Critiquing Progressivism from the Left?

It will be no secret to the readers of this blog that I have strong sympathies for libertarianism and other positions usually called "small-government conservative." At the same time, I'm becoming more and more convinced that the libertarian Right is running up against serious limits to its ability to reach out to new voters. These limits are why the Progressive Left has has such electoral success, managing to build a durable coalition of 45%+ of voters even while people are becoming more and more angry with the corporatist big-business/government nexus. (Indeed, the progressives have gotten away with making populist calls against Wall Street, even while pursuing policies meant to favor Wall Street as the handmaiden of government!)

Let me explain. Modern libertarianism came of age during the struggle against Communism and socialism. As such, it took on certain characteristic attitudes in opposition to those of Communism. The Reds preached the virtues of sacrificing for the collective; therefore, libertarianism developed a focus on "rugged individualism" and the virtues of greed. (This partly reflects the influence of Ayn Rand, who was hostile to all forms of collectivism.)

The problem here is that credos such as "greed is good" run counter to the experience and beliefs of a lot of people. Furthermore, most religious or philosophical traditions explicitly attack greed as a corrosive vice, and selfishness as the expression of hatred toward your fellow. Followers of these traditions believe that altruism and charity is the truly good life, and the libertarian program is harmful to the human spirit. Libertarians will argue that greed and selfishness can actually embody a second-order altruism, but many people are congenitally predisposed to doubt them.

Yet opposing tyrannical government need not require embracing greed, or rejecting all collectives. Some followers of the Catholic Church, for example, advocate a political economy called distributism, which focuses on the role of worker collectives as opposed to the domination of rich capitalists and governments both. More to the point, there are some political traditions on the Left that are hostile to the grand corporatist project of the state that has become the conventional wisdom among the Progressive Left. The tradition of Left-anarchism has many followers today; Jane Jacobs remains hugely influential, and you can find anti-statist attitudes among such movements as the Maker Movement and the like. The important thing is that you needn't be an individualist to be anti-Progressive.

But it is hard to perceive this, when the Progressives have so thoroughly dominated the Left that "progressive" is now used as a synonym for "all that is right and good." In part because of the wholesale libertarian rejection of collectives and embrace of entrepreneurialism as the highest expression of human creativity, the Progressive movement has managed to portray itself as the defender of communities, charity, solidarity, workers' rights, art, and lots of other things that people find appealing and meaningful. This is a tragedy; the good news is, it is also a sham and a deceit.

Progressive government—that is, corporatist government—inexorably destroys communities and families. It attenuates the bonds between people, replacing them with bonds between a single person and the all-powerful State. To truly defend the human spirit, in accordance with the highest ideals of the Left, must mean to crush Progressive/corporatist power structures and replace them with human bonds between people.

The libertarian movement sometimes makes references in this direction, noting Tocqueville's admiration for the (now-attenuated) American impulse toward private, local associations instead of relying on government. But because of the libertarian embrace of individualism, they lack some of the vocabulary necessary to truly build alternatives to government that require organizing people in society, to take on some of the functions that governments claim to provide. At best, libertarians hope that private industry will step in. But that does not work in all cases, and besides, many voters find such visions unacceptable.

It is for these voters that a new approach must be developed. The next stage of the campaign against Progressive Corporatism must come from within the Left: a populist blend of Left-Anarchism and "doing what works" (as the grand Progressive projects have consistently failed, over and over again, and only persist because the Left has been colonized by Progressivism).

To give a simple example: Our present educational system is an industrial process, stamping out compliant factory drones well-suited for a 19th-century economy, or a 20th-century totalitarian society. (See here for details, among other places.) The anarchist Left despises modern schooling, as they and all good people should. A political platform based on Left-Anarchism could attack modern Progressive education in terms that would nevertheless resonate with the half of the voting public whose sympathies lean Left. In this way, a coalition of interest can perhaps form between the small-government Right and the anarchist Left to reform our education, to the benefit of everyone.

To advance the cause of freedom from Progressive Corporatism, we must reach beyond the Right. If we do not rebuild the tradition of Anarchism, and reclaim the Left from the colonization of the Progressives, we will never be able to reach out to half of the country. I think the next great battlefield of this conflict is for the soul of the Left.