Sunday, June 13, 2021

“Scene-missing” Progressivism

Progressivism has great strategic and rhetorical power, and recurring intellectual patterns, yet institutions it dominates tend to decay.

Progressivism, in all its forms, justifies itself, both as a system of belief and in its rhetoric, by its commitment to a golden, transformative future. This is an enormous rhetorical advantage, as the imagined future can be much more morally grand than any actual existing present or past, with all the trade-offs, inconsistencies and failures anything that actually exists must entail.

It is commonly held by progressives that that very commitment to the golden, transformative future, free of whatever sins or evils a particular form of progressivism focuses on, is itself morally ennobling. This is, of course, very self-flattering. But it also strategically useful, as it is a great way to hide, both from themselves and from others, strategic behaviour for their own benefit. Something we humans are very good at doing.

Strategising status
It is much easier to pursue shared interests if such interests can be paraded as, and bundled within, a noble cause while those with different interests and concerns can be portrayed as motivated by malign, or otherwise morally reprehensible, interests or concerns. A sense of one’s own righteousness can be an excellent cover for self-interest. Especially if it is used to block awkward information.

The commitment to the golden, transformative future that is the hallmark of progressivism is typically taken to be so ennobling, that no serious dissent from the golden intent is regarded as legitimate. Claiming to be motivated by inherently ennobling concerns is a potentially powerful prestige-and-dominance strategy.

The ostentatious moral concern provides a path to prestige, but only if dissent from the commitment to the golden, transformative future, and it attendant claims about the world, lacks prestige. Indeed, the more dissent is taken to involve negative-prestige (i.e. moral shame or malice) the more prestigious is the ostentatious moral concern.

Conversely, if alternative views are legitimate, there is far less prestige to be had from taking any particular position. There is thus strong pressures and motives to pass off the attendant beliefs of progressivism as being what the smart and good people believe. So, if you dissent, you are clearly either not smart, not good, or neither smart nor good.

The delegitimisation of dissent from the noble progressive concerns then provides a path to dominance: to destroying the reputation, career, standing, the ability to participate in public discourse, of others because they are clearly morally shameful or malevolent in failing to embrace the intent that flows from embracing the golden, transformative future. All of which makes it easier to increase the standing of, and resources flows and opportunities to, people like you.

Progressivism, with its belief in the morally ennobling nature of the commitment to the golden, transformative future, is thus naturally inclined to become the mutual worship of the splendour in progressive heads. A highly motivating conjunction of cognitive identity, a sense of belonging, a sense of status, and a sense of purpose and meaning, all wrapped up in said mutual worship of the splendour in their heads. With, in contemporary society, much of institutional (and social) media operating to intensify these effects.

For much of the institutional media has become organised around both following the status strategy themselves and in playing to the status strategy in others. Hence the pushing of various media narratives as establishing what good (and smart) people believe. And, of course, who to despise and reject. Which is the other side of status strategies. Journalists within institutional media have increasingly become frightened of what the reactions of other journalists would be if they publicly departed from what has become the “proper” opinions.

We are a group-living, pair-bonding species. So we tend to have very strong status drives as well as concern for reputation. The status benefits, and rhetorical advantages, of progressivism have clear motivational power. Especially if they get reinforced by mutual signalling. Fear of being cast out if one dissents from any views that status strategies, and cognitive identities, embrace is another motivator to avoid dissenting.

Heroic narratives
We are narrative beings. We seek to be the heroes of our own life narratives. Each form of progressivism offers precisely such a heroic narrative. One both grand (so psychically inflating) and shared (so mutually reinforcing). For what can be more grand than transforming society, transforming human possibilities, transforming the global order?

But a heroic narrative naturally also entails allocation of villainy. The more wicked the villains, and the pervasive the villainy, the more heroic opposing them is. This is why “fascist!” and “Nazi!” are so commonly part of progressivist rhetoric, for it makes their moral heroism all the grander (above all to themselves). It both manifests, and intensifies, their heroic life narratives.

Hence also the emotional and relational aggression which is so much a part of progressivism. It is as if they are looking for reasons to despise millions of their fellow citizens. As, of course, they are. Hence the characteristic public emotions of progressivism, ranging from smug condescension (to all those not as good and clever as them) to vicious hatred. Such pervasive emotional aggression then generates among others submission (to avoid being subject to it) and counter-aggression (in defensive reaction).

