Ideologies after the age of progress

Ideologies Through the Looking-Glass

There is broad agreement and much scientific evidence that we are rapidly approaching absolute limits to the advancing material progress of industrial civilization. Ecological limits to growth and the imminent depletion of some resources (such as ‘peak oil’) have been well known for several decades. Anthropogenic climate change has become a prominent political issue. These problems are exacerbated by a rapidly expanding world population, which will rise from 6 billion to 9 billion over the next 2-3 decades. The resumption of unlimited and even accelerating economic growth and consumption after the brief interlude of the ‘global financial crisis’ is not sustainable. It will lead us ever closer to a series
of proliferating and potentially devastating ecological crises. There are currently few prospects of an adequate and timely response to these problems.

We face these dire ecological prospects with political perspectives still informed by ideologies of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ which are no longer helpful. The previously dominant ideologies of liberalism and socialism were products of the 18th century  Enlightenment, which assumed the inevitability of material progress as a result of scientific development, advancing technology and industrialisation within a commercial or capitalist society. Liberals and radicals welcomed progress and thought it could best be secured by avoiding excessive state interference. Socialists thought progress was inevitable, but that it would eventually lead – either abruptly through social revolution or gradually through a series of reforms – to socialism.  ‘Radical’, ‘reactionary’ and ‘progressive’ are all evaluative terms which reflect these  origins. The terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ derive from the seating arrangements at the  French revolutionary convention. Even ‘conservative’ is a term that only makes sense once history is understood as inevitably ‘progressing’ in a particular direction. For conservatism, existing society comes to be seen as something that must be actively preserved rather than simply something which is. But these terms and their associated contrasts are no longer useful and may even be counter-productive in the present historical situation, when progress in the Enlightenment sense cannot continue indefinitely. It seems that the maps we instinctively use to orient our political actions are now inaccurate and unhelpful.

What are the implications of the current, unprecedented historical situation? Once we pass ‘through the looking-glass’ of the approaching end of our civilization’s material expansion, it becomes apparent that our inherited ideologies are radically undermined as well. In two quite different senses, it seems that conservatism has become the new radicalism.

In the first place, traditional conservatives have become radicals. Those who supported the social hierarchies of the ‘old regime’ and then the property rights and individual liberties of capitalism are now wedded to the endless expansion of capitalism, to unending and accelerating economic growth. The Thatcher revolution and the associated triumph of economic rationalism and neoliberalism have led to the ceaseless transformation of our lives – our working lives, our family lives, our education and so on. These radicals are unable to accept or to respond adequately to the reality of climate change, unwilling to give up the drug of material progress, because that would involve abandoning capitalism’s ‘permanent revolution’.

Conservatism is the new radicalism in a second and quite opposite sense, because  those ‘radicals’ on the Left who have always opposed capitalism and the pro-capitalist agenda, must now adopt a conservative stance. With barbarism a far more likely outcome than some future socialist revolution, social radicals and progressives need to abandon the assumption of unending material progressive and adopt the originally conservative orientation of attempting to preserve our existing world. Conservation is now the prime value. We must conserve the natural world, if we are to preserve any kind of social harmony and hold on to the gains of our intellectual and cultural traditions.

Crucially, however, this new conservatism does not mean that we should preserve existing social inequalities, wealth and privilege, status and hierarchy. These traditionally right-wing commitments make even less sense in the current historical situation, which requires a new injection of ‘progressive’ values and commitments.

Political Values in an Era of Ecological Limits

Once the now untenable commitment of both liberal and socialist traditions to an
unending process of material progress are given up, then the values traditionally associated with these ideologies can be reconsidered. Free of their now obsolete ideological moorings, they can be articulated in new ways more suitable to our present situation.

In the first place, the era of unlimited and unqualified individualism is now surely over. Individualism was, in part, a result of the socially and culturally disruptive impact of capitalism. Traditional allegiances and identities, traditional work practices and models of family life, were undermined by the economic logic of free markets and profit-seeking capital. Individualism helped to make sense of this transition, because it understood people as existing independently of – or ‘liberated’ from – all traditional social categories. Individualism could also be justified as the socially beneficial unleashing of what had previously been condemned as selfish wants. Although initially disturbing, liberal economists like Adam Smith argued that the result would be the increasing ‘wealth of nations’. The pursuit of private interests (or greed) would result in a public benefit thanks to the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. What is more, a rising tide of wealth would eventually improve the position of everyone, even if some individuals (the bourgeois or owners of capital) would benefit much more than others.

But in the present situation it is clear that untrammelled individualism is no longer beneficial, and in fact has become a dangerous and destructive value. The endless expansion of individual wants in today’s affluent societies belies Marx’s assumption that we must eventually reach a condition of abundance, a society where the ‘class struggle’ over scarce resources is no longer necessary because we can all have everything that we want. We now see that economic growth creates more needs than it can ever satisfy. Worse, it destroys nature and undermines social harmony. The likely consequences of ecological collapse would probably lead to the destruction of liberal values of tolerance and individual freedom as well.

