Gaius Publius: `Liberalism Doesn`t Carry the Critique of Capitalism that Progressivism Does`

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius and Facebook. Cross posted from AmericaBlog

I’ve been fascinated lately with the meaning of the terms “liberal” and “progressive.” It’s clear that what we now call “liberalism” is really a variant, a side branch of the real thing, and should be more properly named “FDR liberalism” or “social liberalism.” Today’s “liberalism” — FDR-liberalism — is an offshoot of pre-FDR liberalism that diverges from its original meaning in a rather important way, by including a role for government. Prior to FDR, “liberalism” just meant basic free-market capitalism.

That’s why so-called modern (Clintonian) “neoliberals” are so different from FDR liberals, and why they’re so similar to Milton Friedman free-market conservatives. “Classic liberalism” — the pre-FDR version — is best defined below (my paragraphing):

Classical liberalism is a philosophy committed to the ideal of limited government and liberty of individuals including freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and free markets.[1]

Classical liberalism developed in the nineteenth century in Western Europe, and the Americas. Although classical liberalism built on ideas that had already developed by the end of the eighteenth century, it advocated a specific kind of society, government and public policy required as a result of the Industrial Revolution and urbanization.[2]

Notable individuals who have contributed to classical liberalism include Jean-Baptiste Say, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo.[3] It drew on the economics of Adam Smith, a psychological understanding of individual liberty, natural law and utilitarianism, and a belief in progress.

Classical liberals established political parties that were called “liberal”, although in the United States classical liberalism came to dominate both existing major political parties.[1] There was a revival of interest in classical liberalism in the twentieth century led by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.[4]

Note the following:

First, the united concepts of “limited government” and “liberty of individuals.” This is the essence of classic liberalism, pre-FDR. Get government off your person; get government out of markets. It’s two parts of one 18th century idea — and I would argue two parts that are in total contradiction to each other, held together only by the arrogance of late-stage (18th century) Calvinism, but that’s for later. (Hint: Read Erich Fromm’s classic Escape from Freedom to see why.)

Second, that those twin concepts are the essence of modern “libertarianism” as well. The labels are similar for a reason.

Third, “classic liberalism” was born in the 18th century with writings by Adam Smith and others, and developed fully in the 19th century, the time of the conversion of farmers, sheep herders and users of “the commons” into property-less, poverty-wage, factory slaves during the first great era of predatory capitalism (ours being the second). Classic liberalism supported those policies and changes.

Fourth, did you see at the end of the quote, the inclusion of the “classic liberal” Hayek and Milton Friedman as brothers-in-thought? They are. When Democrats in the 1930s diverged from “classic liberalism” by admitting a central role for government after all, instead of a limited role — and when this modified “social liberalism” became simply “liberalism” in common parlance — Hayek free-marketeers needed a different name, and post-war Milton Friedman gave them one — “free-market conservatives.”

Fifth, the “neoliberalism” of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and others (including Hosni Mubarak, by the way) is only “neo” relative to FDR-liberalism. It’s actually a return to pre-FDR liberalism — free markets for all (who can afford to dominate them), and lose those government regulations, please. As the writer says, “in the United States classical liberalism came to dominate both existing major political parties” — but under different labels.

Finally, as many have noted, FDR didn’t have a critique of capitalism. His “liberalism” was a compromise that averted a potential revolution, and preserved capitalism by adding a regulatory regime. (He also added a tax regime aimed at reducing extreme wealth, something modern neoliberals and Friedman free-marketeers alike are dismantling.)

With this in mind, listen to this short excerpt from a recent Virtually Speaking podcast. The historian Kevin C. Murphy discusses his view of the differences between what modern “progressives” believe and what most modern “liberals” believe. The first voice is Murphy; the second is the host, Stuart Zechman. (The full interview is here, and it’s fascinating. Both Murphy and Zechman are good.)

New Politics Progressive Podcasts with Jay Ackroyd on BlogTalkRadio with Virtually Speaking on BlogTalkRadio


“Liberalism doesn’t carry in its DNA the critique of capitalism that progressivism does.”

And at the close of the clip, Murphy again:

[Near the end of the New Deal era] People who have views about how to change the relationship between government and the economy come to the Keynesian consensus, where instead of trying to change how the pie is divided, they … want to grow the pie.

Which explains why the tax part of the FDR program was the first to be attacked and scuttled.

Zechman disagrees with the first statement above, and they come to a meaning for “liberalism” that satisfies both. But for me, Murphy hits the nail on the head. Liberalism, as vague as the term now is, implies a modified capitalism that reigns in its excesses while accepting its premises.

That’s a compromise, one that some say just doesn’t work. In my view, it’s OK to prefer the compromise; that’s not the issue here. It’s important, however, to recognize that compromise, at least regarding “liberalism” as most people understand it.

Murphy knows his stuff, by the way. He’s the author of a terrific book: Uphill All the Way: The Fortunes of Progressivism 1919-1929. Click and read; it’s nicely chunked out at the link. You can easily hop around as you like.

Side note — Murphy mentions in passing Obama’s recent “income inequality” speech. My thoughts here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. digi_owl

    At this point in time i think anything “liberal” needs to be prefixed by either “social” or “economic”. And more often than not, then person just labeling themselves “liberal” actually mean “economic liberal”, sometimes so extremely as bordering on anarcho-capitalism.

  2. bob goodwin

    I think you raise some really good points, Yves.
    But I relate strongly to traditional liberalism, and least to neoliberalism, which I think of as corporatism.
    I do not think they are the same.
    I think you would be surprised how much less many libertarians are attached to capitalism per-se than you think. It is quite easy to get intellectual ones into a deep discussions about problems with capitalism and more broadly with materialism. Most of the backlash against the bank bailouts came from the right, and created the populist part of the right wing. It is not that Milton Friedman is now communist, it is that corporatism is a form of capitalism that is far against traditional liberalism. When money be won fairly, it is no longer classical liberalism. ACA, bank bailouts, Fed printing etc. Republican and Democrat alike.

    1. bmeisen

      Gaius fails to note that the “government” that early liberals wanted to limit was the absolute, often tyrannical government of monarchies and popes that still dominated 17th and 18th century Europe. This aspect has been forgotten since the liberal program gained popularity and defeated most forms of absolutism in the western world after WWII. In other words liberalism won in its struggle with “government” long before the Reagan mob began their attack. Their target was liberalism – democratic republicanism. Their goal was to restore absolutist government and oligarchic economic relations, known today as corporatism. Sadly they have been successful, in part because what had become known as liberalism in America, namely the weak wringing hands individualism of Kennedy Democrats, lacked both moral and political consequence. Progressive politics in the USA is social democracy elsewhere. It has been betrayed over and over in coalitions with Kennedy democrats.

        1. Emma

          Used to.
          Let’s be fair – If you look at what the likes of Nikonoff and Ramonet of ATTAC France for example have to say these days, it’s pretty much in line with the USA.
          Though given they’re French, they talk about neoliberalism, globalization etc. in a subjunctive mood with passionate hot air (ha ha…it was once the language of diplomacy n’est-ce pas?!!).

  3. DakotabornKansan

    “Liberal” and “Progressive” seem to be part of the Democratic Party mush that exists today. Notice how the “liberal” think tank below cites “progressive pioneers” but offers Ronald Reagan platitudes.

