Some hold that we actually do make progress, others that we can make progress and still others that we must make progress. This progressive spectrum from (neo)liberalism over Obama-ism to Extinction Rebellion is jointly attacked by reactionary forces who want to make things great again. The progressive defense against it is weak, specifically because of a tendency to organize circular firing squads over who is truly progressive. In times of actual regress it makes sense to do something (admittedly quite unprogressive): build up our defenses.
So let’s analyze once for all: what does it actually mean to be progressive.
First we have to get something out of the way,. That progressives are a motley crue is by and large to our credit. If there is something we share it is that we appreciate diversity. It is hard to call anything progressive that is uniform(ed). In fact, being progressive is quite the opposite of being uniform. It is to fight against a conservative drive to keep things the same or to defend a status quo (ante, to tellingly complete the formula).
With this first thing out of the way, we actually said all that is to be substantively said on being progressive.
Take the view that we do make progress. It embraces the idea that progress is something that just happens. Maybe like prices find an equilibrium in a free market thanks to some invisible hand. Or that whatever benefit an elite has trickles down to the rest of us. Such view cannot be progressive for the simple reason that it assumes we don’t have to do any fighting. That there is a system, not unlike the current neoliberal status quo, that resolves tensions flowing from diversity automatically. This view is entirely right in the automatic development of diversity but entirely wrong about automatic acceptance of diversity.
Take the view that we must make progress. It embraces the idea that progress is always a product of strife. Maybe like imagining ideal conditions and then meticulously plan from the top down to bring them about. Or that, once in the ideal condition, there are no elites anymore. Such a view cannot be progressive for the simple reason that it assumes we are fighting for an idea. That there is a system, not unlike the idea governing the current way idealists organize, in which tensions flowing from diversity need no longer be resolved. This view is entirely right in that it assumes diversity needs active defending but entirely wrong in thinking diversity will not always challenge any given idea(ls).
Which leaves us with the unpopular idea that being progressive is about thinking we can make progress. Maybe like saying “Yes, we can!” in the face of specific injustices against a specific minority. Or that, given where we are, we need to act to cancel out an oppression against a diversity mistreated in the status quo. Such a view avoids the moral superiority inherent in thinking the idea behind a current or a future system is the ideal to strive for. It embraces that diversity develops naturally alongside the need for the active defense of such diversity against normalizing influences. This view is entirely right in looking at the concrete problems of concrete people without assuming it nows on beforehand the new challenges new diversities will put before us.
It is unpopular with reactionaries, (neo)liberals and activists because it does not refer to any system – past, present or future, respectively – expressing the idea of how things need to be. It knows ideals on ‘how things need to be‘ are always based on ideas of ‘how things were‘ leading to ideologies on ‘how things should be’. Its openness to the future is taken as a weakness because it does not and cannot accept collateral damage. This weakness is its main strength as it recognizes life just goes on and is dedicated to just that: making sure anyone’s life can just go on, without prejudging the kind of life she has to have. As such it is dedicated to letting people be.
Take climate change. It isn’t about saying how we must live or protecting a way in which we do live, it’s just about ensuring we can live. It isn’t because it’s a life-defining moment that it should define life for generations to come. Our challenge is to get beyond climate change so future generations can go on, not to say how they will go on. Unfortunately we left it too late and the weak in the present generation are already impacted. Here as well: let’s maximally focus on letting the weak go on, instead of focusing on saying how they’ll have to go on. Let the strong bear the grunt of the problem.
We created it. It is ours to solve. Let them be.