Do you label yourself ‘left’ or ‘right’, or somewhere in the middle? Do you think the Labour party in the UK or the Democrats in the US, are left-wing parties? Or do you have only a vague idea about what those labels mean? I’d like to argue that they are not only irrelevant in the 21st century, but that they involve us in an antiquated battle and distract us from the really important issues.
Here’s a basic overview to start with. The right tend to want less government control of the economy – so privatisation, lower taxes and less of a ‘nanny state’, including less of a safety net for those who fail. The left have traditionally leant towards a larger role for the government in the economy – so nationalisation, higher taxes, more of a ‘nanny state’ and a bigger safety net for those who fail.
So on a left to right spectrum, traditionally we have the extreme left – revolutionary socialists and communists; the parliamentary (non-revolutionary) left – the Labour party, the Democrats (i.e. the only nominally left parties with a chance of power); the centre – the Lib Dems in the UK; the parliamentary right (the Tories, UKIP and the Republicans); and then the extreme right – nationalist and fascist parties. The Greens espouse values that could be called both left and right, rather than centrist, but differ from both in their willingness to question the assumption that perpetual economic growth is either desirable or possible – and although I agree with that position, I’m really not sure that anything can be done about it from within our corporate-dominated political system (especially as governments are national and corporations are multinational, and therefore beyond national control).
Anarchists and Libertarians form a special case, as they don’t believe in government at all, or at least they prefer government to be as small as possible. There really shouldn’t be any difference – the term anarchist and libertarian should be interchangeable, and yet anyone calling themselves one of these terms would generally be horrified to hear themselves described as the other. Although they’re both off the spectrum, it’s generally thought that anarchists are off the left side, and libertarians are off the right side, if you see what I mean. If there is a difference at all, it’s probably that anarchists see the need for ordinary people to organise to make sure that no-one at all, government or otherwise, has any authority over them. Libertarians seem to prefer individualism to any kind of collective organisation, which would allow other forms of power (e.g. corporate, financial, private armies) to have authority over them, which is surely not what they want. I’d be happy to hear of ways that disorganised libertarians would prevent this in their ideal world.
However, as almost everyone would describe themselves as something other than anarchist or libertarian, let’s bring the focus back to the spectrum.
The right say:
- the left tend to be utopians, and utopians don’t have a good grasp of reality
- when people with utopian ideas get into positions of power, it often means death for their opponents, sometimes millions of deaths, for people who get in the way of that utopian vision (cf. Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot etc.)
- from 1990 to 2000, the UK was a magnet for people from all over the world to find work. Yet there were still lots of able-bodied people on benefits, and taxing people who work to fund people who won’t is a bad idea
- left-wing governments tend to grow big and bloated, and end up taxing ordinary working people to fund their big style of government
- whatever the egalitarian ideals of socialism or communism, whenever it’s been tried, corrupt people get into top positions, bringing inequality, totalitarianism, and worse environmental damage than capitalism
- organising all that state apparatus is a waste of resources. Anyone who has observed councils in action will realise that the market can allocate resources much more efficiently, and provide better incentives, so that in the real world, capitalism will always beat communism in the long run
- the left are too socially liberal, and not hard enough on things like cocaine use, which is highly toxic to individuals, families, society, indigenous people and the Amazon basin
- the left are prepared to sacrifice individual freedoms in pursuit of egalitarianism, and sacrificing freedom is not acceptable
And they’re right.
The left say:
- capitalism rewards the worst values in people – greed, ruthlessness, egotistical ambition, and then war is much more likely, as they will send in troops and bomb people to defend their privilege
- capitalism needs growth to create the wealth to reward investors, but growth damages the ecology we need to survive
- capitalism damages democracy because money can buy power
- a world with hundreds of multi-billionaires, while half the world is on $2 a day or less is morally bankrupt
- everything tends towards commercialisation and overdevelopment, producing a crass, ugly, boring world
- it’s a constant cycle of boom and bust, and during bust, the poorest take the hit
- the gap between richest and poorest is getting wider, and right-wing governments seem to operate like Robin Hood in reverse
- the right are too socially rigid, which leads to creeping racism, homophobia and sexism – plus wasting police resources by criminalising people who smoke cannabis, which is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco
- the right are prepared to abandon egalitarianism to maintain freedoms, but true freedom is impossible without a certain level of equality; otherwise the better-off will not be free from crime and social breakdown, and the worse-off will not be free to do things that they don’t have enough money to do
And they’re right too.
Below is a debate on CNN with perhaps the most famous mouthpieces of left and right in the US at the beginning of the 21st century – Michael Moore and Ron Paul (who according to Wikipedia is the ‘intellectual godfather of the Tea Party movement’, and can almost be described as libertarian, apart from the fact that he’s been a congressman, and stood for president on a Republican ticket). Notice how they agree about corporate power, and about ending resource wars.
