Beware of the Progressives (Part 1)

After battling to get your voice heard on an approach to change-making, it is often a huge relief when people start adopting or at least affirming your ideas. Mostly likely you’ve worked hard up to that point, taking on the cynics, converting the skeptics, befriending the fellow travelers. So, when folk that appear to have power and authority, who previously resisted your ideas, start speaking like you and proposing ways of doing change like you, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve hit the jackpot.

But all is not necessarily as it seems on such occasions. At such moments, I would recommend exercising caution and discernment, because the harsh reality is that some of the folk who appear socially progressive, are more interested in career progress than in authentic social change.

So, when engaged in community change making, it is not the cynics you’ve got to worry about, it is the progressives. Since it is the progressives who will appropriate your language; continuing to engage in top down ‘space invasion’, while you apply for the funding to pay them or their agents to do so.

Progressives, not surprisingly, like progress. They like to be busy, doing things to and for, and even with people and their communities. Regardless of when you encounter them, you’ll find they are generally engaged in some form of fixing, advising, problem-solving or rescuing. The are mostly in accelerate mode, and when they are not, they are in innovate mode.

Progressive schemes that have failed to end poverty, address the challenges of drug addiction, find a response to unemployment etc. deserve their own museum. Indeed, it would fill the O2 on the Greenwich Peninsula in South East London (once known as the Millennium Dome – another ‘progressive’ scheme) ten times over. If we could study those so-called progressive attempts at change, once filled with promise and good intent, in one place, what might we learn by staring coldly over and over again, at this human bias towards helping that harms? Here are four lessons that I believe would be hard to miss:

  1. Progressives tend to prescribe top-down solutions to problems they don’t fully understand, and that communities did not want. They tend to view community non-engagement as apathy; people not knowing what’s good for them, or as people not understanding how systems work and therefore not being realistic about the concessions that progressives need to make to get their system to change.
  2. Progressives have been known to engage in vanity projects that are more about their ego or careers than protecting and enhancing local ecosystems. They tend to conceal this even to themselves with ‘evidence’ of need.
  3. Progressives are not bad people, they are typically well intended, but are also insulated from the consequences of their progressive schemes.
  4. Progressives will defend their schemes on the basis that some good has emerged from it by comparison with what has gone before. They will call anyone who wants to speak about the potential or actual negative impacts on the environment or local communities, negative, against progress and small minded.


There is nothing wrong with progress or innovation per se, but as E.F. Schumacher noted in Small Is Beautiful such innovations need to be intermediate, falling somewhere between abandoning the community and overwhelming them with top down solutions. Next week we will look at what Intermediate Innovation might look like.

Cormac Russell




Back to BlogBack to Latest News
  • I enjoyed this provocation and can easily see how myself and my work could feature under this well-intentioned but naive ‘progressive’ banner. My question is what lies in the other direction? If you’re warning away from the progressives, how would you describe those we should be looking to (support/value more etc) instead?

    October 8, 2018 at 12:57 pm
    • Thanks Max, i’ll Be picking up that very question on Friday. BW Cormac

      October 9, 2018 at 1:07 pm

Post a Comment