Early progressives rejected Social Darwinism. They sought to address problems their society faced such: as poverty, violence, greed, racism and class warfare. They felt that these could be fixed by providing good education, a safe environment and an efficient workplace. They concentrated on exposing the evils of corporate greed, combating the fear of immigrants and urging Americans to think about what democracy meant. Progressives encouraged Americans to register to vote, fight political corruption and let the voting public decide how issues should best be addressed (the initiative, the referendum and the recall). By any standard, they were the radicals of their day.
For a time, the captains of industry were sincerely frightened of the prospect of a society ruled by commoners, but they could find nothing that would stem the tide of populist sentiment, until Edward Bernays published his famous book “Propaganda”. In Bernays’ work captains of industry found reprieve from an egalitarian society. Bernays was a student of the human mind during an era where more scientific psychologists were debating the significance of cigars.
In this famous work he wrote “Universal literacy was supposed to educate the common man to control his environment. Once he could read and write he would have a mind fit to rule. So ran the democratic doctrine. But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given him rubber stamps, rubber stamps inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man's rubber stamps are the duplicates of millions of others, so that when those millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints. It may seem an exaggeration to say that the American public gets most of its ideas in this wholesale fashion. The mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale is propaganda, in the broad sense of an organized effort to spread a particular belief or doctrine.”
The book was essentially a how to manual for enabling the few to control the many just as they had always done. Oligarchy was saved thanks to Bernays, and the progressive movement went on parroting the actions of it’s founders without giving any real thought to whether or not the world had changed.
But the first principal of any authentic radicalism has to be independence of mind above all other values.
The degree to which you agree with your compatriots or disagree with your perceived enemy, both of whom are the people you share your society with, is not the degree to which you are a progressive or a liberal or a conservative for that matter. By definition liberals value rapid change, and conservatives resist rapid change favoring caution instead. But a forrest fire is a form of rapid change, and a mausoleum changes very little relatively speaking.
Our society can only solve it’s problems when it has the ability to apply critical analysis to every question and to every situation. It’s about being able to see every side of every question and giving due recognition where it’s merited. Any set of ideas, no matter what they are, can become menacing when they are dogmatized to the point of becoming unquestionable articles of faith. When these articles of faith become intertwined with the authority of the state they can become the foundation for yet another tyranny. No matter how righteous a particular crusade may seem if its presumptions are not subject to regular critical scrutiny then they are no longer liberal or conservative but they are totalitarian in nature.
Recently there was an announcement of a website which allows people to publicly claim another person as a racist. Social media has already allowed ‘doxxing’ and other similar ‘branding’ methods. While racism itself is generally distasteful, are we reaching a point in our technological development as a society that we can begin ‘branding’ others who deviate ideologically from the ‘party line’ or group consensus? If an ideology produces a list of ‘sins’ which we shall not not commit, and those whom commit the sin are to be publicly shamed for doing so, then this allows those who shame ‘sinners’ to feel self-righteous. When does this cross the line from acceptable norms and unacceptable behavior into outright puritanism?
A core tenet of a Liberal Democracy is discourse. But when discourse is not advocated, and is instead replaced by puritanical thought policing, then dialogue is no longer possible. A dialogue requires two positions when communicating. Dialogue is immediately shut down as one position is declared a ‘sin’ by the other, it is then condemned and shamed. This is not discourse. This is not a liberal exchange of ideas and thoughts. This is a religious condemnation of what is immediately deemed unacceptable. But this censorship is not a result of the State persecuting those whom deviate ideologically, even though sometimes modern day puritans infiltrate the state for this very purpose. Neither is this censorship a product of the Church burning those at the stake who deviate ideologically as we have seen in the past. Instead, our censorship is a product of the general public, through social media and other means, policing themselves with all the fury and treachery of a ‘secret police’. At what point does our increasingly technological society, each connected to each, begin to become its own Foucault panopticon as it scrutinizes and overtly punishes the non-conforming?
Our society faces complex problems. These problems demand complex analyses and the participation of a large and diverse set of minds working on pieces of each problem. If we leave it to “leaders” to solve our problems for us, then we are doomed to dissapointment. They were never capable of doing that. It doesn’t matter except in terms of degree, whether “leaders” are elected representatives who have acquired power by enlisting the financial participation of a ruling elite, or whether they are outright monarchs or captains of industry. When discourse is shut down, and the common man is no longer part of the decision making process then we have regressed, not progressed.