In the run-up to Christmas (or for non-Christians, the winter holiday period, if you prefer) I’m going to try to spread a little love with a series of articles looking at the growing polarisation of society along the left-right spectrum. I want to persuade as many of you as possible that positioning yourself on this spectrum is damaging to interpersonal relations, to communities, to political progress, probably to your mental health and definitely to the ambience of family gatherings – and to invite you to step off it.
In this series I’m going to cover:
- The meaning of the terms left and right
- The roots of left and right thinking
- Why the left vs right battle isn’t helpful
- Why left and right have more in common than you think
- How ‘new economy’ thinking can unite left and right
The last one will come out on Boxing Day, when you’re full of goodwill and mince pies (with a bit of luck), so that by the new year, you’ll be ready to embrace your left/right (delete as appropriate) work colleagues and family members in a new spirit of understanding of the underlying irrelevance of those terms. Then on Jan 2 I’ll post an article with ideas about how we can build a new kind of economy that will work for you, whether you consider yourself left or right, and that, handily, won’t contribute to ecological destruction or creating zillionaires who don’t allow proper toilet breaks for their workforces.
So, what do we mean when we talk about left and right in the 21st century?
Do you consider yourself ‘left’ or ‘right’, or somewhere in the middle? Or do you have only a vague idea about what those labels mean? I’d like to argue that they’re not only irrelevant now, but that they divide us, involving us in an antiquated battle and distracting us from the important contemporary issues. I particularly want to stress that our kind of ‘new economy’ thinking at Lowimpact.org has no ideology attached to it. In fact, when explaining it, I’ve been accused by the left of being right-wing and by the right of being left-wing.
But first we need to have a look at the origin of the left and right labels.
The concept of left and right was born during the French Revolution. The revolutionary national assembly was debating what powers the king should have. Should he have the final say – an absolute veto on the decisions of the assembly? Those who believed he should sat together on the right side of the chamber, and those who believed that he shouldn’t sat on the left. Those on the right had a traditional, conservative viewpoint, and those on the left were more radical. It became easier to use the terms left and right to describe these groups, and the terminology immediately caught on around the world. ‘Right’ meant conservative, ‘left’ denoted radicalism.
That’s not the case any more however. For example, the right’s move toward neoliberalism, and its wave of privatisation and deregulation in the 1980s was a radical departure from the post-war consensus. So what defines and divides left and right now? In common tabloid parlance, the left leans towards more government influence in the economy, taxation, regulation and equality, including a fairer distribution of wealth and a bigger safety net for those who fail; the right prefers business, low taxes, deregulation and a free market, with less government control of the economy. The right are champions of freedom, the left justice. Both are fine principles, and not at all mutually exclusive. In fact, you can’t have one without the other.
I try to avoid using the word capitalism. It’s fraught with difficulties, and taking a position on it can be divisive. Remember that during the French Revolution, the right supported the aristocracy, and the left were on the side of the emerging capitalists, who were the radicals at that time. Capitalism now means different things to different people. Often, the word is associated with markets, so that co-operatives are sometimes seen as capitalist institutions, because they operate through markets, rather than as part of a planned economy. But it shouldn’t be difficult to imagine a non-capitalist society with markets, and of course markets existed for a long time before capitalism.
You’ll know from reading this blog that we see mutual credit as an important tool for change towards a sustainable, non-extractive economy – but mutual credit, and especially the Credit Commons idea (federating mutual credit networks into a global system), sometimes confuses both pro- and anti-capitalists, who can see that it’s not capitalism as we know it, because it doesn’t allow wealth to concentrate – but neither does it allow the state to control the economy, or give unfair advantages to big corporations. And mutual credit is a tool for a market economy – and a much freer one than capitalism, in many ways.
The point may well be moot, as we seem to have moved beyond capitalism already, to some sort of ‘financialism’ that neither Karl Marx nor Adam Smith would have recognised. We’ve seen how quantitative easing provides money for banks, and how banks prefer to lend to large corporations rather than small businesses. But the executives of those corporations know that because the economy has slumped, the public doesn’t have the money to buy what they’re selling, so they don’t invest the borrowed money in production. Instead, they buy back their own shares, to enrich their shareholders, and provide themselves with big bonuses.
The financial world has become disassociated from the real economy, to the point that we can now have record stock market levels during a record economic slump. This isn’t capitalism as most people understand it. It’s a strange alliance of state and corporate power that befuddles the concepts of left and right. Neoliberalism is a different matter. It’s not a political philosophy, but a project to maintain and intensify wealth concentration. It’s for the benefit of billionaires, and although ostensibly laissez-faire and therefore anti-state, neoliberals are perfectly happy to receive help for their project from governments of any flavour. In fact, state activity has increased worldwide during the neoliberal era.
The Political Compass provides a quiz to establish your political position. But it’s not a left-right spectrum. Rather, your position is plotted on a chart with two axes. The horizontal axis is indeed left to right, and the vertical axis is authoritarian (at the top) to libertarian (at the bottom). There are four quadrants – top left is left authoritarian; top right, right authoritarian; bottom left, left libertarian; bottom right, right libertarian. Most politicians in governments of Western nations invariably end up around the middle of the top right quadrant, whether they call themselves Democrat, Labour, Republican, Conservative, Liberal, left or right. Both Biden and Trump are in that quadrant – Trump closer to the top right. The post-war Labour government would I guess have been in the top left quadrant. So as markers – Stalin is as far to the top left, and Hitler the top right, as you can go. Those in the top left and top right quadrants generally dislike each other, but the relationship between those in the bottom quadrants is more complicated – so much so that I will argue in later articles that there’s very little difference between them. Those in the bottom two quadrants tend to be decentralisers, and decentralisation is the key to uniting left and right – or at least the left and right with non-authoritarian tendencies, which is, I believe, the vast majority.
Let us know where you ended up on the Political Compass chart. I’m guessing that most of our readers will be bottom left-ish.
Next week: the roots of left and right thinking. Why do people who consider themselves ‘left-wing’ seem to embrace a raft of policies that appear unrelated? For example, if you’re on 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.
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