Retro-Progressivism 

The madness of postmodern Anglo-American progressivism far exceeds Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, whose inhabitants can hardly run fast enough to remain in the same place. In 21st-century America and Great Britain, progressive people—running as hard as they can—are working to drag their civilization backward into the pre-civilization that used to be called barbarism. 

Admittedly, their version of barbarism is the modern, super-sophisticated, high-tech sort that Evelyn Waugh captured perfectly nearly a century ago in Vile Bodies. Everything that civilized persons and cultures have lived for, created, sacrificed for, and died for across the ages is anathema to the new progressives—everything res delenda est. Like W. S. Gilbert’s Lord High Executioner in The Mikado, the new barbarians have a list. Unlike Koko’s, it is not a little one; rather, it is more of an inventory of the civilized world.

In this inventory, religion of every type and belief (saving the materialist one known as liberalism), all religious authority, and the religious sensibility itself are the progressives’ chief targets. Immediately beneath these are reason, logic, and hence mathematics, except when employed to advance “the science,” technological invention and production, and other starkly material goals, including ones—such as health—that are obviously laudable ones when not considered as ends in themselves. 

After these come just sentiment and right reason, understood as respect for experience but objected to by progressives as “prejudice”; for the past and for historical study, which progressives view as an especially dangerous type of reactionary and subversive behavior; and for “discrimination,” a process valued by all civilized peoples as the business of drawing formal distinctions between good, bad, and indifferent in anything, but condemned by progressives as “discriminatory.”

Liberals have long considered themselves defensores artium atque literarum and the fine arts: partly as a means of self-justification, as until recently they contributed so heavily to all of them. Yet from the beginning of the 20th century down to the present day, liberals and their progressive heirs have viewed artistic production as being valuable in its own right, not for anything art might signify about transcendental realities. Indeed, now that self-described artistes are agnostics or—more commonly—frank atheists, large numbers of liberal-progressives have “advanced” beyond appreciating art for art’s sake to recognizing and exploiting its inestimable value as a vehicle for progressive propaganda. 

For well over a century the secular-liberal bourgeois artist, like the cultural establishment that supports him, has been hostile to the traditional Western concept of art (defined by Aquinas as “reason in making”) and thus to artistic coherence in an age that prefers nihilism and chaos in making—not just from personal temperament and belief but also because the representation of chaos, deformity, and ugliness is easy, requiring little or no formal artistic skill. Abstract notions of beauty and their association with the good press too closely upon the divine for the taste and comfort of progressive people whose idea of great painting may eventually be prehistoric cave art, and great literature a Doonesbury comic strip, both endowed with an approved progressive message.

In any event, the democratic ideal of equality in everything is the enemy of aesthetics, both in practice and as a branch of human knowledge; of talent and skill recognized and rewarded; and of the moral dimension of reason in making. And what goes for art also goes for scholarship, philosophy, and related subjects in a progressive regime, which distrusts, discourages, and ignores the trained and developed intellect and its fruits, while working to set limits to the freedom of the intellectual and artistic imagination. 

A developed progressive society would suppress or discourage every expression of human spontaneity and impulse, especially humor (always and everywhere progressivism’s deadliest enemy), find them out by the kind of anonymous snitching that progressive administrators are presently trying to formalize in English universities, and penalize the perpetrators severely. In a progressive world, education—private and public—would continue precisely in the direction in which it is currently going.

Finally, a progressive regime—like any totalitarian system—would replace politics as the fundamental and distinctively human activity Aristotle described with authoritarian directives issued from a bureaucratic hierarchy at the top and enforced by codes governing popular thought and behavior. These would reach beyond formal public speech to that of the informal private kind with the aim of reducing complex modern societies to the social and intellectual level of pre-civilized tribal cultures, regimented and inhibited by formal taboos. It would weaken and marginalize the family, family connections, family trees, and family histories, and reduce society to a single, formless, and undifferentiated social mass, as one English school has taken a step toward doing by proposing to forbid the use of the words “boy” and “girl” in the classroom, by the “master” especially.

