Thursday, November 14, 2013

Define "Progressive"

There are plenty of those who consider themselves Liberals or even New Democrats yet aren't faintly progressive.   The inescapable fact is that one can't be corporatist and progressive.  The two are mutually exclusive although corporatists will often try to pay lip service to progressivism, every now and then tossing a bone to the plebs.

Progressivism has manifested itself in different forms at different times in response to different conditions.   Knowledge lies at the heart of progressivism which is why it is sometimes thought the Age of Enlightenment was the birthplace of progressivism.   Among its earliest champions were Locke, Voltaire and Newton. Their weapons were reason, logic, skepticism and the scientific method.   These they wielded to gore the forces of tradition, belief and privilege.  The Enlightenment underpinned the U.S. Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Progressivism is forward looking.  It embraces posterity as an integral component of social advancement.  It looks to build a better future for generations to follow.

The dawn of the 20th century saw contemporary progressivism catch fire in the United States in reaction to the stifling concentration of power - economic and political - in the hands of the few.   One of its great champions was Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt.   His powerful restatement of progressivism is contained in his Square Deal speech delivered in August, 1910 at Osawatomie, Kansas.  I read this at least once a year or more often as needed to recalibrate my political-moral compass and I commend that to every progressive.   Here are some excerpts to illustrate what progressivism should mean to us today.

Of that generation of men to whom we owe so much, the man to whom we owe most is, of course, Lincoln. Part of our debt to him is because he forecast our present struggle and saw the way out. He said: —
“I hold that while man exists it is his duty to improve not only his own condition, but to assist in ameliorating mankind.”
And again: —
Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
If that remark was original with me, I should be even more strongly denounced as a Communist agitator than I shall be anyhow. It is Lincoln’s. I am only quoting it; and that is one side; that is the side the capitalist should hear. Now, let the working man hear his side.
“Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. … Nor should this lead to a war upon the owners of property. Property is the fruit of labor; … property is desirable; is a positive good in the world.”
 We cannot afford weakly to blind ourselves to the actual conflict which faces us today. The issue is joined, and we must fight or fail.
In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity. In the struggle for this great end, nations rise from barbarism to civilization, and through it people press forward from one stage of enlightenment to the next. One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege. The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows. That is what you fought for in the Civil War, and that is what we strive for now.
At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth. That is nothing new. 
 ...our government, national and state, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests. Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War, so now the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit. We must drive the special interests out of politics. That is one of our tasks to-day. Every special interest is entitled to justice — full, fair, and complete — and, now, mind you, if there were any attempt by mob-violence to plunder and work harm to the special interest, whatever it may be, that I most dislike, and the wealthy man, whomsoever he may be, for whom I have the greatest contempt, I would fight for him, and you would if you were worth your salt. He should have justice. For every special interest is entitled to justice, but not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office. The Constitution guarantees protection to property, and we must make that promise good. But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation.
The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man’s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being.
There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done.
We must have complete and effective publicity of corporate affairs, so that the people may know beyond peradventure whether the corporations obey the law and whether their management entitles them to the confidence of the public. It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes; it is still more necessary that such laws should be thoroughly enforced. Corporate expenditures for political purposes, and especially such expenditures by public service corporations, have supplied one of the principal sources of corruption in our political affairs.
...I believe that the officers, and, especially, the directors, of corporations should be held personally responsible when any corporation breaks the law.
The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need to is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which it is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise. We grudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity, when exercised with entire regard to the welfare of his fellows. 
No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered — not gambling in stocks, but service rendered. The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective — a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.
...Of conservation I shall speak more at length elsewhere. Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us. I ask nothing of the nation except that it so behave as each farmer here behaves with reference to his own children. That farmer is a poor creature who skins the land and leaves it worthless to his children. The farmer is a good farmer who, having enabled the land to support himself and to provide for the education of his children, leaves it to them a little better than he found it himself. I believe the same thing of a nation.
The right to regulate the use of wealth in the public interest is universally admitted. Let us admit also the right to regulate the terms and conditions of labor, which is the chief element of wealth, directly in the interest of the common good. The fundamental thing to do for every man is to give him a chance to reach a place in which he will make the greatest possible contribution to the public welfare. Understand what I say there. Give him a chance, not push him up if he will not be pushed. Help any man who stumbles; if he lies down, it is a poor job to try to carry him; but if he is a worthy man, try your best to see that he gets a chance to show the worth that is in him. No man can be a good citizen unless he has a wage more than sufficient to cover the bare cost of living, and hours of labor short enough so after his day’s work is done he will have time and energy to bear his share in the management of the community, to help in carrying the general load. We keep countless men from being good citizens by the conditions of life by which we surround them.  
Just over a century ago Teddy Roosevelt spoke of a progressivism that is so badly needed today.  I believe that the principles espoused in his Square Deal would resonate with ordinary Canadians today.   Harper is the corporate grifter denounced by Roosevelt but what of Mulcair and Trudeau, the NDP and the Liberal Party?  What remnants of progressivism are to be found in the ranks of the Opposition?  Damn little as far as I can tell.
They have not shaken themselves free of the corporatist corruption that has infected our politics since the Reagan era.   They mumble and stammer platitudes about inequality but lack the courage to rise in defence of ordinary Canadians and their families.   Who will champion organized labour and collective bargaining, forces so instrumental in the rise of our once vibrant middle class?   Who will challenge the corrosive rise of the FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) economy that, like a weed, chokes out the middle class, corrupts our politics and robs our grandchildren of their future?
Where, among our political leadership, are to be found the men and women who will wrestle inequality in all its crippling aspects - inequality of income, inequality of wealth and inequality of opportunity?   Who will stand for the principle that delivering quality public healthcare and quality public education are the cornerstones for creating equality of opportunity?  Who will explain to the Canadian people that inequality has very little to do with merit or market forces and is primarily the creature of our legislatures through the extension of favouritism and privilege, grants and subsidies, deferrals and tax breaks?
What about climate change?  As I have written so many times, there's not a lot we can do that will make our grandchildren's world free of the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions already in the atmosphere but there's an enormous amount we can do to make their lives far worse than need be.   Who will stand up and say the obvious - that the greatest emitters, both overall and per capita, have the greatest responsibility to act to arrest global warming?   Who will say that it is reprehensible that Canada should be a petro-state built on flogging the costliest, most carbon intensive petroleum on the planet?   Who will have the courage to say that Canada has a responsibility not only to our own but to the entirety of mankind that requires these high-carbon fossil fuels be left safely sequestered in the ground?
Just because your party is not Conservative doesn't mean it is, somehow by default, progressive.  If your party is corporatist, it is not progressive.  If your party doesn't champion progressive principles, it is not progressive.  If your party doesn't support decarbonizing our nation, it's not progressive.  If your party doesn't have genuine proposals to sharply reverse the forces of inequality, it's not progressive.
Progressivism is not going to be restored by attacking the Right.  The future of progressivism rests on powerfully reforming the Centre and the Left, righting the country's political keel, and rehabilitating Canadian democracy.

These are things that will not be given to us without a fight.  Roosevelt summed it up a century ago:

We cannot afford weakly to blind ourselves to the actual conflict which faces us today. The issue is joined, and we must fight or fail.

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