Tag Archives: neo-progressivism

Neo-Progressivism watch: online collectivism as the 3rd way that works

Just finished reading Kevin Kelly’s piece The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online in Wired Magazine. It talks about the same themes Taylor and I were trying to surface Progressivism’s End and I suspect we agree with Kelly’s in many regards.

Taylor and I talked about how the left (now old left) killed progressive politics and how progressive politics is re-emerging in new forms (I had wanted to use Mozilla as a mini-case, but came to it too late). Kelly’s piece deals less with the past and focuses exclusively on the nascent politics that is emerging in the online space:

We’re not talking about your grandfather’s socialism. In fact, there is a long list of past movements this new socialism is not. It is not class warfare. It is not anti-American; indeed, digital socialism may be the newest American innovation. While old-school socialism was an arm of the state, digital socialism is socialism without the state. This new brand of socialism currently operates in the realm of culture and economics, rather than government—for now.

When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it’s not unreasonable to call that socialism.

Maybe. I think the socialism label takes the argument a bit far. Kelly’s piece portrays open source and collective online projects as disconnected from capitalism. Certainly in the case of open-source, this is a strained argument. While motivations vary, many people who fund and contribute to Firefox do so because having an open browser allows the web – and all the commerce conducted on it – to be open and competitive. Same with Linux, between 75%-90% of contributors are paid by their employers to contribute. As Amanda McPherson, director of marketing at the Linux Foundation notes: “They’re not the guys in the basements, the hobbyists.” Consequently, many open-source projects are about preserving an open platform so that value can shift to another part of the system. It is about allowing for better, more efficient and more open markets – not about ending them.

Still more difficult to believe is Kelly’s assertion that “The more we benefit from such collaboration, the more open we become to socialist institutions in government.” If there is one political philosophy that is emerging among the online coders and hackers it isn’t socialism – it is libertarianism. I see no evidence that socialism is making a comeback – this is where Kelly’s use of the term hurts him the most. If we are seeing anything it is the re-emergence of the values of progressive politics: a desire for meritocracy, openness, transparency, efficiency and equality of opportunity. The means of achieving this is shifting, but not back towards socialism of any form.

One area I strongly agree with Kelly is that neo-progressivism (or as he prefers, the new socialism) is strongly pragmatic:

On the face of it, one might expect a lot of political posturing from folks who are constructing an alternative to capitalism and corporatism. But the coders, hackers, and programmers who design sharing tools don’t think of themselves as revolutionaries. No new political party is being organized in conference rooms—at least, not in the US. (In Sweden, the Pirate Party formed on a platform of file-sharing. It won a paltry 0.63 percent of votes in the 2006 national election.)

Indeed, the leaders of the new socialism are extremely pragmatic. A survey of 2,784 open source developers explored their motivations. The most common was “to learn and develop new skills.” That’s practical. One academic put it this way (paraphrasing): The major reason for working on free stuff is to improve my own damn software. Basically, overt politics is not practical enough.

As we wrote in an early draft of Progressivism’s End:

Having lost, or never gained, hope in either partisan politics or the political institutions that underlie the modern state, much of this generation has tuned out.  Driven by outcomes, neo-progressive’s are tired of the malaise of New Deal institutions. Believing, but with a healthy dose of skepticism, in both the regulatory capacity of the state and the effectiveness of the market economy, they are put off by the absolutism of both the right and left.  And, valuing pragmatism over ideology, they are embarrassed by partisan bickering.

The simple fact is that in a world that moves quickly, it is easier than ever to quickly ascertain what works and what does not. This gives pragamatists a real advantage over theoretically driven ideologues who have a model of the world they want reality to conform to. Kelly may be right that, at some point, this neo-progressive (or new-socialist) movement will get political. But I suspect that will only be the case if a) their modes of production are threatened (hence the copyright was). I suspect they will simple (continue) ignore the political whenever possible – why get them involved if you can achieve results without them?

Emerging Neo-Progressive Issues: Drug Policy

As many of you know Taylor and I wrote a piece on what we termed neo-progressivism in last September’s Literary Review of Canada.

