This is the final post in a six post series exploring the differences between the left and right in politics. Here’s a brief recap of the argument so far…
In the first post, I argued that the media portrays anything even remotely left-wing as ‘extreme’, ‘hard’, or ‘far’ left. I then offered ten beliefs I hold that supposedly made me extreme but which, I thought, made me a sensible, intelligent, caring human being. In the second post, I argued that the usual definition of left-right as expressing one’s preference for the state or markets to produce and allocate scarce goods was an anachronistic red herring. In reality, capital needs the state to force us to be ‘free’. Moreover, I argued that markets were very secondary to the huge organisational power of corporations which increasingly block market dynamics. This, by the way, isn’t some aberration as economists would see it; this is the inevitable reality of economic power.
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 the fourth post, I suggested that one main reason why right-wing ideas have had such success (beyond the obvious fact of their relentless daily propagandizing by the media and the sheer political power of the state) 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 critical thinking. In societies with low levels of critical education and historical knowledge, such ideological frameworks can quite comfortably maintain the status quo. In crises, it gets trickier and, therefore, more violent. In the fifth post, I argued that left-wing thought was actually far more realistic than right-wing thought. This is primarily because right-wing thought must defend the current system. Therefore, I argued, it ignores that facts that: only mass genocidal violence has stopped democratic socialism and maintained capitalism thus far; that capitalism seems to be dying as a productive economic system; that capitalism is now actually blocking technological and scientific progress; and that capitalism is destroying the ecosystem that sustains it and us. I concluded by suggesting that we need, therefore, a grounded ‘realist utopianism’ and proposed the slogan ‘Another World is Necessary’.
This final post is on human nature and social systems. Thanks for sticking with me. Please read on. But first, a brief quiz…
QUESTION: Which one of these statements define you and the people you know well best?
STATEMENT 1) You are a self-centred person interested only in getting more material things and the sensual pleasures they bring. Work is something that you do in your life only to get more of these things. Everything you have achieved, all the things you have earned, are purely and solely down to your own work, sacrificing leisure time and instant gratification for a greater prize. Everything you have failed in is equally solely your own fault.
STATEMENT 2) You are a person who is somewhat self-interested, but also genuinely cares about others, even people you haven’t met, and the wider natural world. You think that it’s generally true that people get what they deserve in life and everyone has a chance to make something of themselves. Sometimes it’s not and that’s where government, businesses, science, and charities can step in to alleviate the worst of the natural conditions of human suffering such as poverty.
STATEMENT 3) Piss off! How dare you try to pigeon hole me or anyone else! I refuse to be part of such a ridiculous bullshit exercise!
If you unhesitatingly answered yes to statement 1, here’s the good news: You fit squarely into the worldview held and promoted (explicitly or otherwise) by very many elite individuals and organisations today, so you’re likely to go very far up whichever greasy pole you seek to climb. You also fit very nicely into the mainstream economic models that dominate not just economic theory and policy, but implicitly underpin all areas of public policy. The bad news is that you’re a dangerous sociopath who will leave a trail of destruction and misery wherever your dainty feet tread!
If you hesitantly or unwillingly answered yes to statement 1, I hear ya. It often feels like this is the kind of person we feel pressure to become today.
If you answered yes to statement 2, you’re a nice enough liberal with a naive faith in the status quo and reform. But stop being willing to respond to silly quizzes like this! 🙂
If you answered yes to statement 3, I salute you!
Anyway, as I was saying…
The left’s democratic (and realistic) understanding of human nature and society
In this final post on the left-right divide, I will argue that, while the right talks a good game on freedom and democracy, it’s just rhetoric. Wittingly or not, those on the right maintain an oppressive, unjust system with inherent structural contradictions that can only be maintained with violence. Domination can be dressed up as democracy; it might be cloaked in impenetrable jargon; it might call itself your best friend, but it is still domination. We need to be intellectual martial artists to know when we are being attacked and to defend and counter appropriately.
In contrast, by first actually just seeing the very structures of oppression that constitute our social system and then by seeking to oppose and transcend them, left-wing politics at its best stands for true freedom and democracy.
Ultimately, I will argue, that the left-right divide comes down to who you think you are and who you think others are. I will make the case that we’re basically a nice, kind lot who just need to create a social system together that expresses that and incentivises our natural desire to do good. I will argue that the foundation of left-wing thought and activity today should be what French philosopher Jacques Ranciere calls the ‘equality of intelligence’. Basically, that means that if one is reading this as someone with confidence and a decent level of education and social privilege, they need to start truly believing that no one is below them and that, given the chance, everyone can work stuff out for themselves and don’t need to be taught neither! If one is reading this feeling like they don’t have a lot of confidence in themselves or a lot of education, it means that you need to believe in yourself that you can work it out! I totally believe in you! Go for it and don’t relinquish your intellectuality, your thinking, your humanity to any supposedly superior leader or group any longer.
