What's Up with Progressivism?
"Progress" presents a compelling image, but its intellectual foundations are much more sinister.
In politics, a term tends to be more than simply an arbitrary label. Take the term that the Left in the West — or the most vocal part of the Left — bandies about to label its political inclinations: progressive. This term is meant to conjure the image of stalwart partisans of progress. This is a compelling image. Who in their right mind would oppose progress?
But what does progress mean? Progress comes from the Latin word progredi meaning to walk or move forward. This is a neutral meaning and does not tell us much. You can walk forward into paradise or right into the depths of hell. Progress can be made on curing cancer or on creating a biological weapon. Diseases can get progressively better or progressively worse.
This neutral meaning of progress acknowledges change, but it merely expresses movement. What tells us more is when the word progress is used to designate a desired direction to historical change. This meaning of progress indicates both change and its valuation. Progress as continual improvement is a modern idea.
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The premodern world did not view historical change this way. The ancient Greeks were well aware of historical change, but they interpreted change in terms of both progress and regress. For them, history moves from perfection to decay, and from decay to destruction, and from destruction to an eventual renewal and return to perfection, which starts the process over again. Historical change, then, is cyclical.
The Romans had a different view. While the Greeks saw their earlier past as a golden age of perfection, and their present as an age of decay, the Romans — especially during the period of the Empire — saw their present as the pinnacle of greatness. While they might have progressed to this point, they did not project continual progress into the future. Because they have reached the pinnacle of greatness, only decay and collapse looms ahead. Centuries later, and with the decay and collapse of Rome as an historical fact, Machiavelli would view historical change as a movement from chaos to order and from order back to chaos. And if a prince wished to follow the Roman path to greatness, he might reach the glory of Rome, but he would not surpass it.
The Medieval period saw a decisive reinterpretation of historical change. Christian theology rejected the cyclical idea of history and proclaimed the doctrine of Last Things. Christian eschatology not only reconstructed the meaning of history, but it also did so in terms of a linear progression — from the Fall to the arrival of the Messiah, to the Last Days and the Final Judgement. This distinctly linear and universal view of history — including the belief in a better future to come — created the conditions for a modern idea of progress, albeit one without the presence of God.
A modern idea of progress, which in one guise or another is the foundation of all modern ideas of change, gained considerable ground during the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. In this period, it became increasingly obvious that scientific knowledge of the world based upon rigorous methods and duplicatable experiments had advanced noticeably since ancient times. Indeed, undeniable progress was made in scientific knowledge, but this was not immediately translated into a theory of historical progress. This translation would have to wait until the following century.
In tandem with advancements in scientific knowledge came the power that such knowledge conferred on those aiming to control nature and, in so doing, direct future change. But this initial stress on effecting change through the harnessing of and domination over the natural world would soon be extrapolated by many an eighteenth-century enlightened philosophe to the realm of the social world, if not to a socially engineered human destiny.
So alluring was this newly found power that theories of history based upon cycles of flourishing and foundering were rejected as antiquated. Christian eschatology with its emphasis on a linear progression and faith in a good future yet to come, however, was not so much rejected as it was surreptitiously secularized: now the hand of man replaces that of God. With Divine Providence eclipsed, the modern idea of progress became manifest. This new take on history would in turn radiate beyond enlightened philosophes and seep into nearly all subsequent modern political crusades for change — from the French Revolution and Marxism to globalist neoliberalism and its cantankerous sidekick, progressivism.
This newly minted idea of progress interprets history as a process of continual progressive improvement. Presented in its best and most conservative light, progress is a linear historical process that presupposes a sense of continuity between past, present, and future. It is only by virtue of having the bequeathed past in mind that we can gauge whether progress has been made in the present, and that we can chart, however tentatively, future prospects. Novel approaches to pressing issues do not emerge ex nihilo; they arise often unexpectedly from a confluence of dynamic social activities, traditions and cultural meanings that have sedimented over centuries, yet which occasionally encounter turns of events that require a new take on things.
This interpretation of history connects the past with the future through a malleable present. But in truth this connection between past, present, and future has always been a tenuous one. For every ounce of progress found in the past, one can easily locate an ounce or two of regress. In practice, this tenuous connection is easily severed by simply rejecting the past altogether and doubling down on a malleable present in service to vague prophecies of a better future. No political movement has done this better than the progressivism of the last several decades.
Indeed, today’s progressives tell us that we need but cease — or be made to cease — our clinging to outmoded institutions, superstitions, customs, and traditions for us to be emancipated and for a progressive future to blossom. But to disregard or expunge past traditions and centuries of multi-layered sedimented meaning, social institutions, and mores in the name of an abstract emancipatory project undermines the very preconditions for actual progress.
Because progressives view history through the very narrow lens of race, gender, and sexuality, the past is seen as irredeemably oppressive and needs to be comprehensively rejected. But without any regard for historical continuity, progressives must rely on the abstract idea of emancipation that itself has no telos or end goal. Emancipation demands that we remove obstacles and fetters in order to ... emancipate us from yet more fetters. Rinse and repeat. These perceived fetters and obstacles may change according to the times, but the formula remains. Such a formula might see itself as progressive, but this is certainly not to be conflated with the idea of progress.
Not only is progressivism not progress, but the very abstract proceduralism it deploys ends up so bereft of concrete meaning moored in lived experience that it also finds few takers. Hence the authoritarianism that usually subtends all types of modern progressivism. The Comité du Salut Publique of Revolutionary France and Maoist Red Guards have morphed into mandatory human resource sensitivity training, or into the legally sanctioned and compelled speech, in some Western countries, of correct pronoun use. Progressivism is more about social control and contrived moral outrage than about actual progress. As such, it ends up mired in the very authoritarian muck that it claims to fight.
But things get worse for progressivism: precisely because it is, at best, an abstract procedure or algorithm unchecked by lived experience moored in concrete social reality, progressivism eventually self-destructs by the impetus of its own logic. Since progressivism proposes an abstract procedure without an end goal in mind, the procedure itself becomes the goal. And this procedure must compete with itself, perpetually and frenetically outbidding itself — until it extinguishes itself. Most of the revolutionaries of 1789, from Danton and the Girondins to Lafayette and constitutional monarchists — were by 1793 deemed counterrevolutionary and duly dispatched by the very Comité du Salut Publique they helped create. Likewise, are the radical feminists of the 1990s now the intolerant transphobes of the 2020s, to be duly shunned or doxed. This is what some call a purity spiral.
This purity spiral is not only dangerous for those in its thrall, but it is also sad to behold. Once uprooted and ungrounded, without a past upon which to incrementally add or from which to seek guidance, without a sense of direction, those who have staked everything on an abstract formula — whether this be the unshackling of reason from religion and obscurantist traditions, or the liberation of identity and gender from social and biological constraints — have little choice but to double down on their mantra if they are to forge a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves.
Only this larger “something” ends up being nothing. It is but an abstract procedure, an empty algorithm, bereft of the very substance that makes human flourishing possible, namely: a sense of awe before our forebears as we behold their literary and architectural creations bequeathed to us over the ages; a sense of responsibility as we bequeath to our children and descendants that which we inherited and value; a sense of gratitude for the sacrifices of our predecessors, for all their virtues and flaws; and most important, a sense of reverence and humility before that which is beyond our understanding yet which beckons those of us who care to listen.
C.L. Bovington and D.L. Williamson also write for their Substack O Tempora, O Mores. Please consider subscribing for free here.
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