2013.

… Since many social and political groupings fit under the progressivist umbrella, there are bound to be some disagreements on some of the tenets of progressivism, but on core tenets progressivists find common ground to solidarize. Thus, even libertarianism might be considered for inclusion under the progressivist banner. In general, all these ideologies are more or less in opposition to unfettered capitalism and the capitalist-spawned agendas espoused by movements that occupy the right wing of the political spectrum. Even though capitalists do not sincerely reside within leftist political groupings, it cannot be assumed that political affiliation alone implies an individual is of progressivist persuasion or even, for that matter, steadfast leftism.  

The right-wing agendas (for example, corporate globalization, neoliberalism, imperialism, and warring) have wormed their way into the fabric of most societies, abetted by the fact that right-wingers have gained preponderant control of the political processes in the major industrialized economies. Right-wingers promote policies that prioritize “freeing up” the economy for carrying out business. Since such policies cater to the interests of the owners of the means of production, there is a collusion of interests among capitalists and other elements of the Right. This collusion of interests has enabled the Right to be able to define (1) which parties constitute viable political choices, and (2) what constitutes Center, Right, and Left on the political spectrum, as per a uni-dimensional definition. More importantly, the Right has been able to define what constitutes extreme Right and extreme Left.

Parties such as the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, the Democratic Party in the United States, and the Liberal Party in Canada — all of which are considered by progressives to be parties subservient to the corporate-capitalist model; hence, they are right-wing parties — are usually labeled by monopoly media as centrist or even left-of-center. The corporate media marginalization of progressivist views allows it to designate the Center as a point located toward the right of the political spectrum, where lesser-evilism thrives.1 In this simplistic one-dimensional representation of political ideologies, casual followers of the political order are prone to view leftist political groups as extreme by dint of their perceived distance from the Center.

Through manipulating the perceived locus of political parties, the establishment of an arbitrary Center on a continuum derives importance. It is important because people tend to eschew extremes and conform to popular opinion.2 Given that the political scenario defined as viable by the corporate media is bereft of progressives, marginalized progressives face an uphill battle to disseminate their ideas … //

… War is the bane of humanity, spurred by ignoble attributes, such as hate, greed, and ignorance. It is unique to humans.

Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, War. He is the only one which gathers his brethren and goes forth in cold blood and with calm pleasure to exterminate his own kind.
– Mark Twain7

War is inegalitarianism at its apex. The troops are mostly drawn from the lower socio-economic class (As the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “When the rich make war, it’s the poor that die.”8 ); the rigid hierarchical command structure is anathema to equality; the troops face enemy fire while the commanders are ensconced luxuriously away from the fighting.

Imperialist troops follow the cowardly example of their leaders and wreak violence at a great distance from their foes, largely unseen. This poses a challenge to free thinkers in their quest for understanding. They must challenge the great myth which pervasively and glowingly depicts the homeland’s own forces as steeped in courageous exploits and the enemy country’s people as heathens, barbarians, savages, and terrorists deserving of military conquest.

Progressivism is a panoply of interests united in a loose movement; it is not monolithic. Some progressives take a sympathetic line toward the troops — many of who are compliant if not willing victims. Author and media critic, Norman Solomon, contends, “We support the troops; we want them to stop killing and being killed. We want them to come home.”9 [italics added] It is not always possible to talk about a “we” among progressives. Crucial is that a diverse progressivist movement unites and agrees to a set of common or shared principles.

A leading intellectual critic of US imperialism, Noam Chomsky also shows compassion for the troops. In an interview with Dutch radio, Chomsky said:

I have plenty of correspondence with soldiers in Iraq and all you can do is offer them your sympathy. You hope that they make it safely and that their leaders will get them out of there. The same kind of advice you would’ve given to Russian soldiers in Afghanistan. You have to sympathize with them; it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of their commanders. I don’t mean their military commanders, I mean the civilians in the Pentagon, in the White House and their counterparts in England.10

While Chomsky offered sympathy for the US soldiers, he offered none in the interview for the massively outgunned Iraqi resistance engaged in the legitimate struggle for the sovereignty of their homeland. He even used the pejorative terms “terrorist” and “insurgents” to describe some Iraqis, without mentioning that such Iraqis likely became what they are as a result of terror unleashed upon them by US-UK aggressors.11 He mentioned concern for the safe return home of the US occupation fighters but did not at the same time balance this statement with similar sentiments for the Iraqi victims of occupation troops. Yes, the US military rank-and-file are also victims — victims of the capitalist-imperialist overlords. But that does not absolve the soldier of responsibility for his own actions. While the civilian command structure bears the ultimate responsibility, compassion for the victim-soldier must be tempered by outrage at the lack of compassion and outright disdain that soldiers show their victims.

While many American antiwar types decry their troops’ atrocities, many still maintain support for the troops. As long as the troops can rely on such support, they are weakly constrained in their lethal actions because they will suffer few legal consequences for their war crimes. Troops, and more so the commanders, that violate rules of warfare must be denounced and held accountable for such violations. A society that does not demand a minimum of respect for human rights and dignity from its troops collaborates in their crimes. The supportive American public, consequently, finds itself complicit in the myriad crimes committed by its troops and their collaborators. Support for the troops must be limited. Conscientious objectors must be supported; troops who refuse to kill under immoral or unlawful conditions must be supported. However, blanket support to killers must be refused.

