In this series of posts about the left-right divide in politics, I began in the first post by arguing that the media portrays anything even remotely left-wing as ‘extreme’, ‘hard’, or ‘far’ left. In the second post, I argued that the usual definition of left-right as expressing one’s economic preference for how scarce goods should be produced and allocated by either states or markets first reduced politics to a very narrow economism and second was a red herring. In reality, even supposedly ‘free market’ policies have always required a huge amount of state intervention: to construct new markets requires bulldozing in an ideological, geographical, and, sadly, physical way. We’re talking huge levels of coercion and, frankly, mass murder to create and maintain a market society. I also argued it wasn’t even the case that markets define our economy. They’re very secondary to the huge organisational power of corporations which increasingly block market dynamics.
In the third post, I argued that only left-wing thought understood the true nature of human and social freedom and proposed concrete visions and ideas for us to create a society in which maximal individual freedom could coincide with and sustain social peace and justice.
In this fourth post, I’ll argue that one main reason why right-wing ideas have had such success (beyond the obvious fact of their relentless daily propagandizing by the media) is because they offer simplistic solutions or promises based on superficial interpretations of reality. These are false, but they can satisfy and help avoid us doing the harder work necessary for our freedom – independent thinking.
‘It [is] easier for [the superstitious] […] to remain in the state of ignorance in which they had been born, than to destroy that whole construction, and think up a new one […] Nature has no end set before it, [and all] final causes are nothing but human fictions’ (Baruch Spinoza).
Depth versus superficiality; Complexity versus simplicity
Right-wing ideas are generally based on superficial and simplistic interpretations of reality. In the sphere of economics, for example, the reality we experience is taken as the whole story. Money is just what we see it being: a unit of account, a store of value, a means of exchange. Right-wing thought doesn’t look below this surface to see the exploitative social relations hidden by monetary transactions. They say a cup of tea is a cup of tea. I say it’s a cup of tea, but it’s also disastrous agricultural monoculture; its colonial and neocolonial violence; it’s overflowing latrines and the distended belly of a starving little girl. In the social and cultural sphere, again economists reduce people to ‘homo economicus’ – a self-obsessed, unchanging, cold calculating shell of a human being. Right-wing thought generally sees discrete subjects and identities where there is really blurring, fluidity, and complexity: men are men, women are women; there are boys and girls, black and white, discrete cultures and nationalities. Left-wing thought challenges this superficiality and offers depth. Left-wing thought says that, while men or women might be different biologically, the reasons they might be different socially are invariably not natural, but are socially constructed; that race is totally socially constructed; that nations and nationalities are largely constructed and the closed, distinct cultures that supposedly traditionally define them are actually fluid, melded with and shaped by countless others.
The world is far more complex from a left-wing perspective. For me, this means, again, that only left-wing politics allows for true democracy, social richness, and human individuality. But the devil has the best tunes, it seems. When individuals or groups feel worried or threatened about their economic future or security, attempts at explaining the complexity, interdependence, or hidden structural reality of their situations can be futile at best or paternalistic and counter-productive at worst. In contrast, appeals to tradition – to the nation, the race, family values – can work best in societies with low education and high media power. In the economic realm, getting beyond the superficial is particularly hard. ‘They are taking your jobs, milking your benefits systems’ works much more readily.
Nonetheless, the fact is that reality is deep and complex and the simple myths the right uses to soothe, enrage, or blind you are myths. Myths enslave us; only truth is freedom. What this means is that critical thinking and, I believe, shared learning are the paths to individual and collective freedom. That’s why I personally focus on community education and doing blogs like this. But the broader challenge isn’t beyond left-wing political strategy at all. The strategy lies in combining evocations of community, empathy, solidarity, justice, and freedom – the qualities that only the left truly espouses – with eminently persuasive and attractive arguments and plans. Nor is it in any way true that the most oppressed groups in society are any less intelligent and cannot also very often see the true nature of their realities, the true roots of their oppression. Indeed, it is only really in the past four decades that a working class culture founded on and expressive of these left-wing ideas and values has been successful, yet not entirely, destroyed. What is true is that we have lost a huge amount of individual and collective self-belief, hope, and pride. Consequently, as I see it, there are two coinciding challenges. Convincing our fellow citizens that the values and strategies we espouse are not fanciful but are actually pragmatic and realistic is the first challenge, but since our commitment to democracy means that all should participate in designing and building our future, this challenge overlaps with the urgent need to help our fellow citizens, after decades of overwhelming material attack and cultural denigration, to rebuild their self-belief, hope, and pride. That, for me, is the focus. It really does come down to a politics of love triumphing over a politics of fear.
Thanks, again, for following this series of blogs. In the next post, I’ll follow on from this argument that left-wing thought offers a more complex and deep view of reality to argue that the utopianism many express is actually far more realistic than the ‘reality’ that the right tell us we have to get with.