Why I'm No Longer a Progressive

Although I have spent my entire adult life as a progressive, I recently decided to dissociate myself from the movement.  This had nothing to do with progressive values, which I continue to strongly support.  Instead, I realized that our shared values were overwhelmed by our political differences.  To assist others who may be struggling with their allegiance to progressivism, let me explain what I mean.

To understand both the potential and the limitations of progressivism, it is necessary to understand what the movement is really about. Broadly speaking, it's about social progress - the drive towards a fair and prosperous society.  In historically specific terms, it is about resistance to the various types of damage caused by a capitalist economy.  This resistance expressed itself initially as the fight against social injustice: the mistreatment of workers, the ravages of racism and slavery, etc.  Later, when capitalism's devastating impact on the natural world became evident, it expressed itself as environmentalism.  In brief, the essence of progressivism is resistance to the social injustice and environmental destruction that result from a capitalist economy.

This ethical commitment, which is rooted in compassion for humankind and non-human life, is cause for pride.  It does, however, have a significant flip side: it assumes capitalism's continued existence.  Because progressivism was born in opposition to capitalism's abuses, the two have become tightly integrated, and the movement now defines itself almost entirely in the system's terms.  Thus, for example, progressivism doesn't seek to end the capitalist exploitation of workers, but rather to improve the conditions under which this exploitation takes place.  It is a purely defensive movement that lacks the will, theory, strategy, and leadership to overcome the social arrangements it opposes.  In brief, progressivism is capitalism's conscience, not its executioner.

This limitation is serious with respect to social justice, but not fatal.  Assume that capitalism persists for another century and continues to exploit workers and foster social divisions.  In that case people will undoubtedly suffer, but humankind will survive and the struggle for an equitable world may eventually succeed.  The ecological crisis is in an entirely different category.  Another century of environmental degradation will mean the end of complex life on earth.  Achieving sustainability is not a long-term project - it will be done quickly or it will not be done at all.

The urgent, existential nature of the ecological crisis has deep economic and political implications. On the economic front, growth-dependent capitalism must soon be historically superseded. Despite the technophiles, there is no way to reconcile continuously expanding economic activities with viable ecosystems.  Politically, the obstacles to this supersession must be courageously acknowledged.  It is clear, for instance, that a capitalist society is ruled not by the populace through its government, but by the capitalist class through its state.  Government has a role in developing policies and laws, but to believe that it constitutes a country's ruling power is to subscribe to the democratic illusion.  [For more on this topic, see my Political Primer.]

Many progressives now recognize that capitalism plays a central role in ecological decline, and some have called for its replacement.  However, I have not found anyone who candidly addresses the brutal facts of capitalist power.  Leading lights such as Gus Speth, Jerry Mander, and Naomi Klein profoundly mystify the system's political nature in order to avoid the painful but unavoidable question: how can the ruling class be either replaced or reconstituted so as to transform an expansionary capitalist economy into a sustainable economy? If you think I'm being too harsh, try reading Klein's recent book with this question in mind.

The avoidance of political reality has resulted in some troubling statements by progressive leaders. Greenpeace head Kumi Naidoo recently said in an interview that, "... if we're brutally honest, we're losing the war and losing the planet."  His response to this looming catastrophe was that, "we're going to up our efforts."  This is patently absurd.  Why assume, after more than four decades of self-admitted failure to preserve the biosphere, that your approach is correct?  Why not initiate a thorough strategic review to determine if the political obstacles to fundamental change have been misconceived?

In a similar vein, Gus Speth has said that, “A specter is haunting American environmentalism - the specter of failure ... the prospect of a ruined planet is now very real.”  His solutions?  A government-imposed price on carbon, a "new economy", and an "inclusive political system".  Unfortunately the first of these assumes that government has sufficient power to act meaningfully on carbon pricing, which in most cases is false. And the last two are arm-waving platitudes, without strategic content.

I'm no longer a progressive because I have lost faith in the movement's capacity to confront capitalist power and to initiate the economic transformation that is essential to the biosphere's survival.  However, this does not imply either that progressivism is without worth, or that you should leave as well.  To make this clear, let me define some terms.  "Shallow justice" means justice that is attainable under capitalism, whereas "deep justice" means justice that transcends the system's social relations. "Buy-time reforms" refers to environmental reforms that postpone the day of ecological reckoning.

What progressivism CAN achieve are shallow justice and buy-time reforms.  What it CANNOT achieve are deep justice and sustainability.  If your aims are restricted to what the movement can accomplish, you should stay - your contributions will be valuable.  But if your ambitions go beyond the progressive ambit, particularly in the environmental field, I urge you to join me in the icy waters of independent thought and action.  You'll probably lose a few friends, but you could end up as one of the true saviors of our precious living world.

Frank Rotering
November, 2014
Minor edits: August, 2015; August, 2019