    Ken Silverstein, The Baffler, examines the Center for American Progress, America’s most influential liberal think tank in “They Pretend to Think, We Pretend to Listen – Liberalism in the tank” @

    “The Center for American Progress (CAP) effectively serves as a house organ of the Democratic Party, much as Pravda was to the Politburo during Soviet times.

    Silverstein asks, “How did an organization like the Center for American Progress (CAP), which aggressively markets itself as the intellectual vanguard of a resurgent American liberalism, become so immersed in such nonsignifying management speak? How did the likes of Thomas Friedman, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Gail Collins become its purveyors of bold new ideas?

    [Follow the money!]

    “It helps to see how the world of liberal think tanks has been upended, ever so gently, by a steady onrush of corporate funding—and corporate-friendly policy agendas. Think tanks have always reflected relatively narrow elite opinion and were never entirely impartial, but the earliest were modeled on academic institutions…

    “Bill Clinton and the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) stand at one end of an era, while Obama and Center for American Progress (CAP) sit at the other—the era in question being that of the full corporate takeover of the Democratic Party and, by extension, American politics…

    “CAP’s founder is John Podesta. Podesta is a former lobbyist, and it’s no exaggeration to say that influence-peddling is the family business. In late 2011, Podesta stepped down as the think tank’s president (he remains as chair). He had good cause to think that his main mission at the helm of CAP had been accomplished: by 2012, and the onset of Obama’s second term, CAP had clearly emerged as the most influential think tank of the Obama era.

    [Podesta will return to the White House as a counselor to Obama in January]

    “On its website, CAP explains that its mission is to “critique the policy that stems from conservative values, challenge the media to cover the issues that truly matter, and shape the national debate,” and cites “progressive pioneers” such as Teddy Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.

    However, when visitors to the site toggle over to the actual content of the group’s policy portfolio, they meet a barrage of platitudes that sound as if they were lifted directly from the collected works of Ronald Reagan…

    “Such self-advertised vacuity makes perfect sense for an institution like CAP, for the simple reason that these pious word clouds are also the standard argot of corporate America. CAP’s board and roster of scholars are stuffed with the most rancid elements of the Democratic Party, many of them Clinton administration veterans or key political supporters.

    “CAP’s parroting of the Democratic Party line reflects not only the collapse of the old Democratic New Deal coalition, which at least gave some voice to labor unions and the poor, but also the collapse of radical journalism…what’s the point of having an allegedly progressive media if its inbred male vanguard is made up of figures such as CAP-branded pundits Eric Alterman and Matthew Yglesias?

    “Any suggestion that CAP is in the business of airing dispassionate policy research and then letting the chips fall where they may for the sake of broadening the scope of intellectual debate in Washington should, of course, be greeted by a torrent of bitter laughter. A review of CAP’s research track record shows that the group’s work is dictated by two simple mainsprings: its obvious and overwhelming fealty to the Democratic Party, and the pursuit of corporate cash. For evidence of the former, one need look no further than the frenetically revolving door that connects the think tank and the Obama administration.

    “‘Corporate influence is a huge part of American politics….CAP is interested in politically achievable policy, and if no one is going to profit from it, it is not going to be achievable.’ Translation: CAP is going to advance a self-styled progressive policy agenda by greeting the steady creep of plutocratic rule with a variation of “Everybody into the pool!”

    “CAP really is the perfect liberal think tank for the age of Obama, when the core policy options and alliances that shape American politics are simply dictated by the flow of cash. The former staffer who spoke with me about CAP’s frequent communications with the Obama White House succinctly summed up the gnat-straining fate of the multimillion-dollar think tank. “They totally bought into the Obama vision, and he had no vision,” he said. “When Obama was progressive and talked about the stimulus, they were for that, and when he cut a deal with Boehner, they were for that. They don’t stand for anything themselves.” Except, it seems, for the moneyed regurgitation of the current Democratic mush.”

    Have the few remnant Progressives acceded to the “Embrace the Suck” Democratic politics of Nancy Pelosi’s squishy center? Rather than leveraging what is supposed to be their comparative advantage – organizing the mad-as-hell public – to end this corporate dominance?

    There needs to be an alternative. What is the latest status of our Skunk Party?

  4. The Dork of Cork

    On these little Isles across the water you can also be a conservative distributionist.although I guess they are now a very rare breed after a extreme bout of cultural Marxism.

    Living through the collapse of my society by both socialists and neo liberals I can now see where they were coming from as we had the dubious privilege of seeing the tip of the spear once again.

    We badly need a bottom up view of societal healing and not more top down health fascism , monetary malice , 2 job families etc etc etc.
    Obviously nothing can be achieved in the present industrial society (rather then a agrarian system) without a injection of equity like money into peoples hands.

    However people are now lost in a sea of MTV bullshit….I can feel the beginnings of another credit bubble in Ireland …first with exterior credit money….then followed with another bout of capital dumping destroying our last memories of what it means to be something other then a monetary tool of somebody or something.
    I think the guys running this sick show have won the game when we can only talk of money and not community.
    But whats the point in totally controlling a wasteland ?

    1. MikeNY

      Thanks for this post and link. I need to read me some Chesterton and Belloc. I first heard of distributism through Dorothy Day’s writing … I want to learn more about it.

      1. The Dork of Cork

        Bellocs – The Servile State
        In particular chapter 4 if you want to understand why parliamentary government has been a failure for most people and also is needed in conjunction with the “Can Societies Be Commodities All the Way Down?” post .
        This interest vortex of Tudor England destroyed Ireland……land must get a yield so as to pay the debt etc etc.
        Also after the English civil war land owners on the Royalist side did not lose their land if they engaged in a mortgage contract……..This obviously increased “competition” throughout the social & economic system which increased productivity via increased extraction , hoping technology would beat the depletion……

        1. Klassy!

          Sorry, meant “distributist”.
          here is more from a reader review:
          “He correctly states that fractional reserve banking enables bankers to create money (in the form of credit) out of nothing, and lend it at interest. Rather than just abolishing this practice as fraudulent, and establishing a free banking system with a commodity backed money, he advocates that the government just print money and lend it without interest for capital projects. As long as the increase in money supply keeps pace with the increase in production, inflation will be minor.”

        2. The Dork of Cork

          Not a fan of Georgist land taxes……
          Belloc and his crew were not a fan either.

          Ireland and the agrarian co op movement of the past got close to the Ideal I guess.(afterwards the farmers got greedy and sold out to multinationals)
          But there was /is a selfish motive to traditional Catholic teachings of this time.
          Imagine the Church as the first multinational (although this was before the time of nation states)
          It therefore needs a healthy & viable flock to tend ,not sheep that have already been corrupted & butchered by the debt based monetary vortex.

          Anyway as long as we live in a Industrial society the practical writings of C H Douglas will shine through , not Bellocs.

    2. digi_owl

      funnily Distributism sounds a bit like what Adam Smith was arguing for, as while he cheered for the free market he warned strongly against cartels and other large market structures. He was after all living during the reign of the East India Company.

      On a sidenote, being Norwegian i have something of a reflexive response to “cultural marxism” thanks to a certain trigger happy extremist.

