Saturday, June 16, 2007

Romanticism and Progressivism

Political philosophies often involve views of history. There are two general tendencies in how political philosophies regaurd history: romanticism, which is to be understood as a longing for and idolization of the past, and progressivism, which is to be understood as a longing for and idolization of change and progress into the future. The romanticist gladly proclaims that they favor "turning back the clock". The progressive gladly proclaims that history is an endless march towards future progress.

Both of these tendencies are manifested in various ways, and pop up simultaneously within many political philosophies. The marxist view of history, in which communism is proclaimed without proof as being an inevitable future stage of history, is an example of progressivism. On the other hand, progressivism of a quite different sort was espoused by Herbert Spencer, in which social evolution necessitates adaptation to man's environment through increased individual freedom in accordance with the laws of nature.

An example of romanticism would be rigid religious or cultural traditionalism, in which changes that have occured in recent times, such as the move towards secularism and cultural tolerance, are radically opposed while systems of the past are held up as the ideal. And romanticism has also been represented in American nationalism, in which the figures such as George Washington are idolized as if they were gods. To varying degrees, this is also true of every other nation that has ever existed in recorded history.

When understood in their proper context, romanticism and progressivism have lead to both erroneous and correct conclusions. Romanticism always faces the danger of becoming primitivism and ludditism, in which more simple, agrarian and tribal living of the past is considered the ideal. And progressivism always faces the danger of becoming unenthusiastic and desensitized to the present, or of becoming overly utopian by basing the allegedly "inevitable" future on false notions about human nature.

When a change is proposed that would undo something that was previously done, the staunch progressive suddenly becomes conservative, and the use of the term conservative here is meant to mean a defense of the status quo (the present). On the other hand, when a change is proposed that would do something that was not previously done, the staunch romanticist becomes conservative. When these drawbacks of both groups are combined, it can amount to two-punch defense of the status quo.

But there have also been some good tendencies in some progressive and romantic views. The wise progressive possesses the insight that it is possible to improve conditions through both social evolution and revolution. They are aware that there are some things that have not been tried yet, at least fully. The progressive has reason for optimism toward the future. Where the progressives erred was in the question of how to go about changing things and what to change to, and in exessive optimism.

The romantic possesses the insight that there are certain basic principles or laws which are necessary for order to flourish. They are aware that there is much to be learned from the thinkers and writters of the past, and that there are some things that will never go away. Where the romantic erred was in the inability to aknowledge the changes and extensions that have been made upon the basic principles and laws of the past, and in their exessive pessemism toward the future.

Some progressive forces have been beneficial to the condition of mankind. In particular, the classical liberal revolution of the 18th and 19th century was incredibly progressive in that people adopted new ways of thinking about politics and economics, and for the first time in history the liberty of the individual was increased considerably in comparison to beforehand. This newfound freedom was first felt in England and later spread to America and some of the other European countries. It is important to keep in mind that this change required the rolling back of the previous systems of monarchy, fuedalism and mercentalism.

During this period, the romanticist and conservative parties were the monarchists, mercentalists and many of the people in the privileged classes. The advent of classical liberalism did not completely abolish the system of monarchy or mercantalism. It did, however, reduce their scope and considerably damage their reputation among the public. Without the classical liberal revolution, slavery and hereditary monarchy would have never been phased out and constitutional republicanism would have never been implemented. But for the time being, the conservative forces had lost out.

During the 19th century, classical liberalism itself was going through changes and new ideologies started forming. The ideas of socialism and communism were being formulated, as were the ideas of anarchism. Capitalist economics was also advancing simultaneously. However, it did not take very long for communism and socialism to become conservative, in that they became reactionary ideologies to the classical liberal progress that was going on. The socialists began to consider the increases in economic freedom and capital accumulation that had gone on as something to abolish.

In this sense, the original communists and socialists wanted to "turn back the clock". They bitterly resisted the progressivism of the industrial revolution. On the other hand, they became convinced that communism is an inevitable future stage of history, and that socialism was the inevitable process by which society will be transfered into communism. In its earlier stages, socialism was linked to the anarchist movement. However, it started to split with the anarchist movement because it began to support the use of government, of political means, to achieve socialist ends. To a serious and consistant anarchist, this is akin to blasphemy.

In many ways the anarchist movement, particularly the individualist anarchist movement, was an extension on the ideas of the classical liberals. Both the classical liberals and individualist anarchists shared many of the exact same premises, but they drew two different conclusions from those premises. The classical liberals concluded that we need a strictly limited constitutional government, while the anarchists concluded that we need no government at all. The two groups were allies to some extent, but some of the classical liberals also became conservative with respect to their relationship to the anarchists. The anarchists posed the threat of further change to the limited governmentalists.

Throughout the 2nd half of the 19th century, the classical liberal movement itself started to dissolve and fragment. In America, the advent of the civil war intensified already existing cultural divisions and hostilities. Certain aspects of mercantalism and militarism were returning. The conservative forces were gaining hold again. A new type of "progressivism" was emerging which was, in part, a conservative reaction to the liberal revolution. This progressivism replaced liberalism with a rising network of privileges, the military-industrial alliance and the war economy. The spirit of the old liberalism was dead. Some major contributing factors to its death was (1) the merging of socialism with conservative forces (2) the move towards a philosophy of expediency and (3) the rise of public demand for special privileges.

