What Is Progressivism?

Progressivism is a term that encompasses a wide spectrum of social movements that include environmentalism, labor, agrarianism, anti-poverty, peace, anti-racism, civil rights, women’s rights, animal rights, social justice and political ideologies such as anarchism, communism, socialism, social democracy, and liberalism.

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.

The corporate media shuns progressivist views simply because they clash with the corporate interests of the media owners. In this manner, opponents of progressivism have inverted the process of political designation. Right-wing ideologues, through ownership and control of the corporate media, have been able to turn leftist-identifying terms into slurs and thereby denigrate leftists. Political opponents use the leftist label to tarnish non-leftists. Thus, in the minds of Tea Partyers, one can simply defame president Barack Obama by calling him a “socialist.” No evidence is necessary to adduce Obama as a socialist (an extremely challenging prospect in the face of his steadfast toting of the neoliberalism line), and neither is any evidence or coherent argumentation produced as to why socialism should be so fear-evoking. In the presidential campaign of 2004, Democratic Party candidate John Kerry abjured the “dangerous” labeling of being a “liberal.”3 The importance of labeling is manifest. In a world where many people maintain that perception is reality, labeling has importance.

After all, who wants to be known as a Red, a Commie, or adhere to a socialism that failed in the Soviet Union, or a bleeding-heart liberal supporter of lazy, good-for-nothing welfare bums (as the monopoly media depicts things)? Anarchists? Aren’t those the black-hooded hooligans who run around throwing rocks through store windows? What person in their right mind would call himself an anarchist? Yes, but being a progressive … isn’t everyone for progress?

Dictionary.com defines progressivism as: “the political orientation of those who favor progress toward better conditions in government and society.” This is a term that carries very positive connotations and would be difficult to defame. If right-wingers wish to strategize against progressivism, the best bet would seem to be to co-opt it. An obvious example of this was adding the label “Progressive” to the Conservative Party in Canada, a party that once was a major force in the Canadian political establishment. The oxymoronic labeling eventually became self-evident to Canadians and the party imploded in the election of 1993 and disappeared completely from the federal political scene in late 2003.

In the US, some people attempted to claim that the New Democrats (i.e., the Clinton Democrats) espouse progressivism.4 Genuine progressive standards cannot substantiate such a claim; in fact, the regressivist Clinton record stands for itself as rolling back the social security net and pursuing militaristic solutions to attain U.S. imperialist ends.

What separates progressivism from other political ideologies?

Progressivism is not rooted in politics but in principles. The well being of all the people is primary and at the heart of progressivism. People are not at the whim of markets guided by preternatural forces to bring theorized widespread prosperity somewhere in the retreating future. A progressivist society prioritizes meeting the needs of all the people first. There will no underclass and no people falling between the cracks. Under progressivism, there is no acceptable unemployment rate; workers will not be made to suffer because of economists’s hypotheses pinned to a target inflation rate or other recurrent crises within capitalism; the target will be no poverty; there will be no accumulation of material wealth confined to a societal few. Every person who wants a job will have a job that respects the dignity of labor.

The needs of humanity are primary and not the needs of businesses. Humans are living, breathing, sentient creatures endowed with feelings. Businesses are human constructs. They do not breathe. They do not think. They do not have emotions.

The classist theory of money trickling down to the masses of people is morally unacceptable. Trickle-down economics does not supersede the immediate and inalienable rights of living humans. The progenitor of modern capitalism, Adam Smith, theorized on the primacy of a market economy that conjures an “invisible hand” to smooth out the flaws in the market.5 Yet, in the two-and-a-half centuries since Smith’s theory, no one has seen the invisible hand and none of the downtrodden have demonstrably benefited from its effects.

