How Progressives Became Regressive
What is the opposite of oppression?
It's a simple question, but one that highlights a major ideological fault line.
To progressives, liberation was once the opposite of oppression, and we achieved it by fighting to guarantee universal rights to all. The ideal progressive extolled the virtues of secularism, popular sovereignty, tolerance, individual liberty and voluntary economic behaviors like ethical consumerism or fair trade. Untainted by the failures of the socialist state, progressives set themselves up as the heirs of liberalism, without any of its shortcomings.
But for today's regressive left, the opposite of oppression is now privilege, and we combat it by denying to others those rights which they currently enjoy. The ideal regressive normalizes oppression against those who are historically free from it, the lack of which is now termed "privilege." Calling for others to "check their privilege" is nothing more than demanding that others submit to the will of the self-appointed censor... or else. It is now the prevailing ideology pushed by the leaders of the mainstream political left.
How did this happen?
A term first coined by Maajid Nawaz, the regressive left represents "pseudo-liberals who are so blinded by identity politics that they reliably take the side of a backward mob over one of its victims," according to atheist Sam Harris.
Thirty years ago, the American left was facing a crisis. Liberalism was in decay. Democrat Michael Dukakis suffered a massive electoral defeat at the hands of George H. W. Bush, the Cold War had been ended not by Democrats like Ted Kennedy praising the Soviets, but by Republicans like Ronald Reagan defiantly opposing them. In a few short years, liberalism's chief institutions were put to rest by none other than Bill Clinton. The spirit of liberalism was dead.
Liberals were at a loss. Clinton's neoliberal corporatism was embraced by many, while the 1994 omnibus crime bill, 1996 welfare reform bill, passage of WTO and NAFTA, and 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall demolished the last remnants of 20th century liberal institutions. To identify as a liberal meant admitting to being an out-of-touch, simple minded, blundering loser. In its place, those remaining adopted a new faith, embodied by a newly re-branded ethos: progressivism.
Progressives claimed common ground with many libertarian and individualist values, just as classical liberals had: individual agency (although within a collectivist social framework), equality of opportunity (which they argued had not yet been achieved), the universality of natural human rights, and a belief in the struggle for liberation as a remedy to oppression were all embraced. These were the environmentalists, the gay and lesbian rights advocates, the fair trade activists, the peace protesters and the free speech advocates. They considered themselves to be pure ethical liberals, untarnished by the corrupting influence of big business and institutional power.
Yet in less than a decade, their rebounding movement was eaten away from within, their ostensibly anti-authoritarian ethos replaced by an authoritarian and aggressive pathos.
Several converging trends stand out.
In 1988, the first chapter of Anti-Racist Action was founded in Minneapolis, born of the back and forth street battles between rival racist and anti-racist skinhead gangs. Spreading through punk rock subculture, chapters eventually became the model by which other antifascists operated: networked but autonomous, with a mix of anarchist tactics and neutral anti-racist politics, but always reacting with physical violence to a given situation. Moving from small-town fights with racist "boneheads," by 2005 they were achieving a fair degree of tactical notoriety against openly white nationalist groups like the National Alliance and National Socialist Movement.
The new "antifa" groups interacted with the anti-globalization and anti-war movements only insofar as there was any political overlap - more often than not, they stuck to "outing" whatever supposed KKK members worked at the local Wawa. Their own membership ebbed and flowed in direct relation to organized Neo-Nazi activity, and faced frequent internal divisions over tactics.
Street activism changed immeasurably in a relatively short period of time: tens of thousands of anti-globalization activists spent almost a decade waging a global campaign of civil disobedience and summit hopping mayhem in a bid to stymie the WTO, the IMF and World Bank, with few clear victories and many hard losses. Confrontational demonstrations using direct action opposed an increasingly militarized police force, leading to chaotic, disruptive and commonly violent showdowns. The lasting contribution of antifa style activism to the current regressive left is that coercion has now overshadowed persuasion to the point of irrelevance for today's social justice warriors. SJWs inherited the same single-minded objective of stamping out any trace of ___ist or ___phobic thought or deeds from society... which is realistically completely unachievable.
The reality of this Quixotic paradox creates a maddening, almost religious frustration for the true believers, fueling a desire for controlling the public behaviors and private thoughts of others through corrective coercion and engineered cultural taboos.
