Friday, November 17, 2006

Footnote to "What is 'progressive' politics anyway?"

I've been increasingly uncomfortable with the terms "progressive" and "progressivism" over the last few years, and thought I'd share with you all some of the intellectual basis of my discomfort. Following is a quote from a Ward Churchill essay "The New Face of Liberation" which appeared in a book called Acts of Rebellion: The Ward Churchill Reader. The essay was originally given as a talk in 1998:
Most of us here identify ourselves as "progressives", so let's start with the term "progressivism" itself. We don't really have time available to go into this very deeply, but I'll just observe that it comes from the word "progress," and that the progression involved is basically to start with what is already here and carry it forward.

The underlying premise is that the social order we were born into results from the working of "iron laws" of evolution and, however unpalatable, is therefore both necessary and inevitable. By the same token, these same deterministic forces make it equally unavoidable that what we've inherited can and will be improved upon. The task of progressives, having apprehended the nature of the progression, is to use their insights to hurry things along.

This isn't a "liberal" articulation. It's what's been passing itself off as a radical left alternative to the status quo for well over a century. It forms the very core of Marx's notion of historical materialism, as when he observes that feudalism was the social precondition for the emergence of capitalism and that capitalism is itself the essential precondition for what he conceives as socialism. Each historical phases creates the conditions for the next; that's the crux of the progressive proposition.

Now you tell me, how is that fundamentally different from what Bush and Clinton have been advocating? Oh, I see. You want to "move forward" in pursuance of another set of goals and objectives than those espoused by these self-styled "centrists." Alright. I'll accept that as true. Let me also state that I tend to find the goals and objectives advanced by progressives immensely preferable to anything advocated by Bush or Clinton. Fair enough?

However, I must go on to observe that the differences at issue are not fundamental. They are not, as Marx would have put it, of "the base." Instead, they are superstructural. They represent remedies to symptoms rather than causes. In other words, they do not derive from a genuinely radical critique of our situation - remember, radical means to go to the root of any phenomenon in order to understand it - and thus cannot offer a genuinely radical solution. This will remain true regardles of the fervor with which progressive goals and objectives are embraced, or the extremity by which they are pursued. Radicalism and extremism are, after all, not really synonyms.

Maybe I can explain what I'm getting at here by way of indulging in a sort of grand fantasy. Close your eyes for a moment and dream along with me that the current progressive agenda has been realized. Never mind how, let's just dream that it's been fulfilled. Things like racism, sexism, ageism, militarism, classism, and the sorts of corporatism with which we are now afflicted have been abolished. The police have been leashed and the prison-industrial complex dismantled. Income disparities have been eliminated across the board, decent housing and healthcare are available to all, an amply endowed educational system is actually devoted to teaching rather than indoctrinating our children. The whole nine yards.

Sound good? You bet. Nonetheless, there's still a very basic - and I daresay uncomfortable - question which must be posed: In this seemingly rosy scenario, what, exactly, happens to the rights of native peoples? Face it, to envision the progressive transformation of "American society" is to presuppose that "America" - that is, the United States - will continue to exist. And, self-evidently, the existence of the United States is, as it has always been and must always be, predicated first and foremost on the denial of the right of self-determining existence to every indigenous nation within its purported borders.

Absent this denial, the very society progressives seek to transform would never have had a landbase upon wich to constitute itself in any form at all. So, it would have had no resources with whcih to actualize a mode of production, and there would be no basis for arranging or rearranging the relations of production. All the dominoes fall from there, don't they? In effect, the progressive agenda is no less contingent upon the continuing internal colonial domination of indigenous nations than that advocated by Bill Clinton.

Perhaps we can agree to a truism on this score: Insofar as progressivism shares with the status quo a need to maintain the structure of colonial dominance over native peoples, it is at base no more than a variation on a common theme, intrinsically a part of the very order it claims to oppose. As Vine Deloria once observed in a related connection, "these guys just keep right on circling the same old rock while calling it by different names."

Since, for all its liberatory rhetoric and sentiment, even the self-sacrifice of its proponents, progressivism replicates the bedrock relations with indigenous nations marking the present status quo, its agenda can be seen as serving mainly to increase the degree of comfort experienced by those who benefit from such relations. Any such outcome represents a continuation and reinforcement of the existing order, not its repeal. Progressivism is thus one possible means of consummating that which is, not its negation.
Some food for thought as the latest discussion, if you will, on what is or isn't progressivism unfolds at BT and MLW.

1 comment:

Dirk_Star said...

You guys are so kewl!