2007 - 2021

What is a progressive?

hand1The 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.

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, if not mercifully, 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. 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.

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

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?

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. 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”. 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 be 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 by 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?

Comments (16)

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  1. Kevin Williamson says:

    What you call yourself is of little importance: its what you do that counts.


    1. Kevin Williamson says:

      That was probably a bit too curt reply for such a long thoughtful essay but dont know any other way to get round the eternal problem of those on the progressive/left etc debating over the terminology on how they describe themselves, and in the process other others.


    2. Frank says:

      I’m not sure about that at all. What you ‘do’ is important but you also need to think about wider political narratives and power relations and inevitably this strays into the territory of political labelling. I know many people who ‘do good’ things; volunteer for charities, help out at Foodbanks, and they are genuinely nice folk, but their politics are utterly reactionary.

      The idea, I think it was expressed in this article, that you can’t be a neo-liberal and be progressive is problematic. Take the SNP for example. They espouse social justice but they seldom question the neo-liberal structure of society. That doesn’t mean their commitment to social justice is not sincere, I believe it is, but there is a disjuncture between their social policies and economic policies. Jim and Margaret Cuthbert, referred to the SNP as ‘neo-liberal but with a heart’; the ‘heart’, could be described as progressive.

      1. Kimberley Cadden says:

        I think its clear they SNP are a social democratic party – not neoliberal – which is evident not least their commitment to universalism, their strict tax avoidance laws, their stance against further privatisation of public services (as well as some renationalisation) and obviously that they are an anti-austerity party.

        1. Frank says:

          Kimberly on your earlier point that it’s clear the SNP are a ‘social democratic’ party, I find this assertion problematic. I’m not sure they are either ‘social democratic’ or ‘neo-liberal’ but contain contradictory policy positions. These positions are a reflection of contradictions in wider society and not in how the SNP labels itself. And whilst there have been many SNP policies I welcome, there has been no substantial redistribution of wealth under the SNP whilst public ownership of gas and electricity is seldom mentioned. In local government, the SNP has presided over a pernicious culture of managerialism and at the same time has contracted services out to both the private and voluntary sector – the latter because the voluntary or third sector can provide services cheaper. I’m not sure this chimes with social democracy as I understand it. Again, I am not saying they are ‘neo-liberal’ only highlighting that the ‘social democratic’ label is fraught with problems. Perhaps we are living in a post ideological age?

          1. Kimberley Cadden says:

            Hi Frank – I understand what you are saying – my main contention though is that neoliberalism is an extreme; if we take capitalism to be defined simply as ‘an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state’, and neoliberalism as the ideology that an ultra free market, deregulated banking system, max privatisation, minimal state (and one which only runs occassional deficits) and low taxation is what’s best for economies and citizens (even though it really just shifts more wealth and power to the elite – and as Jonathan said with little to no regard for the effects on power inequality and welfare), we can see there is a very big difference between the two, with neoliberalism being much more than just capitalism.

            Then if we look at social democracy (to be clear I mean the ‘nordic model’ modern european type – not democratic socialism) with its defining characteristics of capitalism, egalitarianism, big on gender equality and human rights, universality of welfare and wealth redistribution; again this is very different to neoliberalism.

            For me it seems very clear based on these definitions that the SNP are social democrats. They are capitalists but not in the neoliberal sense – as in they are not pro an ultra free market (not just in the sense of privatisation but also in terms of their position on TTIP and fracking – i.e. we are not open for business in the sense that corporations can completely dictate and run roughshod over us). They are not pro max privatisation, nor pro a minimal deficit averse state, nor indeed pro low taxation (whilst the first and second points are obvious i need to add here regarding the third that in addition to supporting a 50p UK tax rate they are also in favour of a bankers bonus tax, mansion tax, abolition of non dom status, an increase to the bank levy as well as tighter UK tax avoidance laws and a rolling review of tax reliefs). They simply support the free market when it comes to trade and industry, and in addition to favouring the renationalisation of the post office (and i think railways) if we get indy, they also support reduction of energy bills proposing ESO be paid via tax not bills; they are big on all forms of equality and actually have taken the steps Oxfam recommends for tackling wealth inequality that they have the powers for such as topping up benefits (as well as helping the poorest make their homes more energy efficient) and the implementation of strict tax avoidance laws (again in addition to what they have argued for at UK level including upping welfare payments, reviewing sanctions and increasing the work allowance). The only thing they could do with the powers they have that they haven’t yet that has the potential to redistribute wealth in any serious way is a land value tax (although they have rightly cut tax breaks to estates and frozen council tax) but a lvt is still something very much on the peripheral of mainstream debate although I hope that changes because it would be a great tax to implement imo. And of course they practice universalism which is the cornerstone of their welfare, health and education policies and this has even been in the face of staunch criticism and low public support at times (although looks like the public have largely come around).