Despite all the talk of high-minded politics, the SJWs of the regressive left have scant shared political philosophy beyond vague anarcho-Leninist "anti-racist" contradictions encapsulated in pithy hashtags, convoluted sociological matrices or invented Tumblrisms. Their end goal is a society of free individuals living together in equality and racial harmony... and individual rights be damned, they will collectively beat the shit out of or suppress anyone who stands in their way. And if you feel like not even getting involved in their postpostmodern tantrums, then you're a fence sitter who is part of the problem and deserve to disproportionately have the shit kicked out of you, as well. Tolerance is a tactical oversight - rights are conditional and ethics are subjective.
But to have this level of sustainable intransigence, such tactics require an ideological hook.
More important in shaping the new regressive tendency than the street fights, in 1988 feminist academic Peggy McIntosh published an essay entitled, "White Privilege and Male Privilege." In it, McIntosh argued that whites carry with them an "invisible knapsack" of unearned privileges that enable them to succeed where others fail. These privileges included being able to buy music representative of one's race, being able to talk with one's mouth full, being able to live and spend time among others of one's own race, and being assured that an argument with a co-worker of another race will do more to "jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine."
While little acknowledged outside of academic circles at first -- and facing a hostile reception by the predominately white male paleo-Marxist elites of academia -- by the early to mid 2000's McIntosh's ideas had become the tip of the spear of a new generation of student and faculty "Red Guards" seeking to intimidate the academic establishment and transform liberal arts institutions into privately and publicly funded social justice laboratories, with great success. For each one of the 50 privileges identified, the reverse of it is the implied remedy.
During Barack Obama's presidency, the strategic failure of Occupy Wall Street -- a primarily "white" movement -- and the evolution of Black Lives Matter into what is little more than officially sanctioned and Soros-funded "black supremacy-lite" lead to privilege theory thoroughly penetrating and shaping mainstream leftist thought and policy. It is a theory rooted in social and racial animosity, normalizing oppression as a means of achieving "social justice."
Privilege theory is the quintessential "four legs good, two legs bad" political theory: all the sheep can chant it and you can tweak the hierarchy of oppression to suit your needs at any time.
The great advantages that privilege theory has over classical Marxist theory are that it builds upon the existing identity politics of the left, affirms the personal confirmation biases of the observer, and -- by asserting the essential invisibility of the famous "knapsack" of unearned advantages possessed solely as a result of having a certain identity -- negates any possibility of refuting those privileges. Intensely focused on individual blame and culpability as a result of "oppressive" social structures, it is definable only by the appropriately enlightened observer willing to acknowledge the invisible, denying the individual any agency to transcend those same unearned advantages. The only option is to yield to a collectively imposed self-deprivation based on an ever-shifting conceptual mess of intersectional hierarchies of guilt and victimization.
Under Obama, the regressive left has elevated a belief in collectivist structure in absolute denial of individual agency, advanced the idea that equality of opportunity is unattainable and that the state must instead guarantee equality of outcome, redefined universal rights as conditional grants subject to politically correct needs, and have steered the mainstream left away from liberation as a remedy to oppression toward oppression as a remedy to privilege. The left-wing media played a crucial role in this -- from the abrasive hyperbole of Keith Olbermann to the formulaic sanctimony of comedian John Oliver -- in a decade the left went from applauding Wikileaks to rationalizing a drone strike in London to kill Assange, from bashing Bush on women's rights to putting women in hijabs at the Women's March.
The antifa street thug rationalizing violence against a gay Jewish conservative who is brazen enough to challenge political correctness (Milo Yiannopoulos), or against white Trump supporters, is only one aspect of the threat. Increasingly, these tactics go hand in hand with online harassment, social ostracism and cultural "mob think," funded and encouraged by globalists within government, think tanks, members of the media, and by the "Social Caliphate" of Google, Facebook, and Twitter controlling public expression via social media.
And in all of this, the cultural Marxists of the regressive left believe they draw ever closer to "immanetizing the eschaton," or bringing about their version of some final, heaven-like end stage of history on earth. In reality, they are simply creating an ideological framework by which other far more regressive forces such as Salafist jihadism are already exploiting, and often, in concert. How the regressive left and Islamist jihadism benefit one another, though, is another story...