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, how do people end up in the ‘left’ or ‘right’ bracket? What are the roots of left and right ways of 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.
What is it that connects abortion and gun control? It seems random, and left and right tend to view each other with an incomprehension that gets deeper each year. A question like this might come from the left: “How on earth can someone be against abortion, because it involves killing an insentient foetus, 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.
George Lakoff attempts to explain the contradictions in Moral Politics: How Conservatives and Liberals Think. According to Lakoff, right / conservative and left / liberal politics represent diametrically opposed worldviews whose roots lie in the understanding of what families are for. 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.
First, the right-wing view of the family. The conservative family is definitely gendered. Single-parent families or same-sex parents are seen as inferior to families with a nurturing mother and a strict, dominant father – because there’s evil out there that kids need to be protected from, and there’s competition that kids need to win. It’s very important to teach kids right from wrong, and discipline. It’s behaviourist – punish bad behaviour and reward good behaviour, so that they learn how to discipline themselves after they’ve left the family, to avoid punishment and failure. This is seen as the only way to instil 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 morals and self-discipline. Individuals need to work on that themselves – no-one is going to do it for them. 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 the pursuit of self-interest, such as taxation or government red tape. Our leaders should be moral, disciplined people – 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 left-wing view of the family is quite different. Liberal parents are equal, and both nurturing rather than disciplined. Not only are children nurtured – they’re 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 isn’t 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. Our leaders should be nurturing people who are honest, open, co-operative, empathic and who care about other people. Only then will we have a decent society filled with happy people – which is the ultimate goal, surely?
Both views, both ideologies, are constructed via the family itself, and especially via opinions 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. If it were possible to measure the total compassion, intelligence and integrity on left and right, I think they’d be about the same, although I’m also guessing that neither side would believe that.
Talking about building a new economy from the edges of this one (from communities, in other words) could be seen as a left-wing project, and the right could instinctively oppose it, because this new economy isn’t going to be capitalism, after all. But it’s not going to be statism either. I’m not interested in reform, or statism, or overthrowing. I just want to help build something useful. I can see as many problems in the approach of the left as I can the right, and I really wouldn’t label myself either (as my PoliticalCompass.org result confirms). Take Trump. If you’ve lived in a decaying industrial town all your life, and things are getting worse, and then someone comes along who’s clearly a narcissistic buffoon, but speaks like you, and is promising to use his power to bring back jobs to your town, and put more money in your pocket, you’re going to take notice. Then if he actually does it, I think you’d support Trump too.
If you think I’ve lost my mind at this point, I’d ask you again to put yourself in the position of someone in a blue-collar job, or worse – having just lost a blue-collar job, in a rust-belt town that was prosperous when you were a kid. Or, imagine you’re hanging on by your fingertips in a hard up, ex-industrial town in the midlands or the north of England. If money is a constant worry, and thousands of people are coming into your town from overseas to do your job for less money, I think you’d be opposed to that influx. And if wealthier people, for whom those people are waiters, drivers, cleaners, builders and nannies rather than competitors for jobs, call you racist, even though there’s just as much racism in the middle-class as in the working-class, if not more, then I think you’d vote for Brexit too. And then after centuries of not being listened to, when the main left party in your country says that you should vote again, because you didn’t understand the issues, you’d be angry, and would desert that party – which is exactly what happened. The fact that this confused the better-off, metropolitan left highlights their lack of empathy for or connection with people in working-class towns.
Talking of working-class towns, something happened to me as a boy that made me believe that people were intrinsically bad, and that we needed strong, centralised power to keep them in check. I was a young Hobbesian. I was about 7 years old, and I’d caught a hedgehog on some waste ground. I had it in an old paint can, and was taking it home to play with it, then let it go again. A group of slightly older boys intercepted me and took the can from me. I followed them to the local park, where (animal lovers, maybe skip the next couple of lines) they tipped the hedgehog out and played football with it. They kicked it to death for fun. Others gleefully joined in, and only one child (a boy who I heard grew up to be a zookeeper) tried to stop them. If I’d had a gun, I think I’d have shot them. I was disgusted by my fellow humans, and believed that human nature was fundamentally evil. But I was wrong. Those kids were damaged, not bad. The Black Country has been brutalised for centuries. The first victims of the British Empire were the British. My grandparents (and theirs) were mistreated, and responded with drinking and violence. This wasn’t at all unusual, and negatively affected subsequent generations.
Those kids hadn’t been socialised to have compassion and integrity. The problem isn’t people, or ‘human nature’. People are just fine, if they’re raised in functional families in functional communities. Most people want to leave the world a better place than they found it. But power corrupts, so I’m suggesting that we don’t allow power to centralise so much in the first place, to make sure that malign forces can’t influence it or seize it. A minority of people are selfish, greedy and ruthless, but they weren’t born that way. They were either raised dysfunctionally or corrupted by power. The problem is that in this system, those kinds of people will do very well, and reach positions of influence. In fact, the current system is biased in favour of those people. We need a new system that rewards good qualities rather than bad ones. It’s not enough to replace corrupt people at the top of the corporate or state hierarchy, because similar people will quickly replace them. People die, and companies come and go. The problem is the system itself.
