Can progressives ever stop the in-fighting? - RSA

Can progressives ever stop the in-fighting?


  • Leadership

Occasionally we hear something so compelling it becomes immediately fixed in our memories.

So it was with me a few years ago listening to a friend talk about the growing pains of his teenage daughter: “She went to bed one night the sweet, open, friendly girl we loved; she woke up a swivel-headed Medusa seemingly incapable of reason or generosity”.

My friend spoke from the luxury of his daughter coming out the other side. Indeed, he claimed to be able to pinpoint the return of hope. It was on a visit to an art gallery. The daughter, in referring to an aspect of a painting, had for the first time in 18 months – or so it felt to him – spoken about something other than her own tortured feelings, while also showing a forgotten but apparently sincere interest in her parents’ opinion.

The tragi-comedy of parent-teenager relations came to mind reading various left wing commentators seeking to puncture any progressive pleasure at the victory of Joe Biden. 

Apparently, Biden’s victory was in spite of, not because of, his moderate image. Also, the President elect can’t be trusted because of his complicity in a range of past misdemeanours, including his eager support for neo-liberalism. Anyway, America is so full of racists and so controlled by corporate power that he and his running mate will do little more than offer bogus legitimacy to a crumbling neo-fascist empire.

This stuff makes me want to scream. Is there to be no joy? Is there to be no hope? Is it really stupid and complacent to think for a while about opportunities rather than obstacles? Doesn’t the history of radicals failing to win power and either crashing or compromising when they do, give some pause for thought, some cause for humility, some reason not to make better the enemy of perfect?

Mine is the response of the wounded parent. It may be justified. It is definitely futile. Complaining that the radical left sees compromise as unnecessary, incremental change as cowardice and consensus building as betrayal (and that any of us who don’t agree are idiots or traitors) is like complaining that teenagers are prone to self-absorption, mood swings and disillusionment with their elders.

Once I was radical too. I remember how completely right I thought I was; how I would be driven to bitter rage by the self-serving willingness of careerists to prop-up the status quo.

Just as parents of troublesome teenagers sometimes go to sleep fantasising that their son or daughter will run into their bedroom the next day full of self-awareness, contrition and love, so I will always hope the radical left will one day acknowledge the gains made by moderates or the complexity of policy change. But it will no more spontaneously happen than will my sudden conversion into an anti-capitalist street activist.

Like me, some political people do become more moderate (while a smaller number go the opposite way), but, unlike growing up, this difference isn’t just a phase.

And yet, deep down beneath all the suspicion and hostility, two truths lie hidden.

  • First, that those who genuinely believe in a better, fairer society and the possibility of a step change in human fulfilment are members of the same very broad family.
  • Second, that most moderates still cleave to the ultimate goal of transformation, while most radicals, despite eschewing pragmatism and compromise in their ideology, often demonstrate these virtues in their day-to-day lives.

To be to be a realist you must first be a visionary.

The gulf between radical and moderate progressives has real consequences. It is surely true that the Third Way project of Clinton, Blair and others – despite its genuine gains – not only embraced financial capitalism and lost touch with many working class communities, but in so doing seemed to abandon even the vision of a qualitatively better society.

By relinquished social yearning and solidarity, the strategy of political triangulation and elite accommodation created a space which came to be filled by the populist right. Conversely, just as the Bennite left of the ‘80’s helped drive Labour supporters into the arms of Thatcherism, so the obscurity and unforgiving purism of today’s cultural left risks alienating precisely those people it purports to defend. The American election results show that, even in defeat, it is the right not the left that is widening its social base.

When family units are at loggerheads relief can sometimes come from friendly outsiders. It is the wise uncle, aunt or family friend that helps provide a sense of perspective, challenging both sides of the battle to be more reasonable and even sometimes introducing a desperately needed dash of humour.

In models of deliberative democracy there is an equivalent that could help bring progressives together. Deliberation – by which I mean structured, facilitated and informed processes bringing representative groups of citizens together to consider issues in depth – is equally supported by pragmatists seeking to gain insight and boost legitimacy and radicals hoping to demonstrate the public’s readiness for change.

My reformist enthusiasm for Citizen Assemblies is matched by that of Climate Emergency or radical superstar Yanis Varoufakis (whose new book I am reading).

If factions of the left could use some of the energy they expend on fighting each other to ask citizens how they see things, both enlightenment and no small dose of humility would follow. Technocratic pragmatists would be forced to acknowledge the capacity of ordinary citizens to make fine judgements and support significant change, while radicals might let go of the conviction that uncomfortable public perceptions are merely a reflection of neo-liberal brainwashing. With the world accustomed to Zoom, deliberation can be cheaper and easier to do. 

There is right now a palpable yearning for things to be different. Most people want a world which is more just, more sustainable and more able to offer lives of wellbeing and fulfilment. The high point of populism may have passed. Covid-19 shows what we and (some) of our governments are capable of but also underlines the vital urgency of institutional renewal, multi-level collaboration and long termism, especially in the light of the climate and biodiversity emergency. If progressives waste this opportunity, we will have only ourselves to blame for what becomes of the world and our aspirations for it.

Instead of screaming at each other about who represents the people and their aspirations why don’t we join in asking them?

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