The Conundrum of Progressivism

Progressivism, the view that modern political tendencies should continually be extended, has deep roots.

Its beginnings are closely connected to the rise of modern natural science, which rejects the contemplative ideal of knowledge in favor of prediction and control. This approach, which stresses observation, measurement, and mathematical modeling, has led to modern technology and industry. So it’s been enormously successful.

Progressivism likewise rejects contemplation in favor of control, and its most effective forms have favored hard-edged analysis aimed at radical social transformation. Marx expressed the approach forcefully: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

The triumph of the will through objective investigation and rational organization thus becomes an accepted guide to life. That approach has been nearly as effective in the social as the physical world. It’s given us modern economics, modern bureaucratic management, modern representative democracy, modern concepts of freedom and equality, and modern methods of thought control. These ways of doing things are intended to get the people who use them whatever they want, and they’ve swept all before them.


The modern project of which progressivism is part has thus been enormously successful. Even so, it’s led to problems. Its effectiveness comes from its narrowness, which ignores ultimate issues in favor of concrete problems and solutions. But ultimate issues often matter a great deal. If will is the standard, for example, whose will comes first? The will of some particular man? A particular class, race, or nation? The world’s people collectively? Or every individual equally? The question is crucial, but a one-sided focus on means rather than ends gives us no way to answer it.

It’s fictional to speak of the will of a large group, so if the will of a class or people is made the standard, the real standard will be the will of a leader or clique said to embody the group. As the supreme standard, the leader’s will then replaces normal standards of good, evil, and prudent conduct. That approach leads to irrationality, overreaching, and disaster. Hitler, Stalin, and the Khmer Rouge are stock examples.

Experience has therefore discredited fascism and Leninism. What’s left as a standard is either the will of the people of the world collectively, or the will of every person in the world individually. The first is a fiction, the second useless as a standard because individual wills clash. So the real standard becomes the will of whatever small group is strongest and best able to persuade people it can give them what they want.

That turns out to be billionaires and bureaucrats who are sufficiently aware of their common interests to act together. Such people run the media companies and educational system, so they’re in a position to promote the claim they advance everybody’s interests and make it difficult for others to dispute it effectively. In recent years even the Church has come to accept the claim, and now offers them her full cooperation, sometimes even at the expense of her claimed principles.

But the same problem applies to the current system as to other forms of political modernity. A narcissistic ruling class can’t give us a government with a solid claim to legitimacy and grip on the realities with which it must deal. Voter sentiment, together with the difficulties of keeping a ruling group together that lacks formal organization, exert somewhat of a moderating influence, but examples such as the sudden rise of transgenderism show how limited that influence can be. It seems then that our current rulers will also lose power through blindness and overreaching. We can see the process going on today in the growing irrationality of public discussion, and in the growth of populist, nationalist, and separatist movements.

Another problem with political modernity, which is even more basic than its inability to answer fundamental questions, is its inhospitality to the things people care about. These include family and religion, honor and loyalty, the good, beautiful, and true, and the community and culture that give us a stable connection to such things. In the world of modernity these things become idiosyncratic private tastes that have no business affecting public life, or else fictions that are ultimately incoherent, like the honor someone might claim as a Soviet officer or Planned Parenthood official.

So political modernity can’t give us a world ordered by institutions that attract love and loyalty. Instead, it gives us an industrial organization of human life, the claimed goal of which, in its liberal and progressive form, is satisfying everyone’s preferences as much and equally as possible. Within that system global markets and expert transnational bureaucracies have sole legitimate authority, and the people would ideally become interchangeable components of a social machine.

In spite of its inhumanity, the system has ideals: inclusiveness, tolerance, open borders, celebration of diversity, and so on. These are praised by all respectable voices today, including up-to-date churchmen, but their effect is less benign than commonly believed. Their intent is to suppress sexual, cultural, and religious distinctions throughout society, and it’s thought that would be a great advance for human rights. The effect, though, is to radically weaken connections, like family ties and religious and cultural community, that are intertwined with such distinctions.

It’s not surprising that a public order dominated by bureaucrats, billionaires, and their hangers-on should insist on ideals that suppress non-market and non-bureaucratic connections. Even so, a decent human life requires such connections. Those in a position to have careers can give their lives shape and function through careerism and high-end consumerism, but other people suffer severely from the loss of the normal ways—family, religion, inherited cultural community—in which people have always ordered their personal and social worlds.

So we have a system of government that rests on promises of freedom and democracy it can’t meet, and that increasingly destroys the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to live decent and productive lives. Worse, the system seems an unavoidable consequence of ways of thought and methods of organizing social life that are immensely effective and have been sweeping all before them for centuries. Even the Church, which until recently was making a stand against many of the radical consequences of modernity, is throwing in the towel.

What to do?

The first step is to realize that reversal of current trends is inevitable. An attempt to ignore basic questions and suppress basic aspects of human life can’t work forever. At some point the claims of liberation will wear thin, personal and social disorder will outweigh the efficiencies brought by modern methods of organization, and the human need for transcendent standards, particular connections, and a grounded vision of ultimate purpose and order will reassert itself forcefully. People will demand a transcendent reference point—God—and membership in particular religious and cultural communities to locate and orient them in the world. Those who find such things will flourish, at least relatively, those who don’t will not, and those who flourish will own the future.

The resulting situation will no doubt be deeply flawed, just as the situation that resulted from the failure of communism and return of the profit motive in the formerly communist East has been deeply flawed. A humane society requires complex adjustments among very different principles. When basic principles are suppressed the adjustments are lost, and when those principles come roaring back the results can be alarming. So it’s possible that the return of transcendent standards and particular connections will sometimes lead to the tribalism, fanaticism, and violence that progressives fear, and that actually arose in some places after communism collapsed.

But life is always dangerous, and a fundamentally inhuman system can’t go on forever. In the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves our duty as Catholics and human beings is to present an integrated vision of human life based on the truth about man in all its aspects.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared September 30 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).