Yes, it's possible to imagine progressive dystopias
We shouldn't just worry about the means of progress, but the ends as well.
A thought has been nagging at me recently. A couple of months ago, Brad DeLong and I did a podcast where we discussed left-of-center folks like Brianna Wu, Matt Yglesias, and Ezra Klein pushing back on some of the people to their left. Brad framed these pushbacks as being fundamentally about tactics — as he saw it, Brianna, Matt, and Ezra are frustrated with the means that some progressives are using in their attempts to achieve utopia, and arguing for a more pragmatic, effective approach. This is part of a long tradition in which activists who advocate for social change argue about how much change society is ready for.
But while I do think there’s some of that going on, I disagreed with Brad that this is mostly what the pushback is about. Instead, I argued that what we’re really seeing is growing discomfort with some of the goals that progressives seem to be fighting for — not so much about the pace of change, but about its direction. When Brad challenged me to list some examples of dystopian progressive visions, I immediately said “degrowth”, and he agreed.
Anyway, notice I said the word “some”. Many progressive visions, like greater economic equality, the closing of racial wealth gaps, and the reversal of climate change, are things I want! If you interpret this post as saying that progressivism writ large is a dystopian project, you have gravely misinterpreted me. Nor am I saying that conservatism is better than progressivism, or that the political Right doesn’t contain dystopian visions of its own. It very much does.
Instead, what I’m arguing is that some of the big ideas progressives embraced in the heady rush of the 2010s are misguided and should be discarded, in order to work toward utopias that human beings would actually like to live in.
Here’s a list of four such visions.
This was, of course, the easy answer to Brad’s question. I’ve written multiple posts making detailed arguments about why halting or reversing economic growth — an idea that has become fashionable among some progressive circles in the past decade — is both unworkable and undesirable as a way to limit humanity’s environmental impact. First, I argued that the drop in living standards that degrowth would require makes it a political nonstarter, and the amount of global central planning involved would be impossible to implement:
I also argued that solving climate change requires growth, since it’ll take a lot of economic output to replace our energy sources with solar and wind and batteries. And then once we do switch to those energy sources, they’ll be so cheap (thanks to learning curves) that we’ll actually have sustainably higher consumption than before.
In a follow-up post, I criticized the research and rhetoric underlying the degrowth idea, which is often based on ideologically motivated pseudoscience:
As I explained in that second post, I view degrowth partly as an attempt to valorize national decline, which is why the idea is much more popular in Europe than in the U.S.
I don’t want to beat this point to death, but I think it’s important to emphasize how unpleasant and inhumane a degrowth future would look like. People in rich countries would be forced to accept much lower standards of living, while people in developing countries would have a far more meager future to look forward to. This situation would undoubtedly cause resentment, leading to a backlash against the leaders who had mandated mass poverty. After the overthrow of degrowth regimes, we’d see the pendulum swing entirely toward leaders who promised infinite resource consumption, at which point the environment would be worse off than before. And this is in addition to the fact that degrowth would make it more difficult to invest in green energy and other technologies that protect the environment.
So while I think we do need to worry about the potential negative consequences of growth and try our best to ameliorate those harms, I think trying to impoverish ourselves to save the environment would be a catastrophic mistake, for both us and for the environment. This is not something any progressive ought to fight for.
The expulsion of “colonizers”
Decolonization, as we typically use the word — i.e., countries gaining independence from their European imperial overlords — was effectively complete by the time I was born. And that was a very good thing for the world, both morally and in economic terms. But in recent years, some progressives in the U.S. have begun to talk about an entirely different type of “decolonization” — the expulsion of “settler colonial” populations from regions that their ancestors settled in.
This alternative meaning of “decolonization” has been gaining popularity in humanities academia and some left-leaning media and activist movements for a while, but it exploded onto the national stage after Hamas’ attacks on Israel on October 7th. In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ orgy of slaughter and rape, Teen Vogue writer Najma Sharif posted the following tweet:
A few days later, a Stanford lecturer singled out Jewish students as “colonizers” in a classroom exercise intended to explain and defend Hamas’ attack:
An instructor at Stanford University has been suspended as the school investigates allegations he targeted students based on their “identities and backgrounds” during two classes in which he gave impromptu lectures on the Israel-Hamas conflict. In one of the classes, the lecturer began by blaming the war on Zionists before asking “Jewish students to raise their hands,” Nourya Cohen, a Jewish student leader, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “He asked how many Jews died in the Holocaust,” Cohen said, adding that when someone replied six million, “he said, ‘Yes. Only six million.’” A rabbi who said he spoke to three students in the class told the Jewish news outlet Forward that the lecturer continued, “Colonizers killed more than six million. Israel is a colonizer.” Cohen and another student leader alleged that the teacher then went around separating students in the classes out as either a “colonizer” or “colonized,” depending on where they said they were from.
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