Although it’s almost certainly too late for the ‘Progressive Alliance’ to make much impact on the forthcoming UK election, the movement does seem to be capturing some people’s imagination. Let’s hope this momentum continues to produce a grown-up and genuinely inspiring movement for some future election. But right now, the movement has a rather desperate, straw-clutching, alternativista, anti-incumbency feel to it. So far, ‘progressive’ seems just to mean ‘anti-Tory’. This isn’t particularly helpful. Let’s not forget that both leaders of the last coalition government, Cameron and Clegg, also self-labelled as ‘progressive’. Could a happiness lens prompt some more considerate explanation of what it means to be politically ‘progressive’?

The main reason I became a happiness scholar was to improve my ability to discuss and plan social progress. Frustrated with pathological conversations about social deficits and injustices, I wanted to talk about what social progress might feel like, and about how individual happiness pursuits might dovetail with social virtues. ‘Progress,’ for me, has to be about something a bit more aspirational and sophisticated than kicking out harmful traditions and levelling playing fields. If I engage in politics, I want to talk about substantial social and personal transformations – strengthening and enriching people’s ability to enjoy themselves; providing opportunities for meaning and fulfilling work, and for enthusiastic and constructive mass participation in the provision of public goods; designing schools, residences and cities that facilitate conviviality, inter-ethnic affection, and good health.

I expect people or parties or any kind of organization that self-labels as ‘progressive’ to be able to say something really inspiring about what they stand for – a set of principles and desired outcomes worth struggling for. A quick glance through online texts on the current Progressive Alliance movement reveals that just about everyone talks about it in infuriatingly narrow, shortsighted and parochial terms of electoral tactics. And insofar as there’s anything about principles, the principles seem to be oppositional, vague, and identificatory rather than positive and substantial. To join the ‘Progressive Alliance’ is to label yourself anti-Tory, left-wing, anti-inequality, anti-oppression, anti-war, anti-unsustainability, anti-pollution, etc. So what?

Back in 2003, when Neal Lawson, a key player in the Progressive Alliance, set up The Compass Organization with its foundational text ‘A vision for the democratic left’. There you find a string of abstractions – good society, pluralism, liberty, egalitarianism, culture of citizenship, etc. These inspire half a cheer at best, and they beg endless questions about what kinds of inequality matter, about how the exercise of freedom makes people’s lives to better, and about how and why social and cultural diversities are good for us. I see here no discernible ‘vision’ of happy, loving, engaged human beings.

There is slightly more substance in the Alliance’s 2016 essay collection, The Alternative: Towards a New Progressive Politics. Here you find statements about what ‘progressive’ people have in common: they want to cooperate to build a ‘better system’ offering ‘equality’, ‘inclusion’ and social justice, civil liberties, human rights and responsibilities; progressives are ‘radicals’ in that they reimagine society, fighting social isolation and environmental degradation, redistributing power and wealth, and resisting ‘the politics of fear and division’. Even here, though, it’s all about fighting, mending, and at best producing vaguely instrumental goods like wealth and freedom.

Casting our net more widely to review uses of the term ‘progressive’ in academia and popular media more generally over the past century, we can begin to piece together a better sense of the variety of usages. Leaving aside the pathological sense of ‘progressive disease’, we find a variety of positive uses of ‘progressive’:

  • Aspirational, utopian: envisaging a future of happiness and social excellence
  • Cumulative improvement: building on new knowledge, learning from successes and failures, growing the economy
  • Innovative and creative: vanguardism – progressive science, progressive music, progressive art, progressive business
  • Anti-tradition: modernising, getting rid of bad or stale culture; progressive religion, progressive schooling; progressive peace and reconciliation; progressive dismantling of bloated state institutions
  • Anti-oppression, pro-liberation, pro-equality: liberal or libertarian, politically engaged in campaigns and activities liberating and empowering underprivileged or oppressed people; resisting left-wing or right-wing authoritarianism;
  • Left-wing: redistributive, in favour of state generosity, sectionalist preference for underprivileged classes, higher taxes for richer people

Of these senses, only the first points inspirationally towards a wonderful world. The rest are either ethically neutral, or about instrumental goods (technical or economic or scientific progress, equalisation) or about fighting perceived harms (whether those harms are the greed and selfishness of privileged people, the irrationality and unkindness of ancient religious doctrines, or the wastefulness of some parts of the welfare state, or whatever).

To start ordering our thoughts about the varieties of progress, it’s useful to think about three main categories of progress: remedial progress reduces or mitigates harms; instrumental progress produces useful goods and services; and aspirational progress (or ‘utopian’, if you like) produces happiness and intrinsically valuable social goods like love and conviviality.

So if we want to piece together a more persuasive, informative, inspirational platform for ‘progressive’ political action in the future, we must change the script. We must make positive visions of a better world more salient and more explicit. And we will have to find ways of talking about how personal happiness and positive social qualities are mutually supportive. This doesn’t mean that we’ll no longer need to talk about electoral tactics, or fighting harms, or producing goods of instrumental value. But it does mean that all those issues would be secondary to a decent conversation about what we really care about.

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