Progress, Or Restoration? Which Way For The Left?


YOU GOTTA LOVE the pseudonyms people come up with. “Pope Punctilious II”, for example, combines orthodoxy and accuracy, with just a hint of the nit-picker. Not a bad combination of talents to bring to the wild and woolly business of political analysis. The comment he appended to my lastDaily Blog post really set me thinking:

“One beef with this article. Trotter claims the country’s current isn’t ‘progressive’, suggesting he’s still attached to a word which has become thoroughly disreputable. I wonder, do we need ‘progressive’ policies, or ‘restorative’ policies?

Progress or Restoration? That struck me as a particularly interesting question.

Does human progress actually have an end-point? Or, is it something that goes on forever? And, if it is continuous, then what will happen to us? If every aspect of the human experience is subject to improvement, then, surely, it is at least theoretically possible that the species will one day “progress” to a point where it becomes something else – something non-human? And is that really what most human-beings want?

A few years ago, I recall watching an animated propaganda film from the Soviet era. It anticipated the evolution of “Soviet Man” – a superhuman being capable of subduing all things to his will. Although it was clearly intended to be inspiring, the film struck me as horrific. Its Soviet makers defined super-humanity as the power to subordinate the whole material world (i.e. the planet) completely to Soviet Man’s progressive will. His monstrous machines consumed forests, straightened rivers, levelled mountains and drained seas. Nothing was impossible. The film ended with Soviet Man boarding the ultimate machine, an interstellar spacecraft. Off he went to spread his planet-consuming socialism across the universe.

But, before all you conservative readers out there start shaking your heads knowingly and getting ready to tap out a comment identifying the above story as just one more example of the historical and moral bankruptcy of socialism, I would invite you to pause, and think.

How different, really, is the vision of those “progressive” Soviet animators from the vision of today’s charismatic billionaires? The Bransons, the Bezoses, the Musks: aware of this planet’s imminent descent into the doom spiral predicted 50 years ago by the Club of Rome; haven’t they also succumbed to the fantasy of exporting their special brand of superhuman, hyper-capitalist, progressivism across the universe?

Is there a fatal flaw in progressivism?

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As with most things, the answer lies in its beginnings. The post upon which Pope Punctilious II was commenting, identified the emerging social-liberal revolution as the ideological defence mechanism of the Professional-Managerial Class (PMC). Tellingly, the “discoverers” of the PMC, American academics Barbara and John Ehrenreich, linked its rise to the related and simultaneous rise of the so-called “Progressive” movement in the United States:

“The generation entering managerial and professional roles between 1890 and 1920 consciously grasped the roles which they had to play. They understood that their own self-interest was bound up in reforming capitalism, and they articulated their understanding far more persistently and clearly than did the capitalist class itself. The role of the emerging PMC, as they saw it, was to mediate the basic class conflict of capitalist society and create a ‘rational’ reproducible social order […..] ‘Class harmony’ was the stated goal of many outstanding PMC spokespeople, and to many in the capitalist class as well, it was clear that ‘professionals’ could be more effective in the long run than Pinkertons [professional strike-breakers].”

So, Progressivism – far from being a simple synonym for “socialism” – was actually a way of entrenching the principles, and modernising the practices, of capitalism.

In the professional opinion of PMC reformers, the raucous and rowdy conduct of American democracy, with its “machine politicians” and their disreputable knack for “delivering”, in the most unprofessional (not to say corrupt) fashion, the big city, mostly working-class, immigrant vote, needed to be reduced to something altogether more manageable. Democracy, the Progressives argued, was much too important to be left to the people.

The “primary” system of winnowing candidates; the recall of governors; the placing of “propositions” on the ballot-paper: all of these were Progressive initiatives aimed at breaking the power of party caucuses, and curbing the influence of the men who wheeled and dealed in smoke-filled rooms.

New Zealand’s own progressives, gathered in the Liberal Party, were no less dedicated to professionalising capitalism than their American counterparts. New Zealand’s arbitration-based system of industrial relations was intended to obviate the need for union militancy. The Liberals may have attracted working-class voters, but socialists they most emphatically were not!

If the PMC was busy making plans for the proletariat’s own good, what ideas were driving the workers themselves? Were they “progressives” too? Or, were they actually more inspired by the notion of restoring to ordinary working people the independence and autonomy which they fervently believed to be the birthright of all “freeborn” human-beings.

