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How to Tell your Left from your Right: part 1

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
How to Tell your Left from your Right: part 1

This is the first section of a two-part essay that addresses the question of what most fundamentally distinguishes Left from Right. In this section I examine and reject several standard conceptions of this divide and then proceed to set out the case for my own view that the most salient difference lies in contrasting theories of human nature.



Being a rebel does not a leftist make

The metaphorical use of the words "Left" and "Right" to describe political positions is derived from the seating arrangements of the National Assembly in the early days of the French Revolution. The deputies grouped to the right of the presiding officer were generally disposed to retain the existing regime whereas those on the president's left were in favour of novel constitutional arrangements. In consequence, "Right" came to be understood as indicating allegiance to the established order while "Left" developed the sense of holding anti-establishment views. Even now it is not uncommon to hear the words applied in this way, particularly in North America. However, it takes no very searching examination to establish that, thus defined, the terms collapse into incoherence when predicated of contemporary conditions.

If to challenge the current order is, by definition, to be of the Left, then it may be supposed that ISIS, the Tea Party and Ukraine's Right Sector are all left-wing. Conversely, if defending the system in place is deemed the province of the Right then Cuba under Fidel Castro, Haiti under Aristide and Venezuela under Chavez must all have been right-wing. What is more, this means that Aristide would have been transformed into a leftist by the mere fact of his being deposed while the Tea Party would have become right-wing by the very act of taking control of the Republican apparatus; and all this without either Aristide or anyone in the Tea Party having altered their political views by one tittle.

Where opposing the established order is considered the sine qua non of the Left there is likely to be an incipient tendency to subsume any and all rebel groups under the banner of the Left, no matter their policies. It is this kind of thinking that has allowed the fascist politics of Ukraine's Right Sector to be sanitized as "national conservatism"—a subtle but significant sinistral shift. Likewise the Maidan uprising―in which Right Sector played a leading role―is hailed as embodying positive values even though, in reality, the protests were about little more than the petty bourgeoisie's desire for neoliberal reform. The same sort of faulty reasoning appears in analyses of the current situation in Syria: if ISIS itself is unlikely to be described as a movement of the Left, other insurgent bands that are no less vicious have been lauded as forces of progress merely on the basis of their opposition to the Assad regime.

Clearly, contumacy is not the special preserve of the Left and cannot be relied upon to distinguish its politics from those of the Right. However, identifying consistent programmatic differences between the two sides can also be challenging, particularly if one expects continuity over the whole period from the late 18th century to the present. Indeed, it often seems that the more one attempts to sort Left from Right on the basis of policy the more muddled the distinction becomes.


Policy shifts

Examples of such ambiguity are not hard to find. For instance, at the outset of the French Revolution those who championed the autonomy of the citizen in the face of the sovereign power of the state were considered to be of the Left. During the Cold War, however, conservatives often made great play of defending the liberty of the individual against encroachment by the sinister socialistic forces of government.

Environmental issues provide another illustration. They only really began to feature prominently in political discussions during the latter half of the 20th century but even this relatively brief span of time has proven sufficient to produce such a welter of positions that it can be difficult to say where either the Left or the Right stands with respect to ecology. Initially both Left and Right tended to be tarred as anti-environmental: the former for supporting the polluting factories of the Warsaw Pact or for valuing jobs over nature in industrial disputes; the latter for such lunatic fancies as Ronald Reagan's assertion that "Trees cause more pollution than cars do." (Small wonder the Green Party developed the slogan: "Neither left nor right but in front.") Latterly, Left and Right alike have undergone considerable greenwashing with the peculiar result that to demand action on climate change is now generally seen as a left-wing position and yet the policies most frequently advocated are forms of "green capitalism," such as trading greenhouse gas emission credits or multiplying the number of private sector electricity providers.

One might think that, if nothing else, political economy would offer a clear basis for distinguishing Right from Left―and, to be sure, from the middle of the 19th century till the penultimate decade of the 20th, capitalism was the great shibboleth: to support it was to be on the Right; to oppose it was to be of the Left. Yet capitalism was not an issue in the French Revolution; indeed, the deputies to the left in the National Assembly of 1789 were themselves in large part the tribunes of the bourgeoisie, the nascent capitalist class. Likewise, since the collapse of "actually existing socialism" and the spectacular ascent of neoliberalism, capitalism has come to be all but universally endorsed across the political spectrum of nearly every nation.

While the examples above are meant to be illustrative rather than comprehensive, it is hard to call to mind any issues on which both Left and Right have maintained consistent and opposed positions over the whole time since these metonyms first came into use during the French Revolution. More to the point, even if one could identify differences of policy between Left and Right that have remained constant from 1789 down to the present day this would not answer the crucial question of why the lines had thus been drawn. Was it a matter of principle or of mere factionalism? After all, hostility of a more or less arbitrary nature, such as the mutual antipathy of supporters of rival athletic clubs, can be strong enough to continue across generations and to lead to bouts of lethal violence.


