During discussions of the Corbyn phenomenon on social media, I’ve seen a number of people saying that the old Left v Right framing of politics is out-dated, or even that in 2015 Left v Right is incoherent and doesn’t connect with reality. This is also a narrative that the New Labourites and the so-called liberal media like to promote.
As a man of a certain age, I find this idea not just wrong but dangerous. I graduated from Hull University in June 1979 and Thatcher had been elected in that May. So my entire adult life has been spent in the neoliberal age. The issues that turned me towards ‘the Left’ back in the 1970’s – inequality, capitalist exploitation, illegitimate use of state power, have all got considerably worse, so to me the underlying political issues have not really changed, and neither has the solution.
However, I do acknowledge that a problem has arisen with the old Left v Right concept and I think the definitions I outline below indicate that the old Left v Right dichotomy has been undermined by the separation of what is today called ‘Identity Politics’ from what used to be called ‘Class Politics’.
In previous era’s to be of the ‘Left’ was to be against capitalism AND racial, sexual and gender prejudice. To be of the ‘Right’ was to be pro-capitalist AND a ‘traditionalist’ in terms of racial, sexual and gender prejudice.
But since 1979 there has been an almost total ‘left’ victory in terms of Identity Politics and an almost total victory of the ‘right’ in terms of economics and power politics. Compared to 1979, 2015 is undoubtedly a better time to live in if you are female, black or gay. But conversely compared to 1979 it is undoubtedly a worse world to live in if you are a worker (and almost all females, blacks and gays are workers), and you are far better off being rich in 2015 compared to 1979, and much worse off if you are poor.
The ‘Left’ and the ‘Right’ are very broad churches. At the extremes of the Right you have actual, self-confessed Fascists. At the extremes of the Left you have the occasional Stalinist ‘Tanky’. But despite the breadth of views represented by the terms it is nonetheless possible to broadly define what is meant by the terms.
Economically The Left coalesces around the idea that a democratic state (government of the people, for the people, by the people) can mitigate the worst effects of capitalism, which is by its nature necessarily exploitative and unjust. To the Left ‘poverty’ is an unjust consequence of capitalist exploitation. Most who regard themselves of the Left would prioritise economic and social Justice over property rights and most on the Left share some version of the idea that freedom from oppression, exploitation, poverty and disease are the prerequisites for any meaningful concept of liberty.
Culturally the Left is rebellious, anti-authoritarian, distrusting of all hierarchy, and the historic institutions of the capitalist state – especially the military and the monarchy, and would seek to end all dynastic hereditary power and wealth. Above all the Left prioritises collaboration and equality above elitism, competition and difference. To the Left equality is a prerequisite for economic and social justice – and not just equality of opportunity either; the Left do not accept elitist power and wealth as being neither, inevitable, necessary or desirable.
Economically, the contemporary Right coalesces around the idea that the state is always an inefficient, malevolent, oppressive force and that capitalism is an efficient and just economic mechanism for distributing limited resources. The Right prioritises individual economic autonomy and the protection of property rights above economic and social justice, and is distrusting of ‘human rights’, which they often see as an attempt by the lazy poor to take from the hard-working rich. To the Right ‘poverty’ is a result of bad individual choices caused by the character defects of the poor (laziness, dishonest, fecklessness) and ‘freedom’ is principally defined as the freedom to do with your property as you wish.
Culturally the Right favour tradition, hierarchy, dynastic hereditary power & wealth and respect the institutions of the state especially the military and the monarchy. Above all the Right prioritises elitism, competition and difference above collaboration and equality. To the Right equality is at best an unachievable utopian ideal; at worst it is an oppressive force imposing oppressive statist uniformity upon all and thus stifling the most able. The Right accept elitist power and wealth as a fact of nature and thus regard gaining or retaining access to elitist power and wealth as entirely legitimate, if not the point of life.
I highlight ‘freedom from‘ and ‘freedom to‘ because in undergraduate philosophy they are two foundational ideas in discussions of freedom, and re-reading the definitions above it confirms the old maxim that the Left prioritise ‘freedom from‘ and the Right prioritise ‘freedom to‘.
