Kevin Carson’s latest paper, “The Thermidor of the Progressives – Managerialist Liberalism’s Hostility to Decentralized Organization
” is about as long (48 pages) and complex as any other academic piece I’ve read, but the way he covers the issue makes a painful amount of sense.

Progressive is the new Reactionary – Summary and link.

The issue of “progress” with the left is filled with confusion and hypocrisy. We frequently critique capitalists and governments for pushing development programs under the guise of “progress”, but are more than willing to use the term to describe issues we like. It’s a beautiful word for use in propaganda because it can mean anything. Whoever uses it gets to slide a whole bunch of assumptions about where the world is, was, and where it’s going along with whatever claims they make. This is why I try not to use it in these contexts. Is a superhighway “progress”? How about gay marriage laws? Or iPods? And who is designing this future world of highway-commuting, happily married gay men commuting to work listening to iPods?

Progress, as an argument, lends itself to authoritarian arguments a little too easily. If we know what the bright and perfect world of the future’s going to look like, what’s the harm in forcing it on people now? And the “progressive left” (liberals, social democrats and many single-issue campaigners) is a pretty good example of this.

“A lot of the people who call themselves Left I would regard as proto-fascists.” – Noam Chomsky

The lingering legacy of leaders like Lenin is a deep sympathy for the state. And while revolutionaries and radicals have soured on these old-school Stalinist notions, many on the more moderate left haven’t. After constant attacks on any and all state programs as “socialism” by conservatives, we’ve forgotten the difference ourselves. This would be a prime cause of why so many anarchists absolutely refuse to call themselves leftists at all (some use the term “post-leftist”), and it’s hard to blame them.

Libertarianism was alive and well on the “left” a century before conservatives discovered it. Rejecting all libertarian arguments because they sound like something Ayn Rand would say is ridiculous. Libertarians (like Thoreau or Proudhon) have long had longer and stronger associations with the left than liberals (like Adam Smith). In fact, modern capitalism is usually described in terms of “neo-liberalism”.

A century of policy-making has turned much of the “left” into cheerleaders for professionalism, regulation, centralization, industrialization and management. Radicals understood well in 1910 or 1950 that things like welfare and labour laws were concessions and not ends in themselves. Like the Soviet Union, we’ve mistaken the bureaucracies we’ve created for the ends they were supposed to achieve. And by siding with them, time after time, Progressives have become deeply suspicious and critical of ideas or solutions which come from outside this massive bureaucracy. And that makes Progressivism very attractive to people who are about as leftist as Attila the Hun.

This is why Progressives so often make arguments which sound like something out of Fascist Italy. Mussolini himself was once a socialist. And while Fascists are clearly not Socialists, we can’t forget the crucial role that those ideas played in the rise of leaders like Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. Fascism is about more than power and tyranny – it’s a specific kind of totalitarian state, which uses revolutionary rhetoric to inspire the people. There’s nothing leftist at all about conspiring with industry leaders to break unions, imposing police states or military imperialism. But pretending that you’re “fighting the power” while you’re doing those things makes them a lot easier.

The main difference between a hardline Leninist and Fascist (and there aren’t many) is that Leninist and other authoritarian socialists embrace a powerful state as a means to achieving their ends – such as health care, education, or the right to work. Fascists use these social programs as a means to achieve their end which is a strong and powerful state.

The more we confuse “leftism” or “socialism” with authoritarianism, the more shelter we give to authoritarians who want to use our support base. Socialism was never about running society like one giant corporation. Socialists only embraced the state because they felt it made it possible to deal with the crippling issues we face in a manageable way. But that opinion has never gone without challenge in the socialist world – right back to the fiery rivalry between Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin.

The problem here is the other ideologies: industrialism, centralization and authoritarianism. While the specific type of ownership was different, there was little practical difference between the way a factory functioned under Lenin or Ford. Both are credited with applying the management-style of the old Prussian Military to industry. Neither were terribly critical of the role played by armies of managers and bureaucrats, the inefficiencies of centralization or the amount of force and coercion needed to make the systems work.

Corporate and government leaders know which way the wind is blowing in the 21st century. People are fast running out of patience for good old-fashioned queer-bashing, poor-stomping conservatism. To appeal to the crowds of the future they’re going to need to adopt a new set of flagship issues to push their agendas. By embracing smart growth, public health care, and internet censorship, they can carry on their resource wars in peace. The age of Bush-style Fascism may have ended, but the age of Obama-style fascism is only beginning. Wanna see what this looks like? Look at the “right wing” side of any Western European parliament.

If we’re going to change the world, we need ideas which are thoroughly thought out, and not just reactions against reactionaries. We need solutions which set people free, not solutions which empower governments to “fix things for us”. And if that means free markets, it means free markets. I’ll be the first to argue that it doesn’t have to. But it’s not trade that’s the problem – it’s trade on unfair terms that exploits people. And without the state, this wouldn’t be possible. Capital, by definition, is property that you don’t directly use (and which you can bill other people for using). The task of the state is to enforce the legal monopoly on this property so that capitalists can make money from it, with violence where necessary. These forces aren’t at war with each other any more than any old married couple. They’re at war with us.