The Crisis of Progressivism

The dispute between right and left has crossed the history of modernity, and we could characterize it as a philosophical dilemma between two fundamental values: freedom and equality.

Precisely with these different emphases, the right tended to emphasize the importance of a certain set of norms (those that establish citizens' rights against possible encroachments by the state), while the left focused on another set of norms (those that compel the state to guarantee health, education, housing, and well-being for all members of society).

This was expressed in the two International Conventions on Human Rights jointly adopted in 1966, which recognized Civil and Political Rights (in the first case) and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (in the second).

However, the contemporary paradox is that progressivism has become increasingly pragmatic and conservative (worldwide, regionally, and nationally) while prioritizing many of the values historically upheld by the right, without abandoning its label of "progressive."

This has led to a common minimization concerning the real grievances expressed by the population: inflation, the consequent loss of purchasing power, the ravages of insecurity and drug-related issues, the distress stemming from the transformations of identity (in masculinity, in social bonds, in emotional relationships, in education or health, in the role of networks or Artificial Intelligence, etc.).

This has ultimately created a situation that shifts the entire spectrum of debates towards a point of enormous danger. With progressivism on one side, which has ended up endorsing repeated austerity measures in public policy (either out of conviction or pragmatism), the confrontation to this stance becomes the advocacy of unlimited freedom (that of contemporary "anarchical-capitalists") that propose not only the demolition of the state but also any regulatory policies, in a definitive attack on the existence of any norm (be it those that defend children's rights against exploitation or sale by their parents, those that advocate for the state's monopoly on the use of lethal weapons, or those that emphasize the importance of having a tax system that provides assistance in the face of eventual misfortunes). It is a proposal for a society in which social bonds would disappear, leaving each person to fend for themselves and deal with whatever occurs to them, be it illness, an accident, financial hardship, the need to retire in old age, etc.

The Difficulty of Progressivism in Confronting the Discourse of the New Right

This transformation of contemporary progressivism has been accompanied by limitations in the freedom to think. Anyone who dares to depart from the dogmas (pointing out the harmful effects of insecurity in impoverished neighborhoods, the impact of inflation on salaries, the essential nature of identities, or the school shaming of young boys) is quickly "canceled" as an "accomplice of mass media criminology" or an archaic representative of patriarchy or colonialism. Those who highlight the sustained loss of rights for the most vulnerable sectors or the increasingly unequal distribution of income are accused of "playing into the hands of the right." This progressive pragmatism is becoming increasingly conservative.

However, at the same time, a set of practices that were once virtuous for the left is also being questioned by progressivism, such as the idea that effort should be rewarded, that access to professional or technical positions should be based on merit-based competitions, and the condemnation of corruption.

Likewise, the left, once supporting punitive action towards crime, has been transformed into romanticizers or justifiers of the "new cultures" of "young hoods," viewing them as a "cultural form" which legitimizes the breakdown of social bonds.

These new styles of progressivism no longer defend academic excellence but rather a deceptive egalitarianism for the beneficiaries of public policies who, by "expediting exams for workers," "widespread passing grades," and other forms of lowering standards, end up justifying devalued certificates that fail to play their true role in upward social mobility or the critical capacity to evaluate reality. This set of contradictions into which progressivism has fallen, has allowed the right to advance rapidly and decisively in a "cultural battle" that only the right seems to be waging.

Many of the activists of the new right are young. They are insightful. They are enthusiastic. And they are concerned about issues that historically concerned not only the right but also the left: double standards, corruption, the systematic destruction of public policies, the cancel culture in debates, and the equalization of value.

The beloved Discépolo (who was not exactly a right-wing ideologue but one of the most prolific Peronist artists of the 20th century) highlighted some of these problems as part of his critique of the conditions of his time. Here are some of his verses, although the tango in its entirety is a masterpiece:

Today it turns out it's the same to be honest or a traitor,
Ignorant, wise, a thief, or a pretentious swindler,
Everything's the same, nothing is better,
A donkey is the same as a great professor,
There are no failures. How could there be?
There isn’t any rank.
The immoral have equalized us,
If one lives in pretense and another steals from ambition,
It's the same if he's a priest, a mattress seller, or the king of clubs,
Shameless or illegal
What a lack of respect, what an affront to reason!
Anyone is a gentleman, anyone is a thief.

The transformation of progressivism has created an incapacity to reiterate this denunciation, in a stance that seems to justify that "everything's the same, nothing's better". It is against this that the youth of the new right rebel with a proposal that, despite its skepticism, doesn’t cease to have its logic: "let the market distinguish that which the state refuses to distinguish," appealing to an extreme level of cruelty, and the conviction that we are alone in the face of misfortune. But the argument that this false equalization is nothing more than a deception is something they are undoubtedly right about. The neo-fascist right sells hatred; to blow everything up, bring winds of change, "kick them all out, until there’s not one left," the same slogan that left-wing forces utilized when they assumed power in the years that marked the end of the 20th century, the slogan that fueled the rebellion of 2001.

If the right is gaining ground in the cultural battle, it may be because some of the current responses of progressivism are wrong and some of its assumptions are erroneous. At some point, progressivism has lost its way and abandoned the vocation to transform society in a direction of greater justice, with the sacrifice, commitment, and effort that it requires. To understand this, we need to dare to think critically, to review those truths we take for granted, to listen to the real grievances that this protest vote and profound cultural questioning are shouting at us, to engage with those who are suffering and provide them with a different response than the political manipulation of hatred, pragmatic resignation, or "every man for himself." It is difficult and requires courage to identify and acknowledge one's own mistakes. But it is a necessary condition for there to be any chance of engaging in a truly cultural dispute and influencing the rapid transformations of contemporary hegemony.


Daniel Feierstein is a sociologist and holds a Ph.D. in Social Sciences. He is the Director of the Center for Genocide Studies at the National University of Tres de Febrero, and has directed the Master's program in Cultural Diversity at the same institution. He has also served as President of the International Association of Genocide Researchers, is a Judge on the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal and a Consultant for the United Nations.



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