12/01/2011 06:10 pm ET | Updated Jan 31, 2012

From Occupy to Progressive Renewal: Demanding the Just Society

The little rabbit was in a deep hole from which it could not escape. It consulted the rabbit manual, which stated, "when in a dangerous situation, dig a hole." So it dug. It is still in the hole, and still digging.

Light at the End?

Finally, serious opposition has emerged against the full-scale, right wing and corporate takeover of American society. The initial target of Occupy Wall Street outrage is the final dismantling of the public sector by the emerging plutocracy. Defending the American people's right to basic social welfare, government regulatory protection, and full employment against growing dominance by the rich and powerful is a hopeful beginning. To regain the political initiative, however, progressives must reignite the broader demand for a just society.

Deep popular discontent, symbolized by the growing protests, represents an unparalleled opportunity for progressive renewal. Americans yearn for a humane alternative to ever more rigid corporate and bureaucratic hierarchies that pacify citizens with addictive consumption, numbing popular culture, pervasive inequities, and purposeless status seeking. They want a society where human aspirations and individual potential are cultivated by meaningful work and a nurturing childhood. They want communities that provide economic security with a social safety net and institutions with space for social connectedness and democratic empowerment.

As we witness with the Occupiers, political opposition does not automatically generate a compelling agenda. Despite decades of conservative extremism and the near collapse of republican government under Bush II, progressives have offered no vision of the just society. They counter the ascendant national security state and corporatized economy simply by asserting that, while losing "the day" to the rightward surge, they will "win the age" with their "great ideas." Meanwhile, the Obama insurgency, quickly receding into short-term crisis management, adopts the Republican playbook: corporate supplication, presidential centralism, global expansionism, empty electoral pandering, and nuanced Social Darwinism.

Progressives must renew the call for a just and emancipated society. Given the scale of contemporary institutions, America's once vibrant individualism can only flourish with a public sector capable of generating self-realization, social justice, and democracy. These essays offer a new "deep frame" in George Lakoff's terms, a "new moral narrative" for the revival of progressive initiative. Conservatives will call this expression of our common will a new feudalism, for they hope to derail the only - popular - alternative to corporate and organizational authoritarianism.

The Loss of Progressive Initiative

To address this challenge, we must face the gradual erosion of progressive faith in a free and democratic society dating from the Reagan era. As Jennifer Delton noted in her essay "Conserving Liberalism," liberal thinkers are "no longer staking their claims on the future," but have instead become "conservers and restorers, fighting to preserve what remains of the New Deal, struggling to restore former glories." Delton adds more sharply, "liberal dreams are not what they used to be. Or rather they are exactly what they used to be."

By 1970, in the words of historian Allan Brinkley, "the secure liberal universe" was already "collaps[ing], and it has never recovered." Even its electoral victories have come either at the expense of a political opposition untethered to the modern world or under the leadership of brilliant centrist strategists and wordsmiths. Progressive scholar Tony Judt recently warned of the "strange death of liberal America" in our time, foretelling the "death of [the] republic itself."

This progressive disarray is fallout from the late twentieth century culture wars between two incompatible dreams. Most Americans approached the 1960s content with the competitive market society that propelled them over two centuries to global preeminence. To be sure, especially among progressives and liberals, spiritual discontent was simmering. Escalating privatism, materialism, organizational hierarchy, and conformity were troubling, but the cure was always to strive harder and reap the rewards for good behavior.

The counterculture of the 1960s shattered this complacency. The latent discontents were exposed, revealing the prevalence of empty ambitions and truncated identities, what psychologist Erich Fromm called the pseudo-world of the pseudo-self. The affluent society, many believed, no longer required such self-sacrifice and compromise of life goals. Its immense productivity promised a new age where material security would open untold opportunities for self-actualization, social connection, and political democracy.

The counterculture stirred enough hope in the flourishing of human potential to undermine the classic strategy: using fears of deprivation to motivate intensified competition and acquisitiveness. Yet it offered no alternative and little resistance to the fierce opposition-to-change that ensued. In the end, having done untold damage to each other, both dreams crashed. This was particularly devastating to progressives and liberals, who -- with a foot in each camp -- were torn apart by the ensuing culture war.

The resulting value confusion has been palpable. Should progressives continue to support a culture of intense competition or cooperation and self-expression? Acquisition or redistribution? Democratization or rule by technical and political elites? Rigid meritocratic education or the nurturance of self-development? Expanding economic growth or an environment friendly steady state? Make-work or automation and greater leisure? Global parity or national dominance?

Facing the New Age

As progressives and liberals waffled, having lost sight of their priorities, they provided no guidance for the post-industrial transition. Americans were left to pick up the scattered pieces on their own. But lacking a clear direction, individuals retreated into denial and caution, afraid of losing their way and falling behind. Political and psychological disorientation replaced economic deprivation, yet citizens were more needy and vulnerable to political manipulation than ever.

Disorientation was avoided by burrowing into work and building walls of commodities and roles. An obsession with security, risk avoidance, and success was pushed on the young. Adults while knowing better pretended clarity they lacked and asserted platitudes they disbelieved, hoping to spare their children the pain of unrealizable dreams.

Unable to reorient popular goals and incentives, progressives lost momentum to the populist and corporate right. Its scorched earth politics, driven by triumph of the privileged at home and warfare abroad, wreaks both psychological insecurity and material deprivation. The hollow call for freedom and individualism is designed to mobilize popular nostalgia for a lost world -- devout, quiescent, stratified, and masks the effort to render a desperate populace pliable and compliant.

The time has come to move beyond mere opposition to the reign of insecurity and deprivation. We must not leave Americans wondering if alternatives exist to the escalating regimentation of work, culture, political institutions, our thinking, and our rearing of the young. Aspirations for vital selfhood, a meaningful vocation, and empowered communities continue. Only by tapping them with the vision of a just and emancipated society will renewal be forthcoming.