What is a 'progressive'? - RSA

Blog: What is a 'progressive'?

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  • Institutional reform
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The word progressive has been doing so much rhetorical work lately that it’s worth asking what it means. Like many, I feel fond of the term, and have come to identify with it, but recently I noticed that being progressive gives me no felt sense of coherence, motivation or belonging, and this realisation bothered me. When the concepts you reach for to make sense of your life start to feel meaningless, it is time to re-examine them.tiny_Twitter

Nicola Sturgeon marshals ‘progressive’ with singular conviction, and says it with hard earned authority. Her popularity in the run up to the election meant that her interviews sometimes sounded like public rituals of reciprocal definition: who is Nicola? A progressive. What is a progressive? Nicola. Nationalist you say? Not so much. Progressive. Define or be defined.

The Green Party’s Natalie Bennett and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood gathered some of this progressive star dust and used the term to differentiate themselves from Labour, but now that dismembered party reaches for ‘progressive’ as conceptual ointment for electoral wounds; “help shape Britain’s progressive future”, they say. And it’s not just about ‘the left’, as is often assumed. Nick Clegg argued the Lib Dems were the “new progressives” in his 2010 Hugo Young lecture, and a Demos report in 2009 argued that “Conservative means can serve Progressive ends.” Finally, after winning just a single seat from over four million votes in the General Election, even UKIP want to lead “a progressive coalition” on electoral reform.

They are all at it. Being progressive in the UK looks less like a marker of political identity than an admission of political promiscuity in a country of ideological swingers. What’s going on?

The BBC recently made a diligent attempt to try explain the term, but concluded that “the ordinary voter could be forgiven for being a bit confused.” A dictionary definition or etymological excavation won’t get us far because political language is notoriously protean, but clearly a belief in progress is fundamental to the notion.

Surely everybody believes in progress? Well, no. Philosopher John Gray is probably the most persuasive contemporary voice for a long history of (mostly conservative) political thought that argues progress may not extend beyond the scientific and the technological:

“The myth is that the progress achieved in science and technology can occur in ethics, politics or, more simply, civilisation. The myth is that the advances made in civilisation can be the basis for a continuing, cumulative improvement.”   

Gray’s point is not that we never make progress. Wars end in peace. Billions escape poverty. Literacy spreads. Beautiful works of art are created. Emancipation seems inexorable. But such gains are extremely fragile, and often offset by losses elsewhere. The global economy appears to be stable and growing, then the financial crash and recession happens. Nations meet their climate change targets, but global emissions continue to rise. We think we’ve stopped torturing people, but pictures from Abu Ghraib emerge. We have long since abolished state sanctioned slavery, but de-facto economic slavery remains ubiquitous. We hope world wars are a thing of the past, but nuclear bombs are built, terrorism spreads and ISIS cut people’s heads off, using technological progress to amplify their barbarism. The progress of civilisation is not a given. There is a case for not believing in it.

But if being a progressive means anything, it means having political hope.tiny_Twitter Progress may not be constant, linear or easy, but a progressive believes things can get better, and that such progress can be ‘continuing and cumulative’ in Gray’s terms. The world is better on balance now than it was 100 years ago, says the progressive, and though challenges are legion, bit by bit we can make it still better a hundred years from now.

But such progress won’t happen if we don’t try. In this sense progressives are defined by being pro-active. They would take issue with Michael Oakeshott’s idea that thinking our way to societal solutions is somehow hubristic. Established institutions should be given some benefit of the doubt, but they still have to prove their worth. There is great wisdom in the House of Lords, and perhaps even in the idea of an unelected second chamber, but that doesn’t mean we can’t replace it with something much better. Being progressive means you are not content to let things to unfold, trusting in providence. You feel you have some responsibility for changing the world.tiny_Twitter

And it goes beyond that, because while all politicians want ‘change’ of some kind, progressivism is about more than incremental tinkering. Political hope is grounded in visions of wholesale transformation and renewal – not merely change, but changing the way things change. Progressives seek new social, political and economic structures, rather than just trying to optimise outcomes on the basis of existing ones. That’s why constitutional and electoral reform is a defining aspect of most progressive policy platforms; if all the axioms and algorithms are the same, you’ll keep making the same mistakes.