Which is of course unsurprising if you introduce ‘class’ into the equation. If you are suffering from oppression, exploitation, poverty and disease, they are daily realities that determine the possibilities of your life, and to be free from these limiting realities opens up a whole new world of possibility.
If on the other hand you are already free from these limiting factors, as for example most middle-class people in the Western world, then you become more concerned with the things limiting your freedom to do things, especially the freedom to dispose of your property as you see fit (i.e. the freedom to spend your money as you like).
So if we look at the Left v Right thing through this lens we can see where the perceived ‘incoherence’ arises. Today, a ‘right-winger’ can be in favour of both capitalism AND gay rights. Indeed, there are openly ‘gay’ Tory MP’s. Similarly, a ‘left-winger’ can be against capitalism but also a sexist or even a racist. Indeed, ‘political correctness’ is now so widely accepted as the social norm that any expression of racism or sexism will almost certainly result in public approbation and even dismissal from employment. So we live in a world where all public figures on the Right actively endorse ‘Left wing’ ideas around ‘identity politics’ but where many on ‘the Left’ (New Labour) endorse the ideas of neoliberal capitalism. This is the ‘End Of History’ talked about by Fukuyama whereby ‘everyone accepts’ ‘liberal’ ideas around identity but ‘capitalist’ economic ideas. Indeed, some will argue this is the ‘liberalism’ in ‘neoliberalism’ – individuals are free to do as they wish in their free time and ‘capitalism’ is the best way to ensure that freedom.
And so some people come to the conclusion that the Left v Right distinction is no longer meaningful – hence the designation ‘anti-capitalist’, rather than ‘Left wing’. The problem here for me is falling into the trap of capitalist ‘individualism’ that separates us all from each other and means that feminists end up competing with LGBT who compete against anti-racists for resources and attention.
The individual experience of life for anyone in a minority group is undoubtedly better than 40-50 years ago. Thank goodness. But it could be argued that what women, LGBT communities and racial minorities have actually won is the right to be exploited on equal terms with the rest of the population. This is progress of a kind, but of a very limited kind and the price we have all paid for it is the simultaneous destruction of our collective power as a ‘class’.
There are those reading this who will accept these arguments about neoliberal capitalism and the paradox represented by the liberating success of identity politics, but who then say that the mainstream media has been so successful in undermining the credibility of ‘left wing’ rhetoric, that to continue to talk in terms of ‘class’ and ‘exploitation’ is self-defeating – even if the analysis is still true.
I have more sympathy with this point of view, which is essentially talking about the way we frame the anti-capitalist debate within popular discourse. For example I thought the 99% v 1% meme of Occupy was a very clever reframing of the class issue that said what ‘the Left’ has been saying for 200 years but in a new way free from Left v Right rhetoric.
BUT the danger is that such alternative ‘framings’ don’t offer a coherent alternative. Thatcher’s “there is no alternative’ is I think the most successful political meme of the last 30 years and is now widely believed by many voters to be fundamentally true.
But Democratic Socialism with a mixed economy and based on Keynsian economics is a coherent alternative that had demonstrable and sustained success in the last century (unlike revolutionary communism which would be a very hard sell after Stalin and the collapse of the USSR).
So I agree that using the Left v Right language of the past can be problematic but the underlying issues haven’t changed and until a coherent reframing emerges, it’s all we’ve got.
I wholeheartedly support the ‘progress’ made by oppressed minorities in the West in the last 40 years. But that progress will not overcome the necessarily exploitative nature of capitalism and merely recreates the class structure across those communities. To have black, gay, transgender and female CEO’s is progress of a kind but it doesn’t alter the underlying situation – which is that these men and women will exploit the workers in their companies on behalf of the capitalist owners of the company.
Politically I’m an anarchist, rather than a ‘socialist’ but to say that the Right v Left iteration of politics is out-dated or incoherent is for me wrong and dangerous; dangerous because it admits defeat by unwittingly accepting that ‘there is no alternative’. And the people to ask if you don’t believe me are the Right. They know damn well that the battle between global capital and the rest of us is still the central battle of global politics. The only difference is they think they’ve won.