Unless you watch the news and read the mainstream newspapers, one would think that capitalism and progressivism do not go together. Rather, the two are oppositional to each other, with the “progressives” as a bunch of anti-capitalist Marxists and socialists. Of course, actual Marxists and socialists, as well as political philosophers, know better than this. Furthermore, it would be a shock to most that conservatism, genuine conservatism that is (e.g. not the “conservatism” that gets floated by the American Republican Party or British Conservative Party despite the name), was actually deeply anti-capitalist in its early formation. As Marxist literary critic Frederic Jameson openly admitted all the way back in 1979, “It is first commonplace in Marxist historiography that the first critique of the world of nascent capitalism come from the Right.” Progressivism, by contrast, is not anti-capitalist but intrinsically indebted to capitalism and simply seeks to reform capitalism through managerialism since progressivism is the logical political theory of capitalism, industry, and science working together to create a more equitable world.
The first thing to understand about Progressivism is that it is a very unique species that grew out of liberalism. To some, progressivism is the logical fulfillment of classical liberal thought: (1) progress out of the state of nature embeds liberalism with an inherently optimistic and idealistic consciousness of history – the inevitable march to “progress” (whatever progress means), (2) property, consumerism, and wealth acquisition seems to push us toward some kind of capitalism and consumerism as the goal and meaning of not just human life and existence, but also the purpose of politics (after all, Locke very explicitly states this is the purpose of the social contract in his Second Treatise on Government), and (3) through the social contract and establishment of a new public orthodoxy, humans can achieve the mastery and transformation of nature and civil society into whatever they seek. This is also possible because humans are basically machines (per La Mettrie) with blank slates (per Locke) and can be molded, or “programmed,” to become what the social contract desires of us to be. The other view as to why progressivism is an outgrowth of liberalism is because if liberalism is understood as the philosophy of modernity: the scientific and industrial conquest of nature by man and the remaking of nature to bring about the “relief of man’s estate,” then progressivism is the modernist iteration of this idea in a now globalized and urban world.
Most historians and philosophers, contrary to the “progressive” media and self-declared progressives of today, know that progressivism and capitalism went hand-in-glove during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Capitalism and urban society was seen as the “next wave of progress.” From the German Historical School of Economics, influenced by a twin commitment to economism and an economized reading of Hegelianism, the conclusion was that History was unfolding and revealing itself to confirm that materialistic economics was the explanation for human life, society, and social organization. (Of course, this view was challenged most famously by Friedrich Nietzsche as a form of nihilism leading to the insect-like civilization of “last men.”) In fact, the eminent historian Gabriel Kolko wrote an entire book on the reappraisal of the progressive era as the capitalist upper class coming into collusion with political elites to form the groundworks of the American national capitalist economic structure we live with today, which later served as inspiration for future “progressive” movements to construct the international global order we have today. Again contrary to historically illiterate Americans, no serious historian has ever considered the progressive era a triumph of “socialism” or the infiltration of Marxist thought into American political-economy thinking.
Nature, community, and humanity, then, needed to be shaped to conform to the new, urban, industrial, and capitalist society. This is what constituted “progress.” Contrary to most people, Marxists did not support the establishment of social welfare institutions and systems, and neither did they support the growing movement that would later be called “social democracy.” At the Second International, which produced the famous division between “revisionists” and “anti-revisionists,” the anti-revisionists (e.g. orthodox Marxists) condemned social welfarism and revisionist Marxism (social democracy) as just an alternative form of liberalism and economism. Revisionism and social democracy, admittedly, were more continental phenomena than Anglosphere ones. This is because of the liberal divide between Anglo-liberalism (rooted in Hobbes, Locke, and Smith that put more emphasis on individual producers and consumers), and Spinoza and his interpreters, as well as Kant, that produced continental liberalism had a stronger impetus on the organic whole (thus giving continental liberalism a quasi-communitarian collectivism to it). Even the eminent historian of the Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel, credits Spinoza with the “radical Enlightenment” (whereas Locke and company are the “moderate Enlightenment”) and laying the formation of contemporary social democracy. And lo and behold, Marxists from 100 years ago were already aware of this: condemning the “benign” social democratic welfarism as “reform capitalism” and that social welfare ultimately will come to suppress class consciousness and therefore erode the possibility of class struggle and revolution.
This is still with us today in progressivism: Progressives speak of the system not working for us, specifically the middle-class and working-class, but they do not fundamentally seek a new system despite their language, they want to reform the system. Progressivism cannot be separated from the fact that it is a class conscious movement in its own right: the upper-middle class bourgeoisie in particular. Progressivism aimed at the union of the upper-middle bourgeoisie and the working-class, not because progressives genuinely cared about the working-class, but because the working-class needed some bones to be fed in order to be kept content and not revolt. Again, most historians and philosophers know this is the real backdrop and foundation to progressive thought. It’s really about “getting capitalism to work” because capitalism is the end of history. True Marxists and revolutionary socialists are not interested in injecting pain killers to the working-class, whether this be through religion, social welfare, or charity. Instead, the plight and alienation of the working-class continues to the point of the internationalization of the proletariat consciousness, leading to their unity across gender, racial, and national boundaries, and rising up against the atomizing and oppressive force that is liberal capitalism.