The need to limit and qualify individualism corresponds to a shift from a liberal
to a republican conception of politics, state and citizenship. The freedoms and rights of individuals must be weighed against the importance of public institutions and the responsibilities of citizens to actively maintain them. The republicanism of Hannah Arendt offers an alternative and richer understanding of the self and its possibilities of happiness. She emphasises the possibility of our identifying with a public self and finding happiness, perhaps even a more lasting and satisfying happiness, in our public lives. The turn away from the individual to the public world has affinities with a Burkean conservatism, which values social order and the continuity of tradition as the necessary context for individual freedoms and rights. But this does not imply either a commitment to hierarchy or hostility to individual freedom. Public engagement is certainly compatible with the liberty of private concerns in the ‘private sphere’ of individuals. In fact, private freedoms are only likely to survive if we are somehow able to regain control of the material development of our civilization.

A second ideological shift is the abandonment of an unqualified materialism. The dominant conception of progress, shared by both liberal, socialist and social democratic traditions, relied on a definition of happiness as ‘welfare’ or the satisfaction of material wants. Utilitarianism is only the most explicit moral theory making this connection. The implication is that increasing material wealth can be assumed to translate reliably into a more adequate and worthwhile life for all. In practice, political success is assessed according to levels of gross national product or material consumption. However, ecological limits of the earth mean that the ever increasing material consumption of an affluent minority can now only be achieved at the cost of material deprivation and insecurity for the majority of the world’s population. In any case, there is mounting psychological and sociological evidence that material wealth leads to greater happiness only up to a certain threshold, which the majority of people in developed societies have now already reached. Reported levels of happiness are no longer increasing. In fact, some of the least satisfied people are those who are most well off.

Ironically, the evolution of consumerism itself tends to contradict materialist assumptions about human happiness. In an affluent society, the consumerist pleasures offered by luxury goods are no longer really material at all. Such goods are more about the consumption of symbols and images produced by the advertising industry. These products express status and discrimination, confirm superiority or exude an aura of freedom and authenticity. The ‘discreet charm’ of these consumer goods has less to do with their material properties than their cultural and psychological associations. Of course, material security is still an important goal for the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, which lives in relative or absolute poverty, and even for a minority within western societies. This fact only reinforces the need (in a context of approaching limits to material development) for affluent societies to abandon their exclusively materialist outlook and recognise that increasing GDP is no longer the necessary or sufficient condition of a happy and fulfilled life.

A further implication of environmental limits to growth is the need to refocus on
the values of social justice and equality, which have been neglected by the major ideological traditions. The liberal tradition rejected social justice and ‘equality of outcome’, because measures of redistribution and progressive taxation would inevitably be at the expense of wealthy owners of property and capital. It was assumed, further, that economic inequalities are necessary incentives to encourage hard work, productivity and the generation of wealth, which could be relied upon to improve the position of even the worst off in society. What is more, this argument has been largely accepted by the social democratic ‘left’ as well. Equality of opportunity – which has been described as the equal opportunity to become unequal – was allowed to displace the egalitarian agenda.

But now that endless economic growth, to the extent that it implies the endless
expansion of material consumption, is no longer an option, liberal, social democratic and revolutionary socialist models are all similarly untenable. In the context of insuperable limits to growth, the most likely prospect is increasing tensions and conflict between the wealthy and the now permanently and hopelessly  impoverished. The alternative is to recognise that social justice and economic equality are now indispensable goals. The only just response to a slowing and eventually halting process of economic growth is redistribution of wealth both within and between nations.

From Historical Progress to Progressive Action

The current situation and impending environmental crisis require us to abandon any notion of the inevitability of progress. We need urgently to reform our economic, social and political institutions in order to disable the ‘automatism’ of our civilization’s material expansion. We also need to abandon the associated optimism that, come what may, things will in the end always get better and better in every way. The faith in progress only discourages us from taking the necessary action. Though many people can see that we are approaching catastrophic ecological tipping-points, they are nevertheless reassured that somehow we will find a way out of our predicament. Human ingenuity will manage to avoid, perhaps at the very last minute, the negative consequences that scientists predict. Perhaps we are too used to narratives of suspense, in novels or film, where catastrophe is avoided just in time for the happy ending.

However, exposing automatic material progress as a dangerous illusion leaves us with the possibility of achieving progress in another sense – through deliberate political action. Progress is still possible – indeed it is our only hope – but it needs to be progress towards new goals, not economic expansion. Widespread and sustained ‘progressive’ political action is needed to preserve our communities, and to work out a more humane balance between work, family and friends. Progress can be achieved through the preservation and expansion of human knowledge, through cultural innovation and creativity. There is much scope to increase material well-being by spreading material wealth and adequate levels of consumption to the deprived two-thirds of the world’s population. Instead of pursuing quantitative increases in material consumption, we can concentrate on improving the quality of products. The health and longevity of citizens can be improved by shifting from industrialised agriculture and processed foods to smaller quantities produced in humane and sustainable ways.

In the end, we have no alternative but to engage in widespread, continuing and
inventive political action. We need a social movement like never before. It might be too optimistic to assume that a movement will arise in time and with the strength to avoid major ecological collapse. It may already be too late for that. But this gloomy outlook only reinforces the urgency of an immediate political response, so that if we cannot avoid, then we can at least mitigate, the social and political consequences of that collapse.