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  • Awakening to the Call of Receptive Democratic Progress
  • Romand Coles (bio)

"Progress" is a fraught term of political discourse—a double-edged razor-sharp sword. Democracy is unintelligible and impossible without a notion of progress: an ethical and political direction (or telos) toward which we struggle, and a sense that we might find or forge paths upon which to advance. And yet democracy is corrupted, misguided, and undermined—made unintelligible and impossible—by deployments of "progress" that have legitimated so many awful things. Our history is teeming with examples of each; sometimes the distinctions are clear, often they are not.

People in America inherit these contradictions at the heart of "progress" through specific narratives with high stakes. On the one hand, we inherit and sometimes amplify the echoes of a civil rights movement which was one of the greatest efforts in history to deepen, broaden, and advance democracy. In spite of the backlash and remarkable forgetfulness we manufacture in relation to this monumental struggle, this legacy lives on in concrete achievements and by sparking diverse organizing efforts which contest and inflect the shapes of contemporary political life. In struggles against subjugation and in emergent community organizing projects, the restorative power of King's call for democratic progress in 1956 continues to break forth today: "Press on and keep pressing. If you can't fly, run; if you can't run, walk; if you can't walk-CRAWL."1 We live in a moment when the corporatization, globalization, militarization, and gated suburbanization of a soporific democracy often makes it difficult to even walk toward King's beloved community—but we should find hope in myriad vital efforts to crawl.

On the other hand, King was murdered; many civil rights organizing efforts withered; so many dreams have (again) been deferred. And as Walter Benjamin said, "even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins."2 Thus, in January, 2006, George W. Bush fashioned his rhetoric of divinely mandated war-making by weaving King's legacy into the work of advancing empire: "As we observe and honor Dr. King's birthday we are reminded that great causes often involve great sacrifices."3 King's democratic and cruciform struggles were thereby nailed to a wooden narrative of the triumphant march of the U.S., which, lead by leaders such as Bush, has "made great progress" toward King's dream. King's struggle for political awakening was thus transformed into political soporific to embolden a nation-state sacrificing tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis to the slaughters of war; and sacrificing the basic needs of tens of millions of poor people—disproportionately people of color—as the state cuts support to programs for housing, nutrition, health care, environmental justice, schools, etc. As dominant powers impede efforts to advance receptive democratic initiatives, the rhetoric of progress increasingly conceals and legitimates anti-democratic developments.

The deeper problem, however, lies in the widely accepted imperative—born with the U.S. founding and perpetuated as a national mythos—that in order to secure and legitimate power, state authorities must pronounce themselves to be at the cutting edge of world-historical progress. Thus the narrative of progress tends to corrupt democracy insofar as it engenders leaders who repeatedly insinuate one or more of the following undemocratic claims: that they have a privileged knowledge of the proper direction of history and hence legitimately ought to steer its development; that this development rightly aims at the increasing mastery of nature and the intensification of social productivity as a fountain of power; that global history has a single cutting edge backwards from which are scattered those (otherwise co-present) peoples, cultures, movements, and faiths who think and act otherwise; that those who resist this movement are 'unrealistic' and often immoral; that those in the present-standing-on-the-best-of the past are farthest along and categorically beyond possibilities of radical reformations that might happen by listening to, learning from, or being provoked by ancestors.

How might we rescue the better senses of progressive possibility from the corrupt tendencies that appear to be immanent in many deployments of this concept? How might the idea of democratic progress be...


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pp. 43-51
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