Any process of polarisation, any forming of in-groups and out-groups, will have tribalised emotional aggression attached to it. The expanding progressive domination of the cultural commanding heights gives the emotional aggression of progressivism a great deal of institutional power and rather stronger patina of (pseudo-)sophisticated intellectual justification and cover.

Emancipation movements
Pausing here, we need to distinguish progressivism, the belief in the golden, transformative future, from the sequence of emancipation movements that has unfolded across the last two centuries or so: the abolition of slavery, Catholic Emancipation, Jewish Emancipation, adult male suffrage, votes for women, the civil rights movement, the expansion of women’s rights, queer emancipation. While progressives were somewhat involved in some of the above movements, none of these movements were primarily driven by progressivism. They were not based on creating some golden, transformative future but instead sought inclusion in what already was. They sought a common moral status, a common civil status, based on a common humanity. They also represented, in the context of falling communication and transport costs and rising mass prosperity, the widening of participation in political bargaining that reaches deep into the history of Latin Christendom that was, Western Civilisation that it became.

Contemporary progressives claim ownership of these movements. That is a case of having tickets on themselves without historical justification. A way of burnishing the splendour in their heads by a bit of historical hijacking. Meanwhile, contemporary progressivism is seeking to overturn the basic claim and aim of these emancipation movements in seeking inclusion in a common moral and civil identity, especially as pushed by the civil rights movement, by denying a common moral status and a common civil identity and attacking the notion thereof.

Contemporary progressivism has become very much about judging people by the colour of their skin, as a mainstay of the dominant, convenient and available, progressive status strategy. A status strategy originally developed in academe. Notably via Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality. Which are themselves offshoots of Critical Theory.

Critical theory, by embracing the notion that the failure of working class to fulfil the revolutionary role that Marxist theory presumed for said working class demonstrated the cognitive delinquency (“false consciousness”) of the working class, as distinct from the clear vision and superior intent of the critical theorists, intensified the progressive, heroic narrative, status strategy already inherent in Marxism.

Progressivism as academic catnip
Academics are particularly prone to progressivism, especially the more their output is ideas and the weaker that empirical feedback is within their discipline. Academics operate in very status-conscious and reputation-concerned milieus. They typically have little experience of running anything except other academics. They seek status thorough their ideas. Their identity is typically wrapped up in being folk-who-know.

The ennobling nature of commitment to the golden future, especially if it can be tied to theory that signals knowing-insider status, is thus inherently prone to appeal to academics and intellectuals. Hence the enduring appeal of Marxism (despite its track record of being the ideology of regimes of tyrannical mass murder) within the academy. But progressivism in general has become a default presumption in much of academe. One sign of this is that voting centre-left is treated in much academic output as unproblematic but voting centre-right is regularly analysed as displaying some of moral or cognitive delinquency (racism, xenophobia, authoritarianism, etc.).

There has been a long process of evolution within academe, and the graduate-employing advocacy economy, to optimise the various status strategies of contemporary progressivism. To cultivate, and intensify, a sense of the splendour in progressive heads. To find the most resonant heroic narratives and patterns of emotional and relational aggression. This includes constructing academic literatures to support and legitimate such status strategies and narratives. (What has been nicely labeled as ideas laundering.) They have evolved heroic-narrative status strategies that require remarkably little in the way effort, still less genuine achievement, to adopt and prosecute but can be used against folk of genuine human achievement remarkably effectively.

The demand for blank slate conceptions of the human
The mutual worship of the splendour in progressive heads, the progressive, heroic narrative status strategy, leads very naturally to particular patterns of ideas. The first is an attraction towards a blank slate notion of human nature. If human nature is a constraint, then there are limits to how wonderful the golden, transformative future, commitment to which is so ennobling, can be.

Worse, the imperfect trade-offs of present and past may actually have good reasons to operate the way they do, given the constraints of human nature. This undermines or limits any progressive critique of such trade-offs. The more limited the possibilities of the golden future, the more legitimate past and present social arrangements are, the less splendidly the golden future shines and the more legitimate are contrary perspectives. So, the more committed one is to splendour of the golden future, the more hostile one will be do notions of constraining human nature and the more committed one will be to blank slate conceptions of the human.*

Of course, commitment to blank slate notions of human nature involves rejection of evolutionary biology. Evolved beings are not blank slates. Indeed, we could not be so good at learning if we humans were blank slates. But plenty of folk have been, and are, willing to reject evolutionary biology. After all, the debate between radical feminists and trans activists is a debate between those who think evolution does not apply from the neck up (gender is entirely socially constructed) and those who do not think it applies from the neck down (gender is innate but not body-determined: so we can have women with penises and transwomen are as much women as ciswomen).