For the right it’s just rhetoric
As we’ve seen in previous posts, the right talk a LOT about freedom. Most of it is just vacuous bullshit behind which lies a daily barrage of verbal, and the constant threat and increasingly actual use of physical, violence used to either make us free in their image (wage-slaves) or destroy us for opposing their regime of ‘freedom’. Moreover, as I argued in the second post in this series, even the more radical proponents of freedom on the right erroneously equate freedom with the free market society. Such libertarians see a consensus, a harmony, where there is really a fundamental structural contradiction, a conflict. Liberalism starts with the individual and private property and links freedom to these two categories. As the historical ideology of the capitalist class, it ignores structural factors – the systems of oppression and exploitation that shape social relations.
And so, whether it is for self-interested or myopic reasons, it is impossible for right-wing conservatives or liberals to live and govern in harmony with their publicly declared principles and ideology because they have to uphold the structural unfreedom of the current system. As Judith Butler just pointed out from Paris, Western governments are claiming to uphold and defend the supposed core freedoms of their society by suspending them. The extreme free-marketeers who excoriate any state intervention into the sacred market were the first to call for the huge multi-trillion state bail-out of the banks back in 2008. The current UK conservative government is one walking hypocrisy: pleading poverty for public services while conjuring up a bottomless pocket of cash for imperialist war; decrying the evils of ISIS, and Al Qaida before it, which is made up of groups the UK state has funded, trained, and armed; declaring war on extremist Islamism while selling arms to the main state propagator of said extremism, Saudi Arabia; labelling any proponent of state nationalisation of key utilities or industries as ‘Stalinist’ while allowing the Chinese and French states to build and own nuclear power stations here and fixing the market price to ensure their profits; blaming immigrants for insecurity and economic, cultural, and moral decline while allowing impunity and total freedom to rich immigrants to come and gobble up our land, football clubs, and infrastructure; insisting that work sets you free while promoting a low-wage, minimum security labour market that condemns an increasing number of workers and their families to the poverty trap; lamenting the moral and social evils of benefits for the poor who need them while doling them out in the form of tax breaks and subsidies to the rich who do not. And the liberal Labour government before it were guilty of the very same hypocrisies perhaps just to a lesser extent.
These are clear hypocrisies, but they are invariably driven by what Marxists call structural contradictions in the capitalist system. These contradictions all derive from the fundamental social antagonism between workers and bosses, i.e. their opposing interests. So, for example, to boost profits companies seek to pay low wages, but low wages depress aggregate demand for the same companies’ products. Firms invest in technology to boost profits too, but its actually workers who are the source of their profit so the rate of profit across the economy actually falls as workers are displaced by machines and companies start putting money into financial markets instead, creating instability there. These contradictions ultimately lead to crisis and it is during a crisis in particular that ruling elites seek to foreclose any talk of systemic problems in favour of scapegoating individuals, minority groups, and the poor in general. So, unemployment is blamed on the personal faults or flaws in individuals’ skills or attitudes; obesity is blamed primarily on the fecklessness of the poor. Black men are blamed for all drug-related crime and violence. Laws and regulations (lax or stringent) are blamed for financial crisis. The wrong solutions or punitive political strategies flow from this false analysis.
Verbal (symbolic) violence
All authoritarian political thought and discourse (and many on the left are guilty of this too) foreclose freedom by putting labels or categories on us: ‘single mothers’, ‘NEETS‘, ‘youth’, ‘the private sector’. Even ‘the general public’ is a problematic abstraction. Who is ‘the general public’? Politicians claim to understand it and speak for it every day.
Right-wingers proclaim the unparalleled sanctity of human freedom while not just acting, but using oppressive language to constrain our freedom. When anyone speaks about you or on your behalf without your consent, they are serving not to promote, but to constrain, your freedom. Putting labels on us is what the famous French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called ‘symbolic violence’. Imagine having to walk around forced to wear a degrading sign on your back all day like, perhaps, the yellow star the Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany. Just cos it ain’t physically there doesn’t mean it’s less real when that sign is put into everyone’s heads by a malign political class and media.
So, in sum, right-wing claims of freedom are false; the system they maintain is unjust and exploitative and can only be maintained by daily acts of symbolic and physical violence.
