Words are funny things, slippery and somehow hard to pin down; little moving targets making thought difficult or missiles correctly aimed in order to destroy in far worse ways than the whips and chains of old. Language has always been political; and command over its use and meaning the ultimate prize of those who seek to rule.
Vaclav Havel in his seminal short-book on Eastern European totalitarianism said this: “The post-totalitarian system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance. Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.”
Cue the word “progress”. No word is perhaps more contended today. The dictionary defines progress as “forward or onward movement towards a destination,” or “development towards an improved or more advanced condition”, begging the questions “Which destination?” and what is a “More advanced condition?”
The authors of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) identified their progressive destination as an end to European war and their more advanced condition as the separation of church and state. “…the Treaty of Westphalia acknowledged local rulers of differing degrees of seniority – emperors, kings, princes – as equally sovereign, and at the same time removed a significant portion of the temporal power hitherto enjoyed by the catholic church.” On the political front, that was perhaps the greatest leap forward, “…not so much because it ended one of the greatest and most widespread conflicts seen in Europe prior to the 20th century – it was signed at the conclusion of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 – but because it is supposed to have contained clauses that helped to establish the concept of the nation state, defining what it sometimes known as “Westphalian sovereignty” and setting up what political scientists term ‘the international system’.”
But our system is wearing down a little bit, setting us up for the next debate about ‘progress’; which has been taken over by some who actually propose a regress into spent ideas of control, regulation, permission-seeking – and fear. Cue the “Green New Deal” which is quite actually a very old deal indeed; a regurgitation of a 200 year old economic recipe (Marxism) which has never worked, which can’t work and like Havel said is actually a bait and switch meant to advance that which it claims to oppose. Now to be sure the newer Marxists don’t really want to control the means of production (Vertical chicken cooperatives? Rooftop vegetable gardens? Worker committee meetings late into the night to decide who gets the wayward pencil or can of beans that week? – its all too much work). No, the new Marxists prefer to control those who control the means of production – exerting oppressive influence over their “Managerial Revolution” as they assure that the managers in our overly managed society think the right things, say the right things, do the right things and – most importantly – ostracize from society the ideas that they find offensive, hurtful… Unsafe. Winning a debate is easier when nobody can say anything; a power grab is best accomplished by scaring off your foes before even having to fight them.
So reclaiming that word, what would real progressivism look like? It would seem to me that the next great step in progress, which for those of us who believe that both the “destination” and the “more advanced condition” inherent in the word progress is the right to be free (here I’ll steal from Aristotle, who saw freedom as “to live as one wishes and to rule and be ruled in turn”), is to finish the task we started in Westphalia by finally separating state and economy. Sure, this is scary – just as scary perhaps as the unknown of a Europe 400 years ago released from Church supervision. But what glories await us, when we at last turn the page on the last vestiges of mercantilism and feudalism and free our states from acting in locus forum (in the place of the markets) to do what it is they are best at doing; guaranteeing equality before the law; protecting our commons; keeping us safe; and building a safety net so that those who are most disadvantaged do not slip through the cracks? We should find out!
Now that would be progress!!!