Tomboys, sissies and gay folk are gender-dysphoric (they feel alienated from common gender presumptions). Trans folk are sex-dysphoric (they feel alienated from their biological sex). Confusing gender-dysphoria with what we should call sex-dysphoria, but don’t, is proving a recipe for much, potentially disastrous, confusion. Just as calling transsexuals transgender also seriously muddies understanding. But the conflating of sex with gender arises out of blank slate notions of human nature.

Problems of nature
The mutual worship of the ennobling golden, transformative future, the heroic narrative progressive status strategy, also inclines progressives to discount the problems of simply dealing with nature, the problems of achieving subsistence and of creating wealth. If dealing with nature generates constraints, that once again limits how golden the golden, transformative future can be. It also risks giving existing arrangements stronger justifications while strengthening reasons to be sceptical about the golden, transformative future and the commitment to the same.

Hence the tendency of a great deal of progressive thought to just skip over the problems of wrestling with nature and creating wealth and treat the issue as merely being one of intent. If enough resources are concentrated in the hands of people with strong enough commitment to the right intentions, then all will be fine. The disasters of the Great Leap Forward in Mao’s China are a particularly intense manifestation of this wider pattern. Scepticism, on practical grounds, about whether such resources+intent arrangements will work as well as claimed are repeatedly treated as being hostility to the intent, to the noble motives, behind the commitment to the golden, transformative future and so are treated as illegitimate.

Marx’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen) is the most famous and resonant manifestation of such hand-waving evasion of the hard issues.**

The economic calculation problem is one manifestation of inherent problems of wrestling with nature. The problem being that markets provide ways of dealing with information on a scale that no central planning system can hope to successfully replicate. The experience of command economies proved correct the economic calculation critique of socialist claims that the state could do it all. Hence command economies resorted (openly or corruptly or both) to market mechanisms to keep going, eventually openly evolving into market economies. Though not without much death and suffering on the way through. Including various collectivisation and terror famines.

There are effective, thoroughly collective, economies in nature. Ants and other eusocial insects can do collective economies efficiently as they are hormonally directed within a stable technology, with relatively simple patterns of discovery and action, and most of the nest or hive is not seeking to invest in genetic replication via their own offspring. Sterile workers and soldiers have no evolutionary strategy (as they do not replicate). They are offshoots of the evolutionary strategy expressed through the queen. None of these features apply to human societies. Especially not to human societies that aspire to any level of technological or other innovative dynamism. Biologist E. O. Wilson was correct when he said of Communism, great idea, wrong species.

Problems of order
The final element of the evasion troika that the mutual worship of the ennobling golden, transformative future in progressive heads inclines progressives towards is profoundly discounting the problems of creating and maintaining social order; any social order.

The problems of order extend well beyond the economic calculation problem, beyond accessing and creating resources and wealth. Human aggression is innate. We (generally) learn not to be aggressive, but that does not always take. Hence the problems of crime; of protecting life, person and property.

Human children are very biologically expensive to raise. We have never found a system superior for the flourishing of children to being raised by one’s biological parents. And so on.

Yet progressives regularly talk as if there is no inherent problem of information, incentives, public order, family structure. As long as folk with the right intent apply resources in the right way, it will all be fine. Defund the police becomes a natural narrative, if there are no inherent problems of social order. Regardless of how much homicide deaths increase.

Scene missing
Film-maker Mike Nayna likes to point out that progressive ideology has what he calls a “scene missing” problem. There is the critique of what is. There is the extolling of what should be. But when it comes to explaining in detail how we get from where we are to that golden, transformative future, there is a blank. There is a scene missing in progressive political narratives.

We can see all these not-grappling-with-the-awkward, “scene missing” problems in The Communist Manifesto, as is nicely set out here. But this “scene missing” problem, this evasion of explaining the transition with any analytical seriousness, is pervasive in progressive thought.

For here is the difficulty. If one was going to set out in detail how to get from what currently is to the golden future, what would one have to grapple with? The constraints of human nature, the constraints of wrestling value from nature, the constraints of creating and maintaining order. But, if you did that, it might turn out the golden, transformative future is not attainable. Which would have the confronting implication that the progressive status-strategy, the cognitive identity, the sense of meaning and purpose are all misplaced. Perhaps disastrously so.