Progressive imagination is premised on worlds with safe and sound ecologies, which all but the greener elements take for granted too often. But most progressive visions feature societies that are above all more equal; in opportunity, outcome, and ideally both. To be progressive is to place a high value on sharing the bounties of life on principle, but also for morale and collective dignity. Progressive taxation is appropriately named in this sense, but several decades of political and economic learning mean we know we cannot rely on this instrument alone.

Political writer and RSA colleague Anthony Painter says the minimal conditions for being a progressive are being liberal and social democratic. That translates as a commitment to individual rights and a belief in the value of a mixed economy. This framing explains why being progressive has been defined largely through being ‘anti-austerity’ in recent months. Fighting major cuts to public expenditure is grounded in a recognition that such services are necessary to mitigate against the inequalities of opportunity built in to the market, and that losing them often undermines individual rights and freedoms.

Being a progressive therefore means not being a neoliberal, who valorises the market and deeply distrusts government, caring only for aggregate wealth in abstraction and not the imbalances of power and inequalities in welfare that result. Progressives believe governments have an important role to play in redressing the unfairness and negative externalities of markets, but the state is only part of the story. More generally they tend to be animated by all the other freedoms of association and expression that democracy affords.

Less obviously, being a progressive means not being a communitarian. While many progressives value solidarity and often campaign in solidaristic ways, enhancing individual autonomy remains a central objective. They may be fighting for class interests or the common good of particular communities, yes, but usually because of the life chances of individuals that depend upon them. When people on the right say ‘progressive’ is just a socially acceptable term for ‘socialist’, they overlook that a qualified respect for individual freedom and markets are legitimate points of divergence.

Progressives can freely acknowledge that capitalism is by far the best way to generate wealth, but should be just as resolute in arguing that it’s a terrible way to distribute and channel it. In all cases being progressive looks like a middle way; the desired economy is neither unfettered capitalism nor old fashioned socialism, and the desired society is neither painfully atomised nor stiflingly communal. 

It’s no surprise then that in terms of the conventional political spectrum, ‘progressive’ can meaningfully apply to everything from the relatively innovative and compassionate end of 'one nation conservatism', through all the Liberal Democrat tribes, past most forms of civic nationalism, beyond the greens, all the way to the soft centres of the hard left. In fact it looks like a centrist political project. Who would have thought that being a progressive means being a conformist?tiny_Twitter

But we have forgotten something. Beyond sharing an egalitarian disposition and an emphasis on social justice, progressives can and do differ in how they give content to the idea of progress. It is here that there is great scope to be radical. Although it is sometimes pictured as an arrow pointing left, being progressive is arguably a way of not being left wing or right wing.tiny_Twitter Progressivism questions the validity of a political spectrum that views the state as the central actor and thereby relegates other major aspects of political life, for instance movement building, networks, values, agency, media, finance, technology, ecology. 

There are many forks in the road at this point. Perhaps we need a deeper engagement with the way technology determines political and economic outcomes, inspired by Jaron Lanier’s increasingly pivotal question: who owns information? You might want to believe in green growth, but unless you can tell a credible story of absolute decoupling of growth from emissions with sufficient speed to safeguard our habitat, the key question might be making post-growth economics work. If you think nothing happens without relationships, and that the requisite changes will come from forging new forms of networks, try Compass. If you feel we need to democratise the experience, expression and rewards of creativity, try the RSA. All these progressive stories are relevant and there are many other stories to be told. There are also those witty unknown unknowns, who will no doubt soon change the agenda.

