12/13/2011 04:01 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2012

From Occupy to Progressive Renewal II: It Takes a Village

We must have faith in the people, in their capacity to take care of their real interests as human beings. --Erich Fromm

The Case for Renewal

To move beyond their cautious pragmatism, progressives must abandon the self-defeating assumptions of the past. They must reject the false choice between social justice and individual freedom. Public institutions alone -- not private interests or lone individuals -- have the power to not only protect our basic social needs but also nurture our full human and democratic potential. At some point, our presence on a fragile life raft to sink or swim together will dawn like a blinding light, hopefully before the waters are upon us.

Freedom is not under threat from a more just society, as if living in the woods remained an option, but from corporate and organizational dominance. The scale of contemporary society has foreclosed earlier forms of proprietorship, economic individualism, and local self-sufficiency. The conditions for achieving freedom, social justice, and democracy have been altered for good. We must now work together as never before to ensure broad opportunity and self-actualization in American life.

The call to a good society, to a public we can believe in and a worthy individualism, means acknowledging what every poor child knows: social worlds are constructed jointly, including the assistance required to realize our full potential. Individualism is not a natural biological endowment. It first emerged in early modern Europe, as new social wealth brought the opportunity for greater life choices. It enabled families to nurture capacities in their young to meet the new challenges of adult independence. Our young people deserve no less.

Challenging Progressive Assumptions

No one asks how conservatives with a stack of cue cards from William Graham Sumner sidetracked and ultimately derailed the mighty engine of twentieth-century social reform. The right succeeded by mobilizing the popular wish to reconsecrate the mystical powers of the unchained individual, tracing every social ailment and personal limit to artificial public constraints. Global warming? Faulty environmental regs. Economic stagnation? Disband the Fed. A biased citizenry? Eliminate NPR. But aren't there always constraints? This only testifies to the power and cunning of the enemies of individualism.

Yet progressives and liberals are also deeply ambivalent about modernity. They quickly wilt before accusations of collectivism because they too yearn for a simpler time. They recall with nostalgia when the dream of individual self-reliance, the will of the people, and opportunity and mobility for all were articles of a common faith.

They, like conservatives, fear modern institutional centralization and consolidation as the path to the "iron cage" of European statism. Progressives recognize this world has passed. But they cannot envision how democracy and freedom will be sustained. As a result, they fiddle and fret while conservatives hawk their magic claims of release.

The Nostalgia Trap

Liberal policy makers admit in private the folly of identifying freedom and opportunity solely with the market, but refuse to publicly cede this "high ground" of market legitimacy to the right. The New Deal tried a similar strategy: rather than create significant alternatives to the market, poor "relief" was designed to help people back on their feet to pursue market self-reliance, euphemistically called equal opportunity.

Government was defined as a necessary but temporary evil. Not surprisingly, once public programs brought about the modern middle class, Republicans intensified their theological campaign to root out rather than consort with such evil. Liberals had no rejoinder as generations of Americans boosted into the middle class hearkened to their rechristening as self-made entrepreneurs, and began cutting away the floor -- the public sector -- from beneath their own feet.

The Civil Rights and other modern social justice movements encountered the same dead-end. While their radical wings demanding social change were preemptively undermined, formal legal inclusion was begrudgingly accommodated to forestall social disorder. The many artificial legal and policy barriers to full competition hampering the historically excluded were removed. This produced a train of welcome success stories. The result, however, is further constituencies convinced of their self-made success. Unconstrained competition was again perceived to guarantee a level playing field, while losers were presumed to deserve their fate.

The progressive inability to challenge these assumptions has led to three decades of conservative policy hegemony. Both parties have embraced the "central tenets" of extreme conservatism including deregulation and privatization led by "corporate reformers."

Education policy scholar and analyst Diane Ravitch, a traditional conservative who turned against the current right wing war on the public, explains the current folly in her recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Because of this market fundamentalism, the "invisible hand of the market" -- empty procedures lacking any "underlying ... vision" or specific knowledge -- dominates public policy. As a result, market forces, which often means corporate leverage, are now presumed in education, health care, environmental policy and elsewhere to represent the public good.

Dismantling the public sector is a sure sign that we have no plan for the future. That plan will only emerge as we construct a new vision for producing capable and empowered citizens. The satisfactions achievable through mutual self-flourishing (in preference to private indulgence) must be spelled out. The possibility for individuality richer and deeper than ever before must be emphasized. The young must be freed from the horrendous strait jacket of contemporary education to lives of expanded potential.

How do we create a public world enabling citizens to cultivate self-mastery and institutional engagement? How do we offer an alternative to death of the republic from public submission to economic and political elites? Let's talk about vision.