The left sometimes miss this, and think that the right are corporate-friendly by their very nature. They’re not. When governments on both sides of the Atlantic bailed out private banks with billions of taxpayers money, the right were more vociferous against it than the left. The right were true to their principles and the left (if you want to call Democrats ‘left’) were not. Many on the right believed that a company, even a gargantuan bank, should be allowed to die if they fail within the capitalist system. They certainly didn’t believe that taxpayers money should be used to bail out failing businesses.
And what the left fail to realise is that bringing industries into state ownership is pointless in a world where states are subservient to corporate power anyway. The newly-formed Left Unity party of Ken Loach has deliberately chosen a name that instantly puts half the population in opposition to it before they’ve even heard a policy, and so the pointless battle between left and right continues, letting corporations off the hook. Corporations sit pretty, knowing that these two factions will cancel each other out, distract people from where the real power is, and that both factions are growth-obsessed and will only ever create corporate-friendly governments for fear of bankrupting their countries.
And it gets worse. In Spain, the left have been busy supporting unions fighting job losses at Coca-cola. Wouldn’t it be more productive to be helping workers set up their own local soft drinks businesses, based on locally-grown fruits, and trying to persuade the public not to buy toxic, nutrition-free, environmentally-damaging corporate rubbish? If socialists think that workers are going to organise to change things, they’ve got a very romantic view of the working class. Give it up. That was the 20th century, and it didn’t work. Chomsky is a genius, but with no common sense, no real understanding of the working class. I’ve been harder on the left here, because I know more people on the left, so it’s a familiar argument, and I believe that they should know better – and frankly, the right are an easier target.
The right favour freedom, the left favour social justice. Those are fine values that don’t have to be mutually exclusive. A crucial area of overlap is that neither left nor the intelligent right want too much power or wealth to be corporate. Economic power can be distributed to the community, to family firms, to the self-employed, to smallholdings, to housing co-ops, to small businesses, to credit unions. It doesn’t have to be held by government OR corporations.
The fact is that left and right principles work on the small scale, but not on the large scale. My message to socialists is that collective ownership of the means of production works well at the local level – housing co-ops, worker co-ops, communes, partnerships – but not on the large-scale because it concentrates power in the wrong hands. On the large scale, the qualities rewarded for success mean that given time, power will ultimately concentrated in the hands of people like Stalin and Mao.
But my message to capitalists is much the same – private ownership of the means of production works well on the small, local scale – small businesses and shops, smallholdings, family firms, self-employment – but not on the large scale because it concentrates power in the wrong hands. On the large scale, the qualities rewarded for success mean that given time, power is concentrated in the hands of the major shareholders and chief executives of large banks and corporations. The opposite of competition is not co-operation or collectivism, it’s monopoly.
Recognising that unelected corporate power should be subordinate to our elected representatives has nothing at all to do with left or right. If left and right don’t come together to end corporate power, power will remain corporate. Let’s unite without ideology to challenge corporate power, even if it means that a most of us will have to hold our noses, for one reason or another. It’s a small price to pay. We can argue about the finer points later, but if we don’t unite on this one, power remains corporate and we all lose.
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1Malcolm Ramsay January 28th, 2015
I don’t know if you’ll see this comment after so many months but it’s good to see someone looking objectively at the left/right conflict.
I’ve been saying for years that the left/right divide in politics actually stems from a fundamental polarity within the functions of government – a polarity which really ought to be integrated into the structure of our political institutions.
As I see it, left and right parties tend to favour different areas of policy – welfare on the left, and law and order on the right, for example – and, for the most part, those different areas compete with each other for resources but don’t actively conflict with each other. It seems to me, however, that they do need different mindsets and as long as our processes for choosing leaders lumps all the functions of government together, we have no hope of a system which is both stable and properly representative.
In my view a Parliament comprised of separate left and right houses would be far more appropriate than the model we have currently, both in terms of its effectiveness as a legislature and in terms of how well it represents the views of the electorate. Each house would have different areas of primary responsibility (with each perhaps acting as a modifying chamber on each other’s legislation) and each constituency would therefore have two elected representatives – each representing different spheres of political need.
Having said that, it’s not a reform I’ve tried pushing for very hard because there are three or four more radical changes that I think are more important.
2pablo February 1st, 2015
Thank you very much you really opened my mind to a constructive way of relating to the people beyond their ideology. Very interesting and constructive article.
3nae.bother December 4th, 2016
Just came across this article whilst browsing the site – it’s still worth commenting on, even belatedly. In fact, especially belatedly, considering how much further down we are, on the slippery slope.
Are left and right not the same thing? 2 wings of the same system? Let’s get a new system, and kick capitalism off the face of the Earth. Let’s replace it with love for all humanity, then all our problems would surely dissolve into thin air. Let’s evolve into that (once we wake up)