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 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 left and right have in common? It may be more than you think.
I say to the right – if you believe in the free market and competition, then let’s 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 owning shares in corporations, from listening to corporate lobbyists and from taking corporate 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.
However, I believe that unity is possible around the issues of decentralisation and scale. The real debate isn’t around left vs right, or state vs corporate, or justice vs freedom – it’s around large-scale, centralised power vs decentralisation and human scale. When it comes to justice and freedom, we can have both, or neither. At the moment we have neither, because of wealth concentration and the capture of centralised power.
The principles of justice and freedom work well at the human scale, but not at the gigantic scale of states and corporations. Collective ownership of the means of production works well locally, when it’s voluntary rather than imposed from above – worker co-ops, housing co-ops, community land trusts, community energy schemes etc. – but not on the large-scale because it concentrates power, and power corrupts. Given time (and often, not that much time), history has shown that large-scale, centralised leftism eventually delivers a Stalin or a Mao. When soldiers are required to seize centralised power, they never quite get round to re-distributing it. Private ownership of the means of production also works well at the human scale – small businesses and shops, smallholdings, family firms, sole traders – but not at the large scale because it concentrates wealth and power in too few hands and delivers corporatocracy.
This is an easier argument for the left to understand, I think. Plenty on the left are more focused on community-based solutions, hold their noses when it comes to voting and have a visceral mistrust of the corporate sector. But what about the right? Are they necessarily fans of corporations? I believe not. Mrs. Thatcher’s guru Friedrich Von Hayek was against corporate monopolies – believing them as dangerous as the state (The Road to Serfdom, 1944). Tom Davis, a Republican senator told a Tea Party rally that they should go after corporations, because: “Now, it’s large corporations that have access to lawmakers that get huge tax breaks, and there’s no way that the little guy can compete.” And when governments on both sides of the Atlantic bailed out private banks, the right were more vociferous against it than the left. Many on the right believed that a company, even a gargantuan bank, should be allowed to die if they fail within the capitalist system.
The late Roger Scruton, one of the most popular right-wing philosophers of his time, understood this. How many of you, for example, could find common ground with Scruton when I tell you that he:
- opposed Monsanto and the WTO’s campaigning for agribusiness;
- favoured local food and organic smallholdings;
- supported the Permaculture and Transition movements;
- was a fan of Simon Fairlie and his campaigns to help small farmers;
- believed that (beyond a certain point) we may have to question growth;
- cited the closure of local abattoirs requiring the transport of animals long distances as the cause of the last foot and mouth disaster;
- criticised consumer culture;
- believed that developers, agribusiness and supermarkets are detrimental to local economies and environments;
- opposed the building of bypasses;
- opposed the Americanisation of UK cities, with zones that you have to drive between, and a central shopping zone that’s empty in the evenings;
- opposed too-stringent legislation on health and safety, packaging and storage that can be met easily by supermarkets and agribusiness, but not by small businesses and farms;
- supported the decentralisation of energy production.
Scruton bemoaned the fact that the left didn’t get his ideas. But they might have, if he hadn’t called himself ‘right’. Those labels are defunct.
Uniting left and right authoritarians (the top left and top right quadrants of the Political Compass) is difficult, as they dislike each other so much; but I think there are grounds for optimism in the bottom two quadrants – the libertarian left and right. I’m not talking about extreme libertarians – just those with libertarian tendencies, slightly south of the line – although the further south (more libertarian, less authoritarian) you go, the more they have in common. They share a dislike of centralised authority and a love of freedom. Neither has a blueprint of what the world should look like – they just support the right of anyone to live as they please, as long as their behaviour doesn’t impinge on others’ right to do the same. I think this is actually a very popular attitude.
There are some (but by no means all) right-libertarian types, however, who don’t understand the advantages that are given by the state to large corporations. They believe that if state power shrinks, corporate power will rise. You sometimes hear an argument from right libertarians, along the lines of: ‘If you don’t like working for a corporation, then you’re free to leave and become an Über driver’. In the absence of enough small-scale alternatives to employ everyone (due to the advantages given to the corporate sector), this sounds like the freedom to choose your exploiter. So let’s build those alternatives.
I believe that if the state prop is removed, corporations won’t be able to compete with small businesses, sole traders, co-ops and community-based business generally. If the community-based sector grows, and people have the option of finding or creating jobs that are interesting and autonomous, I think they’ll choose them. And as the new economy grows from the edges towards the centre, they’ll have options – lots of them. I don’t think there’s any need for left and right libertarians to fight about this. Working together, left and right can help build a decentralised economy that keeps much more wealth in communities. I believe that an alliance of left and right libertarians can attract left and right authoritarians to it, because I think most people prefer freedom to authoritarianism. Hard-line communists and fascists will be hard to budge, but there aren’t enough of them to matter.
There are a couple of other differences between left and right libertarians, around the market and property. I believe they can be easily overcome, with slight concessions from both sides. First, the market. Some left libertarians believe that production and consumption decisions can be made democratically through meetings in communities. On this point, I’m with the right libertarians, that markets are essential for simplicity and to remove the need for bureaucracy. Michael Albert’s Parecon is an extremely detailed outline for planned production and distribution, but as I was reading it, I was dismayed by all the tedious meetings that would be required, when the market can do the job automatically. I believe that markets with mutual credit as the exchange medium will satisfy the left, as there is no extraction.
Second, property: in political discussions of property, we’re not talking about personal possessions, including houses, cars, clothes, tools etc. ‘Property’, in this case, is something used to extract value from other people’s work – capital that extracts interest, land that extracts rent and businesses that extract shareholder returns. Many right libertarians are content with that extraction, but I don’t believe they should be, and here’s why. It begins with the philosopher John Locke, writing at a time when Europeans were moving across North America claiming ‘virgin’ land. Locke said that for land to belong to someone, they have to use it productively. Not many found this particularly contentious at the time (apart from the native Americans, obviously). If the land isn’t farmed properly – if animals are sick or dying and crops are rotting in the fields – the local community has a right to evict the farmer from the land and allow a better farmer to use it. There was no problem with farmers leaving land to their children – but some of those children started to leave the land and move to the city for well-paid jobs, but kept the land and rented it to farmers. It should be within the community’s remit to say no – we don’t want productive farmers in our trading community to have the burden of paying rent to unproductive people with no connection with the land or our community. It extracts wealth from our community and is clearly unethical – land is a gift from nature to all of us, after all.
If we can begin to decentralise the economy (and I believe we can), then strengthened communities can have more democratic control over their resources. Centralised institutions will favour absentee landlords, maintaining the status quo that centralised power in the first place. Until and unless communities have those powers, there are institutions such as land co-ops and community land trusts that can hold land to encourage local production and prevent extraction. The alternative is a system in which the Duke of Buccleuch, for example, owns 280,000 acres (due to the fact that one of his ancestors was a successful mercenary) that he rents to farmers, dumping the proceeds in the Cayman Islands, whilst doing absolutely no work. I don’t believe that the right necessarily support this behaviour. After all, their guru, Adam Smith, said that “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor.” (Wealth of Nations, Chapter 1, Part 2) – the problem is that they just can’t envisage an alternative that doesn’t involve state socialism.
Next week: how ‘new economy’ thining can unite left and right. Having seen enough debates between left and right, I believe that ‘new economy’ thinking, and especially mutual credit, can provide a third way that will work for both – markets and property regimes that are free but non-exploitative and that don’t extract wealth from communities and concentrate it.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's