So far, this year seems to have inverted the trend observed in 2016. While last year Brexit and Trump’s election were mainly the outcome of populist messages, this year the Dutch elections saw Geerts Wilders’ PVV arrive only second. And in what has been considered a crucial election for the future of Europe, Marine Le Pen was beaten by Emmanuel Macron.
However, so-called progressives got less than 15 percent of votes in the Netherlands, and just around 25 percent in France. In Britain, recent local elections have been abysmal for the Labour party. And the German SPD has just lost the third state election since Martin Schulz has been nominated as the party’s candidate for chancellor.
These results can be explained in two possible ways. Either parties that identify themselves as progressives are not perceived as such by left-wing voters; or a shrinking part of the population identifies with values such as social justice, green policies and multiculturalism. A combination of the two factors would also be possible.
Whatever explanation we choose, against this backdrop what does it mean to be progressive?
It would be wrong to state that our societies hinder change. Capitalism does not need static, but, as argued already by Marx, dynamic environments. While market transactions were limited to some ambits of society (mainly production of goods), progressives were the only ones to advocate change in some specific areas. Feminist movements were able to challenge patriarchal societies. Socialist movements fought to reduce work time. Pacifist movements protested against wars. And so on.
Subsequently, capitalism, with its market logic, has entered virtually every area of society: healthcare, culture, formation of public opinion, communication, assessment of government policies. The more capitalism has extended its power inside societies, the more it has eroded the monopoly of innovation previously held by progressive movements. The same emphasis on human rights (for instance, the fight against discriminations suffered by minorities), that has always been an important element of progressive agendas, has been used by capitalism to strengthen its legitimacy. Indeed, tolerance and openness to the world have been progressively inserted into the neoliberal agenda.
And the world of “social innovation”, with its ability to meet social needs, is only the most recent acquisition of capitalism. All of this dynamism represents what we could call “change in society”: a set of instruments and solutions aimed at improving our living conditions, or at least of our perception of them, without possibility to challenge the main assumptions of society.
Against this backdrop, progressive forces, in order to regain their influence, cannot limit themselves to advocating change in society, which is done much more efficiently by neoliberal means. They must foster “change of society”. This deals with social assumptions, self-perceptions, aims, perspectives.
Such a task implies, among others, the following priorities.
First, remind people that societies, whatever Lady Thatcher said, do exist. And that authentic freedom is only possible when more than a mere society, a community exists. A community is more than the outcome of a contract. It has a dignity and a life independent from the convenience of individuals. It includes common values, but it also allows a free, rational and constant debate on what is right and wrong. A debate that, as argued by Habermas already in the Sixties, has been progressively monopolised by mass media, and that progressives should get back. Issues such as migrations and security should not be left only to fears and electoral calculations. A mere society will never change itself, while it will allow changes inside itself.
Second, give back to politics its programmatic, ideal, and also pedagogical role. This does not mean to advocate a return to ideologies. It means to have the possibility, for instance, to argue that the role of artificial intelligence in our lives must not necessarily be decided only by economic forces. And this can be done only by avoiding merely economic, quantitative analyses of the issues at hand. While empirical evidence is needed for sound policies, a bad form of positivism makes most think tanks (even progressive ones) suspicious of any radically new idea, as long as it cannot be measured or modelled.Therefore, economic rationality is the only paradigm that is accepted as universal.
Third, give a global dimension to politics, in order to connect individuals beyond their nationality. This is needed to challenge a merely economic globalisation.
Fourth, put an end to the paradigm of “poor abundance” for which social media constantly connect us with the world, but prevent us from reassessing our ideas and even distinguishing ourselves from our opinions; the same “poor abundance” for which a big variety of alternative products does not challenge our role of mere consumers; and polarised, conflicting narratives increase the risk of a merely passive delegation of politics to parties and leaders (either the establishment or populists).
Finally, create new forms of political communication, aimed at highlighting cultural, structural trends of our time. This is very important, in a context where media focus almost exclusively on current news, mostly statements by politicians. So, the question that progressives should ask themselves is: are we ready for a deep change of society, beyond all its superficial changes?
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This post was written by Marco Senatore