Left-wing politics: system change for democratic freedom
Only left-wing thought offers the possibility of creating a world in which truth, reason, and justice prevail as the foundations of our relations with each other and our natural world. Why? There are many reasons, I am sure. I will offer just two. First, because it sees deeper than the superficial. It sees systems and structures. It begins with the fundamental recognition of the interaction between individuals and society. It recognises that who we are as individuals and what opportunities we have are hugely determined by the social system we live in and the social milieux we inhabit. Consequently, while we may seek to campaign for reform to alleviate suffering in the short-term, left-wing thought and activism is centrally focused on imagining and pursuing the creation of a radically different way of running our world. We don’t just want reform, we want radical system change. This does mean revolution. This will mean violence, but the level of violence is always determined by the ruling elites.
Second, following on from this structural or systemic focus, though not all traditional left-wing thought has always done this, radical democratic left-wing objectives are essentially to eliminate any gap between the lives of individuals, communities, and societies and the political decisions made that affect those lives. In short, only left-wing politics is concerned with creating a world that every human being can contribute directly to running and in which every human being can fulfill their own individual humanity.
We are good and kind. Let’s create a good and kind social system
All right wing views of human nature are oppressive. They put labels on us, they falsely unify us as ‘a people’, as ‘nations’, as ‘the general public’ or, worst of all, as ‘the masses’. In contrast, left-wing thought sees the infinite potential of individuals and of humanity. Human beings are surely capable of evil, but left-wing thought points to the violent system that cultivates that evil. And even in such poisoned soil the sweet flower of the human soul freely blooms! Left-wing thought assumes the best of people and these assumptions are increasingly supported by social scientific evidence and, moreover, our own experiences! The vast majority of people we meet are not rotters, but are good, honest, kind people! If we can create a social system that incentivizes and is built on the best qualities of humanity we will surely all flourish.
Anarchism and the equality of intelligences
The more I look into it, the more I am attracted to anarchism. In short, anarchism is a political theory that eschews any overarching power in favour of the spontaneous organisation of human beings. Basically, it says get rid of any system of rulers and ruled cos that’s tyranny not freedom and we can organise things horizontally and democratically by and for ourselves. I am also just blown away by Jacques Ranciere‘s idea, inspired by 19th Century philosopher and teacher Jacques Jacotot, of the ‘equality of intelligences’.
Jean-Joseph Jacotot: Laziest and best teacher ever!
Basically, the equality of intelligences simply means that we all use the same natural method of learning. When teachers teach us a course, they ensure that there is always a gap between us and them and our progress is determined by their ‘expertise’ and arbitrary will. ‘Any man who is taught is only half a man’, says Ranciere. The problem in confronting the regime of domination maintained by rhetoric and violence is not people’s lack of intelligence; it is their lack of faith in their natural intelligence, says Ranciere, and I totally agree. So, for me, left-wing thought and activity today must begin with the principle of the equality of intelligence – the only true foundation for democratic thought and action – and must focus on promoting this equality.
Rhetoric is war
As I’ve tried to show over this series of posts, the difference between left and right, for me, is the difference between freedom and oppression, truth and falsity, and reason and rhetoric. What we hear from the right can only be rhetoric and rhetoric, as Jacques Ranciere put it, is ‘the art of reasoning that tries to annihilate reason under the guise of reason’. So the untruthful, oppressive reality behind the rhetoric of the right might not always be immediately obvious. The only remedy is to use our intelligence, to use our reason, as our defence. Their attacks compel us to think for ourselves. Thought is the engine of freedom. And then comes speech. We use our intelligence and then we must speak that intelligence.
It is not enough, therefore, for those claiming to be left-wing to commit themselves to system change, to democracy. All too often we hear lefties decry the ‘false consciousness’ of ‘the masses’ and frame our mission as that of bringing the truth to the people like the worst missionary zealots. This is a politics of oppression and domination as bad as the forces and system we oppose. Left-wing thought and action in the 21st Century must be a radical democratic politics founded on and inspired by the equality of intelligences.
Dear reader, if you’ve made it through this series of posts then I want to thank you most sincerely. I’m no one special. I’ve just had the opportunities to learn and think that are deprived to far too many. But, I really am no one special and I’ve not said anything devastatingly original or insightful here, I’m sure. That said, I hope I’ve persuaded you that left-wing thought and action is the path to freedom, justice, and democracy.
I want to use this blog to encourage people to think and learn for themselves because the only truth is your truth and your own intelligence is your own infinitely powerful tool to engage with the world and help make it what you want it to be! Go for it!