The apparent progress in liberal democracies disguises the bare truth of power: that the social order is based inextricably on exploitation – of nature, of workers, of women, of people who are other. It would be false to say there has been no progress. The guilty secret is not that progress is a delusion but that it has been made possible by the exploited, by those who benefit least from it. An exploited underclass, as well as exploited natural resources, have been the sine qua non of progress. Gains have occurred not in spite of the persistence of this underclass, but because of, on the backs of, the exploited.
Take, for example, women: they perform most of the labor of social and biological reproduction, yet this has been treated as a duty that is its own reward, rather than as the backbone of our economy and a sector of that economy in which women can choose to labor or not. Take, for example, nature: industry consumes the environment on which we all depend without consulting or compensating us. Take, for example, low-wage workers, whether in the US or abroad: making only enough money, having only enough time, to keep coming back for more low-wage work, often at multiple jobs, where they perform the rest of the labor of social and biological reproduction, of which they enjoy the fruits to a lesser degree than the employer class. And consider how American wealth has been amassed by systemic violence: conquest of Native Americans, the pillaging and divvying of their land; kidnapping and enslaving Africans, separating and enslaving their descendants; waging war to establish lines of production and markets of consumption.
That is not to say that local victories such as health care that covers contraception, halting an oil pipeline, or a $15 minimum wage would be illusory because they do not reform the entire system. The illusion would be to draw from these victories a conclusion that liberal democracies tend to grow in prosperity and civil equality over time. In fact, our social order tends toward concentration of power and wealth in the few.
But the many can act as a constraint on this tendency to the extent they are organized to do so. The victories or concessions won through these checks make the hierarchy just humane enough to stave off widespread unrest, and provide just enough hope of better, more inclusive progress in the future to stave off widespread resignation. Although these concessions leave the underlying structure in place, they are worth pursuing on behalf of the exploited so long as we do not become complacent.
We must view these local victories not as evidence that the system is working, but as successful attacks on the system; they are chinks in the armor of the system; they are glimpses of what we are fighting for; they are hope — but they do not mean that the world is becoming a better place thanks to the ineluctable advance of liberal democracy. True progress must be measured not by the miserly trickle of gains calculated to stave off rebellion, but by reforming the structure of the liberal order itself. True progress must be global: a universal living wage, for example; a global climate treaty. Global capitalism requires global regulation.