Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Reactionary Nature of "Progressive" Ideology: A Comparison with the Sixteenth Century

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By Barry Rubin

Michel de Montaigne was a sixteenth-century French philosopher, the forerunner of many modern ideas. During his time, one of the most important debates was between those who argued that monarchy was divinely endowed and those who favored the people having sovereignty.

Being a man who didn’t like absolute rules, Montaigne wrote the following:

“The most excellent and best regime for any nation is that under which it has maintained itself. Its essential form and utility depends on usage. We are easily displeased with the system we have, but all the same I hold that it is wicked and stupid to wish for the rule of the few in a democracy or in a monarchy, another kind of regime. ”

At the time, this was a status quo viewpoint of course. In effect it meant that the existing democracies—Great Britain and the Netherlands—should remain that way and all other societies should remain monarchies. From today’s perspective we can see this as a multicultural and Politically Correct viewpoint: everybody’s system is well-suited for them and it is right that it remain in effect.

Note, by the way, that Montaigne did not talk about overthrowing anyone else’s system. He merely said that no one should want to change their own system or wish (merely hope for or believe it would be a good thing) if others changed their system. Elsewhere, he wrote--something very enlightened for his time--that all societies elsewhere in the world had beliefs properly suited for them and of equal value to those held by Europeans.

Yet looking back four centuries we can see the huge flaw in his thinking. Due to internal development or international factors, many societies have changed their system, including France itself, as well as Germany, Spain, Italy, Japan, and many other places in the world. If the traditional system was the best, this raises two issues:

--Why did it change?  Is the development from autocratic dictatorship, rule by the few, to democracy a step forward in history, a reversible mistake, or a mere way-station on the way to some "higher" form of dictatorship? Up until quite recently, many people in the West thought it was an error or an interim stage. In the Third World, many still do.

--Why was the change from monarchy to republic almost always an improvement in terms of social progress and the well-being of the great majority, at least after the latter had sufficient time to become stabilized?

These are the things that the last 300 years of history ultimately taught people. In other words, we recognize that change is a law of history even for the most seemingly entrenched systems. We also recognize that a specific direction of change from a society which is in effect a dictatorship or at least a highly centralized state which overwhelms social, economic, religious, intellectual life to one that is a limited-government democratic republic—is a step forward.

A growth in liberty, the development of a reasonably regulated--but not strangled--free enterprise economic system, and a representative form of government is better than a dictatorship by a king, oligarchy, political party, ideology, those who claim to speak for God, or a supposedly well-meaning group of bureaucrats and politicians.

Not long ago, the previous paragraph would have been pretty uncontroversial. Today, however, such talk is close to forbidden. Once again we are told that all people have a culture, society, and political structure that is appropriate for them and it should remain that way forever. In contrast to Montaigne’s neutrality, but in accord with the reactionaries of his time, we are told that one cannot say that democracy is a better system or that it represents progress in human civilization.

Oh, by the way, there used to be a word for those who believed the ideas contained in that previous paragraph celebrating the growth of liberty. The word was “liberal”

Even almost all of those we call “conservative” today have accepted the basic ideas of historic liberalism. The debate between liberals and conservatives today is one over the details of how to balance between liberty and law, between laissez-faire and regulation. These issues are quite passionate and important in their own right but fall below the level of advocating an entirely different system or public philosophy.

In contrast, the concept of Politically Correct, multiculturalism, and “progressive” ideology is a reactionary step backward. Instead of the divine rights of kings, this approach enthrones the absolute correctness of its own ideas which become unquestionable and thus beyond questioning. Like sixteenth-century reactionaries, they want to limit free speech and turn what should be independent institutions into choruses of consensus.

Like the worst opponents of freedom in the sixteenth century, they want to rationalize freezing most of the world into systems which in non-technological ways have more in common with the sixteenth-century West, in which a centralized states dominates society and chooses what liberties to give its citizens, than with the modern world. Like the neo-medieval thinkers of that earlier era, they want to substitute a predetermined set of ideas for logical processes and the scientific method.

Indeed, excluding the extremes, most contemporary Western conservatives are far closer to liberalism than those seeking to hijack that doctrine today. Nothing could be more reactionary from the standpoint of three centuries of democratic liberalism than "progressive," Politically Correct ideology and practice.  
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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