Picking apart ‘progressivism’

Nathan Sparkes’ critique of the liberal-left’s espousal of social mobility last month (6th June) provided a clear and persuasive account of the pitfalls that such an approach encounters. I am in complete agreement that the left is inspired by, and founded upon, the belief that ‘humanity is better off in a more equal and co-operative society’.  Whilst I sympathized with the sentiment and thrust of the piece, there were a number of historical and philosophical complications that I felt uncomfortable with.

The first is what was referred to as ‘genuine equality’. Equality is a notoriously difficult philosophical notion to pin down. Are we talking about equality of resources, of welfare, of capability, of primary goods or something else entirely? Of these, are we promoting absolute equality, priority of the worst off, weighted priority of the worst off or some notion of sufficient equality? Building on the previous two questions, are we saying that we want equality of opportunity, or equality of outcome of whatever thing (or ‘currency’ in the jargon) we wish to equalize?

Each of these options (which can be arranged in pretty much any imaginable permutation) offers various attractions and repulsions. If I understood my namesake correctly, it was absolute equality of resource outcome that was being advanced as ‘genuine equality’. This is certainly one ideal of equality, most famously promoted by Marx and continued by modern Marxist philosophers such as GA Cohen. Whether, however, it constitutes genuine equality is quite another matter.

It is, most certainly, one of the most radically revolutionary conceptions of equality, but it is not one that the British left has often endorsed. Liberal, reformist, and Fabian notions of equality, those of opportunity, but never outcome, inspired Attlee’s celebrated postwar government, that halcyon paradigm of parliamentary leftism. Partly as a result of the nascent Cold War, Labour were careful to position themselves on a separate ideological track from both the continental communists, and worse still, Stalin’s bastardized and debased Marxist-Leninism. Furthermore, Stafford-Cripps’ tenancy in No.11 from 1948 dampened many radical tendencies in the party, much to Nye Bevan’s ire. To say then, that equality of opportunity misses ‘the point of the original progressive-egalitarian movement’, is to homogenize what is heterogeneous, and misconstrue the ideological history of the mainstream left in Britain. To talk about ‘genuine’ equality in historical terms commits ‘the greatest mistake a historian could make’, namely, in the words of W.L. Langer, ‘to construct a neat, logical pattern when in actual fact everything was confusion and contradiction’. The left has always been multifarious, and to select one notion of equality from centuries of history as the true notion, distorts both past and present.

Turning away from history and towards philosophy, there are a number of problems with absolute equality of outcome that encourage us to reconsider this particular conception. Ignoring the hackneyed, though pertinent, problem of incentives (‘people wouldn’t work hard without tangible personal rewards’), there is a more serious objection, that of levelling down. If equality of outcome is desirable intrinsically, then making everyone equally poor achieves this aim, even if everyone is worse off because of it. If we value equality in itself, so the old example runs, we ought to blind everyone so that those born blind are not unfairly disadvantaged. This particular formulation of the argument, traditionally advanced by those on the right, is not especially strong, but it does point to a profound problem with absolute equality of outcome. Those who wish to support such a notion must first negotiate this pressing philosophical problem, before advocating absolute equality as a solution to social disparities.

The final term that I found troubling was ‘progressive’. It has experienced a well-documented revival in recent years, with both segments of the political centre spectrum asserting their claim to it. Demos’ oxymoronically (although the ‘oxy’ might well be left out) named ‘Progressive Conservatism Project’ offers a prime example of the fuzzy and confused misuse of the term. What real meaning does ‘progressive’ have if it can be fostered and adopted by the entire political spectrum? It feels naturally like a term of the left, but it doesn’t seem to me to actually convey a great deal anymore. Why invoke this figurative forward momentum as the left’s call to arms, when the ‘progressive vision’ is nothing more than the old vision of the left? It is perhaps a problem with the left today that too much time is spent advocating social progress, and not enough spent on discovering what this progress entails. This is not to say that I encourage stasis or inaction, especially at the moment, when it’s abundantly clear that the Coalition’s policies are destructive and harmful to equality, however it’s conceived. Still, we must be careful to know what the alternatives are that we propose.

Properly defined, equality of opportunity has a lot to be said for it, and its implications are both far more radical and far-reaching than its current popular usage suggests. The abolishment of independent schools and private healthcare would be a good start for proponents of equality of opportunity, but it could also justify vast, if not absolute, reductions in wealth inequality. Whilst the policies of the left do not live up to the expectations of egalitarians, this does not invalidate the normative basis of their advocacy. Historical quibbles, terminological wrangling and definitional debate might seem trivial in the age of sado-austerity, but political action must be informed by an accurate picture of the ideas that inspire it, lest it become empty rhetoric, lacking the bite that comes only with deep understanding.

Originally published on The Political Society, 11th July 2012