      1. The Dork of Cork

        Given my violent exposure to cultural flux over the decades I have begun to dump all my previous programmes from my albeit flawed internal computer.
        What I mean by cultural marxism is the application of economic theories on ancient cultural foundations much of which has originated in the village and whose currency was one of cooperation.
        Both the advantage and disadvantage of the village is that you can’t escape from cross community sharing…….if you therefore decide to cheat another for goods or services in such a closed system you will not be able to gain a easy external economic or social advantage as everything is recorded within a community of 100 people or so.
        The capitalists can actually drive trade between villages by instilling a artificial scarcity on local goods or services either through the monetary mechanism or creating another false demand via advertising.
        The more and more villages trading – the easier it is to cheat.
        This can eventually force people into ever more violent confrontation.

        Powers Booth : you are the chief ,TELL HIM (Powers thinks he is a fiat king) to come and visit – he can choose
        ( tones of Freidmans free to choose ??? in a economic system of scarcity where you must do things which you would otherwise not want to do.)
        Village Chief : If I tell a man to do what he does not want to do I am no longer chief.

        This power dynamic changed when villages became agricultural – first in Turkey I believe when wars and war like chieftans became more commonplace.
        In this system the King gained then power of fiat. (3.00m)

        However despite this I imagine all society breaks down when the village(cooperation) no longer exists.

  5. Bob

    All labels aside, I think this quote from Chesterton sums up the problem nicely:The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.

    1. Emma

      Which is precisely why the Germans want it their own way when it comes to the Euro crisis, whereas the rest of Europe and Brussels do not. Ordoliberalism rears its cute old “köpfle” über alles…..

  6. neretva'43

    “I’ve been fascinated lately with the meaning of the terms “liberal” and “progressive.””

    Whie there might be differences between them in domestic arena on international one there is none. “Progressives” can be, and are, usually more lethal when it comes to so-called R2P projects. Therefore, for me, it is phony question. But, I’ve been fascinated with the meaning of the “left” and “right”. The answer is here:

    There are an authors who claim that the origin of neoliberalism is in meeting of Mount Pelerin Club. However, that the roots of neoliberalism are dated before and during FDR era (as is, also, pointed in NC article) I’ve found out by reading this guy:

  7. neretva'43

    The ruling class has attempted directly to address crisis situations in each of the three major economic downturn periods since 1823. I treat nineteenth century American capitalism (1823-1899) as a single depression period, since over the course of sixty years it featured three steep depressions, 1837-1843, 1873-1878 and 1893-1897. Indeed, the entire period 1823-1898, excluding the Civil War, saw the nation in recession or depression more often than not. The Great Depression of the ‘30s was of course the second such period, and the years from late 2007 to the present constitute the third.

    The corporate oligarchy has also responded to the New Deal/Great Society Golden Age as another crisis period, this time of a special kind. In that case the crisis was not perceived by the elite as purely economic, but as political, involving a transfer of both income and power from the wealthiest to the rest. Ruling-class mobilization ensued. The plutocrats openly “put politics in command.” Neoliberalism began to take shape.

  8. Banger

    I take “liberal” in its dictionary meaning as being kind, open to new ideas and their expression, anti-authoritarian, broad-minded. It is a personality attribute that does not make a lot of sense to apply to how politics is divided today. People believe Obama is a liberal but he is pro-authoritarian, rather narrow in his views, and unkind–but that goes for “conservatives” many of which do not fit that definition either. Political liberals hijacked the word for their own nefarious ends and has now become an insult in many parts of the country.

    I would also say that many on the real left are also not liberal–many are also very narrow in their views and don’t want to listen to other views–but then that’s a quality of this age.

    Our political divisions aren’t between liberals and conservatives but between criminals and the rest of us who are generally very confused and are flailing around trying to make something work.

    As for “progressive” I really don’t know what it means since it means moving forward–but here’s the problem: where are we going? People who are progressive need to define where they are going other than forward which, politically, defines nothing. I prefer the term “left” indicating those who oppose the current regime by which I mean not just the state but, even more, the corporate oligarchs.

  9. Frank Stain

    Interesting analysis, but I would disagree with this
    ‘It’s actually a return to pre-FDR liberalism — free markets for all (who can afford to dominate them), and lose those government regulations, please. ‘
    The difference between ‘neoliberalism’ and classic liberalism, I would say, is that neoliberalism does NOT assume that individuals are simply capable of acting according to market logic on their own. This is why neoliberalism requires a strong, disciplining and punishing state in order to transform social relations into market relations. I don’t discern the same kind of totalitarian ambition with classical liberalism.

  10. Eureka Springs

    It’s all one big TINA Gala run by charlatans. Where words have no meaning anymore than the narcissistic tiny arguments which somehow keep the house of cards from appearing as such.

    Where violence, fraud, and parasitical self/host destruction is adored or at least a given. And the only argument is whether (this time) to kill by gun (fighting for our freedom or humanitarian bombing, but murder we must!), neglect, abrogation of duty, oath, rule of law… or simply apply death by spreadsheet in numbers which would require a wall the size of the Vietnam Memorial be built each and every year to list the dead, another wall much larger to list the bankrupted fools who tried to play along, all while calling it an act of affordable care.

    It’s important to call things out like Gaius does here, but the important response at least in the activist arena I think it’s clear future skunk platforms must be very specific, issue based in order to avoid the pitfalls of this klepto-language problem which politicians and their lackeys can so easily manipulate. Something(s) we can all raise a stink about without apology or compromise.

    Whether American conservative, liberal, progressive, or European Green to Socialist – The price of everything, valuing nothing… is THE game. If you can’t find an angle which embraces/justifies the premise and own/place a rent extracting meter for yourself… then get out or we will throw you out, turn you into a pumpkin whether it’s midnight or nay…. or worse.

    Get out of the house of cards… winter is here!

    1. Lambert Strether

      I’m not sure I completely agree. I do see the importance of, er, specific demands the political class can’t do semantic re-engineering on. However, I also think that neo-liberal language as such must also be assaulted, not merely evaded. That requires a replacement language — probably focused on the commons, not just their defense, but their dominance, both in term of values and concrete material benefits.

  11. Christopher D. Rogers

    Hailing from the UK, and hence imbued with European left-of-centre political beliefs, its difficult to understand the desire by some in the USA to either label themselves as “progressives”, or associated themselves with supposed “progressive” movements. Obviously, here in the UK and Western Europe many of our once proud left-of-centre political movements have been hijacked by neoliberals – Blair being the most obviously example of this.

    That said, its certainly not an insult to call yourself a “socialist” or associate yourself with socialist causes – of which, feminism, gay rights and other single issue causes are not socialist, nor socialist causes. How can they be given that under most common understandings of socialism, all are equal. In essence, its egalitarianism, and to abandon egalitarianism in favour of “single issue” causes has caused huge damage to left-of-centre groupings and their commitment to a more equal society with an active state and active citizenry.

    So lets drop the crud, the reality is, I see little difference between “Progressives” or, for want of a better word “Conservative Liberals”, be these neoliberals or neoconservatives.

    In a nutshell, grow some balls and state what you mean, namely, if you believe in a more just and equal society, then you are a socialist, to believe otherwise is an injustice to yourself and value system.

    Just remember, Socialism too come in many flavours, but its one common them is a sense of injustice, and a desire for a more just and equal society – something I don’t believe Progressives can achieve. Socialism can though – so I’ll stick to socialism and a belief in the commons.

    1. Jackrabbit


      You may not see it on your side of the pond, but there is a BIG difference between ‘progressives’ and ‘neo-lib’ / ‘neo-con’ on this side.

