Why do people who consider themselves ‘left-wing’ seem to embrace a raft of policies that appear unrelated? For example, if you’re of the left, and you believe in (say) progressive taxation, why should that also mean that you believe in gun control, or a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion, or that you’re against the death penalty? There’s no common thread that runs through those policies, apart from the fact that the left tend to embrace them, and the right to reject them. What is it that connects progressive taxation and a pro-choice stance?
Left and right tend to view each other with incomprehension. A question like this might come from the left:
How on earth can someone be against abortion, because it involves killing a fetus, but perfectly happy to execute a sentient adult?
This seems to make sense – you can understand their confusion – there seems to be a contradiction there. And yet, this question might come from the right:
How on earth can someone be against the execution of a convicted serial killer, but happy to allow the killing of an innocent unborn child?
Again, there seems to be a contradiction, and you can understand their confusion.
Here is a video of a lecture by George Lakoff (author of Don’t Think of an Elephant) in which he attempts to explain the contradictions – it certainly helped me to understand to roots of left and right thinking.
According to Lakoff, conservative or left/liberal politics comprise diametrically opposed worldviews whose roots lie in the understanding of the role and values of the family. There is, in fact, very often a metaphor of the nation as family (sending our ‘sons’ to war, founding ‘fathers’ etc.). The important thing to remember is that neither view is right or wrong, and both are thought of as being best for the kids raised in those families.
Differing views on what the family is for
First, the conservative view of the family: the right-wing family is definitely gendered – single-parent families or same-sex parents are seen as inferior to families with a strict, dominant father – because there is evil out there that kids need to be protected from, and there is competition out there that kids need to win. It’s very important to teach kids right from wrong, and to teach them discipline. It’s behaviourist – punish bad behaviour and reward good behaviour, so that they learn to discipline themselves, to avoid punishment.
This is seen as the only way to instill self-discipline; when they get it, they become moral, and ultimately, prosperous. From this, it’s extrapolated that poverty is down to a lack of self-discipline and morals in the poor themselves. Individuals need to work on that – no-one is going to do it for them. So it’s good to have the discipline to pursue your own self-interest, because it benefits society as a whole – which is why the right are interested in removing barriers to people pursuing their self-interest, such as taxation or government regulation.
Moral, disciplined people should rule – and this viewpoint is not (necessarily anyway) sexist, homophobic or racist. Most conservatives see themselves as good people, which baffles liberals, who don’t see them as good at all. They see them as selfish and ruthless.
The liberal view of the family is quite different. Both parents are equal, and nurturing rather than disciplined, and not only are children nurtured, they are taught to nurture others too. This requires empathy – parents empathise with children, who are taught to empathise with and have a responsibility towards other people.
This is not seen as ‘permissive’ parenting, without discipline – the aim is to have a happy family life. You have to be happy and fulfilled if you’re going to have empathy towards other people. Nurturing people should rule – people who are honest, open, co-operative and who care about people.
So both views, both ideologies, are constructed via the family itself, and especially via the view of what the family is for. I think that most people are a mixture of both – a strict morality in some areas (especially when it comes to personal safety, perhaps) and a nurturing morality in others; and both positions are at least ‘a bit’ right.
But some things are just plain wrong
Here’s what’s wrong. Corporations sponsor ‘think-tanks’ that are really propaganda machines. There are now over 80 well-funded corporate think-tanks, that receive over half a billion dollars worth of corporate money per year, as well as corporate-funded and initiated journals. And of course, the mainstream media is corporate-owned, and does the job of interpreting for a general audience. The ideas generated are massaged and funnelled into messages, and those messages include outright lies. So for example, legislation that allows increases in pollution emissions is called ‘Clear Skies’, or that allows deforestation in protected areas, ‘Healthy Forests’. It’s a nightmare of Orwellian language that has been largely successful in reducing environmental protection.
