Tuesday, May 13, 2014

In Search of Progressive Politics

'Progressives' are supposed to be political dinosaurs, popular a century ago but wiped out of public memory since then. Indeed, there were great progressives on both sides of the Atlantic: Teddy Roosevelt was one of the original ones, though he chose to become mainstream before becoming President. One could count the late Nineteenth Century English Liberals as somewhat equivalent, perhaps best represented in the figure of Herbert Asquith, the longest serving Prime Minister of the UK (1908 - 1916) before Margaret Thatcher broke his record. Indeed, since Asquith's departure, progressivism has declined, not unsurprisingly given the formation of Soviet Union in 1919 and various extreme forms of politics thereafter. The power of the broadcast media divided the politics into pro-state and pro-market, and left little of the Progressive ideal of harmonious Public-Private world. 

I argued that the current rise of the illiberal politics, from India to the United States, is the result of the reign of the broadcast media, but also perhaps its last stand. (See the post here) There is a real danger now that we may be hurtling towards a global crisis, perhaps a global conflict, as confidently as Europe sleepwalked into it a hundred years ago. The connectedness of global capital didn't save us last time (though everyone expected it to, just as we do now), but the conflict went out of hand too quickly because of the illiberal politics. 

But one does not have to be pessimistic to believe in progressive politics; rather, one could be optimistic and feel that we can lift ourselves beyond all these divisiveness and get some humanity and compassion back into action. There is no quarrel with classical economics - Adam Smith's invisible hand indeed needed the guiding spirit of compassion and a moral state - and we can harness the creative destruction in the right way around, more creation and less destruction. 

Can this be a sound political strategy? One could point to the success of the campaigns based on fear, blame and hatred and say that this inclusive, compassionate rhetoric is only good on paper and of no use as a political message. But then, we are still following the broadcast paradigm, where, to be heard, one often has to be nasty. Indeed, we have carried the mindset to the Internet age and broadcast messages one-to-one fine-tuned to the fears of groups or even families, with great success. However, this is still not the talk-back politics, when leadership will be defined by listening and not talking to. One would hope this would give in to, in time, socio-structured politics of some kind, where granular one-to-one conversations will sum up into a many-to-many orchestra, forcing upon us a politics of listening. Such grassroots movements may already be emerging, though, so far, the mechanics of broadcast politics got better of it, forcing them into an illiberal, intolerant dynamic. But, as with everything, technology changes the game and it will change politics too. We can be optimistic and believe that this will eventually make progressivism, with its creed of tolerance and harmony, non-dialectical coexistence of markets and morals, fashionable again.

But why does it to have to necessarily go that way? I have an optimistic reason, and a pessimistic reason, for such hope. First, the optimistic one: Human beings always found a way out. As we enter the Second Machine Age, creativity and synthesis is our way out. However, we can't be creative while we are struggling: All the theories of adrenalin rush spurring creativity have been proved to be wrong. Rather, we need to feel safe, supported, among friends - to be at our most creative. And, therefore, the progressive world of hope and harmony will create the best atmosphere to be creative. Besides, synthetic worldview does not arise out of thinking in terms of conflict; and when we are doing synthesis, we can get harmony too. So, we just become more capable of progressive thinking, and it makes sense for all of us - that's the optimistic reason why progressive politics will be the next big thing.

The pessimistic reason is that we are still enthralled by the unparallelled growth and prosperity we have enjoyed for last seventy years and got used to it: But the next seventy may turn out to be very different. We may not return to the dark ages and may not have to fight world wars, but we have to get used to deceleration of growth. Our political ideals, including the current extreme rhetoric, are all built around the idea of economic growth: We need to think differently, perhaps more compassionately, to live with this new reality. As we may hit the limits of growth, perhaps imposed upon us by the climactic constraints, we have to come to accept that lack of growth is no one's fault, and we just have to live with a little less, constrain our desires a little more. For this, the progressives may indeed have the best answer.

Indeed, such a politics still remain without its manifesto, parties and leaders. But such a message is emerging: Read Steven Johnson's Future Perfect, Mariana Mazzucato's The Entrepreneurial State, Sudhakar Ram's The Connected Age or Marina Gorbis' The Nature of the Future, and you will see a doctrine emerging, a demand for a new kind of capitalism, which mixes the entrepreneurial energies with compassion, going beyond selfishness and consumerism, as well as grand schemes of social engineering. The politicians may not be listening to these voices, but it seems a matter of time that they enter the mainstream.


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