    2. Anarcissie

      The word socialism is one of the few that have been more roundly abused and turned to mush than liberal, conservative, Right, and Left. Most prominently, it is largely used to mean ‘economy centrally controlled by the government’, that is, ‘state capitalism’ as defined by Lenin. Which is almost the exact opposite of its original meaning — ownership and control of the means of production by the workers.

      The way in which political terms are continuously modified and turn into their opposites could be the basis of an interesting sociolinguistic study.

      1. Cassiodorus

        Well, if it confuses the issue to call oneself a “socialist,” it does so far more to call oneself a “liberal” or a “progressive.” At least people will know where one stands on issues of economic justice if one is a “socialist.” “Liberals” and “progressives,” on the other hand, are usually people who want to look slightly better than Republican Calvinist types for the sake of their own ego-gratification.

        1. Banger

          That’s why the term “social-democrat” is more accurate than “progressive” since progressive could mean furthering the role of the corporate state if that is seen as an improvement. Social-democrat or democratic socialist (actually a better term) fits much of the sentiment of what is left of the left. Also, the term would have the virtue of forcing Obama supporters to admit they are not on the left.

  12. Massinissa

    Replace the word Progressivism in the title with Marxism and it makes so much more sense.

    Does anyone actually think the Progressives in the Progressive Caucus are anything except hyper-capitalists? Progressivism is dolled up Liberalism

  13. The Dork of Cork

    The progressives in Ireland hitched themselves onto the Health & Safety fetish in a big way.

    I think there is a link between these introduced memes and EU economic (scarcity)policy.

    For instance they increased the safey & auto maintenance standards to such a high level that people must retire perfectly functional 1990s era petrol cars simply because of the added cost of operations both directly for yearly compulsory car health checks and from Insurance companies who will now simply not insure old cars for anything other then highway robbery.

    Also we had a notoriously neo – liberal minister by the name of Mary Harney who many on the left now think did some good by introducing a coal fire burning ban in urban areas.

    I am sure both measures helped save the lives of many people but they also stripped all of some redundancy in their lives.
    As the Irish Gas company has now been sold to a British company this week these new gas people are now captured clients of the now fully privatized system of distribution.
    We may see no change in Gas prices but almost certainly the wages in this company will decline and a greater % of revenue goes to profits in London or god knows where further reducing Irish wage based domestic demand in return for more credit based products to fill the money void created.

  14. Christopher D. Rogers

    Lets see what “from Mexico” has to say on this theme, although Dork from Cork has quite a good angle today.

    In relation to Marx or Marxism, a wonderful critique of the nineteenth century Liberal State, regretfully, Marx failed to layout a comprehensive post capitalistic framework, preferring a withering away of the state once a “Communist” society had been won via revolutionary means, which is a shame because the history of how planet may have been quite different from the cesspit we find ourselves in where greed is encouraged to the degree of destroying our own planet.

    Not sure how other posters feel, but Jill Stein and the US Green Party seem the closest to any “socialist” ideal the US has at present – just a shame that when given the opportunity, so few actually voted for her and opted once more for Obama and the continuation of the neoliberal trajectory you chaps have been on since Clinton – I’d add Reagan, but twas not Reagan who negotiated NAFTA, rather it was Bush Senior and Clinton. The rest is history as they say.

    1. rps

      I’d add Reagan, but twas not Reagan who negotiated NAFTA…….
      NAFTA needed a foundation in order to become a reality and previous presidents actions were part of the – methodical bricklaying in the demonizing organized labor. Good ole southern prez anti-union peanut man Carter set the stage for Ronnie Raygun, Voodoo Poppy Spook and Slick Willie. Without Carter’s federal intrusion into private sector collective bargaining that was patently unfair and of doubtful legality in the Chyrsler bailout and invoking the Taft-Hartley Act in an effort to crush a 1978 national coal strike; there wouldn’t have been a snowball’s chance in hell of sweatshop Ronnie Raygun taking out the air-traffic controllers.
      These deliberate actions were the lynchpin in dismantling workers rights and in turn destroying middle-class income. Cost of living increases were replaced with APR compounded daily debt servitude disguised by nifty plastic “I’m a member cards!” The anti-FDR plan was set and the destruction of organized labor was promoted with the sing-a-long chant of cheaper goods. Unfortunately, in the rush for cheap goods, the American public’s’ cognitive dissonance did not equate cheap = cheap labor = destruction of the middle class. From there Spookie pursued anti-labor policies – and spearheaded pro-Nafta negotiations, Thus, he carried on the dismantling of the fairly new post-FDR & Eleanor pro-citizen American lifestyle back to elitist Corporatism. Lastly, there’s the Big Dog Wolf republican wearing roll-over democrat sheep clothing – Slick Willie who pushed through NAFTA. From there Dubya’s CAFTA and so on.

      “Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of the day, but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate, systematic plan of reducing [a people] to slavery” Thomas Jefferson. Rights of British America, 1774 ME 1:193, Papers 1:125

      1. Christopher D. Rogers

        I concur 100% with the timelines and Presidents mentioned – where I disagree fundamentally is with our start date for neoliberalism on steroids and this date, 1991 coincides with the collapse of the Soviet Union and election of Clinton as President – NAFTA was high on the agenda in that election, hence Perot and the split within the right allowing Clinton to sneak in.

        Again though, I emphasise the collapse of the Soviet Union and consequential ascendency of neoliberalism within all of the West’s political groupings, be they to the right or the left.

        Once an alternative political and economic model to Western Capitalism had been removed our neocon and neoliberal friends unleashed their full force upon the world – look at GATT changing to WTO and all other shit suffered since the collapse of Communism in the East.

        Hence my personal preference for 1991as the date the New World Order was unleashed upon us unsuspecting Left-of-Centre types.

  15. n

    Who is the founder of “progressivism”? What is its history? (Don’t mention LaFollette or any of that–it would be anachronistic.) The word is for people who can’t say “leftist.” And that is many of us much of the time. But don’t pretend it’s anything but a tactic of retreat.

  16. Jackrabbit

    Women, Minorities, Workers, LBGT, the Poor, the elderly, etc. used to make common cause. Today, they are nothing more than predatory special interests that gather around the Democratic Party’s watering hole. There is less common cause and more ‘what’s-in-it-for-me?’.

    Marginal gains (as in gains at the margin) are all that matter to these ‘establishment liberals’. They don’t really care about the big picture. They are easily manipulated and compromised by the neo-lib/corporate faction of the Democratic Party that runs the show because they can source the money.

    Progressive is a broad term. But I feel that progressives today, have a narrow agenda that consists mainly of climate change, campaign finance reform, and economic inequality.

    = = =

    Progressives have always been the ones with the vision for a better society and moral principles. To my understanding, the difference between progressives and socialists is that progressives more readily accept capitalism.

    1. Christopher D. Rogers

      You don’t hear too many “progressives” talking about class, and yet Capitalism is a class-based society where the majority are, and always will be, working class. The beauty of our new politics and ascendency of neoliberalism is the replacement of ‘class’ with notions of individualism and promotion of rampant consumerism – I’ll mention one President here where the crud began in the USA, one Woodrow Wilson and his attacks upon the working class and working class representative bodies. Oh, and Wilson allegedly was a “Progressive” US President – which history dictates he most clearly was not.

      Time for a Veblen moment me thinks.

