Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Progressive Century, Part I

What happened to progressives and why are they seeming to just now get back some small part of the momentum they once had?

This series of posts (and I'll have to dig around to see how blogger will let me organize these articles into a seperate archive) will seem like a thesis; it sure seems that way to me. My intention here is to look to the future of progressive politics but in order to do that I feel it's necessary to revisit the past since I believe it's important to show that progressivism was once the primary political force in this country and not the marginal (or "fringe") element it has become in 21st Century America. Putting all this up front (and getting onto business) I should also add that I'll "just write this" and leave the links/citations for anyone who chooses to argue against my points.

The 20th century was arguably "The Progressive Century" in the US, a century that found citizens and government alike reacting to forces on the left and the right that sought to influence "The American Experiment". At the beginning of the 20th century, communism had become a major political force in Europe and was growing rapidly in the United States (likewise, "Anarchism" which resembled many aspects of the Marxist brand of communism that had not yet felt the stain of Lenin). Both in Europe and the US, leftist movements grew rapidly as hedges against capitalist excesses by industrialists and big business. However, laissez faire capitalism was creating its own demise as it sought to accumulate wealth with responsibility or restriction, exploiting labor and resources with no thought of preserving any sense of balance in nature, government, or worker's rights.

The first decade of the 20th century found the US government backed into a corner, facing economic ruin in the face of rampant capitalist greed. The free-market system that led to unprecedented economic growth and technological innovation in the late 19th century was being strangled by the monopolies held by a handful of industrialists. The government reacted with the first of many anti-trust laws, realizing that unless held in check by legislation, industrialists had no motive to respect the economic interests of the country or its citizens.

Likewise, "the specter of communism" gave the US government reason to fear revolution as workers began to bristle against sub-standard wages and working conditions. Nascent labor organizations (most notably, the "wobblies") rapidly formed in the shadows and dark corners of shop room floors, dodging as best they could the watchful eyes of hired goons paid by business owners to intimidate (and often murder) workers who dared organize strikes or labor groups. The first decade of the 20th century saw the US goverment instituting the first labor rights laws as well as child-labor laws (essentially putting an end to the slavery of millions of young lower-class children). As I will show later, this initial legislation was insufficient at answering the concerns of workers in the first half of the 20th century (the rise of Organized Labor in the 30s, 40s, and 50's forced further, broader, and more sweeping reforms.

Legislating and restricting free-market practices was a novel idea in the early part of the 20th century, completely at odds with the capitalist theories put forth by Adam Smith (although, to his credit, Smith warned that unrestricted markets would be problematic and unjust), heresy in the minds of the few businessmen who benefited from policies of laissez faire economics. The idea of restricting business was not just novel, it was progressive. Likewise, govenment intervention on the behalf of workers to the opposition of business was, and still is, a progressive ideal. Although we may be appalled by the notion of child labor in Third-world countries today, such practices were commonplace in the US less than 100 years ago and progressives continued opposition of those practices in developing nations is a point of contention with the free-market policies advocated by the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The notion of restricting business and legislating fair labor practices continues to be part of the progressive agenda but much more exists to show the influence of progressivism in 2oth century America. I want to return to the ongoing battle between progressive movements and business but I also want to show how progressives brought about reforms that we now take for granted including civil rights (and women's suffrage), environmental regulations, democratic reforms (i.e. direct elections, referrendums, and initiatives), amongst other issues that I will address in further posts.


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