While capitalists have invoked and held on to a faith-based mechanism to even out the gross inequalities that are bound to arise in a market economy, progressivist tenets base their foundation on dialectical reality. The right to a decent life begins with living people. While altruistic intentions might induce current generations to sacrifice so that people in the future might benefit, to demand such sacrifice is antithetical to the precepts of progressivism. Egalitarianism is central to progressivism. Consequently, the people alive today have an equal right to the enjoyment of life as do the future generations.

Because egalitarianism is a fundamental principle, and given that ethics and morality underlie progressivism, then principles in progressivism should derive their preeminence from the conscious adoption of ethics and morality. They should not flow from progressivism but direct it. This is fundamentally contrary to the so-called free market, whose advocates speciously postulate that a free-and-open competition among individuals, businesses, and societies will lead to a meritocracy in which those who are most skilled and hardest working will naturally rise to the top. In this scenario there must also be a middle and a bottom, and it is considered/implied that people occupy the lower rungs because of a lack of merit.

Nonetheless, the notion of a meritocracy is patently false. It does not take into consideration that people in capitalist societies do not compete under equal conditions. So while a child born into a poor household may be very skillful and hard working, he or she is competing at a disadvantage relative to the child from a wealthy family who has immediate access to the best nutrition, teachers, books, and whatever other equipment or conditions are desired. Obviously, the offspring of a queen is guaranteed an opulent and sheltered life within the monarchial system, whereas the child born in a ghetto to a single, unemployed mother will be severely challenged to escape his circumstances. Forcefully, meritocracy does not exist in anything approximating a universal or meaningful sense of the term.

Under progressivism, many of the enmities arising from the law of the jungle that plagues capitalist society — such as classism, clashes over immigration, open versus closed borders, racial targeting, religious scapegoating, and conflict over preferential hiring practices — should cease to exist or diminish to negligibility. A progressive society is about acceptance and inclusion. Since all people and peoples are equal in principle and practice there is no reason to clash over matters that can be settled through cooperation and sharing.

While egalitarianism is fundamental, just as fundamental is the right to live. Progressives, therefore, are staunchly opposed to wars of aggression or the use of violence to solve disputes. Interminable warfare wreaks havoc on people living in war-ravaged zones and destroys the economic infrastructure and environment required to build and sustain a prosperous future.6

The preamble of the United Nations Charter enshrines the organization’s raison d’être of preventing the scourge of war. But, contrary to its stated principles, the UN has been involved in the warring effort itself, from the 1950’s US-China-Korea War to the 1991 attack to “liberate” Kuwait from Iraqi forces, and opening a non-existent loophole for NATO to lethally exploit in bringing about regime change in Libya in 2011. Following the 2003 assault and occupation of Iraq, the UN was involved in collaborating with parties to the “supreme international crime” as defined by Nuremberg Law: the crime of aggression that contains within itself the “accumulated evil of the whole.”

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.

One manner of expressing the collective will of a people is through mass social movements. Undoubtedly, the key to achieving a world of progressivism is solidarity. Progressives must regard this vision of a progressivist world realistically and not with unfounded rejectionism. It is extremely unlikely that the “haves” in society would be willing to equitably share “their” wealth, power, status, and perks with the entirety of society. The “haves” adhere to a different concept on division of wealth, one that does not favor equitable sharing, otherwise they would not have embarked upon and stayed upon a path that saw them accumulate preponderantly greater wealth than the masses of people.

A common refrain that objects to progressivism is that human lust for power and wealth is a part of human nature. This assertion ipso facto denies or diminishes redeeming qualities as a part of the human character. It frustrates morality and guiding principles. This view is deterministic and denies choice. The fact is that some humans decide to pursue selfish motives while others practice altruism. Progressivism is a rejection of humans as solely ego-driven beings. It appeals to the logic of the masses seeking a better life together in harmony with nature.

It is about social justice for the masses. But the focus of justice is not fixated on just punishing criminals rather it is about freeing the masses, sharing resources, and fostering the conditions for universal equality in life and living standards. It is the revolution for a just society in which peace will prevail.