However, ecology doesn’t care about the difference between left and right. I’ve known people on the left (usually the extreme left) and on the right, who don’t understand – and in fact refuse to understand – what’s happening to ecology. As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, ecology is slipping away from us – we’re losing species, habitats, vertebrate numbers and soil, to the extent that, unchecked, will send ecology into irreversible and terminal decline, and the human species can only decline with it. Climate change is only part of it, and would actually be quite pleasant if it didn’t also bring with it desertification, soil erosion, loss of habitat and massive decline in biodiversity. Anyone who doesn’t think that this is happening is just wrong, and needs to have peer-review explained to them – we don’t have anything better to explain the nature of reality.
So we need real change
Now here’s the thing. If we try to develop a movement for change that repels either the left or the right, it’s not ultimately going to be successful. All it’s going to do is to veer capitalism slightly towards the left or the right for a while, but it will change direction again before long, and continue its destructive journey towards the precipice.
The right have to cede when it comes to the environment. The voices that try to dismiss concerns about ecology are coming mainly (but not completely) from the right, and those voices are 100% wrong. They have to change on that one. But at the same time, the left have to stop demonising the right. Lakoff shows them a way to do that.
So mutual understanding is crucial. I’ve been searching for a way to help left and right understand each other, and I think Lakoff nailed it. Without mutual understanding, we will waste time fighting each other, and allow the corporate juggernaut to trundle on unchallenged. At the moment, enormous amounts of time, energy and money are spent on promoting the battle between left and right, and this suits the corporate sector perfectly.
Currently, academia is dominated by the left, and the right hate it; and business is dominated by the right, and the left hate it. Dissenting voices are not allowed in either, and attempts at dissent can in fact damage your career. That’s a problem. Let’s debate – but mutual understanding is necessary first.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Tegwyn Twmfatt January 8th, 2017
Surely the problem is creating those labels for ourselves in the first place?
Is it our need to belong to a tribe? Would it not be better to support a football team instead?
2nane January 8th, 2017
The “left” and the “right” only exist to make us think we have a choice. They are tagged with various labels, which become our tribal badges.Our tribal badges are, of course, just ego illusions – our self-images, ideas of who we think we are. But take away the tags, and they, the left and the right, are just capitalists, their differences are only a matter of degree. (sorry, I didn’t watch the video, nor do I intend to spend my valuable time trying to make excuses for the system that the human race seems not to want to give up.) It’s all a big con, a manipulation to keep us participating in this ridiculous sytem.
Let’s wake up to who we really are – one humanity. That would be a start.
3Joshua Msika (@Joshua_Msika) January 8th, 2017
Dave, as far as I know (and wikipedia confirms this), the idea of a left-right spectrum has its roots in the early days of the French Republic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left%E2%80%93right_politics
The original meanings of left and right would thus most simply be expressed as change and continuity. The idea that one can get rid of that distinction, or somehow unify those two historical forces, seems a bit naive to me.
A few more general principles arising from this fundamental difference between right and left:
– People drift right (consciously or unconsciously) as they get older. Same with political parties. Last decades’ radicals are this decades’ reactionaries. Or more accurately – if the causes the left was fighting for are achieved, they find themselves defending them against further change.
– The right is easier to unite than the left, because the right seeks to defend the way things are while the left promotes many different possible ways that things might be. “One no, many yeses”.
– Associations between the left (pro-change) and the right (anti-change) and other political ideologies (e.g. liberalism, neoliberalism, socialism, capitalism, mercantilism, royalism, constitutionalism, protectionism, militarism, etc) is always contextual, rather than absolute.
On this last point: your arguments are perfectly valid using the contemporary, anglo-saxon interpretation of right and left, but they don’t necessarily translate across cultures or over time.
The skill of the right, in a democratic system, is to appeal to majority values in order to protect minority interests. The skill of the left is to make the conversation about interests, not values, and to make the democratic majority vote for their own majority interest, a rare occurence.
4veganollie January 8th, 2017
Yeah I agree the left/right paradigm is pretty unhelpful. It was refreshing to read the above article; looking for ways to unite people, acknowledging that people aren’t always left wing or always right wing 100% of the time. I think most people agree with anarchism which sits outside of the political spectrum but they don’t know it because the media do a great job of demonising it.