Since then we’ve keep our eye out for other discussions where we think neo-progressives are gaining traction in the public discourse. Some of the indicators we looking for are policies where:

  • The conversation is deadlocked and going nowhere
  • The conversation isn’t possible because alternatives to the status quo are considered taboo
  • Areas where the gap between ideology and research or evidence is significant
  • Debates where their are real divisions within either the left or right
  • Debates which unite odd factions from within the left and right
  • Policy areas where individual freedom is curtailed
  • Places where the impact on the public in general is growing

This list isn’t exhaustive nor is it a scientific – they are just a couple of triggers wer look our for.

Well, if you are looking at this list you may have noticed that last month a potential candidate emerged far on the horizon. It was a surprising one for me since I do some volunteering around this issue here in Vancouver and I really didn’t see it coming.

I’m talking of drug prohibition.

The aha moment was seeing the (very) conservative Cato Institute publish a report by Glen Greenwald (a case study neo-pragmatists) in which he analyzed the impact of drug decriminalization in Portugal. As the report’s summary states:

For over seven years, drugs have been decriminalized in Portugal. This new study examines the Portuguese model and the data concerning drug-related trends in Portugal, and argues that, “judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success.”

Then consider drug prohibition against the list I outlined above. This topic should not have snuck up on me:

  • Deadlocked conversation: The “War on Drugs” vs. “Marijuana activists” increasingly leaves the public turned off. The war on drugs industry and its militarization of the police is costly, dangerous to civil liberties and has failed to address the problem for 30 years. Indeed, as the RCMP now admits, reducing the flow of drugs actually renders the situation more dangerous for citizens. Conversely, the counter-culture movement around pot activists is equally alienating. It is hard to attract middle class support when every middle class parent fears that this counter-culture will become the norm and their children will be destined life as a pot-head.
  • Alternatives to the status quo are taboo: For most politicians talking about ending drug prohibition is absolutely taboo, although this is shifting. Vancouver’s mayor recently stated that the sate should “regulate, control and tax marijuana,” and that “the prohibition approach to it is not working.” The Liberals under Martin considered decriminalizing marijuana. Even in the US there is movement. The legislatures of New York State, California and Massachusetts have begun to reconsider overly punitive drug laws. Senators Jim Webb and Arlen Specter recently proposed Congress create a national commission to explore prison reform and drug-sentencing policy.
  • Large gap between ideology and research or evidence: Here the Cato report, along with the data coming out of the Downtown Eastside around Insite and NAOMI trials is most devastating. The rhetoric around law & order does not stack up against the results. Consider that in Portugal after decriminalization (pulled from this Time Magazine article on the report)
    • lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. (a 33% drop!!!)
    • lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). (a 25% drop!)
    • new HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half.
    • the number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and money saved on enforcement allowed for increased funding of drug-free treatment as well. (150% increase in people seeking treatment!)
  • Divides the left or right: Check out this Western Standard blog (possible the most conservative publication in Canada) in which a conservative columnist argues with a conservative reader about the evidence around ending prohibition. I never thought I’d see the day where a Western Standard columnist would explore the possibility of ending prohibition. Could endorsing harm reduction strategies be far behind?
  • Unite odd factions from within the left and right: Could possible unite traditional left wing progressives with right-wing libertarians.
  • Individual freedom is curtailed: Check. The literature of the impact of the “war on drugs” on civil liberties in the United States is vast.
  • Growing impact on the public: drug violence in the US and Canada appears to be on the rise and a bordering country, Mexico, is becoming unstable. Much like alchohol prohibition in the 30’s at some point the public is going to connect gang violence with drugs – at which point a wider debate may become possible.

Do I think drug prohibition is going to end tomorrow? Absolutely not. But I won’t be surprised if we see movement at the local and state/provincial level this issue. Indeed, I believe it has been gaining traction for some time.

Follow the link to get a free copy of the Cato Institute’s study “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies.”

Real Renewal – Creating a post-boomer Liberal Party

Taylor Owen and I published an op-ed entitled “Real Renewal” in today’s Toronto Star. You can comment on the piece here.



How about real Liberal renewal?

