Liberalism, Progressivism, Leftism
A response to some reader criticism.
My piece on conservative failure to oppose leftist policies provoked various lines of critique. Some wondered whether I’m using terms like “liberal” and “leftist” coherently, while others objected to the ideological frame, suggesting that our problems are better located with a rapacious oligarchy that has no sincere ideological commitments. Herewith, a response:
I think that there are three basic, interrelated and mutually reinforcing ideological systems at work in the Western world today. These are liberalism, progressivism and leftism.
By liberalism, I mean the cluster of moral and political ideas emphasising individual rights and self-determination. The liberal tradition is now hundreds of years old, and espousing some minimum of liberal principles is a requirement for participation in polite discourse. Even leftists have to go through the motions here.
Progressivism is an essentially religious belief in the inevitable forward march of human progress. Deranged or deceived by the technological advances of the last 150 years, progressives believe that the present is better than the past, and that the future will be better than the present. They tend to wave away pragmatic objections to utopian aspirations via faith in future (often technological) solutions. The future will be better, and what is better must come to be.
If liberalism is the water, and progressivism the illumination, then leftism is the invasive algae that has taken over our aquarium. The term should be used in its broadest possible sense, to include any egalitarian ideology that seeks to overcome human inequality and natural hierarchy via special technological, social or legal interventions. Leftism wants, or pretends to want, a great flattening, a world where everyone is the same.
Liberalism bears within it some ideological precursors for leftist egalitarianism, such as the idea of equality before the law. Unlike leftism, though, liberalism is not inherently opposed to social or economic hierarchies. The insistence that wealth inequality is bad, that all humans are biologically identical, that European-descended populations are unfairly privileged, that identities can be intersectionally disadvantaged – all of this is leftism. Particularly in the liberal West, leftism advances by portraying its demands for social and economic levelling as the epitome or the perfected form of liberal principles.
Many Westerners, whose outlook has been formed by the liberal tradition, find the very idea of elites abhorrent. If the elites are acting terribly, well, that’s because they’re filthy elites who are just trying to amass wealth and power for themselves. The truth is that all human societies, even liberal democracies, have aristocrats. Whether their aristocracies are formally acknowledged with ranks and titles and special badges, or whether they slum it with the rest of us, matters much less than you might imagine. Humans are hierarchical chimps and we recreate the same social structures over and over. In fact, I think one of the greatest defects of modern liberal democracy, is its promotion of an informal elite – people who, for reasons of birth or social standing, wield significant power, but because of liberal democratic principles, are allowed (or compelled) to do so in underhanded, informal, less-than-legible ways.
The problem is less that we have elites, than that we have particularly bad ones, who have turned on the populations that sustain them. This is not without historical precedent. Some elite factions during the rise of European feudalism, for example, developed a similar hostility and rapaciousness towards their peoples. But, this is very far from the normal way of things. In healthy human societies, elites share a basic cultural outlook and an ethnic identity with their societies. Like everyone else, elites will strive to enrich themselves and further their own advantage, but ideally they and the people beneath them will share mutual interests sufficiently, to keep their rapaciousness in check and to ensure some degree of mutual regard.
Finally: The importance of political ideology is often overemphasised, but it really does matter. It is particularly important for establishing political legitimacy, joining and coordinating the interests of particular parties, and defining enemies. Political ideology is a big part of the reason that our elite are so terrible right now.
Formally, leftism is an egalitarian ideology that seeks to level social or economic hierarchies, but in practice it is characterised by high-low alliances, where some faction of the elite promises higher status (“equality”) to some social group at the bottom, if only they’ll join them in driving out other rivals to wealth and power, whether at the top or in the middle. You might call leftism a tactical ideology of revolution, as it is primarily a means of upsetting the current order. The fantasy that leftists sell, is a world of total equality, but that will never be realised. At best, a completed leftist revolution will merely switch one set of more traditional elites for a new, shadowy elite of party apparatchiks.
For a lot of different reasons, a diffuse cultural leftism has taken our institutions by storm. This has opened a wealth of opportunities for elites to form high-low alliances, with the help of the institutional apparatus, against the rank-and-file middle classes. Their aim is to appropriate the cultural and political capital that these middle ranks accumulated in the course of the Industrial Revolution and the first half of the twentieth century.