It is easy to denounce an abstraction like war. But war is waged by humans. War would not exist without the warriors. Warring must not be occluded by focusing on the actions and ignoring the actors. To denounce the war and exculpate its actors is folly. How does one meaningfully differentiate between the actions and the perpetrators of the actions?

Can progressives genuinely support the military personnel who drop cluster bombs, 2,000-pound bombs, napalm, and “depleted” uranium-laced shells on civilian women and children in Fallujah? Can progressives genuinely support imperialist troops killing, raping, and torturing prisoners in the US, Zionist, and other gulags around the world? Can progressives support soldiers who carry out orders that serially violate the Geneva Conventions (laws of war that should protect them if they fall into a precarious situation with the “enemy”) in what amounts to open scorn for the rules of war. Can progressives support soldiers who, with the flick of a joystick, launch drone strikes from thousands of kilometers away on unsuspecting, unindicted victims (victims who normally would be granted the presumption of innocence under US jurisprudence until proven guilty in a court of law).

Consequently, one wonders about expressions of sympathy for men and women who have dedicated a part of their lives to becoming human-killing machines.12

Whether or not the killing has been wanton, the soldier must be held accountable. Where war crimes have been committed, then all must be accountable before the law — both the defeated and the victorious, for victory outside the bounds of human dignity is a hollow victory.

War is futile and demeaning of people. It has no place in a progressive cosmos. Under progressivism, there will be no need for the profession of trained killers.

Many citizens consider it their patriotic duty to fight for the state in times of war. But what is the state? Is it really worth killing and dying for? When one’s country is being attacked, resistance is understandable. War that is not in self-defense, however, is usually brought upon the citizenry by the political leadership. Some maintain that patriotism involves asking the citizenry to be trusting of leadership and to be convinced in the inherent goodness of the homeland and the evilness of the designated enemy. This is an appeal to faith. If people love their country, then they will ponder the ramifications of leadership decisions in this light. Logically, patriotism demands that the good of the country — as defined by its people — is paramount before obedience to the dictates of leadership. It is especially in times of war that people should question their government and their leaders.

Leaders exploit the patriotic sentiment inculcated in the citizenry. Critical thinking and open-minded skepticism are qualities that protect people from demagoguery.

Open-mindedness and constructive skepticism require unimpeded access to information. A progressivist society demands an independent media, whose reporters and journalists are free to pursue and publish stories that they determine to be newsworthy. Internet aside, this type of media does not exist, except at the peripheries, in western societies. In addition to selectively informing, the corporate media play an immense role in indoctrinating, propagandizing, and disseminating disinformation to influence the public consciousness. As such, the corporate media have culpability for the crimes that are committed with their encouragement.13

Often contrary to critical thinking, religion must be respected for its influence on world peace and wars. Progressives uphold the right of people to choose to express their spirituality in a way that does not impose itself on the similar right of other people. Unfortunately, intolerance for the diversity of religious beliefs held by others does manifest itself. Exhortations to inter-religious conflict should undermine the religious leadership and, perhaps, the religion itself.

There is no right to disinform and it must be prohibited. To equip people with the tools to recognize disinformation, progressives encourage questioning, critical thinking, skepticism, and openness to dialogue. Critical thinkers reject close-mindedness, passive acceptance of information, and personalized attacks.

A progressivist society supports openness to inquiry. Principled freedoms are to be cherished and protected. One freedom that is particularly under attack, in many quarters, is the right to freedom of speech. Free speech, while not an absolute right, must be a cornerstone of progressivism, especially for views held to be repugnant to progressives. As an example, unwavering opposition to racism is a principle embraced by progressives, but if progressives start agreeing to restrictions on the freedom of speech based on what is deemed to be racist or hate speech, where is the line to be drawn? Who is to decide what constitutes hate speech? What if the factual content of detested speech is, indeed, true? Once a limit on free-speech precedent has been established, what is to stop further encroachment upon free speech rights? Should not the marketplace of freely expressed ideas be sufficient to defeat regressivist ideas?

As well as the right to an open and independent media, also important is the right to freely access information. Along with these rights must be the right of equal access to education. Progressivism holds that education must be accessible to all citizens. As well, the conditions conducive to effective learning must be provided for all citizens. Education should guide and aid students in their quest to explore, find, contemplate, and formulate their own opinions on the content of information, as well as on the source of the information.

Freedom of speech and expression is twined with the freedom to choose. If the members of society are to select representatives that set priorities for the society, a mechanism is needed to express such preferences. Typically, people refer to this mechanism as democracy. “Democracy” is lauded in many western societies, but it needs to be properly defined; its actual existence, or the extent of its existence, is probably highly dubious. Progressives value genuine democracy highly as a principle, although they have different views about what democracy is and how it may be achieved … //

… (full long text and notes 1 to 13) … (other parts of this long article are published already on February 3, 2013 on Economy and Society).

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