Next week: why the left vs right battle isn’t helpful. Nature, democracy and community aren’t partisan issues. No-one sensible, of any political persuasion, speaks out against them. They’re essential for human well-being. We can all agree on that at least, even if we differ about what policies are required to protect them. But they’re being destroyed, and disunity wastes energy and prevents us from being able to do anything about it.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
Peter A Sharp December 6th, 2021
Lakoff’s analysis is brilliant but wrong.
Both conservative and liberals insist on avoiding the implications of global warming, which is that corporate capitalism has caused “overshoot”, meaning the excessive exploitation of natural resources and people for profit. The seas, the atmosphere, and near-earth space are the last remaining “commons” areas. They are regarded as open to exploitation by corporations without enforceable limits. Using the atmosphere as a garbage dump for fossil fuel gasses, by corporations and their products, has caused global warming. But neither conservative nor liberals dare point that out because it means challenging the most basic frame of “modern” civilization: that corporate capitalism, with its need for perpetual growth, is unsustainable.
In the short term, it provides enormous benefits, especially for the rich, but for most people as well. So it seems to be all good, and the only reasonable option. But in the long run, it is the road to ruin, and the ruin is well underway. It may already be too late. We may have already passed critical tipping points, such as the release of vast amounts of methane from melting permafrost and the gas pockets beneath.
The situation is like deer on an island that has no predators. The deer eat and produce in abundance until, eventually, there are too many deer and too little food left. Then the deer population collapses or even disappears. We are those deer. The Earth is our island in space.
So we need to develop a sustainable form of economy. It could be done. But both liberals and conservatives reject that option because it means that their fundamentalist faith in corporate capitalism and perpetual growth was “dead” wrong. People would rather die than abandon their most fundamental frames. The world has already decided, without acknowledging that decision, to commit slow suicide.
But liberals and conservatives will not abandon their faith, their frame, that corporate capitalism will innovate to save us all. The increasing loss of croplands, grasslands, and fish stocks leading to the deaths of billions will not alter that faith. Only a few people will wake up in time to at least apologize to their grandchildren.
Dave Darby December 7th, 2021
Peter A Sharp – completely agree. I quoted Lakoff because of his work on the roots of left and right thinking. Does he claim that one side understands the implications of the quest for perpetual GDP growth, and the other doesn’t? If so, then I agree – he’s wrong. I’ve had similar conversations with liberals and conservatives. More people are becoming aware that perpetual growth on a finite planet isn’t possible however – hence more desperate and ridiculous articles trying to defend it.
Dirk Geysen December 8th, 2021
Nice docu’s have been made about the shaky base of our capitalist economy, e.g. Oeconomia as latest in the row, but we need now a new narrative that underpins the way towards a sustainable form of economy. Docu’s as the film Demain -Tomorrow are nice but we need, I think to focus on the alternatives to develop this sustainable form of economy, based on another form of money not requiring growth. One of these alternatives I came across could be Happonomy (https://www.happonomy.org/). Curious how we can make this happening?
Dave Darby December 8th, 2021
‘based on another form of money not requiring growth’
Didn’t see any new forms of money in that link though, but that’s exactly what we’re involved with. See https://www.lowimpact.org/lowimpact-topic/mutual-credit/ – including the blog articles under ‘resources’.
We’re getting a new website soon, and we’ll give mutual credit a higher profile – from the home page. As you say, money needs to be the focus. If your exchange medium is a store of value, it will accumulate and concentrate, draining communities, destroying democracy and forcing growth.
Dirk Geysen December 8th, 2021
The website has changed a bit and it takes indeed some exploration to find the model: https://www.happonomy.org/redesign-money/ and then enter some info to download the manual: Sustainable Money System. Happy reading.
Dave Darby December 9th, 2021
The problem that I can see is that it requires a central ledger. If that central ledger is compromised (or brought down – I can’t see the banks loving this idea), then that’s game over. Mutual credit / Credit Commons relies on a network of decentralised ledgers – there’s no centre to attack.
I’ll see if anyone in our group has come across this idea, or something like it. But I have to say, they seem to have tried as hard as they possibly can to make the concept impenetrable – right down to making it almost impossible to find out what their plan is.
But good luck to them. If the idea is good, it will start to grow. If it looks as though it will challenge the current system at some point, I might jump ship and support them instead. But as there are already growing mutual credit networks around the world, and the software exists to network them together in the Credit Commons, that’s where I’ll be focusing my efforts for the tiime being.
Dirk Geysen December 13th, 2021
Good point you made regarding decentralised ledgers. That’s indeed the power of mutual credit as I experience being a Lets adept. But as with Happonomy, it is so difficult to explain the working and the advantages of these concepts. With Happonomy, my impression is that it allows for a gradual interaction between the conventional and the complementary currency and as such experience the difference and become convinced.
But Let’s hope with you that the Credit Commons take off in time……