The problem with progressivism is that it made the mistake of thinking the turn of the century urban, industrial-based, capitalism was the end of history. Think about all the talk from progressives about New Deals, Fair Deals, Wall Street and banking regulations, of “fair trade” (which is still arranged “free trade”), and a general new welfarism, along with the general focus on the working-class, laborers, unions, and other groups in society that are, correctly identified, suffering, but the goal is the alleviate that suffering through greater material consumption and acquisition from a benign force “enfranchising” them into the system that slowly sublates them in other ways. But progress is never static and continually modernizing.
The division in liberalism between the so-called neoliberals (the modernists), the classical liberals (the reactionaries), and the progressives (also reactionary in their own right), comes down to how these movements understand the Idea of Progress that is inherent to liberalism. All three agree that urban capitalism and economism is the basis of politics, human life, and existence. They disagree with their relationship to that Idea of Progress. To that end, they also disagree as to the nature of the end of dialectical progression.
Classical liberals are the least interested in the Idea of Progress as it stands in the 21st century, even if they were the fathers of that idea back in the 17th century. Classical liberals are also the least intellectual and aware of their own tradition, failing to see how Locke’s producerism and consumerism, as I explained in this essay “Liberalism and the Economic Man,” necessarily leads to a slow-growing Leviathan. Basically, classical liberals are just ignorant liberals despite however they try to dress themselves. A greater State with greater power and centralization is needed to promote capitalism, economic growth, and “expand individual rights.” That was the bedrock principles of classical liberalism to begin with. But these classical liberals can only see what is good and bad for individual property owners and producers.
Neoliberals, in a certain sense, are the truest embodiment of liberalism. They are universalists and globalists, which is logically necessitated by the metaphysical monism and monistic materialism grounded in liberal thought. They are also modernists with regard to the Idea of Progress. History didn’t end in 1945. It continued, and History is revealing itself to be moving toward what philosopher and legal historian Philip Bobbitt calls “the market state”: a globalized, integrated, networked system of global capitalism that unites large cities on all the major coasts, as well as the large in-land cities and centers of economic and political power with each other. Neoliberals continue to see the dialectical unfolding of History and seek to advance it and conform to it. After all, liberty in dialectical post-Hegelian philosophy is alignment with the dialectic. Being on the so-called “right side of history.” Which is to say to be on the side of unfolding history.
The self-declared progressives are nothing more than post-New Deal and post-Second World War liberals. They see the end of history model as the strong armed, centralized, technocratic, benign welfare capitalism that was established in full between 1945-1960. It is a labor-oriented capitalism with a strong role for the welfare state. It is hardly radical, socialist (in any meaningful and traditional way or definition), and certainly not even remotely close to being Marxist. Despite the likes of Bernie Sanders describing himself as a socialist, he is but a welfare capitalist, which makes him a liberal – as Noam Chomsky has said of him, he’s an old fashioned New Deal Democrat. Although, at the same time, the progressives of the Sanders stripe have a weird conservatism (philosophically speaking) with regard to their focus on laboring classes, communal solidarity, and weariness over the atomizing tendencies of international trade. This is, of course, offset by their general attitudes toward cultural atomization though.
Thus, neoliberals see History as unfolding and revealing a networked and globalized financial capitalism rooted in urban coastal and continental cities. The self-describing progressives of today, on the other hand, are still married to the 1945 New Deal and Social Democratic model of urban, industrial, and regulated international (and national) capitalism. They refuse to go along with the modernizing and progressive logic of modernism, convinced that the latter is the cause of our problems and is the poison that needs to be exhumed from our body in order to restore us to health and prosperity. The classical liberals are liberals who remain blind to the fact that neoliberalism and progressivism are the logical fulfillment of their own philosophical foundations. However, all progressives, properly speaking in political philosophy, are married to some form of capitalist oriented political-economy; this is what makes them liberal. To call a genuine Marxist “progressive” or “liberal” is quite the sin (and it highlights one’s general ignorance to philosophy and political philosophy). Any genuine Marxist would identify himself as such and not hide behind petty bourgeois labels such as “progressive” and “liberal” which are just code words for avant-garde liberalism and capitalism anyway. Serious opponents to capitalism have never been, and will never be, liberal or progressive in their philosophy. The history of liberalism and progressivism has always been one married to capitalism and trying to “make capitalism work.”
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of Finding Arcadia, The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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