A progressive then, is somebody who believes in progress, fuelled by political hope and informed by a vision of democratic renewal and reduced inequality. The kind of progressive you are is mostly about what gives you that experience of political hope. 

Speaking personally, my political hope comes from the Gandhian ideal of trying to be the change we want to see in the world. This particular aspiration does not seem to me to be optional, which means the progressive challenge is to spread the kinds of human experience that we most value, including the experiences of meaning, development, and direction, forged and expressed through our social and political engagement.

There is a glimpse of this emphasis in the political theorist Roberto Unger’s lucid answer to the question at hand in his Radio 4 analysis interview: “A progressive is someone who wants to see society reorganised, part by part and step by step, so that ordinary men and women have a better chance to live to a larger life.”

A larger life is good lodestar for progress. It refers to “a life of greater scope, greater capability and greater intensity” and that’s not so difficult to comprehend. We can all do and be more, with growing aptitude and wisdom, and experience life more fully and deeply as a result. Of course that means we all need to have a place to live, work to do, and the education and time we need to do it, but crucially those things are the socio-economic means to the experiential ends that ultimately matter.

I therefore think it’s time for progressives to speak about experience as such, in the explicit and evocative terms we need to cut through ambient distraction – the language, for instance, of the deepest currents of life; love, death, self and soul. When Russell Brand said the problem is primarily spiritual and secondarily political it was a minor tragedy for progressive thought that this timeless message was subsumed by its messenger.

Whenever there is uneasiness with language, progressives should remind themselves of Richard Rorty’s contention that "a talent for speaking differently, rather than arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change".tiny_Twitter If progressivism is to be more than political conformity masquerading as radicalism, and if we are to convincingly argue against the likes of John Gray, we need to find the courage to speak differently, not least about the spiritual content in the idea of progress.

As author of a recent report on reimagining spirituality I know this emphasis is vague and awkward for many, but that’s the point; we need to reclaim ownership of the language of the spiritual to reconnect personal transformation and political transformation. Some of the most famous political progressives of all time - Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela - are defined precisely by the spiritual content of their political commitment. Their struggles and victories show that this confluence of spiritual and political is not about quietism but about activism. You come to know who you are, and what matters most in life, through your efforts to bring about the world you want to live in.

As Unger puts it in The Self Awakened: “If spirit is a name for the resistant and transcending faculties of the agent, we can spiritualise society. We can diminish the distance between who we are and what we find outside of ourselves.”

Diminish the distance between who we are and what we find outside of ourselves. Who would have thought we’d end up with this challenge when we asked what it means to be a progressive? But now that we’re here, what’s stopping us?

Originally published at Open Democracy.


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  • Thanks Ryan- that's a heartening comment. I feel lucky to have the time and license to think and write about such things and it's good to know you found it helpful.


  • I really enjoyed reading this. I have for some time been interested in the definition and debate around what progressive politics is. As a teacher by day, I don't have the time for the deep reading or to commit thoughts to writing, so reading this was wonderful as it opens up a number of avenues of thinking. I like to hope that as a teacher, beneath all the process, I am involved with some notion of social progress. As a political activist I also like to hope that I am contributing to people being able to lead a better (larger) life. I particularly like the end of the piece which discusses the links to spirituality. A very interesting piece, thank you.

  • I really enjoyed reading this fantastic piece. The nature of progress and of what is means to be progressive has been at the back of my mind for some time. As a teacher by day I haven't had the time to commit to the depth of reading or putting thoughts to paper.  This post has given me much food for thought though. In particular I like the focus on optimism and I also like the point that progressive needn't mean statist or centralist. I am also intrigued by the ending which begins to discuss the spiritual dimension of progressive thought and action. As a teacher I like to hope that, when all the process is stripped away, that I am ultimately involved in a progressive act in some way. As a political activist, I also like to hope that I am contributing to people having a better (larger) life. I know that this post will help move my thinking on this in new directions.