5Steve Gwynne January 8th, 2017
I think there is alot of interesting ideas in Lakoff’s thinking which is similar to another article that I read about regarding left and right framing (which unfortunately I cant find atm).
Basically this article argues that liberalism only frames care, liberty and fairness whereas conservatism frames care, liberty, fairness, authority, ingroup loyalty and purity. Therefore liberalism tends to be concerned predominantly with social justice and individual rights whereas conservatism is equally concerned with social justice, individual rights but also community rights and as such when faced with a crisis or disruptive change, conservatism tends to have a wider appeal.
As Dave and George highlights, what often distinguishes the left and right is how justice is mediated. The left tends towards a bureaucratic/technocratic state whilst the right tends towards civil society in the form of the family and the community which tend to produce very different social justice outcomes. This is particularly so when it is considered that the left with its limited framing of care, liberty and fairness tends to ignore community rights in favour of individual rights which produces its own set of problematics since scarce govt resources will tend to prioritise disadvantaged groups of individuals with little concern for the overall context in which these individuals are situated within communities. This gives rise to feelings that some individuals are favoured by the state over and above others within a given community.
The right on the other hand tries to contextualise justice within the community as a whole in terms of whether it is perceived whether the individual deserves justice rather than it being an automatic right.
As I said, this different and competing set of framings tends to produce very different social justice outcomes with the left leaving accountability embedded within the state and the right leaving accountability embedded within the community. Hence the right tends towards reducing state control whereas the left tends towards increasing it with centrist politics trying to find a balance between the two (May’s current communitarian politics is an example).
However within each ideology there are situated elites (and their lackays) who will distort these framings in order to better serve their own interests whether in terms of redirecting public resources for their own aims or creating laws that serve their interests within the private sector – with the intellectual and political help of lobby groups and thinktanks.
Hence the ‘ideal’ justice outcomes within either ideology is never fully realised due to elites manipulating both resource flows and jurisprudence for their own gain which not only affects public confidence in the system but also deprives individuals and communities the resources and power to shape their own lives and environment.
The only way to transcend this state of affairs as far as Im aware is to institute a deepening of democracy towards the local ‘civic’ level whereby constituency citizens are able to vote on local licensing, planning and development decisions. This, as far as I can tell, would enable constituency citizens to vote out corporate interests whether in the form of licensing applications, planning applications or development applications since at the end of the day, corporate interests are ultimately grounded in and around communities. That is to say their premises and operations must be location based, even those corporations that conduct most of their business online.
Therefore if there is a possible (and implementable) means by which either the left and right wishes to curtail the power of corporations, it is by instituting civic democracy which on the left would be framed as civic liberalism and on the right would be framed as civic conservatism.
6Dave Darby January 9th, 2017
But, but, but….
1. Right/left might have been continuity/change during the French Revolution, but nowadays, the neoliberal right stand for more change (in a very damaging direction) than the left, who seem to have lost their way in terms of what they actually want. Very few are calling for revolution, and you can’t run a capitalist economy with socialist principles, and those who try are soon removed, and we’re back to the neoliberal staple. And Trump can hardly be called left, but is much more likely to bring about change than Clinton (well, as much change as the office of president will be allowed to bring about, and I think he’ll learn that it’s not that much – we’ll have to wait and see. Obama was elected on a platform of change).
2. You say that you don’t think we can get rid of the left-right spectrum, although you also say that it didn’t exist before the French Revolution?
3. I know what you mean by anglo-saxon interpretation, although its roots aren’t anglo-saxon – but it’s the dominant global interpretation.
I think you’re right that the right unite instinctively – probably, as Lakoff says, because of the ‘dominant father’ approach – don’t think, just do as you’re told, while the left splinter and fight each other more than they fight capitalism.
