Is the left right?

Has the left/right divide disappeared, has neo-liberalism won the day, or is there a credible alternative?

According to some commentators, the relevance of the traditional left/right divide is declining in relevance as political parties abandon their “isms”. The result is a much more de-ideologized political sphere where parties sell political “products” such as leaders or case-specific policies, rather than the hopes and dreams of ideologies.[1] Others claim that liberal, capitalist politics have won the day, and that the political sphere is therefore mono-ideologized rather than de-ideologized.

But are any of these standpoints true, and if they are, can the circumstances that they describe be reversed?

Traditionally, and in very general terms, the Right has tended to blame the individual for his or her suffering. The solution to any problem is therefore within the individual, e.g. by way of the hard work of the individual and the individualism of free market capitalism. The Left, on the other hand, has tended to blame society. The solution to any problem is thus viewed as being more communalistic, e.g. by way of redistribution of wealth. In such crude terms, off course, it is hard not to see either of these general views as somewhat incomplete. We therefore have to be more specific in describing the terms “Right” and “Left”. We also have to understand the “Centre” that traditional leftist parties, such as New Labour, traditional Rightist parties, such as the Danish Liberal Party, and the populist far Right have all tried to win over.

THE RIGHT

Although there are many varieties of Right-wing politics, the Right is often theoretically associated with Adam Smith, especially his book The Wealth of Nations and its concept of the market’s “invisible hand”, where self-interest or greed is believed to serve the common good. Smith saw competition as equally important, however, as it was seen to act as a counterweight to possible excesses of greediness and attempts at forming monopolies. In the absence of competition, however, Smith didn’t see greed as good or capitalism as beneficial and certain government checks or regulations upon the forces of competition were therefore necessary. In a not often quoted passage from The Wealth of Nations, Smith even claimed that “regulation in favour of the workmen is always just and equitable”, though not “when in favour of the masters”.[2]

The most recent and applied manifestation of liberalism, neo-liberalism, that demands as little government regulation and involvement but as much monopolisation as possible, is therefore not in accordance with Smith’s idealist liberalism and instead mainly serves the interests of the wealthy and powerful, not society as a whole. One might wonder whether monopolisation and polarisation are not inevitable outcomes of a system based on greed, and if advocates of neo-liberalism are really driven by idealism or instead hiding their selfish motives behind an “altruistic” liberalism.

The last 25 years in particular have seen a huge monopolisation of capital where less than 500 large companies now control over 70% of world trade – a third of this being internal trade between companies and their subsidiaries.[3] Free trade within a neo-liberal, capitalist system is therefore an illusion, as prices are not set in accordance with supply and demand but by a few dominant companies, who have more or less risen above the supply and demand mechanisms of the market that, according to Smith, were supposed to ensure its “fairness”. And what free trade there is not equally applied. Developing countries are forced to open their markets while the rich, mainly Western, countries remain remarkably protectionist. Imperialism is therefore not easily overcome within the framework of capitalism, however much it advocates freedom and liberty, as expansion to new markets is one of its cornerstones.

Neo-liberalism and capitalist globalism is thus harmful to democracy itself, also because the increasingly powerful companies have been left virtually outside democratic control, and because neo-liberalism advocates freedom for capital and those who have it and not freedom for people. Furthermore, the tax-cuts, and subsequent cutbacks on government regulation, that neo-liberalists have implemented wherever they could have not simply been about lowering taxes. As George Lakoff insists, “they are a kill-all-birds-with-one-stone approach to getting rid of social programmes and protective or regulatory government oversight – an overarching goal of the conservative movement”.[4]

Finally, the neo-liberalism that Right wingers base their policies upon is based upon the necessity of growth, because that essential part of capitalism, credit, or the lending of money at interest, creates the need to repay debt, and thus the need for continuous growth. This makes the system inherently unstable because the constant succession of credit and growth encourages overproduction and speculation, especially as corporations are legally bound to maximise profit for their stockholders. Also, as an increasingly overwhelming documentation is showing, indefinite growth is not only impossible because of a lack of resources, but more importantly, because of the global warming and other environmental damage it does to the planet. The inequality and widespread poverty that neo-liberalism has inevitably led to, both within societies and on a world scale, is another both destabilising and morally questionable factor of the capitalist system that it is based upon. Growth-based capitalism is therefore both unstable and utopian, especially if it is to be applied to all corners of the globe and indefinitely.

The mono-ideological certainties of the last 25 years or so, epitomised by the neo-conservative claims of Francis Fukuyama’s that an “end of history”[5] had occurred, have therefore vanished and the search for a more sustainable system has begun. There is a catch for those who want a different system, however, as once neo-liberalism has been imposed, whether by democratic means or by the forced conditionalities of the IMF or World Bank, it is self-enforcing and not easily reversed. As Naomi Klein writes in The Shock Doctrine, “Once countries have opened themselves up to the global market’s temperamental moods, any departure from Chicago School [neo-liberalist] orthodoxy is instantly punished by traders in New York and London who bet against the offending country’s currency, causing a deeper crisis and the need for more loans, with more conditions attached”.[6]

THE CENTRE

The Centre is a somewhat mythical and fluid term that has accompanied the idea of the de-ideologizing of politics and has been seen as a solution by those who see both Right and Left wing ideas as having failed the test of time. George Lakoff claims that if we are to speak of a political Centre at all, it is made up of people who are not strictly Right wing or Left wing, but whose views have aspects of both Left and Right wing ideas.[7] It is therefore not an independent set of principles but a more or less populist attempt at winning votes. The resurgence of the populist far Right in Europe, such as the Danish People’s Party or the Front National, can be seen as an example of the successful understanding of this tendency. The far Right have gained many votes throughout Europe by using a combination of Right wing and Left wing rhetoric. They have thus seemingly moved themselves to the Centre of politics by using a combination of fear of immigration and the EU and Left wing social rhetoric.