Something like the present progressive experiment has, of course, been attempted many times in history. Each of these attempts has, without exception, failed—abruptly and completely, as a rule, though Mao’s is holding out longer than any of them, the Chairman having murdered well over 70 million of his compatriots before his death in 1976. 

Yet the vast majority of civilizations have arisen spontaneously and developed organically. And while most of these withered and perished, their time having come and gone, a good many of them survived for centuries: Some, indeed, exist today. Destroying a civilization to realize utopia has been the gamble by history’s greatest fools and scoundrels, nearly all of whom paid for their recklessness and temerity with their lives, instead of with their money.

Civilizations, like utopias, have always served a purpose but never an explicit one. It has, rather, been instinctive, unspecified, and diffuse, imagined and pursued as a rule by an aristocracy rather than by an idealistic, ideologically minded, and Philistine body of middle-class politicians. Matthew Arnold, who described civilization as “reason and a fine culture,” argued that aristocracy understands civilization as a duty, a moral obligation of man: “an activity . . . in the service of a higher ordeal than that of the ordinary man, taken by himself;” though one in which every man may participate according to his talents, abilities, and station in life, as was the case with the builders of the great cathedrals of Europe. 

Thus aristocracy’s implicit answer to the question “What is civilization?” is nothing less than the preservation of what living generations have inherited from their ancestors, and the addition by them of valuable contributions made to this legacy, and the transmission of the improved version to future ones. 

This is, in fact, precisely what all civilizations worthy of the name have done, reaching for the highest level of moral, intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual accomplishment to achieve the City of God on earth. Democratic society, or bourgeois commercial society—liberal-democratic capitalism—is neither suited to the job nor interested in it, and grows less so all the time. Nevertheless, it has infinitely more sympathy for the idea of civilization than the new progressive society-in-formation does. The one is a barbaric futuristic society grounded in an ideal of unrestrained and ungoverned freedom, falsely imagined, that rejects all natural, human, social, intellectual, biological, and moral limits for the existing while the other is at least a semi-civilized society.

Unlike today’s progressives imagine, Robespierre, Marx, Lenin, Stalin (though not Mao) did believe in a thing called civilization. Anglo-American progressives, by contrast, have in mind a kind of permanent chaos held loosely in check by a diffuse but rigid power—something like Rousseau’s General Will imposed by law courts—of an equally unchanging and permanent nature. They don’t believe in civilization because they cannot imagine a dynamic purpose for their new progressive society.

Progressive utopia is a therapeutic world of correct attitudes, carefully calibrated and monitored speech, and the scrupulous avoidance of aggressions, “microaggressions,” and “conflict.” It would value speech, expressed sentiment, and various other forms of social signaling over action, and thus—ironically—stagnation over “progress.” And it would be a world of complete equality where, as in Carroll’s Wonderland, all have won and all must have prizes. In this world, no one’s ideas are contradicted and everyone is included in everything; everyone is (somehow) affluent, healthy, and long-lived, and pain of any kind—physical or mental—has ceased to exist, owing to a benevolent, well-funded (but how?), all-powerful, and all-seeing central government. Climate change has been halted and reversed, due to unanimous respect for “the science”—and even more for the scientists behind it. 

Lastly, the new progressive world would be ahistorical, outside time and virtually motionless in its almost perfect equilibrium, since every action is controversial—socially “divisive,” ethically “problematic,” and materially risky—and may have unintended results and unforeseen consequences.

The national anthem of this great progressive nation would be John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Imagine” sung to music composed by a Silicon Valley computer; its flag the prismatic rainbow with the emblem of the United Nations superimposed on it. The media are already reporting progressives’ demands for scrapping the Stars and Stripes, and replacing the old flag with something unburdened by history, or historical significance. And so “The Star-Spangled Banner” would go out with it.

About Chilton Williamson

Chilton Williamson Jr., a novelist, nonfiction writer, and historian, served as a senior editor at National Review and as editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. Currently he writes a monthly column for The Spectator (World). His latest novel, The Last Westerner, will be published next year.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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