    2. Jackrabbit

      D’oh! other concerns: healthcare, peace, and privacy.

      What I was trying to get at is that these issues are broader than identity.

    1. Christopher D. Rogers


      I agree wholeheartedly with that comment – time to abandon the term “progressive”, it gets us no where. In a nutshell, whether we like it or not, only real left-of-centre alternatives offer hope.

      Hence, give me socialism any day of the week, which is far more “utilitarian” than anything on offer today by our so called “leaders” – all corrupted to a man I’m ashamed to say.

    2. human

      We are, for the most part, radicals here. We understand that the system is not broken. It works as designed.

      I had a Social Sciences teacher in 9th grade who made a point about it not being linear. His premise was that it is circular, and the more left and right you go, they eventually meet around back!

      1. JTFaraday


        I do believe that over on the “we’re all commodities” thread, even socialist feminist Nancy Fraser– one of the few academics who has actually considered how toxic our entirely naturalized division of labor really is for a democratic society– hypothesizes that “it is better to be exploited cleaning the public toilets at the new school, than not be exploited cleaning the public toilets at the new school.”

        It’s all very disconcerting.

    3. Banger

      Thank you and Amen. The word should be dropped since it is also meaningless if you think about because it depends on your definition of progress.

  17. XO

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    It seems to me that the difference is between ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘classical liberalism’ (the latter now being called ‘progressivism’, after Reagan rebranded classical liberalism as, “. . . the ‘L’ word . . .” (as if it were a combination of mental retardation and a turd stuck to the shoe of society).

  18. Jackrabbit

    Obama wants to get out in front of the inequality parade. As a servant of TPTB, he dutifully attempts to hijack the conversation and direct people away from more appropriate measures like tax increases on the wealthy.

    In both his MLK day speech and his latest speech, he talks around the issues and proposes minor changes to the minimum wage. As enticement to ‘buy-into’ this vision he dazzels his audience with ‘exceptionalism’ bullsh!t – lauding America’s capitalist history and progressive victories of the past.

    TPTB/Obama NON-solutions: 1) a minimum wage that is sufficient for TWO working parents to raise a child above the poverty threshold (what of single people?). 2) Massive ‘gives’ to the ‘job-creators’, like TPP, that entice them to create lots of such low-wage jobs.

  19. Steven Greenberg

    I am reading the book “Death of the Liberal Class” by Chris Hedges. It is very interesting to compare the discussion in the Virtually Speaking podcast with what is in the book. I think the two complement each other and fill in some of the holes in each presentation. Hedges highlights the evil intent during the run up to WW I and afterwards a little bit more than the discussion in the Virtually Speaking podcast.

    Reading the book, this blog post, and listening to the podcast helps me clarify my own views and where they come from.

    I guess I am truly liberal in ways that I did not understand before. I do believe that big government is not desirable except for the fact that it needs to be big enough to reign in big capitalism. Of course there is a role for making the investments in society that no other entity can make but government.

    In general, big concentrations of power are dangerous, but I do not subscribe to the naivete of libertarians that if one side disarms, all will just turn out peachy. When the power of one side gets too large compared to the power of the other side, then their needs to be an effort to rebalance. I don’t know how to avoid the inevitable ratcheting up of concentrated powers balancing against each other.

  20. Waking Up

    Interesting article. Always thought of “classic liberalism” along the lines of social or FDR style liberalism. Does “classic liberalism” equate to libertarian? Since I have never liked equating my belief systems to someone else (FDR, Reagan, Clinton neo-liberals, etc.), it’s probably best if I don’t label myself and instead just provide my opinions on specific issues. Having said that, I still believe the public needs to understand there is a HUGE difference between an FDR Liberal and a neo-liberal.

    1. Waking Up

      Skip my question…it was answered in the article.

      “First, the united concepts of “limited government” and “liberty of individuals.” Second, that those twin concepts are the essence of modern “libertarianism” as well.”

  21. The Dork of Cork

    I think if both elements of the left and right know and understand that the purpose of the capitalist economy is not to produce goods and services then we can get somewhere with possibly a true sense of progression in the sense of moving out of this scarcity hellhole and all that.

    Imagine a world in which this is understood.!!!!
    People who wish to charge for water in Ireland of all places will be laughed out of town for talking the nonsense that it is.
    There was a Dutch energy economist based in Ireland who pushed this programme.!! meanwhile he wanted a LNG liquid Nat gas terminal in Ireland so that the free banks could waste more energy on junk !!!!
    A he called himself a environmentalist
    To be treated with such contempt deserves a equal measure of contempt,
    His teachings was based on money as if it were a real physical good and not on the physical economy as if the average Dork could not read a energy balance sheet.

    We are living in a quite insane world.
    In such a world only the people labelled crazy are truly sane.

    1. Waking Up

      “… he called himself a environmentalist.”

      Perhaps your comment gets to the essence of the problem. Propaganda and labeling is used to such an extent that terminology loses its meaning over time. When BP spewed a deluge of oil into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico for days and then turns around with media ads showing images of how environmentally friendly they are, you know “labels” mean very little. When Barack Obama talked about “transparent government” and has indicted more “whistleblowers” than all other Presidents, “labels” mean very little. When Barack Obama is called a “socialist” as he calls for reductions in Social Security and Medicare, no criminal indictments of Bank CEO’s and has a “kill list”, then some people probably do not understand the terms being used. Maybe we have been so inundated with propaganda that it’s losing its value and people will eventually distrust “labels” in general.

  22. JTFaraday

    I agree that “FDR liberalism” carries only very weak critique of capitalism, and also perhaps one that does not transcend the historical moment of its origins very well, as it ultimately revolves around–and even fetishizes– a particular set of policy ideas that worked (for at least some strata of the population) in one broadly capitalist social economic formation that might not work so well in another.

    But it seems to me that this “progressivism” that allegedly does have some “critique of capitalism” is very ill defined. Who or what is meant by this?

    1. Fiver

      Well, my sense of who self-labels as “progressive” was shaped by HuffPo, which turned out to be quite different things depending on whether an election loomed. Not much to choose between a “progressive” and the last “liberal” on Earth, Paul Krugman – a “liberal” now so far behind the front lines he’s blue-shifted considerably, while “progressives” may be a tad more interested in anti-war and “green” issues.

  23. susan the other

    Since Liberalism can’t exist without a free and open market, and since neoliberalism and progressivism are offshoots derived from Liberalism it appears that the vocabulary is the last thing to change. No laissez faire nonsense exists today because their 2-century long experiment failed – in fact failed to make them a sufficient profit. Funny. Private producers are now subsidized by the state – that’s socialism, and consumers have no choice whatsoever – that’s feudalism. We really have chaos for a social contract. It would be good to go back to hard words like socialism and communism just to vet politicians. Any politician who has trouble with hard terms is a quisling. Obama being the most egregious example in modern history, I’m sure. I think it is possible he is as ignorant as he is glib. We need a new movement, maybe the Justice Movement.

    1. Lambert Strether

      No it’s not feudalism. There’s no notion of a “consumer” in feudalism, for the same reason there’s no such thing as “courtly love” in the centers of power today; these social-relations are contextual and specific to times and places. I understand the outrage, but sloppy analysis gets us no forrader. We don’t have any money, so we’d better be smart, right?