Historians might quibble that the “rights and freedoms” which a great many industrial workers (especially in the English-speaking world) believed their forefathers had enjoyed were more imaginary than real. But, for English socialists like William Morris and Oscar Wilde, the “Revolution” was, emphatically, about a restoration of the social equilibrium and mutuality which many workers were convinced had characterised the pre-modern era. Morris’s focus on traditional craftsmanship, and his horror of the cheap, machine-produced, commodities pouring out of William Blake’s “dark satanic mills”, stands in sharp contrast to the “scientific socialism” of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

It is no accident that the vast working-class crowd which gathered outside Transport House (headquarters of the British Labour Party) to celebrate their historic electoral victory in 1945 did not sing “The Internationale”, or “The Red Flag”, but William Blake’s “Jerusalem”. And the words of Blake’s great poem do, indeed, have more about them of Pope Punctilious II’s “restorative” politics than anything today’s “progressive” politicians would own up to:

Bring me my bow of burning gold:

Bring me my arrows of desire:

Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire.


I shall not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.


  1. Musk, Branson and Bezos going into space is far more about ego, boredom and personal image marketing than anything as grand as interplanetary colonisation or even finding refuge from a collapsing environment.

    • Ada
      Assuming you are writing from NZ? The reason you are here is not magic or wind pollination. Someone, somehow, way way back invented and used something that got humans to this place. Way back then they may have called themselves Tane Branson? Or maybe Hone Musk? Whoever they were, they are no different to those three characters…they had the means and they said Let’s go!!!!

      • I like it. I really do. Humans will find a way, irrespective of who they are! It matters not what race, time, culture, technological levels, faiths, beliefs or what not. That is the fascinating thing about the study of humans / anthropology etc,…human beings, like the nature that surrounds them,… are awesome !

  2. Whether our destiny is dependent on us adopting policies that are either ‘progressive’ or ‘restorative’, as Chris discusses here, it seems, to me at least, he’s overlooking the elephant in the room – us.
    History strongly suggests that there has never been a time when our species has ever lived in any sort of real socially just equilibrium, which suggests, equally strongly, it’s unlikely we’ll ever do so in the future.
    It seems that by our very nature we are destined to be continually moving towards and then retreating from “Jerusalem.” And it may be that a better future for our species might only be found in us coming to terms with that. But then that’s what religion all about, and look at all the trouble that has caused.

    • philosophically probably right but we need practical solutions and social democracy seems like the least unfair and least oppressive answer, though far from perfect but what is?

    • ”…History strongly suggests that there has never been a time when our species has ever lived in any sort of real socially just equilibrium, which suggests, equally [as] strongly, it’s unlikely we’ll ever do so in the future”…

      That’s because we are, at our core, – despite what the utopian dreamers and humanists say, – the same old self seeking, survival based species we always were, and always will be. We are really not that much different from the mosquito, the elephant or the hedgehog,… all are out for a square meal, and for the easiest way to get it despite our high minded and ‘noble’ ideals with which we like to associate ourselves with.

      A wolf has more amoral virtue than us simply because there is no pretense or aspirations towards anything more! Alas we were given a ‘conscience!’.

      …”But then that’s what religion [is] all about, and look at all the trouble that has caused”…

      Is it. Is it really. One could argue that. Especially in light of the simple amoral conduct of the animal kingdom. Yet unlike the animal kingdom we have been endowed with something more, – along with an opposable thumb, and an overly large brain complete with [ by the natural worlds standards] a scrawny body,….we seem to have an advanced sense of right and wrong, one capable of perceiving justice and mercy, empathy and compassion, yet even the animals display simple traits such as these,…

      So what is it that makes the human condition different barring a seemingly more advanced state of self awareness?

      A conscience?,… and yet why do we hurtle headlong into self annihilation and planetary destruction? Surely an elephant or a silverback gorilla would not do these things? I think,… you hit upon it in part regarding ‘religion’. And I think, the answer to this conundrum, paradox and troublesome juxtaposition is an old fashioned, unpopular and so called ‘out of date’ concept ,- yet no less relevant,- ‘religious’ term called ‘SIN’.

      And there it is for all to see.

      Tough shite, aint it. Its called owning our own crap.

      • It really is the difficulty of finding balance – knowing where to stop, yet not resiling from stepping up to have a say, claim our share, when there is opportunity and the outcome will produce more advantage than the sum of the problems and inputs required to get a and take away that advantage, now or in the future. So that’s our problem, having a big brain which is required to be cunning and understand nuance, and make simple all the way to immense calculations.
        And knowing the meaning of ‘The game is not worth the candle’ would be useful.
        Google –
        This expression, which began as a translation of a term used by the French essayist Michel de Montaigne in 1580, alludes to gambling by candlelight, which involved the expense of illumination. If the winnings were not sufficient, they did not warrant the expense.
        The game is not worth the candle. – Idioms and phrases – › The+game+is+not

  3. We can theorise, hypothesise, ponder, debate and cogitate on the veil of lies that our politics and our economics is wallpapered over with which merely proves, to me anyway, that we’re not yet hungry enough to have the penny drop into the empty bucket.

    • Well if we aint careful all that’s gonna drop into those buckets are gonna be Moa gastroliths. Big Bird tells modern man ”you aint welcome on Sesame Street no more”.

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