The Progressive Case for Modernization

Against the 'Infantile Left'

It is virtually impossible to discuss manufacturing, energy, infrastructure and related subjects from what I consider a center-left perspective without being challenged by anti-industrial or post-industrial Luddites who claim that the genuine progressive position is an amalgam of Mathusian anti-consumerism and energy austerity, often combined with support for old-fashioned, premodern methods of making artifacts and growing food. I had thought that this debate was limited to the liberal left, and was surprised to learn, from an interview with Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa, that a similar debate occurs within the less familiar (to me) circles of the radical left.

Asked by New Left Review how he proposes to balance the exploitation of Ecuador’s natural resources with preservation of its biological diversity, Correa explodes:

It is madness to say no to natural resources, which is what part of the left is proposing—no to oil, no to mining, no to gas, no to hydroelectric power, no to roads. This is an infantile left, which can only legitimate the right. In the classic socialist tradition, I don’t know where Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh or Castro said no to mining or natural resources. This is an absurd novelty, but it’s as if it has become a fundamental part of left discourse. It is all the more dangerous for coming from people who supposedly speak the same language. With so many restrictions, the left will not be able to offer any viable political projects.

Tell us what you really mean, Mr. President!

As an old-school anticommunist liberal, I am frankly repelled by Correa’s appeal to the authority of “Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh or Castro.” But you could replace that pantheon with a left-liberal pantheon, including J.S. Mill and Lloyd George and Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and the paragraph would apply equally well to the debate within contemporary North American progressivism.

Likewise, liberals as well as radicals can applaud what Correa goes on to say:

We cannot lose sight of the fact that the main objective of a country such as Ecuador is to eliminate poverty. And for that we need our natural resources. There are people here who seem ready to create more poverty but leave those resources in the ground, or who even see poverty as something folkloric—as if children in the central highlands should keep dying of gastroenteritis and life expectancy should stay at 35.

Ah, but the dirty little secret of much of the liberal intelligentsia is that it does regard Third World poverty as “folkloric.” How many times have you heard NPR human-interest stories that begins along these lines (my own imaginary example):

Morning. The cock is crowing in the little village where Juan Valdez’s traditional hand-picked coffee industry is defending its endangered way of life from the threat of so-called progress.

You’re less likely, I think it’s safe to say, to hear an NPR story that begins like this:

Morning. Juan Valdez arrives at the new factory in the booming city where he has a far better life than he could have had in the village where his ancestors lived and died amid squalor and drudgery.

Following a trip to a Central American jungle, a professor once complained to me that the natives were “ruined”—the formerly picturesque primitives had taken to wearing blue jeans and driving cars and drinking Cokes. It’s encouraging, then, to listen to a South American leader who doesn’t want his country to symbolize romantic backwardness for tourists from the global North:

If we exploit natural resources carefully, it can even benefit the environment, in two ways. Firstly, just as wealth harms the environment through energy consumption, so does poverty; I can’t tell a poor family living next to a forest not to cut down the trees. If we reduce poverty, we can conserve the environment. Second, there are a series of delusions: that oil destroys the jungle, for example. What does the most damage to the jungle? The expansion of the agrarian frontier. To avoid this we need to create alternative sources of employment and income.

This is the true voice of the Enlightenment left, on an issue on which its radical and liberal wings agree. Unlike many radical leftists, liberals prefer reform to revolution, where possible, support checks and balances, endorse a mixed economy over a socialist economy, and favor the messy practicality of democratic nationalism rather than utopian “proletarian internationalism” or equally utopian localism. But Enlightenment liberals and Enlightenment radicals have always shared two goals: reducing the exploitation of human beings by other human beings, and using technology and natural resources to spread prosperity beyond a small elite. Social reform, without technology-driven productivity growth, merely rearranges poverty.

A liberal or radical left that is anti-technology and opposed to the prudent use of natural resources is not a left at all; it is simply a version of the anti-Enlightenment right. Which brings me to the hipster intelligentsia of today and its precursor, the bohemian intelligentsia of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While this class of declasses may favor modernist experiments in the arts and private life, generation after generation of bohemians and hipsters for the most part have railed against the manifestations of modernity—machine technology, large-scale industry, big organizations, rationalized bureaucratic government. The argument that these are incompatible with personal authenticity and the purity of nature is not a progressive or liberal argument. It is a romantic argument—to be specific, an argument which originated around 1800 with German Romanticism, which was a powerful reaction against the very Enlightenment that still guides genuine liberals and leftists. By the mid-1800s romanticism spread from the small towns of Germany to the bohemian sections of Paris, which became the model for self-conscious, counter-cultural bohemias around the world, including Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury, before bohemian culture migrated onto university campuses, its present habitat. From their beginnings in early industrial Europe, bohemias have been populated chiefly by the downwardly-mobile children of the rich and the professional classes. As Christopher Lasch, an anti-bohemian liberal, pointed out, it’s easier to rebel against the Machine Age and worship the primitive if you have a trust fund.

Even the most thoroughly “futuristic” liberal would like to preserve some element of premodern civilization in advanced technological civilization, for sentimental reasons (I am partial to metrical verse, a system of composition which lost its functional utility first with writing and then with recording). But if you prefer 1920s trolleys to automobiles, and you prefer seventeenth-century New England heirloom turkeys and heirloom squash to products of industrialized agriculture, and you think that we should subsidize and support eighteenth-century cheese-making and nineteenth-century craft brewing, and you want to defend mom-and-pop stores against modern chains, and you wear a 1950s fedora or a 1960s tie-dyed shirt as an ironic statement—in what sense exactly are you a “progressive,” rather than a self-consciously anachronistic conservative?

Photo credit: Flickr user Bernardo Londoy