Liberalism, Progressivism, Leftism

A response to some reader criticism.

My piece on conservative failure to oppose leftist policies provoked various lines of critique. Some wondered whether I’m using terms like “liberal” and “leftist” coherently, while others objected to the ideological frame, suggesting that our problems are better located with a rapacious oligarchy that has no sincere ideological commitments. Herewith, a response:

I think that there are three basic, interrelated and mutually reinforcing ideological systems at work in the Western world today. These are liberalism, progressivism and leftism.

By liberalism, I mean the cluster of moral and political ideas emphasising individual rights and self-determination. The liberal tradition is now hundreds of years old, and espousing some minimum of liberal principles is a requirement for participation in polite discourse. Even leftists have to go through the motions here.

Progressivism is an essentially religious belief in the inevitable forward march of human progress. Deranged or deceived by the technological advances of the last 150 years, progressives believe that the present is better than the past, and that the future will be better than the present. They tend to wave away pragmatic objections to utopian aspirations via faith in future (often technological) solutions. The future will be better, and what is better must come to be.

If liberalism is the water, and progressivism the illumination, then leftism is the invasive algae that has taken over our aquarium. The term should be used in its broadest possible sense, to include any egalitarian ideology that seeks to overcome human inequality and natural hierarchy via special technological, social or legal interventions. Leftism wants, or pretends to want, a great flattening, a world where everyone is the same.

Liberalism bears within it some ideological precursors for leftist egalitarianism, such as the idea of equality before the law. Unlike leftism, though, liberalism is not inherently opposed to social or economic hierarchies. The insistence that wealth inequality is bad, that all humans are biologically identical, that European-descended populations are unfairly privileged, that identities can be intersectionally disadvantaged – all of this is leftism. Particularly in the liberal West, leftism advances by portraying its demands for social and economic levelling as the epitome or the perfected form of liberal principles.

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