Political discussion has been reduced to a set of stereotypes based around categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’. Today, these categories have not only been emptied of meaning, they have become a dangerous way of dividing the victims of corporate greed and setting them upon each other.
For most of the twentieth century, right and left existed as economic and philosophical ideas. There was an opposition between degrees of laissez faire capitalism and a state-controlled economy. The right saw people to be autonomous, rational individuals, while the left saw humans as social creatures who not only shaped their social and economic circumstances but were also shaped by them. Economics were central. Culture was a background concern for social theorists until the 1960s when it became a key part of political discussion. The sixties marked, simultaneously, a blossoming and the beginning of a decay in political discourse based around left and right.
Across the planet, in the United States, France, Northern Ireland, and Czechoslovakia, young people revolted against oppressive governments. Importantly, in these revolts they recognized culture as a stake and a tool in political struggle. Race, religion, gender and sexuality became sites of protest and change that were intertwined with questions of economic justice. However, as quickly as culture had been embraced as an expansion of political discourse it became a site of retreat. Following the failed student uprising in Paris in 1968, for example, left-wing intellectuals, defeated in the streets, turned to culture and language as the site of political struggle. Over time, cultural struggle was to cease to be a means towards economic justice and would become an end in itself.
At the end of the eighties, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a vindication of right-wing thinking. The free market was adopted as state religion across the west, even among ostensibly left-wing parties. Following a trajectory from the late 1960s, the ‘left’ became diminished to the point of, generally, referring to little more than cultural liberalism. There is, of course, little wrong with this. Sexism, racism and bigotry are morally repugnant. They are also impediments to a free market that cannot operate without the free movement of money, goods and people. Cultural liberalism is the ideological companion of free market capitalism. In the 1990s, in a philosophical flip, left-wing struggles around race, gender and sexuality ceased to be connected to economic justice and became questions of individual rights. Having slowly morphed into liberalism the ‘left’ now simply fought for the all the individual freedoms that capitalism could permit. The collective good and questions of economic justice started to recede from view.
Until recently, this symbolic opposition between left and right has offered a camouflaged conservatism. Ostensibly in competition, in a world where corporations are people and the market is God, left and right are two halves of the same thing. They offer the impression of choice in a politics without alternatives. The left made the promise of state-moderated markets and cultural freedom. A nationalist, pseudo-Christian version of the right promised free markets and cultural control. For decades, neither side prevailed. The common thread, and the only active ingredient, between the two politics was a limited vision of individual liberty. The opposition between left and right encouraged a system of market freedom for capital and cultural freedom for individuals. This was classic liberalism split into two warring halves to create the shallow theatre of neo-feudal politics. The ‘establishment’, and their adversaries, were the establishment. In the meantime, behind the resulting ‘culture wars’, politically consecrated greed became invisible as the unquestionable commonsense of both left and right.
Today, the final horror with the left-right opposition is that it pits the victims of greed against each other. The pain, anger and uncertainty that corporate capitalism creates are now politically channeled into the arena of culture. Religion and nationalism have provided a psychologically rational support in former working class communities. People need stability and a sense of something bigger than themselves. A cynical politics has transformed the anxiety of economic devastation into a fear of anything that might threaten people’s values, which are probably the last thing they can attempt to control. The middle classes have been affected too but have further to go before they hit the bottom. Politically they are no less cynically exploited by a left-wing politics that throws ‘progressive’ shapes but has a deep investment in maintaining the economic status quo. Rooted in class-based differences the left-right divide makes enemies out of people with common interests. It pits the urban against the rural, the religious against the secular, the unskilled and the unemployed against the increasingly precarious professional classes.
Western democracies are in desperate shape right now. This is also an exciting time to be alive. As an old contradictory system tears itself apart there is the hope and possibility of something better. To avoid being dragged down with the sinking hulk of the old politics in the meantime we need to reject the language of left and right. If it once had meaning, it is now damaged beyond repair. It is a distortion of reality in a time that needs clarity.
Rainbow Flag: Benson Kua [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood: Public Domain
Wall Street: By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (Wall Street Sign) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons