Capitalism, Ideology, Philosophy, Politics and economics

Knowing our left from our right, Part Three: Social justice and human freedom

In the first of these posts about the left-right divide in politics, I argued that the media portrays anything even remotely left of centre as ‘extreme’, ‘hard’ or ‘far’ left. I said that the left-right divide was crucial and expressed ideological divisions themselves reflective of fundamental material social divisions. I then offered 10 ideas expressing my supposedly ‘far left’ views which, i believed, made me a regular intelligent, sensible, and caring human being.
In the second post, I argued that the left-right divide wasn’t really about what we were generally told it was about, namely the appropriate balance between states and markets in economic matters i.e. the production and allocation of resources.
In this post, I’ll begin to argue what I think it’s really about. Here, I’ll talk about social justice and human freedom

What left-wing politics has always historically been fundamentally about is the struggle for social (and environmental) justice – for the liberation of working people, of women, of people of colour, of sexual minorities, of disabled people, of anyone classed as ‘different’ by those with the social power to define difference. Here, I would say that, with the exception of this first category, the left-wing aligns with liberal thought against conservatism and, of course, fascism. The liberals travel with us a fair way down this road, but we part when we get to the market…

On the question of social justice and human freedom, just like the states-versus-markets red herring, right-wing thought generally presents us a similarly false binary or spectrum between supposedly opposing political ends: social equality and individual freedom. We are told that if we want social equality then we must suppress individual freedoms, but that if we prioritise individual freedoms then social equality must suffer. On a superficial level, this seems true. Our current extreme individualist financialised-consumerist capitalist society seems to offer us ultimate individual freedom. We are told that we can take and quit whatever job we can find; we can choose from seemingly infinite consumer products to satisfy our needs, desires, (or ‘utility’ as economists call it); we can buy and consume whatever, whenever, wherever we like; we can entrepreneur our very selves; and we can get the credit freely to do it all. This what human freedom is, we are told.

Liberal, bourgeois thought starts with the individual. Its goal is the maximum freedom of that individual. Our contemporary society is the triumph of liberalism – the reign of the individual. And, yes, the consequence is inequality, vast, perhaps unprecedented, economic, social, and (beyond formal voting rights) political inequality.

Conservative thought begins with the imagined and idealised social grouping, usually the nation. Its goal is order. In eras of capitalist crisis, liberal dreams of freedom end in conservative, fascist realities of order and control – what capitalism requires when individualist fantasies of market freedoms crash and need rebooting.

As I understand it, left-wing thought starts with the individual and society. Here’s how the famous anarchist Emma Goldman put it…

‘There is no conflict between the individual and the social instincts, any more than there is between the heart and the lungs: the one the receptacle of a precious life essence, the other the repository of the element that keeps the essence pure and strong. The individual is the heart of society, conserving the essence of social life; society is the lungs which are distributing the element to keep the life essence – that is, the individual – pure and strong.’

Emma Goldman

Left-wing thought critiques the flawed and sociopathic egoism of liberals. It recognises all human beings as ‘social animals’, as Marx put it. We are all socially constructed. We cannot eat, reproduce, work, find meaning, or live satisfying and joyful lives without each other. Yet this recognition of the social is of course, totally inimical to conversative thought and ambition. Opposing the conservative desire for order, it seeks the fundamental, indeed revolutionary, reordering of society. What that society might look like, how it should be attained are, sadly, questions which have historically been at the heart of much bitter infighting within leftist organisations.

This emphasis on the social does not mean that left-wing thought eschews liberals’ rightful emphasis on human freedom. Indeed, I believe that only under conditions of radical democratic socialism/anarchism can each individual truly pursue and fulfill their personal freedom and individuality. Why? Because under such conditions we wouldn’t have to compete against our fellow human beings to work for others in jobs we hated; technological advances wouldn’t benefit private firms but would allow us all to do far less necessary work, freeing us up to pursue the creative passions within us all; capitalism has been integral to establishing and institutionalising other horrific forms of discrimination and oppression such as patriarchy and racism, which would be hugely alleviated (but by no means automatically ended) by capitalism’s demise; and capitalism’s demise would also allow us to establish an economic system in harmony rather than in conflict with our ecosystem. So, where liberals and lefties part company is over individual freedom and the market. Why? The answer to this question comes back to a comment I made in the intro to this series of posts: because ideology has material roots. Liberalism is the ideology of the bourgeosie. Therefore, liberal freedom is not fundamentally about human freedom; it is about the freedom of capital and the freedom to possess, to own, to have. This is a freedom of having, not of being!
So, liberals see the market either as an unequivocal socially neutral mechanism for facilitating maximal individual freedom or able serve this function so long as it is well regulated and its worst ‘externalities’ ameliorated. In contrast, eft-wing thought focuses less on the market itself and far more on the structurally exploitative and oppressive nature of capitalist social relations that function through the market. Rather than the supposed ‘hidden hand’ of the market that Adam Smith told us turns the selfish pursuits of individuals into socially beneficial outcomes, lefties see the ‘hidden abode’ of production, the workplace, far away from the ‘noisy sphere’ of the marketplace within which the ‘secret of profitmaking’ – the exploitation of labour – is revealed. We also see other hidden abodes of exploitation and oppression – throughout society in the ‘social factory‘, throughout our ecosystem, throughout all cultural institutions, and, of course, within the traditional family and household itself. We all like a good market, but a good market is a truly free one; it is not one in which we are compelled to sell not just our goods, but our very bodies and souls each day. In reality, as Marx put it, our market society offers us a double freedom: the freedom to work and the freedom to starve. This is a concept of freedom founded on a realistic and explicit understanding of power.

So, for me, while left-wing politics has perhaps been most positively and accurately associated with social struggle, the political visions of democratic socialists/anarchists of the so-called ‘hard’ left are far more compatible with the true individual freedoms that transcend the mirages of freedom that the right-wing advertisers, politicians, and financiers promise us. Whether it’s ‘arbeit macht frei’ or ‘credit macht frei’, the dreams we are peddled are false, are backed by violence, and are sustained, as David McNally put it, only by ‘the dreams of the poor’. We need to dream differently. We need to dream together.

Thanks for following this series on the left-right divide. Click here for the next post in which I explore one key reason why right-wing ideology has proved so powerful in recent decades in particular: it offers simplicity. But life is complex and simplicity is invariably simplistic. Stay tuned!


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