Progressivism Is Not Progressive

Column by Alex Schroeder.
Exclusive to STR
War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. Since the initial publication of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, these statements have become part of our vocabulary; they exemplify the troubling extreme of authoritarian manipulation of language. Orwell understood, perhaps better than any other prominent novelist, the perils of totalitarianism and the means by which it can be sustained by controlling language. 1984 describes a world in which “the party,” Ingsoc, systematically maintains an oppressive hierarchy by denying the existence of objective reality, asserting that reality, including semantics, is ultimately what Ingsoc says it is. The authorities do not have to convince the masses that war, slavery, and ignorance are desirable. They rather manipulate the national vocabulary to inculcate in the exploited classes that these words mean their opposites.
Orwell’s novel is widely regarded as prophetic; public intellectual Christopher Hitchens has even comically queried whether Kim il-Sung used it as a model when creating North Korea’s repressive institutions. Language control, however, is utilized by the political classes in the West as well. There is arguably no better example of this than the euphemistic usage of “progressive” to refer to statist public policies.
Throughout human history, the overwhelming majority of peoples have lived in societies in which most economic activity was tightly managed by a relatively small collective of power mongers. Whether religious, monarchical, parliamentary, etc., these economically oppressive governance systems precluded those that were not politically connected from exercising economic freedom. This began to change with the Enlightenment, which coincided with the Industrial Revolution. Economies in the West began to liberalize, enabling the previously destitute to develop their skills and trade their products and services for monetary gain. That the poorest Westerners now live significantly better than previous generations could have fathomed is attributable to these two monumental phenomena.
The rise of progressivism in the United States in the early 1900s should rightly be viewed as a step towards the historical status quo. By what standard can an unprecedented governmental usurpation of economic power be regarded as progress? Among the most troubling events of this era were the creation of an American central bank and the country’s involvement in World War I, which some regard as the unofficial end of a largely isolationist foreign policy. While these are especially egregious examples, others certainly abound. Political control of the economy particularly increased under Woodrow Wilson and accelerated profoundly during the tenure of FDR. Yet these men are exemplars of progressive politics and heroes to many progressives.
The euphemistic usage of “progressive” is merely one contemporary example of governmental manipulation of language. Notice also how often members of the authoritarian elite, especially of the leftist persuasion, cloak justifications for the warfare state in the language of peace, and for the welfare state in the language of freedom. Language is perhaps the most potent tool true freedom advocates can employ to undermine the state and facilitate the rise of a more peaceful society. Some may not realize, however, that the tool itself may need to be protected against the adversarial manipulators. To paraphrase Orwell, ridding English speakers of their bad habits would enable them to think more clearly, which is “a necessary first step toward political regeneration.” To fight the statists, we must first know the nature of their agenda. That they are not affecting progress, but are rather incrementally supplanting progress with the historical status quo, is exactly what they hope to prevent you from recognizing through their destruction of language.

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Alex Schroeder's picture
Columns on STR: 11




Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Alex: Thanks for the good assessment of manipulative language. I think that you've even understated the goal of so-called progressives. It's not merely the status quo that they seek. They really are turning the clock back by taking away individual choice and returning it back to a centralized controller. They literally want to repeal the enlightenment. I would also like to mention that I'm seeing the roots of the enlightenment (more and more) in the decentralized power free-for-all of medieval feudalism. Consequently, I'm beginning to see the "Renaissance of the 12th Century" and even earlier forms of renaissance being generated as a result of the destruction of the bloody, monolithic, and economically stifling Roman-Empire. I even think that one of the best articles ever printed by FEE was the one (in 1987?) entitled "Ancient Suicide of the West," which depicts in great detail the anti-market Roman Empire and the mythical sway that still is maintained in popular thought about its supposed "benefits," which are the product of propaganda by Roman historians! Good going, Alex.

B.R. Merrick's picture

Does the Right come anywhere close to the Left's ability to wage semantic war (and win)?

Progressive: The state's compassion for the poor.
Liberal: Support and preference for minorities' needs and voices.
Compassion: Taxing the rich so that they will take care of the poor.
Education: Taxing everybody so that all children will not only learn to read, but love it.
Feminism: Belief in the equality of the sexes, except that one sex has been so horribly oppressed that they don't yet know they are equals.
Welfare: Ensuring that the poor don't starve to death or go homeless, which will undoubtedly happen without it.
African-Americans: People who are equal to whites, except that they have been so horribly oppressed that they don't yet know they are equals.
"Black": Verboten.
"White": Nicht verboten.
Equality: An existent natural phenomena that can be objectively measured and attained in human relationships, and is also the highest good.

The list goes on. None of the above means what the definition that follows says it means. I'm no fan of the Right, but I've never seen manipulation and destruction of language like what we see on a routine basis from the Left. Or perhaps I just haven't been paying attention.

tzo's picture
Paul's picture

"The most effective way of making people accept the validity of the values they are to serve is to persuade them that they are really the same as those which they... have always held... The people are made to transfer their allegiance from the old gods to the new under the pretense that the new gods really are what their sound instinct had always told them but what before they had only dimly seen. And the most effective way to this end is to use the old words but change their meaning.

Few traits of totalitarian regimes are at the same time so confusing to the superficial observer and yet so characteristic of the whole intellectual climate as the complete perversion of language, the change of meaning of the words by which the ideals of the new regimes are expressed....

If one has not one's self experienced this process, it is difficult to appreciate the magnitude of this change of the meaning of words, the confusion it causes, and the barriers to any rational discussion which it creates... And the confusion becomes worse because this change of meaning of words describing political ideals is not a single event but a continuous process, a technique employed consciously or unconsciously to direct the people. Gradually, as this process continues, the whole language becomes despoiled, and words become empty shells deprived of any definite meaning, as capable of denoting one thing as its opposite and used solely for the emotional associations which still adhere to them."

-- Friedrich Hayek, "The Road to Serfdom"