Editorial: What Lies Ahead


The November 23rd issue of the Nation has as its centerpiece an article titled “Progressive Politics and What Lies Ahead” by Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Cornel West. In it the authors propose a few core programmatic tenets they believe progressives might rally around. Doing that seems like a good idea to us.

There needs to be some umbrella agreement on the left side of the U.S. political spectrum, some shared understanding of what being a progressive person minimally means. Sure it will be less than the full program of all left groups and projects. Of course “progressive” is a broad concept that doesn’t go so deeply to the quick as the politics central to Z Magazine. But perhaps a wider constituency can share a minimal program that touches the broad values of each person in it.

The trouble is, the progressive politics that West and Unger offer seem too vague and too tied to the presumption that particular institutions are beyond critique, notably the market. The broad principles or values in the article don’t distinguish what would be a “progressive” from, say, a liberal, or a Democrat. The same holds for the article’s programmatic proposals. Does this sound like something Bill Clinton might comfortably intone: “We should develop a broad-based and market-friendly effort to lift up the economic rearguard. One component of this would be the broadening of access to finance and technology through the establishment of independently administered venture-capital funds charter to invest in the rearguard and to conserve and grow the resources with which they would be endowed.”

Make no mistake: the authors see no need for redistribution to attain these ends, there is profit in progress. Thus, they continue: “Experience suggests that, with accountable but independent management and properly diversified investment portfolios, such funds can achieve high rates of return on their endowments.” Is this really what we want as the economic touchstone of being “progressive”? What is the point of the word “progressive” if we define it to fit anyone to the left of—indeed anyone to the sane side of—Bill Clinton? Who would we be appealing to, I wonder, if we began to communicate our aspirations in the language of “investment portfolios,” “venture-capital funds,” and “high rates of return,” and if our name for the poor, for working people, is the “rearguard”? Can’t we appeal to a broad group as progressive, without having “progressive” mean something so lame?

How about this? A progressive person is someone who believes that a society is more liberated:

to the extent that fewer people are denied human rights or opportunities or in any way oppressed due to race, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, disability, property ownership, wealth, income, or statist authoritarianism and exclusion

to the degree that it fosters solidarity such that its citizens, by the actions they must take to survive and fulfill themselves, come to care about, promote, and benefit from one another's well being, rather than getting ahead only at one another's expense to the degree that its citizens enjoy comparably rewarding and demanding life experiences and equal incomes, assuming comparable effort and sacrifice on their parts to contribute to the social good

to the extent that its citizens are able to democratically influence decisions proportionately as they are affected by those decisions and have the circumstances, knowledge, and information required for this level of participation

and to the extent that diversity is fostered and nourished in social relations, in relations with nature, and in all dimensions of life.

Those would be good principles, wouldn’t they? A person supporting these principles would know that improvements in equity, justice, democracy, participation, solidarity, and empowerment are all steps forward, and a person denying these principles would think that enlarging these values, even with other things being equal, wouldn’t improve society. The former knows progress. The latter is elitist in some profound sense. But is knowing progress all it takes to being progressive?

Well, no, maybe not. Because a person could believe in the principles and then assert, “but, hey, our society attains them all just about as well as is materially and socially possible, much as I would prefer that more was attainable.” Sure, the person would agree, “there is infinite room to redistribute wealth or diminish power imbalances between races or genders or at work, or to have more empathetic relations among citizens, and such. But you have to realize that any attempt to win such gains will always lose you something equally valid on another front. So nothing need be done and nothing can be done, or very little, at any rate.”

Well, that doesn’t sound progressive to us. So it seems like what we might best mean by ”progressive” is having the kinds of values that the principles above indicate, but also an orientation of trying widely and deeply to change the world. Yes, one might reasonably be a progressive without thinking that a revolution in institutions—such as most Z Magazine readers and writers would likely advocate—is possible or viable. But surely one can’t claim to be progressive thinking that almost nothing is possible.

So how do we add to the principles some addendum that gets at this disposition of trying to change things? One way might be to add some points of program, maybe different ones at different times in history, which seem to encapsulate the degree of belief in possible change that one must minimally have to be “progressive.” If that’s a good idea, perhaps these would suffice for the present moment—though surely many others would do just as well. Thus, a progressive not only supports the above principles, but also supports some broad demands for improvements in society including, for example:

that there should be full employment, a living wage, and greatly expanded profit and inheritance taxes used to redistribute wealth and to improve public goods and services

that every citizen has a right to full and free health coverage

that corporations should be held accountable for the environmental and social by-products of their profit seeking and that there should be an end to the notion that corporations deserve rights like humans do

that working people should be given forty hours pay for a thirty hour work week

that women should have control of their own bodies including the right to abortions on demand

that the death penalty should be abolished and, more pointedly, that Mumia Abu-Jamal should receive a new trial

that any two people should be free to form a lasting emotional family union and that any such union should be awarded the full legal and social privileges that any other is awarded

that affirmative action should be expanded to fully redress racial and sexual imbalances

Beyond the “progressive” would be the revolutionary: A person who agrees on the principles and who supports the program and many other points as well, of course. And a person who also believes there are whole new fundamentally different attainable and viable institutions superior to those that we now have for advancing the values in the principles. And a person who fights for changes in the present, such as those noted above, in ways also designed to empower social movements to win still further gains and to eventually replace current institutions with the liberated ones desired in their stead.

Some will opt for the progressive program; others will embrace revolutionary vision and practice. But we're never going to build an effective movement for social change based on the “market-friendly uplifting of the rearguard.”