Hence, scene missing. Hence, the hand-waving evasions. Hence the rhetorical constructions used to cover analytical vacuity: white supremacy, structural racism, dictatorship of the proletariat, false consciousness … With critical social justice (“woke”) progressivism pushing the mad notions that society is all just structures of oppression, structures of power, inherently pervaded by racism, with no problems of order, social functionality, wrestling with nature or human nature driving what has evolved.

Progressivism is forever generating the social science equivalents of phlogiston [or, rather, luminiferous aether]. Analytically empty concepts without seriously analytical or empirical validity to cover the gaping holes where serious wrestling with the genuine problems that every single human society ever has had to wrestle with should be in progressive thought, but isn’t.

But such absence has been proving to be a huge rhetorical advantage. If the problems of human nature, of wrestling with nature, of maintaining social order are ruled out of consideration, there is no place to stand against the rhetorical power of commitment to the golden, transfornative future, of righteous intent. For that future can be as morally perfect as convenient and its perfection ennobles the ostentatious intent to march towards it. The intent to bring it about becomes rhetorical trumps. Any disagreement is an attack on the noble intent to do better.

Maximising contempt for what is, and what has been achieved through history, maximises the moral glow of the golden, transformative future. Talking endlessly about the sins of Western civilisation, and sneering at any notion of it having achievements, serves the golden, transformative future status-strategy very well. This is what the process of selecting for the most effective status strategy has strongly tended to produce. Of course, if you cannot acknowledge, or even recognise, achievement then you are very unlikely to build anything genuinely favourable to human flourishing. If you characterise success as vice, you are likely to build a great deal of failure.

Institutions decaying
Hence anything that progressivism (i.e., thorough Leftism) dominates eventually goes bad. Because human nature does impose constraints, as does wresting subsistence and wealth from nature, as does creating and sustaining social order while the golden, transformative future status-strategy, with its contempt for what is or has been, blocks genuinely learning from the rich tapestry of human experience.***

If you are not prepared to face the problems of human nature, of wrestling with nature, of social order seriously, if you treat dissent as illegitimate, if you close yourself off from discovery processes to protect your status strategy, your cognitive identity, your sense of meaning and purpose, your shared heroic narrative, then anything that folk like you dominate will become dysfunctional, with no response to the dysfunction except to double down on the ennobling worship of the golden, transformative future. That way lies massive losses in human well-being.

With enough mutual worship of the golden, transformative future splendour-in-progressive-heads, any amount of tyranny, mass murder and mass death is possible. As we have seen again and again.

For the moment, we are seeing a spreading pattern of progressive-led dysfunction in contemporary Western societies. Such as the collapse in productivity and quality of school systems, a collapse obscured by the growth of use of private tutors. (See examples here, here, here and a book length discussion here.) Such as the decay of the academy into increasingly fearful conformity. Such as the decay of institutional media. Such as the decline of comics, film, television. And so on.

Yet the current version of the progressive status strategy, arising out of the critical constructivism of critical theory and its derivatives, continues to go from strength to strength. Democracies seem to be unable to deal with systematic institutional capture by the progressive status strategy parading as righteousness. There may be a great deal of destruction of human well-being yet to come.

Added Notes

*Alternatively, one can seek to remake human beings so that they suit the golden, transformative future. That ways lies mass killings and, potentially, eugenic engineering of the population.

**The notion that profit is return to labour that labour does not receive also represents (and justifies) waving away the hard questions of wrestling with nature.

***The commitment to the ennobling golden, transformative future also encourages progressives to adopt historical narratives that feed the sense of the splendour in their heads. Mythic history, setting up the right notions of historical villainy (and progressive moral heroism) is regularly generated and adopted. Such history is typically not much interested in the genuine complexities of the past. Then again, progressives are often not much interested in inconvenient complexities of the present either.

[Cross-posted from Medium.]


  1. "Progressivism is forever generating the social science equivalents of phlogiston."

    That's unjust to phlogiston theory. There was solid empirical evidence for phlogiston; what Lavoiser's experiments showed was that it had negative weight - or rather, that combustion adds mass, rather than removing it.

    A better analogy to the empty concepts of progressive thought would be the luminiferous aether, which was postulated only because the physicists thought light, as a wave, had to exist in some medium.

    1. Thank you, that is very useful to know. I will update my future use of the metaphor.

    2. An even better choice is Ptolemy's epicycles, invented only because the motions of heavenly bodies "had to" be circular. (Though I doubt that Ptolemy himself thought his orbits and epicycles actually existed; he may well have regarded them as just a device for calculation.)