At the beginning of the 20th century, banking was officially monopolized, centralized democracy was spreading around the world and WWI ushered in the era of total war and national confrontation. In every country, nationalism manifested itself to varying degrees. The overall political landscape was no longer divided between revolutionary/libertarian forces and conservative/reactionary forces. Everyone started becoming a reactionary to everyone else, splintering into an endless array of special interest groups. What little remnants of classical liberalism remained was was slowly soaked up into the Republican party mostly, and it remained there as only a small fragment in the early 20th century, peaking as a resistance movement to the new deal.

The American "progressive" movement of the early 20th century defined progress in terms of increased government powers over the economy to allegedly achieve benevolent and egalitarian ends, including the use of military force to "spread democracy around the world". It took a reactionary and hostile view towards the industrial revolution and capitalism in general. On the other hand, it could not be said to be an all-out communist movement. In its economic content, it was closer to fascism than communism. Whereas in communism the government is supposed to take control of the means of production, economic fascism is a system in which the government merges and colludes with private industry through patronage and protection.

In Europe, communism and fascism was on the rise during this time. One way to look at the relationship between these two systems is that communism is radical progressivism that uses government power to attempt to achieve its ends, while fascism is radical romanticism that uses government power to attempt to achieve its ends. The German fascists, otherwise know as the national socialists or nazis, idolized and romantisized anchient norse culture in a blatantly religious way. Communism went for another route: it co-opted religion altogether and turned the state itself into a god that is can be the instrument of endless "progress". Both communism and fascism stem from an extreme rejection of the ideas of classical liberalism, capitalism and anarchism, and they both represent totalitarian forms of government. Both grew out of socialism.

In America, neither pure communism or pure fascism was the system of the day. Interventionism (centrist statism) took hold. Elements of both left-wing socialism and right-wing socialism were combined throughout the early 20th century. But the scale was always tipped a bit more towards right-wing socialism in America, and this trend has only increased over the years. In terms of the common person's views, most Americans settled for softer variants of socialism, or some kind of centrism. When the stock market crashed, many of the people became convinced that it was the fault of capitalism, but the capitalist era had long been over for decades. In this new era, the long-term fruits of the capitalist era, the capital that it had accumulated and planted seeds for further accumulation, was to be tapped into by the government. In either case, the welfare state, or at least part of it, became the bi-partisan status quo in America during this period.

By the time WWII ended, America was the true superpower of the world. This was mostly because Europe and other parts of the world were in utter ruin from all the war and economic hegemony, while America didn't really get effected on its own soil. Another contributing reason for the great comparative prosperity that America had during the 1950's was because to an extent, the Eisenerhower administration, during the first term, rolled back the regulation that the war economy had brought about. But this did not last for very long. The war machine got charged back up in no time throughout the 2nd half of the 20th century. It has been growing at an alarming rate.

For a brief period in the 1960's and part of the 1970's, the American left-wing had an upsurge of a progressive anti-authoritarian spirit. This was particularly manifested in the rise of an anti-war movement among their ranks. However, this movement quickly devolved into an absurd form of romanticism in which primitive living is looked upon favorably. It was also co-opted by the socialist and communist movements. In spite of the good qualities of the new left, the establishment left has always been rather conservative, and have historically persued interventionist and militaristic foreign policies.

The American right-wing became co-opted by militarists and former new deal era democrats. What remained of the libertarian spirit within America's right-wing was essentially purged. While the cold war was initiated by Democrats, it quickly became taken over by conservative Republicans. The seats of quasi-libertarian Republicans became replaced by social conservatives and former Democrats. America's contemporary right-wing embraces a centralized government in order to carry out an active and aggressive foreign policy, extension of domestic police powers and government collusion with buisiness. Furthermore, America's contemporary left-wing embraces much of this same program, only with a somewhat different set of interests involved.

None of the mainstream political interest groups represent a genuine progressive and revolutionary spirit. Neither do they posses much of an appriciation of the advances that were made in the past. Leftists tend to view the advances of private commerence that have gone on negatively, and view the advance of government power with respect to the economy as the epitomy of progress. Rightists tend to view the advances of personal interrelations that have gone on negatively and view the advance of government power with respect to foreign policy as the epitome of progress.

Leftists tend to view a move towards more economic freedom as "turning back the clock". Rightists tend to view a move towards a less active foreign policy and more personal freedom as "turning back the clock". For both of them combined, actual progress is seen as a retrogression, while a retrogression back into authoritarian control of personal and economy activity, and warfare, is seen as progress. In typical Washington politics, the authoritarian side of their agendas are generally accepted while anything smacking of something truly new is generally rejected. This has the effect of hampering true progress. But there has also been a hampering of the people's appriciation for the progress of the past, as they have been kept largely ignorant of such things.

The political parties have represented little more than a shell game. They take advantage of people's fears of the future to exploit the romantic spirit. They take advantage of people's fears of the past to exploit the progressive spirit. The modern so-called left and right are like the ghosts of something that doesn't exist anymore. The deck of public opinion appears stacked in favor of power. The political climate does not consist of people who desire to use power vs. people who do not so much as people who each have different ends they want to use power to achieve. The political spectrum has realigned itself so many times and split into so many fragments that the conventional views of politics today are absurd.

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