      1. TarheelDem

        There are some neo-feudal mythologies and social relationships in current capitalism. The “divine right of bosses” to own your total life (an extreme example is the assertion of Hobby Lobby over contraception). The transcendence of Westphalian nationalism implicit in NAFTA, the WTO, and the expected terms of the Trans-Pacific Partnership provide the stripping of any countervailing power to the divine right of bosses. Employees, small vendors, and communities are essentially exchanging loyalty and absolute obedience for economic security from their new liege lord, the corporation, and its prime minister the CEO.

      2. Banger

        I think he means “neo-feudalism” which is what we are moving towards as many people who are admired here maintain starting with Michael Hudson and Chris Hedges. Consumerism is a factor in our movement in that direction. I can expand on that but will not regurgitate arguments I’ve made before.

  24. TarheelDem

    In my view of it, liberalism traces back to John Locke, who was keen on property and Thomas Paine, who was keen on the rights of man but glossed over property. It was Paine whose ideas influenced the American and French Revolution. And it was the failure of this liberalism to exert influence over industrial capitalism that caught Karl Marx’s attention and critical thinking. Only in response to Marx’s critique did utilitarianism claim roots in Adam Smith and assert itself as economic liberalism. Smith’s argument was essentially anti-mercantilist.

    In the US progressives were a political coalition of post-Civil war reformist groups that included the union movement, the suffrage movement, urban political reform movement, direct democracy movment, the eugenics movement, the universal education movement, and the scientific progress movement. It aimed at trust-busting and liberalizing money. It aimed at de-politicization of technical decisions through institution of civil service and professionalization of public administration. It aimed at cleaning up urban politics through end corruption and the operation of political machines. And it aimed at “social uplift” of the lower classes (exposing its fundamental base in the upper middle class liberal social gospel religious, including the prohibition and temperance movement).

    Bolshevism in Russia came as a shock to the progressive movement and progressive Woodrow Wilson and Mitchell Palmer used the occasion of terrorist bombings to conduct the Palmer Raids against German immigrants and suppress anything to the left of Samuel Gompers.

    FDR understood himself as governor to be a progressive reformer countering the influence of Tammany Hall in New York politics (yet had to accommodate himself to Tammany Hall enough to win re-election). In 1932, in proposing a federal government New Deal, Roosevelt was pushing for more government involvement, but tried to draw a line against accusations of Bolshivism by claiming the Tom Paine “liberal” label. Thus did modern American liberalism get born.

    In another irony, a lot of socialists and communists survived the McCarthy period by becoming “progressives”. In the 1950’s, it was true that liberalism (especially Eisenhower liberalism) did not carry the critique of capitalism that progressivism (or Progressivism) does. And in the 1960’s, the New Left and the anti-Communist and agrarian populist modern conservatism destroyed all the categories all over again.

    We are in a time in which we need to discuss principles and policies and save the labels for the marketing-obsessives. There is no liberalism or progressivism apart from the confused inter-relationship between the two and the folks who label themselves one or the other. In the US, the progressive movement of a century ago did not carry the critique of capitalism; folks could honestly call themselves socialists and communists without the stigma of association with the Soviet Union because the USSR did not yet exist. The progressive movement of 60 years ago did carry the critique of capitalism because that is where those people with even mildly Marxian analysis hung out.

      1. TarheelDem

        Political language changes dialectically just like pronunciation does. Over time, definitions shift without the political semantics or pronunciation police to keep them in line.

      2. Jeff W


        I wholeheartedly agree. The comment is, in fact, better than the post itself.
        Gaius Publius:

        The historian Kevin C. Murphy discusses his view of the differences between what modern “progressives” believe and what most modern “liberals” believe.

        It’s a strange, confusing interview because it seems to conflate the historical usages of the terms “liberal” and ”progressive” with how people today use them and—if, on the one hand, as Kevin Murphy says straight off, Hilary Clinton is labeling herself a “progressive” to run away from the word “liberal,” and, on the other, someone calling him- or herself “Liberal Librarian” makes the (ostensibly serious) assertion that “Obama is the most liberal president since Franklin Roosevelt”—then whatever “distinction” sought between what most “modern [self-labeled] ‘progressives’ believe and…most modern [self-labeled] ‘liberals’ believe” is non-existent because the labels themselves don’t amount to much.

        We are in a time in which we need to discuss principles and policies…

        Exactly—and, the typical discussion centering on the role of government (“big government”) is invariably a hopeless, confused mess. (See, for example, Dean Baker’s take on how conservatives “don’t object to big government, they object to government programs that help poor and middle class people.”)

        Much closer to reality is Corey Robin’s succinct view of conservatism as “the theoretical voice of…animus against the agency of the subordinate classes” (which aligns rather neatly with Baker’s observation and which no conservative wants to acknowledge) and this rather lengthy discussion by Daniel de Groot on the meaning of “liberalism” through the ages—essentially, “as many people as possible should have as much autonomy as feasible”—an interesting complement to Robin’s view of conservatism. One might have different opinions of the role of capitalism within that umbrella “liberalism” (giving rise to whatever distinction, if any, there is between self-styled “liberals” and “progressives,” as Murphy uses the terms) but the underlying principle, that of more autonomy for more people, remains the same.

        1. Banger

          I tend to view politics as a dynamic system and tend to not be impressed by ideology that much. There are forces who wish to keep everything stable and make sure the system is robust and tend to repress divergent views (conservatives) and those who wish to open up the system to new approaches and include more diversity of views (liberals). In today’s political situation Obama and the Democrats are, mainly, conservatives and the Republicans are more open to new ideas and diverse thinking. I know people howl when I say such things but that is the systems approach. In terms of preserving the ruling elites both parties are, fundamentally, conservative.

          Of course, I’m being crude here. I ignore “progressives” because there is no such thing–the terms as I’ve said elsewhere, begs the question–where are we progressing to? Where does Hilary want to take us? Not to a peaceful more egalitarian state as other “progressives” believe–that’s not her thing–what her thing is I don’t have a clue other than it involves imperialism and the continued domination of the country by Wall Street.

          1. Jeff W

            There are forces who wish to keep everything stable and make sure the system is robust and tend to repress divergent views (conservatives) and those who wish to open up the system to new approaches and include more diversity of views (liberals).

            I’m not sure I agree with that. At one level of analysis, it’s right—the hardcore neo-Maoists within China are indeed conservatives (and referred to as such) within the Chinese frame of reference—but I think we’re talking about a more substantive view of liberalism.

            Right now I’m reading the piece “How The Oligarchy Gets Politicized,” suggested by neretva’43 upthread, which says this:

            The New Deal/Great Society period saw increasing redistribution from capital to labor.…
            Johnson and a Democratic Congress passed new or strengthened laws, mainly around consumer and environmental issues, that cut into business profits by forcing corporations to absorb some of the costs they had previously externalized onto the rest of us.

            In less than four years Congress enacted the Truth In Lending Act, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the National Gas Pipeline Safety Act, the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, the Flammable Fabrics Act, the federal Meat Inspection Act and the Child Protection Act. Whew.

            Business-government relations had never before seen such an avalanche of legislation limiting the freedom of capital in the interests of working people.

            What made all this especially unnerving in the eyes of Big Wealth was that even the Republicans seemed to have swallowed the redistributionist line.

            New Deal liberalism was the status quo in the 1960s. To that extent, supporting it was, in some sense, conservative. The response to it, exemplified in the Powell Memo—which might be construed as a “new approach” or as “including more diversity of views,” those of the business élite—doesn’t strike me as an example of liberalism.

