Starmer's Progressive Moment
18 October 2023
Last month, Keir Starmer found himself in Montreal rubbing shoulders with those at the head of the world’s “progressive” elite. Attending the Global Progress Action Summit alongside such illustrious leaders of contemporary progressivism as Justin Trudeau, Jacinda Ardern and none other than Tony Blair himself, Starmer no doubt imagined that his place among them was all but secured. He even allowed himself to muse that, with progressives at the helm of so many nations around the world, “there’s an opportunity for a progressive moment”.
Betraying a dim awareness that his rise isn’t due to a flash of progressive fervor among the electorate but rather due to the colossal failings of his opposition, he added that a “central” question “we need to answer is: “If not them, then why Labour?’” Why indeed. Of what does his “progressive moment” consist? Starmer wasn’t certain, but he was fairly sure it had something to do with “hope” and “reassurance”. One? The other? Both simultaneously?? The electorate is surely on the edge of its seat.
This is precisely the problem. “Progressivism” is meaningless without progress, without a sense of a better future that is worthwhile to build. But long ago, “progress” became a dirty word among progressives, the future wrought with apocalyptic uncertainty. Two world wars, the Holocaust and gulags were enough to do away with humanity’s heady dreams of that now so-often scare-quoted word “progress”. In this context, an unspoken consensus has emerged: the past was bad, the future is terrible, and the present is all that there is. From this perspective, progress is better achieved through reforming people’s values than reforming the unpredictable, risky and dangerous world “out there”.
For the modern-day progressive, the world isn’t great, but it’s as good as it gets. All that remains is changing the way people think and behave and to preach the virtues of “acceptance”. Only then can that secure pathway to piecemeal cultural change be swept of its populist debris to be trekked anew.
This looks very different from the progressive politics of the past. During the Enlightenment, progressive thinkers imagined a world in which nearly every “natural” limitation to humanity’s desires would be revealed as a mere temporary obstacle. French philosopher and mathematician the Marquis de Condorcet even imagined a world in which death would retreat ever further into the future and the human lifespan would “have no assignable limit.” Contrast this with today’s “progressives” cheerily suggesting Trudeau’s “medical assistance in dying” (MAID) as a viable solution to everything from the most extreme forms of suffering to mental illness and (if sizable portions of a recent survey are to be believed) homelessness and poverty. Apparently, raging against the dying of the light is an intolerable mental affliction. Have you considered MAID?
Today’s progressives are united by a thinly veiled obsession with limits, from the lifespan to the environment, and the quest to get the stubbornly aspirational masses to accept them. Christopher Lasch once wrote that, “Progressive optimism rests, at bottom, on a denial of the natural limits on human power and freedom, and it cannot survive for very long in a world in which an awareness of those limits has become inescapable.” We are here and progressive optimism is dead. What past progressives called “hope” today’s progressives call “hubris”. As the dynamism and value of human life that once underpinned a belief in progress began to dwindle, so too did all “hope” that isn’t a PR buzzword mused over while nibbling canapes in a swanky Montreal hotel.
It is unclear which of the currently available poisoned pick ‘n’ mix of progressive policies will be in Labour’s grab bag for the next election. But there is sure to be no way out of the present impasse on offer. We have become trapped in a paradigm of cultural progressivism, or the belief that the main pathway to progress is less physical than symbolic. It’s as though we can simply change how people think and speak about our problems and those problems will melt away of their own accord.
On the other hand, Starmer’s Labour can sense that there is something more at stake. He’s glommed on to the fact that people are worried about their living standards. A decent standard of living, once tasted, is not easily relinquished. And rightly so.
But consumption is not enough. Progressivism can’t exist without a belief in humanity and its productive aspect. Without that, it is an empty shell. The productive side of progressivism reminds us of the necessity and value of purposeful work to humanity’s present and future social life. The more control over that life, the better. When people have nothing of value beyond themselves to take part in and to live for, it’s hard to imagine that their lives are worth much at all. We see people only as mouths that need feeding, minds that go awry, bodies that risk needing tending to. But these mouths speak, these minds think, and these bodies build new worlds.
This is precisely what’s been missing from politics: a grand future that we all take part in building. Instead, we are fed a rancid soup of cultural and psychological reform. Progress is “all in the mind”. But if this is progress, it’s of a peculiar sort. Humanity had once dreamed of, demanded, and fought to the death for so much more.