Through solidarity and the building of mass social movements, people gain the power to begin to revolutionize societies and the world. The answer is simple, but it will require great sacrifice. Attaining a world based on progressivist principles, however, will be a most worthy outcome.

  1. Ben Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983): x, 32-33.
    “This institutional bias [in the media] does more than merely protect the corporate world. It robs the public of a chance to understand the world.”
    “A corporation dependent on public opinion and government policy can call upon its media subsidiaries to help in what the media are clearly able to do — influence public opinion and government policy. At the very least, the corporation can make sure that one subsidiary does no preventable harm to another, which in this case means that even if the media subsidiary does nothing positive to help its corporation sibling at least it will publicize as little as possible anything that hurts them.” []
  2. Solomon Asch, “Group Forces in the Modification and Distortion of Judgments,” in Social Psychology (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1952). 450-501. Asch designed an experiment where a group of people viewed a line on a card and looked for a matching line from a group of three lines on another card — one of which was obviously the right choice. Except for the one subject, all the people in the group were confederates of the experimenter who chose the wrong line. The result: 33.2% percent of the subjects’ agreed incorrectly with majority view. Asch’s experiments pointed to a tendency toward conformity. Charles A. Kiesler and Sara B. Kiesler, Conformity (Don Mills, ON: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1969). Conformity can be: compliance (outward only) or private acceptance (internalized). It is difficult to measure private acceptance using the Asch technique. []
  3. John F. Harris, “Truth, Consequences of Kerry’s ‘Liberal’ Label,” Washington Post, 19 July 2004. Pollster Mark J. Penn said, “You still don’t want to be perceived as ‘liberal,’” which he balanced by adding, “any more than you want to be perceived as ‘right wing.’” []
  4. Peter Berkowitz, ed, Varieties of Progressivism in America (Stanford; Hoover Institution Press, 2004). []
  5. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1776, 1998): 292. []
  6. Warring also wreaks havoc on the aggressors many who suffer the aftermath of living with the consequences of their actions and the decisions of their governments. []
  7. Mark Twain, “The Lowest Animal,” in Letters from the Earth, Bernard Devoto (ed.) (New York: Harper & Row, 1962): 226. []
  8. Quand les riches se font la guerre, ce sont les pauvres qui meurent.” Jean Paul Sartre, Le Diable et le Bon Dieu (1951) Act 2, sc. 3. []
  9. Norman Solomon, “Transforming Four More Years,” Dissident Voice, 10 November 2004. []
  10. Andy Clark, “Full transcript of a special Amsterdam Forum with Noam Chomsky,” Radio Netherlands, 18 December 2005. []
  11. Kim Petersen, “‘Insurgents’: Hermeneutics Are Not a Substitute for Clarity!Dissident Voice, 3 March 2006. []
  12. B.J. Sabri and I laid out our opposition to a knee jerk “support the troops” mantra in Kim Petersen and B.J. Sabri, “American Violence in Iraq: Necrophilia or Savagery?” Dissident Voice.
    Part One: Bully, Cheat, Kill, and Conquer” 15 August 2005.
    Part 2: Is Supporting the Troops, Patriotism, Dementia, or Moral Dissolution?” 27 August 2005.
    Part 3: King Frederick’s and George Bush’s Troops,” 1 September 2005.
    Part 4: Obedience, Defiance, and Conscience,” 14 September 2005.
    Part 5: Creating our own reality,” 19 September 2005. []
  13. The participants at the Halifax Symposium on Media and Disinformation in 2004 unanimously considered:

    1. Disinformation—its creation and propagation—is a crime against humanity and a crime against peace;

    2. Those responsible for the creation, propagation, and orchestration of disinformation campaigns should be indicted for crimes against humanity and peace.

    See Kim Petersen, Disinformation: A Crime Against Humanity and a Crime Against Peace, Press Action, 17 February 2005. []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.