            …the Republicans are more open to new ideas and diverse thinking.

            The only thing that I will grant the Republicans is being more creative (= dishonest) in spinning their ideas in novel ways. Ultimately, their positions fit squarely within Corey Robin’s definition—being against the agency of the subordinate classes. The genius of the Republicans, the masters of exploiting “last place aversion,” is getting some of those subordinate classes to vote against their own interests in being against the agency of other subordinate classes.

    1. LucyLulu

      And being typically US-centric, it was surprising to me to learn that there was an active communist party in French politics, apparently throughout much of Europe, that anchored the left end of the political spectrum. Members of the communist party in continental European countries weren’t winning major elections, but they also didn’t carry the stigma reflexively attached by US citizens of being unpatriotic and wishing harm upon one’s country, other than the typical disdain held by those at the opposing end of the political spectrum.

      McCarthy, along with his new BFF Darryl Issa, and their war on Obama-communism, would have been a perfect fit for today’s tools of mass domestic surveillance and counter-terrorism.

    2. susan the other

      Thank you Tarheel. Very interesting breakdown. The progressives that I think of are the Gilded Age and early 20th c. ones. They saw the great inequality created by laissez faire capitalism and reacted to it. By then Marx’s theory was well known and a threat to the capitalist world. Progressives were undoubtedly funded by wealthy circles in an effort to inoculate themselves against socialism (I always assumed). It’s a classic pattern of behavior. Those progressives sought to make society more equitable and just – a good thing – but they did not advocate any restrictions against the robber barons. In fact trustbusting (a battle of the super rich and the almost rich?) just made Rockefeller 10 times richer and more powerful.

  25. Justina Sharps

    Publius’ discussion overlooks the work of George Kolko and James Weinstein:

    Weinstein, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State: 1900-1918 :

    “…Liberalism in the Progressive Era–and since–was the product, consciously created, of the leaders of the giant corporations and financial institutions….”

    Kolko, Triumph of Conservatism:

    “…The period from approximately 1900 until the United States’ intervention in the war, labeled the ‘progressive’ era by virtually all historians, was really an era of conservatism. … There were any number of options involving governement and economics abstractly available to national political leaders during the period 1900-1916, and in virtually every case they chose those solutions to problems adocatied by the representatives of concerned business and financial interests.”

  26. Anarcissie

    ‘We are in a time in which we need to discuss principles and policies and save the labels for the marketing-obsessives. There is no liberalism or progressivism apart from the confused inter-relationship between the two and the folks who label themselves one or the other.’

    There is a sociology and psychology of people who call themselves ‘progressives’ and believe the label has meaning.

    For some of the roots of progressivism as described in the second paragraph above, those who can find the book might want to look at The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J. Adams, which deals with the confluence of temperance, vegetarianism, socialism, women’s rights, conservation, uplift, and so on in the second half of the 19th century.

  27. Jack Parsons

    I dislike progressives because they vilify the people, not the structure that selects for the people.

    As to capitalism: framing once again is key. There is ‘industrial capitalism’ and ‘financial capitalism’ (or ‘financialism’). Industrial cap is where you give me money and I build a factory and sell stuff, and you own the factory. You care about the longevity of the factory. You can also lend me the money, and I own the factory (sort of). You don’t care that much about the longevity of the factory as long as you get your money back (someday), but you do understand that continued reinvestment can make it more likely that you get your money back. Financial capitalism is where you lend me money and I lend it someone else. They may build a factory, or continue the lending chain. You have no direct connection with the factory. This lack of connection makes you completely indifferent to whether the end borrower is building up or being bled.

    A major framing trick of modern politico-economics is to conflate these two: to claim that slicing & dicing loans is as important to a healthy economy as building factories (or flipping burgers) is asinine, as It furthers the distance and consequent indifference to industrial reinvestment. With appropriate banking&tax policies financialism can bleed an economy dry in short order. And that is the US since 1980.

    1. The Dork of Cork

      In a capitalist society money is not given.
      Credit / debt is given.

      “In order to appreciate why this is so, let us recall the definition of the Capitalist State : “A society in which the ownership of the means of production is confined to a body of free (economic) citizens not large enough to make up properly a general character of that society , while the rest are dispossessed of the means of production and are therefore proletarian , we call capitalist ”

  28. squasha

    to name was to control long before modern recursive branding made greased-up water weenies of any and all attempted labels & frames. comparing, contrasting, splicing and dicing are all delightful features of executive functions, but perhaps it would be more useful & exciting to retreat back a step into a more specific, less pixilated category.

  29. Leeskyblue

    “liberal” is a perfectly good word with a consistent generic meaning. Over many centuries. it defies the many attempts to co-opt or monkey with it’s concept.

    Liberalism is a demanding word for skepticism and critical analysis, for independent thinking. Liberalism IS progressivism with a caution.

    Our nation is NOT capitalist and was not conceived to be. Nor is it socialist, nor so conceived.
    We are a system of checks and balances, hundreds, maybe thousands of them. A generic liberal respects above all his opposite, the generic conservative who is forever on guard against the accumulation of inordinate power in the hands of ANYBODY.
    To respect that polarity is the textbook of Americanism, to believe we are NEVER to be perfect but always potentially improvable. And THAT in turn is humanism.

    No other -ism yet created can do all that.

  30. Jim

    What if American progressivism was primarily a “counter-revolution” being largely interested in reforming American society only from the top down– in order to deflect populism, labor radicalism (think of the how progressives and social democrats united in their opposition to the IWW) and other potentially revolutionary movements?

    What if Walter Lippmann’s attitude (developed in the 1920s though a series of books) that the general public should leave questions of substance to experts with supposed access to scientific knowledge–is what progressivism has explicitly and proudly become(think John Podesta and his think-tank crew)?

    1. Jerome Armstrong

      That certainly was in work with ACA, and it’s machinations.

      If there is a common thread through American progressivism and it’s resurgences via it’s 3 or 4 moments of mass political identity usage over the last 120 years, it hasn’t been well revealed. Whereas, we can certainly see the common thread that runs trough populist uprisings of being ignored, deflected, or stomped upon.

  31. Fiver

    At a time when our degree of “progress” could not be more in doubt, and considering that technology driven by capitalism is the path that brought us here, I have grave difficulty seeing it leading us out.

    However, perhaps it’s a question of how you pitch it:

    “The effort involved in saving ourselves is stupendous. We’ve named it ‘The Do You Wanna Live Project’. Now, listen up. Every single one of us needs to believe in that Project with all our hearts. Get with it or get over it, ’cause this really is the only game in town. Are You a believer?! You bet you’re a believer !!”

  32. Walter Map

    Words no longer have their dictionary meanings. The meanings of words have been ‘adjusted’ to suit political agendas and personal biases. Rush Limbaugh and various leftists, including real leftists and poseurs, for example, have succeeded in transforming the word ‘liberal’ to mean ‘fascist’.

    So I can’t be a ‘liberal’ any more, that is, a person favoring a liberated, free, enlightened, just, peaceful, and prosperous society. And if I can’t be that sort of person, then I really can’t be anything.

    Here is there, and high is low.
    All may seem undone.
    What is true, no two men know.
    What is gone, is gone.

    “It is easy to belittle the eccentric theorist, but the poet must not be deprecated.”

