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, why is the constant left vs right battle doing us no good at all?
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. New administrations come in and reverse the policies of the previous administration, and so we zigzag slightly from left to right, but the trajectory is still towards the precipice. I’m not saying don’t vote – if you can see that a party supports the decentralisation / mutuality agenda, then great – give them your support. But I don’t think the party-political circus justifies the time, money, energy and headspace required for the campaigns, rallies, gossip, backbiting and demonisation it generates, not to mention the ruined family get-togethers. We need deeper change, that party politics can’t deliver. But 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. If either side gets the impression that this is part of the agenda of their ‘enemies’ then they’ll instinctively oppose it without giving it a fair hearing. And no movement is going to succeed if it’s opposed by half the population.
Currently, academia is dominated by the left, and the finance and business worlds are dominated by the right. Dissenting voices are not allowed in either, and attempts at dissent can in fact damage your career. Vitriol is spewed onto YouTube and social media, from partisan camps, and that’s a problem. Let’s debate – but mutual understanding is necessary first, and in that respect, I think Lakoff’s insights are crucial. Without mutual understanding, we’ll waste time fighting each other – sometimes literally – and allow the corporate juggernaut to trundle on unchallenged. This suits the corporate agenda perfectly of course, and is reflected in the corporate media’s fomenting of division and acrimony. From the UK, it sometimes appears that almost all US citizens are members of either Antifa or the Proud Boys, when of course most people have zero interest in either of those groups – but their fighting in the streets certainly makes for good viewing figures and gets the click-through rates up. But with social media, we do it all by ourselves. The infamous ‘bubbles’ that we insert ourselves into with our outraged unfriending of posters of different views doesn’t allow any space for debate, only virtue and ideology signalling and like-harvesting. The extreme polarisation of left and right that we’re experiencing now is almost definitely down to the birth and growth of social media.
From the right, you’ll hear that:
- The left tend to be utopians, and utopians don’t have a good grasp of reality.
- Despite the egalitarian ideals of socialism or communism, whenever it’s been tried, corrupt people get into top positions, bringing inequality, totalitarianism, and more environmental damage than capitalism.
- When people with utopian ideas get into positions of extreme power, the worst-case scenario is death – sometimes millions of deaths – for those who get in the way of that utopian vision.
- Left-wing governments tend to grow big and bloated, and end up taxing ordinary working people to fund their programmes.
- Organising all that state apparatus is a waste of resources; anyone who’s observed councils in action will realise that the market can provide better incentives and allocate resources much more efficiently.
- In boom times, the UK is a magnet for people from all over the world to find work; yet there are still lots of able-bodied people on benefits, and taxing people who work to fund people who won’t is a bad idea.
- 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.
- The left are prepared to sacrifice individual freedoms in pursuit of egalitarianism, and sacrificing freedom is never acceptable.
And, to a certain extent, they’re right. I’d add that:
- The left’s focus is often redistribution of wealth via taxation after it’s been concentrated; this is wasteful and it’s not going to work. Once the super-wealthy have their concentrated wealth stashed in tax havens, how are you going to get your hands on it to redistribute it? Much better to prevent the wealth extraction in the first place. I call this predistribution rather than redistribution.
- The left tend to blame ‘the market’ for our woes, but are happy – more than happy, enthusiastic – to use farmers’ markets (and I agree – they’re great). But humans have always exchanged things. Markets aren’t the problem – rigged markets (and markets in which the exchange medium is also a store of value – more later) are.
- Many on the left are not overly enamoured with debate, but instead prefer to de-platform the right if possible. Not only does this fail from their own perspective – giving their opponents a bigger audience via the reporting of de-platforming – but it sets a precedent that can easily rebound on them. Free speech is the foundation on which we’re able to organise for change. Personally, I don’t want to end up in jail for opposing centralised power, as I might in China, by posting blog articles like this.
And from the left you’ll hear that:
- The right overlook the downsides of capitalism – that it rewards the worst values in people – greed, ruthlessness, egotistical ambition;
- and that it damages democracy because money buys power;
- which makes war more likely, as it’s so profitable for the super-wealthy, whose children are not sent to fight;
- and that growth is required to create the additional wealth for investors, but growth damages the ecology we need to survive.
- The right are content with multi-billionaires, while half the world lives on $6 a day or less, which is morally bankrupt;
- and with commercialisation and overdevelopment, which produces a crass, ugly, boring world;
- and the constant cycle of boom and bust, which hits the poor hardest.
- The gap between richest and poorest is getting wider, and right-wing governments seem to operate like Robin Hood in reverse.
- Many on the (conservative) right are too socially rigid, which leads to creeping racism, homophobia and sexism, and wastes 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.
Again, to a certain extent, they’re right too. Furthermore:
- Darling of the right Thomas Sowell, among others, blames ‘lifestyle choices’ for poverty. But you can’t expect the range of lifestyle choices for the children of relatively wealthy parents to be the same as for those of children brought up in poverty or with less-than-ideal parenting.
- The right insist that money is not a zero-sum game, and yet the material wealth that money gives access to is a zero-sum game, as ecological damage shows; but the right tend to underplay that too.
- The right insist that modern capitalism is all about the ‘free market’, when in fact it’s skewed towards the corporate sector by the actions of a compliant state; the right are critical of the state only when it suits them.
Next week: why left and right have more in common than you think. I say to the right – if you believe in the free market and competition, then give small businesses the freedom to compete in a free market. That means we must prevent politicians from bailing out giant corporations if they fail, from automatically giving government contracts to corporations, from giving banks a monopoly on issuing money, from taxing independent coffee shops if they’re not going to tax corporate chains properly, from taking jobs with corporations, from listening to their lobbyists and from taking their money. These things don’t represent free competition, but the opposite – welfare for those who need it least. I say to both left and right that you’re wrong in focusing your criticism on just one side of the corporate-state alliance.
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