            There are parties like the Tories who embody neoliberalism completely, and then there are parties like Labour who in their approach to the banking system, welfare and the economy (especially in their submission to economically illiterate, austerity, surplus-obsessed, economics) embody much of the ideology of neoliberalism and have done for a long time, and diverged only in terms of retaining some progressive taxes (like the 50p rate, bankers bonus, mansion etc) although they have now abandoned those policies and become even stricter on welfare and the act of shrinking the state so it seems now they are fully fledged neoliberals….

            So this is my understanding – I think its necessary to see policies in light of the ideology and purpose underpinning them – for example not all privatisation is the same or done for the same reasons; indeed all the private contracting I know of that the SG does is a necessity, not a preference.

            Anyway I am sure you know a lot of this and actually also may disagree with much of what i say but I wanted to give a full response because its an important area and there really are very big differences there and I think we fail to see them then we fail to see much of the good in what we have.

  2. douglas clark says:

    I would suggest that the author of this piece reads Iain M Banks for a complete and utter refutation of his ‘notes on a darkening island’

    For instance:

    “it was a minor tragedy for progressive thought that this timeless message was subsumed by its messenger.” Referring to Russell Brand.


    We have to accept spirituality to be accepted as progressive?

    Personally I am in favour of O’Neill habitats at La Grange points and spreading out thoughout the solar system.

    Now that, is progressive.

    It is also unlikely.

  3. Maggie Mellon says:

    Not sure at all why the question is asked or why it needed to take so long to ask it and answer it?
    I would rather be asked what we can do to support people in Greece and prepare for hell to come visiting here.

  4. Kimberley Cadden says:

    I love this; yes it’s clear that there are values we can identify in defining what is it to be progressive, as well as a certain orientation, world view and radicalism – even when the shape these eventually take when it comes to how we act in the world can be very different depending on our own analyses and reflections; but this essay for me is pointing to the deeper aspect of what this is, or at least what this can be….

    For me the word ‘spiritual’ is a term referring to the practice of deepening awareness – I am a zen practitioner so this is my context. What Jonathan has said here is a reminder for me of the radicalism of the deep abiding commitment to doing our best to find the best way forward in the circumstances we are in, choosing this over egoic structures, offering rather than taking. The deeper I look the more I both find and rest in a compassion (that isn’t mine but equally isn’t apart) that both seeks and in itself forms this commitment.

    When our politics is intrinsically linked with what it means for us to be deeply authentic to who and what we are, best as we can see, feel and understand this (moment by moment), the meaning of being progressive gradually becomes the meaning of being fully and radically ourselves, and thus its a place of congruence that too is brimming with transformation…..within all this there can still be times of near despair, but because being a progressive has ceased to become about ends in themselves but rather about fully playing our part of a much bigger picture, there’s a quiet underlying refuge that knows what we have to offer, when its offered with an open and authentic heart, is always enough, and that what matters is that we continue the activity itself…..

    Thanks for the essay Jonathan – thoroughly enjoyed it!