Nov 20, 2008 04:30 AM

David Eaves
Taylor Owen

In the weeks since one of its worst ever electoral performances, the conversation within the Liberal Party of Canada has rightly turned to renewal. To date, the establishment consensus suggests two options: shift right and recapture the ideological “centre,” or unite the left and merge the votes of the Greens, NDP and Liberals.

Neither choice, however, represents renewal. Both are simply electoral tactics focused on the next election. Neither necessitates a rethinking of first principles, nor encourages reflection on how liberalism, and its agenda, must evolve to create a 21st century vision that will speak to Canadians.

Consequentially, both approaches are likely to alienate a new generation of activists, thinkers and policy-makers whose new ideas and energy are essential to transcending the country’s staid political debates.

Take for example our friends and colleagues. Confronted with parties whose politics, policies and priorities are perceived as out of touch and ineffective, many have simply opted out of organized politics. But many are deeply engaged. They start or work at non-governmental organizations, volunteer internationally, create social enterprises or advocate outside of organized politics. Among our peers, the progressive spirit is strong, but progressive politics is not.

To progressives searching for a political home a united left offers few new opportunities.

While acknowledging the left was instrumental in creating many of the social programs Canadians have come to trust – many of today’s emerging progressives see a left that is often loath to reform or rethink them in the face of globalization, the telecommunication revolution, and a changing citizenry. In the last election voters faced an ideological paradox. The more left the advocates, the more entrenched they were against innovation and reform, even when such reforms would serve progressive values.

Seen this way, the NDP’s vision is in many ways a conservative one – a vision of Canada locked in the 1960s or worse, the 1930s. This conservatism of the left – even if found under one tent – will not inspire forward looking progressives, or Canadians in general.

Nor will moving to the centre attract new people or inspire new ideas.

Centrism requires there to something inherently good in the position between two ideological poles. Rather than compromise between the conservatism of the left and the right, many of our peers want pragmatic policies and ideas based on a governing philosophy rather than political gamesmanship.

Take how Barack Obama has mobilized a new generation of progressives. He inspires not because he compromises between the left and right, but because he offers pragmatic policy solutions, unrestricted by ideology. Obama’s watershed speeches – “Ebenezer Baptist Church,” “Yes We Can” and “A More Perfect Union” – are powerful because they transcend the ideological divides of the past 40 years.

How then could the Liberal party attract new people and ideas? The first step is to understand that we are on the cusp of a neo-progressive revolution.

While traditional progressives promoted their values to smooth the transition from agrarian to industrial capitalism and to spread the latter’s benefits, a neo-progressive Liberal party should seek to manage the shift from the industrial to the knowledge economy. In short, to develop a New Deal for the 21st century.

This would mean, like their progressive forbearers identifying new political axes around which a new governing coalition – drawn from both the left and right – could be built.

These emerging political axes include open versus closed systems, evidence-based policy versus ideology, meritocratic governance versus patronage, open and fair markets versus isolationism, and emergent networks versus hierarchies. It is these political distinctions, not the old left versus right, that increasingly resonate among those we talk to.

Such a shift will not be easy for the Liberal party. Transformative politics requires a painful process of introspection and a willingness to let go of past battles. The Liberal party, however, continues to treat “renewal” as a side process. For example, after Paul Martin’s 2006 defeat party insiders chose 30 issues they felt were critical, and then a select group wrote reports on each. Little technology was used, neither the membership nor the public was engaged, and almost none of the reports were released to the public.

The result: Few new people were attracted to the party, almost no rigorous debates were stimulated and Liberals were unable to articulate a new progressive agenda.

This recent history offers one critical lesson. If Liberals are serious about renewal, the process can’t just be about the tactics for winning the next election, but about making progressive politics relevant to the 21st century.

David Eaves is a fellow at the Queen’s University’s Centre of the Study of Democracy. Taylor Owen is a Trudeau Scholar at the University of Oxford.

science and neo-progressivism

Those who enjoyed mine and Taylor’s piece on neo-progressives may remember that we claimed both the original progressive and the neo-progressive movements were founded on the pursuit of a few core values:

The rise of industrial capitalism during the 19th century led to a series of tense societal changes. These included the emergence of an urban working class, increasing inequality and the new possibility of total war. In response, three generations of pragmatically driven “progressives” emerged. Opposing both the socialist left and the laissez-faire right, they championed values such as equality of opportunity, meritocracy, government transparency and empirical inquiry.

