Can Progressive Politics survive without Progress?
Field Notes on ‘Progress 2019’
My dad used to take my sister and I out for a Maccas breakfast each Sunday morning. One year, around age eight or nine, my sister was in the outdoor play area while I finished eating honey-soaked pancakes out of a styrofoam box. My dad, sitting opposite, decided this morning would be the morning to let me know Santa wasn’t real. “Duh!” I said, folding a pancake and sticking it in my mouth with a plastic fork.
Yet somehow, Santa continued to bring me presents for many more years.
As Santa was to my dad and I, the idea of Progress is to the left today — an idea which nobody believes, but continues to walk around, shake hands, and drink aperitifs. In the quiet corridors and para-conference strolls, people turn to each other and ask “So, you know the world actually isn’t getting any better?”. They then roll their eyes and respond: “Duh!”
Progress 2019 is an annual conference which convenes Australia’s political left — NGO campaigners, activists, journalists, unionists and politicians. Held in Melbourne’s historic Town Hall, it has the appearance of a Grand Opera. The audience are cast in darkness, the stage in bright light. Rebel-in-exile Yassmin Abdel-Magied noted the irony of the colonial figures peering down from the high walls, but it is unclear whether the irony is ours or theirs to enjoy.
The term “eerie” is often used when an ordinarily pleasant scene is absent of some key feature. A city street empty of people or an ornate frame without a painting can be described as “eerie.” The recent electoral victory of Australia’s conservative Liberal party birthed a dark mood, an absence of cheer, a renewed sense of foreboding at Progress 2019 . A strange déjà vu echoing the first Progress in 2013 which followed Tony Abbott’s victory.
Progress 2019 was “eerie” because it consoled progress without hope, and hope without reason to hope. Things are becoming much worse.
The dark, febrile nature of our times was acknowledged by most speakers, but only as the first step in an epic hero’s journey towards utopia. We were implored to “recognise the superpowers we have,” (Yassmin) and that “hope is our job,” (Kirsty Albion). Kumi Naidoo, Secretary-General of Amnesty International went even further, telling us literally to “Not focus on the sad part, focus on the inspirational part,” and Owen Jones’ joked unironically that his brief was to “cheer us up.”
We were begged to be happy — the last resort of a frustrated parent.
A panel on the “new political economy,” was created under the optimistic assumption of a Labor victory. That Labor was resoundingly defeated was not taken as cause for humility by the speakers, who seemed comfortable with the idea that analyses without predictive power are worth listening to. Their task was to restore a sense in the audience that our politics are intelligible and not merely a grim, opaque parade of loosely related events.
Absent of any real analysis or understanding as to why the Left keeps losing, we were simply implored to do more, listen better, empathise more, work harder, build more, and collaborate better. Work out of your silos and put effected communities first. Look at root causes, not symptoms. Think systemically. Build alternative narratives, craft optimistic messages, and tell hopeful stories. Step up if we can, step back if we’re not helping. The sense of déjà vu was indeed powerful at Progress 2019.
Progress 2019 talks of doing things differently, but the only tool in the leftist kit is the moral imperative. The left believes that moral commands make the world. They believe everyone should become the kind of person they feel guilty for not being.
An all-caps shitstorm erupted on Twitter due to an attendee feeling singled out and isolated because of their disability. The venue was packed, and ambulant audiences would jostle at the elevator rather than take a dozen stairs and free up space for disabled attendees. As it happens, swarm-like behaviour is not limited to alt-right rallies and soccer riots. The organisers responded with ritualistic white guilt and promised to do better.
The organisers failed to see the deeper, epistemic criticism inherent in the disabled audiences’ lack of access — the progressive movement cannot even create an idealised, egalitarian space within one building over one weekend. Progress 2019 was a window into the limits of human nature, into the maw between our fantasies about ourselves and the human animal they reckon with.
Progress 2019 was at its most redemptive in the peripheries. Each breakout session was very worthwhile. I found all the individual sessions enriching — whether about digital transformation, white supremacy, or reducing Aboriginal Australian incarceration in the Northern Territory. Many of these are good, local, winnable struggles.
The issue is in the framing of all these struggles as component performances in some Grand Opera of Progress. This idea serves nobody except the self-appointed conductors of that Opera — journalists, “thought leaders,” left-wing politicians and NGO bureaucrats. Their careers are tied up in certain ideas about how society operates.
Talk of decolonisation and putting First Nations’ voices first was a key part of Progress 2019. Perhaps it is time to put to rest that oldest and whitest of zombie ideals — going further back than the old men at the Melbourne Town Hall to Socrates and Jesus — that the story of history is an inevitable march forward. Instead, let’s revive First Nations’ ideas of deep time and circularity, and entertain the idea that all may again become dust.