How to be a Nonlinear Progressive

In the most basic sense, to be a progressive is to believe that human beings are capable of progress. For example, if you believe that human beings can be “civilized”, live in “civilizations”, and are not entirely subject to the animal nature of primates, then you may be a progressive. But progression implies a linear movement. We progress from point A to point B along some path and the very idea of a path, suggests we are moving toward a destination. Somewhere we believe we can go. To be a progressive then is to have an idea in mind and strive to achieve it.

If you’re anything like me this notion seems to fit most human projects, but not humanity itself. There is no ideal human just as there is no human ideal. I take an existentialist bent on this idea of progress. We exist first, then we decide on what it means to exist. If this is the case, then we struggle to understand progress. How can we progress toward a better civilization–a better us–if starting places and destinations are impossible. Perhaps, I’ve gone too fast here. Perhaps civilization is one of those human projects and not really substantive of humanity itself. We should ask, does society shape our being? Unfortunately for “progress”, I think it must. The society we are born into will dictate many parts of our being. It will set the bounds of our potential, our understanding–both of ourselves and the world around us. It will form our reason, our logic, even our imagination. Whether we are wealthy or poor, white skinned or black skinned, Hindu or Jewish, Midwestern or Tujia, an anglophone or francophone, highly educated or illiterate or aliterate or one of thousands of more distinctions, our civilization will have great impact on the meaning you make of your life, even on your physical existence.

If society shapes us, as I suggest, then the project of progressing toward an ideal state of existence seems doomed. There seems to be no ideal state to progress toward, only suggested states. One person’s Utopia is very likely some other person’s living hell, and vice versa. The problem with progress, however, is not that we have no ideal state of existence, but that we have too many. We have utopias aplenty. The idealists of the world all have their own utopia, and guess what so do the realists! Everyone has a vision of the right way to act, the right way to think, the right way to be, and when they imagine that vision as dominate in a society, they imagine utopia. More radically still, each and every one of them has the right utopia. The Nazi and the Israeli both have utopian ideals, as much as the capitalist and the Marxist, the pastor and the scientist, the technophile and the Luddite, and they are all right; all of them. Right for them alone, anyhow. What we really are interested in then is a shared Utopia, not an iconoclastic one.

But of course, a single shared vision of society cannot move in all directions at once without tearing itself apart. And while I have argued elsewhere sometimes tearing society apart is what is best for everyone involved, many times the situation is not so drastic. If an idea can be settled on, then we can mark progress toward or regress away from it. Say you were an American just before the advent of the Civil War. You would likely have an opinion of slavery, and that opinion would likely be shaped by the then important social distinction of living either north or south of the Mason-Dixon line. If you grew up north, you were most likely an abolitionist, especially after the attack on Fort Sumter, while if you grew up south, you were most likely pro-slavery. Depending on your side then, progress looked different. The issue could only be settled by force, the vision of who and what America is, was what was at stake. The battles were all real enough, even if the war was really over ideas. That one side won set the standard for progress but had the other side won, the idea of progress would have been the same, just reversed.

Libertarian philosophy offers us no outs here. There is no way to settle such disputes except war and compulsion. Libertarianism is a subjugated political philosophy; one dependent on the unity of the political order. It cannot give us our rights or guide our morals in discord or disagreement. It has no way of settling issues of rights or membership but only of recognition of member’s rights, taken as given. Libertarian socialism, on the other hand, does not necessarily place the individual as sovereign and recognizes the importance of group unity as the primary question of politics. 

The question for libertarian socialists is “can we have progress that doesn’t look for any final end?” If there is no ultimate telos or end of history if each end is maybe just another beginning, is there really progress? I think so. Let’s look at the swinging pendulum of politics in the United States. Every four years or so, the country lurches right or left. A miserable back and forth that almost everyone hates and almost everyone blames their opponents for. This oscillation is not merely an effect of systems of election or the American political architecture, although these contribute to it, no doubt. It is really the effect of a shared ideal with two radically different paths to its attainment. The ideal is prosperity. The paths are social and individual, and those come with an entire host of corresponding belief systems making it virtually impossible for either to see the other’s perspective. Progress has hung up again over economic prosperity, just like it did over slavery.

But the stakes seem much lower this time. Slavery is fundamental state of being that brings with it different laws for different people, hierarchies based exclusively on permanent attributes outside of one’s control, and even a difference in the very humanity of some individuals. Our modern hang up is more like a difference of opinion about the shortest route to the airport. It most likely will not take a civil war to figure this one out. However, it will take some serious philosophic and political effort. What is important for us is that the lower stakes stem from the real fact that both “paths” are sometimes right. Unlike with slavery, this is not something we really want to be decided once and for all: we want to sometimes emphasize individual effort and sometimes emphasize social securities, and nothing says we can’t do both. In this case, progress is possible, but it must be nonlinear or plural.

Nonlinear progress feels strange, like being able to move forwards or backwards and still be going the right way. The strange sensation is cleared up at once if we realize that “moving” is the wrong metaphor to be using here for our idea of progress. We should be thinking of progress as adapting. In this metaphor, the situation changes and we change with it. What is wisdom one minute is folly the next and vice versa. More like putting on a coat or taking it off depending on how the temperature fluctuates.

I think of this in terms of a social version of Aristotle’s ethics. Aristotle didn’t have a universally right answer for every situation. In fact, he disavowed the very idea that one could have a single right answer. But neither did he argue that any action was as good as any other. A virtue must be identified before an action can be judged as in accordance with its approach to that virtue. Aristotle focused on the pragmatic task of adapting the self to the situation in this way. More of this or that action is called for, depending on two things: who you are–or more specifically what you’re capable of–and what situation you find yourself in. Perhaps it’s the time to stand up and fight your enemies or perhaps it’s time to run like hell. To know if you should stay and fight or head for the hills you need to know your abilities and exactly what you’re up against. The goal then, according to Aristotle, is to find the sweet-spot in the middle of the two options. To not be foolhardy or cowardly but appropriately brave. If the situation changes, a revaluation must also take place.

If the target is always moving then our aim ought to be also. There is no time when utopia will be reached and we can sit back, kick up our heels, and rest on our laurels. It’s just not the way the world works. Utopia is not a place, it’s a process, and progress is actively processing. Seen this way, we only stop progressing when we get hung up. Like now. Dangerous gridlocks, like over slavery, or prolonged squabbles are equally progress-halting. The goal of progressives then is to build bridges, level obstacles, and keep the ball rolling. This doesn’t mean giving up on pushing the ball the direction you believe it should go, but it does mean demanding of yourself that you have to give the other side it’s due and equally demanding that they give you yours. We all fail when the ball stops moving, and it takes so little to give in some, compromise a bit, and roll in a new way.

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