The left are stuck, I think. A left government can’t compete with other capitalist countries, in a capitalist system, with left policies. They will be outcompeted, and investors will withdraw their money (because they’ll get better returns elsewhere) – and if they follow the left path to its logical conclusion, you get minority rule just as much as in capitalism. So unless we start talking about systemic change, we’re stuck with a system of a faux left (Blair, Clinton) that is actually far right, versus neoliberal right. A Sanders, a Corbyn or a Syriza would only last a term if they’re lucky. That’s a system that’s going to consume nature and damage/eventually kill us.
7Dave Darby January 9th, 2017
Veganollie – I think you’re right about anarchism. As long as you don’t mention the word itself, I find that the most surprising people appear to be closet anarchists but would reject the word itself. I think it has been demonised, yes, to the point that most people think anarchism means chaos and violence, when actually it means a completely nerdish level of organisation, co-operation and peace.
8Dave Darby January 9th, 2017
Nane – yes, that would be a great start.
9Dave Darby January 9th, 2017
Neoliberalism is to conservatism what Stalinism is to liberalism – and yet neoliberalism is becoming some kind of ‘common sense’ norm. Democracy and ecology don’t stand a chance in the face of neoliberalism. Implementable is the biggest word in your comment, and I think the problem is that although the civic democracy route would be great, it would require a mass movement that I can’t see happening – at least not unless a determined minority introduce systemic change that can leach money away from capitalists. The masses will follow if it’s easy/fun or there’s no other option. Money = power, and as long as it’s concentrated to the degree it is, there’s no taking power from capitalists.
10Steve Gwynne January 9th, 2017
I wouldnt personally put neoliberalism in the same box as conservatism which has a long and traditional history of thought attached to it. Neoliberalism is much more synonomous with neo-conservatives who are not conservatives but disillusioned left liberals who realised the corrupt nature of a technocratic state and switched to the right.
As such the conservative party is a mishmash much in the same way the left is with traditional conservatives, tories, neo-conservatives, libertarians. Neoliberalism as such is more akin to neo-conservative and libertarian thought rather than more traditional forms of conservatism.
Neoliberalism has both leftwing and rightwing connations with the former incorporating some semblance of state-centric justice in the form of regulations regarding workers rights and the environment whereas the latter tend towards deregulation due to the emphasis on neo-conservatism and libertarianism. With Brexit this is changing to some degree.
Neoliberalism was largely instituted within the context of global poverty alleviation and in particular the millenium development goals (and now the SDGs) which promoted free trade agreements, privatisation of public services and budget deficit reductions hence is often associated with fiscal conservatism but conservatism as a body of thought does not necessarily promote neoliberalism per se except to say conservatism does promote individual self-reliance rather than dependancy on the state.
Any programatic changes in terms of policy always requires a mass movement whether in the form of mass participation or in terms of a mass of voters in order to affect these changes.
Ultimately, licensing, planning and development decisions are core to any changes in order to facilitate these policy shifts hence the National Planning and Policy Framework and One Planet Development. But of course in order to affect change people must take action and responsibility hence it is ultimately human agency that either sustains or disrupts the system. See structuration theory.
The irony of course is that it is the emphasis on privatisation and the focus on facilitating entrepreneurship that enables and facilitates greater local communal economic activity. That is to say greater civic involvement or greater decentralisation in the economy is very much part of conservatism and always has been whereas left liberalism/socialism tends to centralize economic activity usually at the taxpayers expense. The conservative argument is such instances is that centralisation is much more prone to corruption and infiltration by elites.
11Dave Darby January 9th, 2017
1. Yes, neoliberalism is a step away from libertarianism, which is a step away from anarchism, which is where left and right meet.
2. Yes, you need a mass movement, but only after a minority have delivered an implementable and real-world viable plan that is either acceptable to the masses or gives them no other option.
3. You mention lots of reasons for the fact that I often fall out with my left-wing friends (I fall out with right-wing friends too, but I don’t have many of those – possibly because I live in London).
12Steve Gwynne January 9th, 2017
Hopefully this is going in the right direction.