    1. Frank says:

      Kirsty, this is in response to your earlier posting which I can’t seem to reply to. My point is that it’s difficult to have an ‘ideal type’, in this instance, social democracy, and then look to apply this ideal type to the complexities of a modern political party like the SNP. You rightly point out that the SNP contain many progressive policies, but again we could equally find policies which are ‘problematic’. If political parties are in perpetual opposition then the politics of ideal types are straightforward, but any encounter with government as an ‘activity’ makes ideological pigeonholing problematic, in this case social democracy. You highlight this point yourself when you write, ‘indeed all the private contracting I know of that the SG does is a necessity, not a preference’. This is an interesting observation, which means that the SNP are potentially embroiled in neo-liberal relationships ‘independent of their will’. Are the SNP ‘reluctant neo-liberals’? I think this is actually more problematic and for me, neo-liberalism, rather than something ‘done to people’ by sinister forces is instead a complex set of social relationships involving resistance, yes, but also co-option.

      Thanks for your interesting reply; apologies for my scatter gun approach in this reply, but I hope it adds to the discussion.

      1. Kimberley Cadden says:

        Can I just clarify here that privatisation doesn’t equal neoliberalism; the point i made regarding the SG needing to privatise was simply about the fact that they contract out based on need not ideology – so its another example of how they are social democrats and not neoliberals that they privatise in the ways they do for the reasons they do. I think you may be confusing capitalism and neoliberalism.

        I don’t really think in terms of types but when it comes to ideology i see this as the core of what underpins party policy and this to me usually seems quite clear (although admittedly its hard to keep up with Labour at the moment); and there is a very sharp difference in my view between the ideologies of social democracy and neoliberalism and for me its not problematic at all to describe the SNP as social democrats as they are almost a poster party for this ideology in terms of policy and actions in government, just like the tories and increasingly labour are for neoliberalism – and we should remember they are both capitalist ideologies – just very different kinds……

        1. Frank says:

          In my mind there is sometimes a confusion between neo-liberalism and capitalism and the two are often used interchangeably, but conceptually I do understand the difference. But, who knows maybe it’s an informed confusion? You note that ‘Privatisation does not equal neo-liberalism’; well it depends what you are privatising? Certainly the privatisation of energy, telecommunications, railways, etc, constituted the first wave of the neo-liberal revolution. You say that the SNP contract out based on ‘need’ not ideology. But whose needs defines this process; workers, service users, shareholders; surely there is ‘conflict’ in this analysis. They certainly don’t support public ownership of Scotland’s bus service; perhaps Brian Soutar’s ‘needs’ are more important than ideology on this one? And where do you draw the line between what should be privatised and what should not. You say the SNP are the ‘poster party’ of social democracy? Interesting observation. Where do they stand on re-distribution of wealth or public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, or NATO membership, on the repeal of anti-trades union laws? In local government, SNP councillors have voted through draconian cuts and in some instances have been responsible for contracting out services to the third sector or arms at length executive organisations, including care for the elderly. My own authority (Midlothian) had a huge campaign to stop an SNP council closing community centres, libraries, swimming pools and leisure centres, many in deprived working class communities. In addition to this, SNP councillors have presided over charging the elderly for telecare; I could go on but you get the point. We also shouldn’t forget the pernicious culture of managerialism in the public sector which the SNP have done little to challenge. Again, I am not saying the SNP are 100% neo-liberal because that too would be inaccurate; I’m merely pointing out that the social democratic label is problematic especially for a party trying to govern in a neo-liberal sea.

  5. voline says:

    Warning: ambitious careerists may now be disguised as “progressives.”

    –  Graffito from Paris, May 1968

  6. Davy says:

    Are we more than flesh and blood ?
    What is the spirit-uality of human spirit and community spirit ?
    Thinking of these kind of questions I put together a few bits and pieces here –

  7. Iain More says:

    Well the Greens failed the test this week by voting with the Tories to shaft Scotland. Hello to the Green Tories.

  8. Frank says:

    The Green councillor in Midlothian has voted for the following:

    33% cut to the voluntary sector; includes job losses and loss of frontline services.
    Cuts to local youth projects.
    Increased the cost of telecare for the elderly – it used to be free.
    Supported closure of community centres, libraries, a swimming pool and a leisure centre.
    Voted through a re-structuring of the Council which has led to hundreds of jobs being lost.

    I should qualify the above comments by saying that it has always struck me as bizarre that this Councillor is in the Greens and I do have a lot of respect for people like Patrick Harvie, Maggie Chapman and the MSP whose name currently escapes me.

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