  33. denim

    Very interesting article. However, the author is up against a fundamental problem in the use of language. Abstracting an ideology that would fill libraries into a single word or two is hard to do. Most of the audience would have no background knowledge that that the author provides here. Therefore, don’t try to be brief.

  34. Dan Kervick

    I think a key theme of the early 20th century progressive movement was that laissez faire capitalism, left to its own devices, had natural tendency to evolve in the direction of monopoly organization, socio-economic inequality, concentration of capital, financial instability, corporate domination of everyday life and the erosion of democracy and community. Thus strong, energetic and activist democratic governments were needed to tame market forces, subordinate them to the public interest and wage permanent battle against new emergences of concentrated capital power.

    But progressivism had a strong element of democratic nationalism and a pronounced pro-government orientation that a lot of people who self-describe as “progressives” these days seem to repudiate. I think the experience of the two recent major American wars – Vietnam and Iraq – has pushed the descendants of the progressive movement into a more individualistic, voluntarist and resolutely anti-government posture. A lot of progressives these days regard the United States government as the Evil Empire and history’s greatest monster, so the whole notion of seizing political control over it is fraught with irreconcilable ambivalence.

  35. Synoia

    This is semantic hair splitting.

    What’s needed is a good dose of socialism. Starting with the Banks. Put the fear of loss into the big company management.

  36. Tony Wikrent

    it is crucial to note that the economic philosophy of liberalism in the 18th and 19th centuries was aimed at freeing enterprise from the clutches of an hierarchical oligarchy in the dying phases of feudalism, while the neo-liberalism of today is aimed at freeing enterprise from oversight of republican democracies that, as political institutions, are the highest expression of the public will and general welfare humanity has so far achieved. Where the former was eroding the power of oligarchs to rule, the latter is eroding the power of the people to rule.

    This is why I think you cannot have an adequate discussion of USA political economy without referencing the classical ideas of republicanism that informed the creation of the United States. In our founding era, there was prolonged inquiry into what different forms of government were possible. There was monarchy, aristocracy, dictatorship, democracy, and a republic. A republican form of government was selected because it was the least likely to devolve into despotism. When Franklin was asked what form of government the Constitutional Convention had framed, he replied, “A republic – if you can keep it.”

    At the nation’s founding, it was generally understood that all economic activity must be directed toward the task of nation building. (And if you’re not helping build a nation with what you’re doing, then how can you possibly claim that what you’re doing is good for anybody?) In The Foundations of American Economic Freedom: Government and Enterprise in the Age of Washington (1973, University of Minnesota Press), EAJ Johnson wrote:

    The general view, discernible in contemporaneous literature, was that the responsibility of government should involve enough surveillance over the enterprise system to ensure the social usefulness of all economic activity. It is quite proper, said [Maryland planter and pamphleteer John Beale] Bordley, for individuals to “choose for themselves” how they will apply their labor and their intelligence in production. But it does not follow from this that “legislators and men of influence” are freed from all responsibility for giving direction to the course of national economic development. They must, for instance, discountenance the production of unnecessary commodities of luxury when common sense indicates the need for food and other essentials. Lawmakers can fulfill their functions properly only when they “become benefactors to the public”; in new countries they must safeguard agriculture and commerce, encourage immigration, and promote manufactures. Admittedly, liberty “is one of the most important blessings which men possess,” but the idea that liberty is synonymous with complete freedom from restraint “is a most unwise, mistaken apprehension.” True liberty demands a system of legislation that will lead all members of society “to unite their exertions” for the public welfare. It should therefore be the policy of government to aid and foster certain activities or kinds of business that strengthen a nation, even as it should be the duty of government to repress “those fashions, habits, and practices, which tend to weaken, impoverish, and corrupt the people.”

    Gordon S. Wood elaborates in The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787:

    The sacrifice of individual interests to the greater good of the whole formed the essence of republicanism and comprehended for Americans the idealistic goal of their Revolution. From this goal flowed all of the Americans’ exhortatory literature and all that made their ideology truly revolutionary….

    From the logic of belief that “all government… is or ought to be, calculated for the general good and safety of the community,” …followed the Americans’ unhesitating adoption of republicanism in 1776. The peculiar excellence of republican government was that it was “wholly characteristical of the purport, matter or object for which government ought to be instituted.” By definition it had no other end than the welfare of the people: res publica, the public affairs, or the public good. “The word republic, said Thomas Paine, “means the public good, or the good of the whole, in contradistinction to the despotic form, which makes the good of the sovereign, or of one man, the only object of government.”

    ….In a republic “each individual gives up all private interest that is not consistent with the general good, the interest of the whole body.” For the republican patriots of 1776 the commonweal was all encompassing—a transcendent object with a unique moral worth that made partial considerations fade into insignificance. “Let regard be had only to the good of the whole” was the constant exhortation by publicists and clergy. Ideally, republicanism obliterated the individual. “A Citizen,” said Sam Adams, “owes everything to the Commonwealth.” “Every man in a republic,” declared Benjamin Rush, “is public property. His time, his talents—his youth—his manhood—his old age—nay more, life, all belong to his country.” “No man is a true republican,” wrote a Pennsylvanian in 1776, “that will not give up his single voice to that of the public.” (pp. 53-61)

    One manifestation of this ideology was that corporate charters were strictly circumscribed as to what a company could, and when it could do it. There are a number of cases where a company was not able to build a railroad or canal in the time specified by the legislature in its charter, and the charter was revoked, its property seized by the state, and given to a new company. An article in the Harvard Law Review, 1989, notes that this republican oversight of corporate charters began to end in the 1820s, when many states began to adopt laws of general incorporation, and their legislatures withdrew from direct writing and granting of company charters.

    Neo-liberalism in economic policies can never be anything else but an abdication – a repudiation, really – of this Revolutionary concept of republicanism.

    It is only with a thorough understanding of the political economy of a republic, that you can begin to appreciate the immense importance of the idea of the general welfare being written into the Constitution not once, but twice.

    By contrast, the words “capitalism” “capitalist” or “capitalistic” never appear in the Constitution. Not once. Neither do they appear in The Federalist Papers. (There is a website with the full text of The Federalist Papers that is searchable, and I did the searches on it a month or two ago).

    1. JerseyJeffersonian

      Excellent historical overview of the understanding of the Republic in the earliest times of the nation. A valuable side note on the highly circumscribed role assigned to corporations in early America. One must suspect that this was likely in reaction to the rampant mercantilism prosecuted by British corporations against the colonists, clearly not beneficial to the wider society, but strictly with the interests of a narrowly-held, elitist-controlled corporations in mind. Tightly controlled issuance of corporate charters, and government oversight of the socially useful discharge of the stated objectives of the corporate charters was an outgrowth of this bad experience by the citizenry.

      Recall also the observation of Tocqueville of the centrality of voluntary citizen associations in the lives of communities. Citizens not only possessed agency, but expected that it was part of their citizenship responsibilities to exercise it in communal affairs beyond merely voting.

      It is, however, wise to balance any giddy worship of the society of the time by remembering that the franchise was far more restrictive, being mostly limited to property-owning white men, while laborers, women, indentured servants, and slaves were on the outside looking in. Thus, the seeds of a self-perpetuating elitist social organization were there from the beginning, and given the negative opinions oft expressed by the Founding Fathers on Democracy, likely there by design.

Comments are closed.