Subjecting Progressivism to Scruton-y

In the course of my ongoing debates with Maj. Mad Dog, I recently asked him, “If you see your cause as progressive (even Progressive), what are you progressing toward? How will you know when you get there?” His usual response is that conservatism is simply a pathological fear of change (or of “cheese moving”, in the parlance of the world in which sloganeering is a substitute for thought — not that he’s guilty of that.)

I was reminded of this exchange this afternoon while I was reading one of Roger Scruton’s essays. (I know I’m late to the party on this guy, but I’m always excited to discover thinkers on my side with whom I’m unfamiliar.) In discussing Leftism, he says:

[Leftists] know nothing of the socialist future, save only that it is both necessary and desirable. [Their] concern is with the “compelling” case against the present, that leads [them] to destroy whatever [they] lack the knowledge to replace. A blind faith drags the radical from “struggle” to “struggle”, reassuring him that everything done in the name of “social justice” is well done […] He desires to leap from the tainted world that surrounds him into the pure but unknowable realm of human emancipation. This leap into the Kingdom of Ends is a leap of thought, which can never be mirrored in reality. (Scruton 40)

I don’t think people like my friend see themselves as utopians –“We just want to make things fairer, and what’s wrong with that?” Well, part of the problem is that they tend to conflate inequality and injustice. The fact of the matter is that no two people are the same, and therefore no two people are really equal. We have different strengths and weaknesses. This isn’t injustice — it’s reality.

This definitional error leads to attempts to destroy systems that have the advantage of having developed in response to the world as it actually is. In the case of Anglo-American limited government and civil society based largely on common law and tradition, it has been a system that has allowed its people to thrive and prosper at levels most of the world would consider beyond the dreams of avarice. Meanwhile, where the variations of Marxism (Communism, Socialism, etc.) have been tried, the results have ranged from misery to mass murder. Therefore, I tend to agree with Scruton, when he says:

It is not for us to defend a reality which, for all its faults, has the undeniable merit of existence. Nor is it for us to show that the consensual politics of Western government is somehow closer to human nature and more conducive to human fulfillment than the ideal world of socialist emancipation.

In short, just because the aims of the Left may be good, it does not mean that their approaches are good, or that their side is necessarily more virtuous. It is the burden of the so-called progressives to demonstrate what they would have us progressing toward, and how it can coexist with people no more or less noble than they actually are. It isn’t a conservative flaw to be skeptical of the new. It’s only wise to ask whether the cheese is being moved to a better site, or to the trigger of a mousetrap that though theoretically attractive, remains deadly.

Scruton, Roger. “What is Right?” 1986. Reprinted in The Roger Scruton Reader. Mark Dooley, ed. London and New York: Continuum, 2009. 20-42.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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3 Responses to Subjecting Progressivism to Scruton-y

  1. majormaddog says:

    My first question for the Professor is whether we’re going to continue to see puns in the titles of his posts. I’m on the fence with regard to whether groaner-type puns are good for society as a whole, especially considering the awful terrible no good very bad future that my side may be trying to lead us all to.

    To the point of the post…in my discussions and arguments (in the lawyer sense) with the Professor, I often have the feeling that we are arguing past each other. This feels like one of those. Here the Professor and Mr. Scruton lump progressives into a school of thought. You know, big thinkers. But I don’t look at myself as a member of a big leftist ideology because the end result of all that ideology is a great and wonderful thing. Actually, it may be a great and wonderful thing. Certainly if I set its goals down next to the big idea goals of conservatism, I would probably still opt for progressivism and liberalism as far as isms go. But I think there’s another way to look at progressives and I use myself as an example here. I did not become a progressive because I was attracted to the big picture “where are we going” ideas of the ideology. I find myself in the progressive camp because the smaller goals of progressives fit with mine. Progressives are for repealing DADT, for battling climate change even if there’s some discomfort along the way, for a social safety net. Progressives also adopt some more libertarian-ish ideas, such as legalizing marijuana or abortion rights. Some of the reason I fall onto the liberal side of things is because of the stances of the parties – you’re free to be a christian or not in the Democratic Party, but try not being a christian in the Republican Party.

    Now it’s true many of the issues I care about fall into the injustice/inequality area that the Professor discusses above. And as I said, I think if I thought more deeply about the big picture, I’d still fall onto the progressive side of things. But I suspect, among the politically active folx out there that refer to themselves as progressive or liberal, many more are like me – progressives because of the small issues, rather than progressives with the goal of a worldwide utopian socialist paradise.

    So, the Professor says it’s our duty to make the case for what we want to progress toward. Maybe it makes sense to ask that question in the world of the big thinkers, but in the world of guys like me, where we’re fighting the partisan battle of individual issues, such a question is out of left field and really not pertinent to why we’re involved in politics or our -ism.

    I still don’t have an answer to the Professor’s question, btw. But as I’ve thought about this idea off and on since he posed the question initially, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think I need to know the answer to the question. I’m comfortable with the idea that the world will be a better place as my side wins each of the individual issues and battles that I care about. When DADT is repealed, that’s an improvement. As the social safety net is strengthened, that’s an improvement. How do I define the end result of our society after each of these issues go my way? It’s better than it was before.

  2. profmondo says:

    Major, you’ve known me for about 30 years. Did you really think you could make it through this blog w/o puns?

    To your larger argument, it seems to me that all you’re doing is confirming Scruton’s point, although your approach is incremental rather than revolutionary. And although you may see yourself as a “fellow traveler” (to use a bygone phrase) rather than what we might call a “movement Progressive,” I (and perhaps Scruton) would argue that your actions serve to enable those other guys. In short, you’re letting them drive the train while you shovel coal, because you think you’ll enjoy the sights along the way and can jump off before you reach the same unpleasant destination to which that train has always run. Me, I’ve looked at the history of the trips that train has taken, and I think it’s my job to damage the rails before it can get there again.

  3. Pingback: Scruton Alert | Professor Mondo

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