Andrew Sullivan seems to agree with science/evidence based approaches as being one of them – although the post’s title suggests he doesn’t want to credit earlier progressives with adopting science as well. Andrew’s comments spring from the fact that the science magazine Seed has endorsed Obama:

Science is a way of governing, not just something to be governed. Science offers a methodology and philosophy rooted in evidence, kept in check by persistent inquiry, and bounded by the constraints of a self-critical and rigorous method. Science is a lens through which we can and should visualize and solve complex problems, organize government and multilateral bodies, establish international alliances, inspire national pride, restore positive feelings about America around the globe, embolden democracy, and ultimately, lead the world. More than anything, what this lens offers the next administration is a limitless capacity to handle all that comes its way, no matter how complex or unanticipated.

Sen. Obama’s embrace of transparency and evidence-based decision-making, his intelligence and curiosity echo this new way of looking at the world

This is a battle the original progressives won – it is a sad statement that we are fighting it again. But we will win, again. It does help that we’ve got people like Hitchens on our side and that they are willing to remind us that the GOP really is waging a war on science. The republicans really have which left not only the neo-progressives behind, but also conservative minded progressives (yes, they exist). It’s going to be a tough, ugly, conservative rump that is left.

WordClouding Harper, Dion and neo-progressivism

Just got back from the Banff Forum this weekend where I had a great time making new friends, meeting up with old friends and – with Taylor – doing a panel where we discussed our Canadian Literary Review (LRC)article on how the Left is killing progressive politics. The audience gave us lots of positive feedback and, more importantly, new insights which is always both encouraging and helpful.

On the same day I discovered – thanks to the National Post (hey, it was delivered free to my hotel room) – a great site called wordle.net which creates word clouds out of any text or web page you submit it. Very cool stuff. The National Post ran each of the party’s policy platforms through wordle which I thought was creative for a newspaper (hard to imagine the Globe doing something like that). Sadly, I wish I could link to the images, but they don’t seem to available online.

Turns out the Star (using Tagcrowd) has also been creating clouds out of the speeches Dion and Harper gave one day apart at the Empire and Canadian Clubs in Toronto. Notice how the words Stephan and Dion don’t appear in Harper’s cloud whereas Stephen and Harper are among the most used words by Dion? Interesting. Also of note? Dion seems to think “jobs” will resonate, whereas Harper seems to believe “taxes” will.

Anyway, to come back to the LRC piece, I was so inspired by these tags I decided I’d create one for the LRC piece. Tada:

Created using Wordle.net

Obama and Web 2.0 in 1995

Salimah E. just forwarded me this fantastic piece – from the Chicago Reader – about Obama. Part of what makes it fascinating is that it was  written 13 years ago. Just read it and look how consistent Obama’s past and present is from a values and goals perspective. This piece could have been written yesterday. What a rock that guy is.

Also interesting to read the piece from a technology angle. Consider again that it was written a decade before Web 2.0. But look at how Obama’s language and values around community building fit so perfectly with the social media technologies of today. Reading this (again written in 1995!) it becomes obvious that Obama would immediately see the potential and opportunity around online, self-organizing, social media. It explains how and why his stie has done so well. He literally lives and believes in the values of self-organizing to a degree that few other politicians do and so is willing to hand big parts of his site over to its users. (in this case users, supporters, or followers all feel like inadequate words, sigh).

Money quote:

“What makes Obama different from other progressive politicians is that he doesn’t just want to create and support progressive programs; he wants to mobilize the people to create their own. He wants to stand politics on its head, empowering citizens by bringing together the churches and businesses and banks, scornful grandmothers and angry young.”

Obama, different than other progressive politicians? Hmmm, I’ll confess that this line also makes me like the piece because it resonated with Taylor and I’s piece on the death of progressive politics. (Shameless link, I know).