The centre is thus not a true alternative to neo-liberalism.

THE LEFT

For many decades preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union, what is refered to as “the Left” – a large hotchpotch of more or less Marxist-derived ideas and ideals – was seen as the main alternative to liberalism and the capitalist system. Left-wing movements were after all the main proponents of such progressive policies as womens’ voting rights, abolition of slavery, gay rights, overtime pay, decent working conditions. All such laws might have been passed by Social Democrat and Liberal governments, but they were passed because of pressure from Left-wing mass movements that took to the street, and because the governments of the day wanted to prevent even bigger changes occurring by way of revolutions or the like.

Even before the Berlin Wall came down, however, socialism stopped being seen as a credible alternative to the budding neo-liberalism in the eyes of many. There were many reasons for this, such as the advance of liberal democracy on a world-wide scale, the gradual improvements in (Western) working class conditions mentioned above, trade union membership falling, and Left-wing parties no longer seeming to address the grievances of workers but instead trying to appeal to the growing middle class – socialism appeared defeated and neo-liberalism had seemingly won.

There was therefore nothing else to do for those who opposed the status quo but either embrace, or at least not criticise, the (far) Right, support anyone who fought the USA, such as Al Qaeda or the Taliban, or, if you were a Left wing university professor, loose yourself in the world of relativism and postmodernism in the belief that if the Left that one had previously supported wasn’t right after all, everyone, and no one, was partially right within their own paradigm. This journey towards relativism was made easier by many on the Left being generally unwilling to believe in an unchanging human nature, but instead seeing human beings as being socially constructed beings that were more or less infinitely malleable. All of a sudden, human rights and other universalisms went from being ways of helping to uplift mankind to being seen as instruments of Western oppression and imperialism, and reactionary cultures were defended or at least not unambiguously attacked or criticized.

Even for those that bemoaned the decline of the Left, the term “the Left” should therefore have been revealed to be misleading. Orwell had certainly learned that there was no such thing as a “family of the Left” when fighting in the Spanish Civil War – Stalinist authoritarian socialists had attempted to murder him and had generally seemed more eager to undermine the democratic socialist forces that they were supposed to be fighting alongside than fight Franco’s fascists. Orwell therefore understood better than most, that the overarching term, “the Left”, disguises major differences: “Philosophically, Communism and Anarchism are poles apart. Practically – i.e. in the form of society aimed at – the difference is mainly one of emphasis, but it is quite irreconcilable. The Communist’s emphasis is always on centralism and efficiency, the Anarchist’s on liberty and equality”.[8]

Perhaps therefore, the problem lies in the theories of the more authoritarian, state capitalist part of the Left as much as in the states and societies that were to claim allegiance to them, such as the Soviet Union. And perhaps the problems lie in certain parts of Marxism itself, namely the insistence upon initial state capitalism and power centralisation. Marx and Lenin seemingly failed to understand (or perhaps understood only too well) that the main objective of any powerful organisation is self-perpetuation – to become as powerful as possible for as long as possible, although this is as true for liberal democratic governments as it is for Marxist proletariat dictatorships. As George Monbiot has said, Marx “flatly failed to address the critical political question, namely ‘who guards the guards?’” and therefore ended up devising “the perfect preconditions for totalitarian dictatorship”.[9]

Anyone who wishes a Left-wing system to genuinely transcend the present neo-liberal, Right-wing, capitalist one therefore has to deal with the problem of (state) centralisation if they are not to end up with an authoritarian, centralism akin to that of the Soviet Union. This is so because much of the Left is equally industry- and growth-fixated and in turn have their own, Marxist derived, “end of history” ideas that see the coming of world communism, not neo-liberalism, as an inevitability. But it is also so because a strong, centralised state tends to destroy self-help and solidarity amongst (poor) people by putting state bureaucratisation in its stead, as well as making it “legitimate” for the middle- and upper classes to let the poor starve, both within the national boundaries and abroad.

If we revolt against capitalism, it is not because we want a different system of power, it is because we want a society in which power relations are dissolved. You cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost” (Holloway, Change the world without taking power: Ch. 2, II).

She hated the Party, and said so in the crudest words, but she made no general criticism of it … He wondered vaguely how many others like her there might be in the younger generation of people who had grown up in the world of the Revolution, knowing nothing else, accepting the Party as something unalterable, like the sky, not rebelling against its authority but simply evading it, as a rabbit dodges a dog” (George Orwell, 1984: 109)

Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias” (Oscar Wilde, “The soul of man under socialism”).


[1]See Heywood, Political ideologies: 338

[2] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book 1, chapter 10

[3] Anders Lundkvist, De riges samfund: 90-91; John Degnbol-Martinussen, Globalisering og Udvikling: 74, 87

[4] George Lakoff, Thinking points: 102

[5] In his essay, The end of history?, Francis Fukuyama claimed that “what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”

[6] Naomi Klein, The shock doctrine: 207

[7] George Lakoff, Thinking points: 11, 20, 123

[8] George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia: 204

[9] George Monbiot, The age of consent: 26, 28, 29

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