Conflict over values

Over the years, no doubt, numerous individuals have chosen to identify themselves as either Left or (particularly) Right for reasons that could hardly be described as high-minded; but it is clear that, for many others, the choice of political allegiance was very much a matter of conviction. This might suggest that any longstanding differences between Left and Right are attributable to conflicting values.

This hypothesis seems plausible enough at first blush: the Left, after all, has consistently extolled the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity for over two hundred years. On further inspection, however, this explanation appears doubtful. An objection that comes immediately to mind is that communist parties, when in power, have not often distinguished themselves by the respect they have shown for these ideals. Even if we pass over this point on the grounds that people seldom practice what they preach, there remain other difficulties.

One such problem is that no equivalent rallying cry has united the Right over the decades and yet it does not seem to be the case that right-wingers are only a congeries of those who have nothing in common except the rejection of what the Left holds dear. A second is that, while leftists and right-wingers might tend to differ from one another in their emphasis on particular virtues and vices, across the political spectrum there exists a broad consensus on what constitutes ethical behaviour. For example, it can scarcely be doubted that almost everyone, regardless of their political allegiance, would agree that being kind to one's neighbour is commendable; conversely, not even the Nazis would have approved of the wanton killing of innocent people (instead they justified their atrocities by classifying their victims as subhuman).

Yet, if it would seem that opposing values cannot fully explain the historical rift between Left and Right, one can hardly escape the impression that, all the same, they have played an important role. There is the evidence not only of the Left's continuing reverence for the ideals of the French Revolution but also a more general sense that there exists one ethos specific to the Right and another appertaining to the Left (a distinction nicely captured by the British custom of referring to the Tories as "the nasty party").

While we may accept that values have significance for the division between Left and Right, a puzzle still remains. If, for the most part, people subscribe to similar standards of personal conduct, why do some identify with the moral universe of the Right while others feel drawn to the ethos of the Left?

Popular wisdom might suggest that right-wingers have hard heads while leftists have soft hearts but this cannot stand as a serious explanation. For one thing, it is clearly not factually accurate: Stalin―to take one obvious example―was not renowned for his compassion. For another, it defies credence to suppose that, in the teeth of two centuries of brutal counter-revolutionary reaction, the Left could have sustained itself on the basis of an appeal to people's soppy side.


Contrasting views of human nature

If the schism between Left and Right is not mere factionalism, and yet neither is it the product of radically divergent intuitions about right and wrong, what is its basis? I would suggest that what best explains the enduring antagonism between Left and Right―and, in particular, how for over two hundred years they have sustained coherent but opposed moral universes―is that they are premised on inimical conceptions of the quiddity of humankind. By this I mean that, at root, Left and Right are the expression in the political sphere of two distinct and incompatible views of human nature (or species-being, to use Marx's formulation).

To be clear: in adducing this thesis I do not mean to imply that most people who are attached to either the Left or the Right would see the matter in this way; nor am I asserting that this view has consistently featured prominently in the writings of thinkers on either side of the political divide. Rather, I am arguing that the evolution of the political programs of both Left and Right can be interpreted in large part as the working out of different conceptions of human nature, even if more often than not the actors involved would not have understood the process in these terms.

On what basis do I make this claim? On the grounds that a theory of human nature is a logical necessity for any rational politics. Saints and psychopaths may live according to internal dictates without consideration of how other people see the world but the perspectives of our fellows are typically a matter of considerable importance to the rest of us. Most of us, in our private lives, routinely develop ideas about what other people are like both to maintain psychological coherence and to facilitate relationships; but in the political realm this becomes an absolute necessity.

The validity of a given policy cannot be determined absent knowledge about the conditions of its fulfilment. Given that, in public affairs, outcomes will almost always be contingent on the activity of a great many members of society, having a notion of what people are like and of what can be expected from them must be considered an essential prerequisite for policy development. With apologies to Hume, this idea could perhaps be expressed as: in politics, you must get your "ought" from an "is."

Having grasped this principle we can see that after all there is no great mystery to the question of why it is that once people enter the realm of politics they often end up opposing each other on moral grounds, even when their ideas of right and wrong are broadly similar. The point is that organized political action can proceed rationally only on the basis of an underlying theory of human nature. In planning a political program it is clearly useless to say that people ought to do X if there is no reason to suppose that they are capable of doing it; and beyond this we need to know whether people will be willing to do X, and if so under what conditions.


Theories of human nature as a precondition of political ideology

At this stage it might be objected that, even granting that building up a political organization must necessarily entail both a set of values and a conception of human nature, I am begging the question by according analytical priority to the latter. What justification do I have for insisting that theorizing about our species-being must precede any discussion of values? If anything, one would expect the reverse order, if for no other reason than that political parties typically promote themselves on the basis of their principles and policies, and not on their views about what it means to be human.

In answer I would first call attention to the disclaimer given earlier. As noted above, I am not asserting that people routinely determine their political affiliation by giving conscious attention to ideas about human nature nor am I claiming that it is at all common for the divide between Left and Right to be thought of as hinging on this point. Rather, what I am arguing is that questions of the quiddity of humankind operate at a deeper level that is logically (and therefore analytically) antecedent to such considerations.

There are, in effect, two possible ways in which a group of people can organize themselves into a society: with the intention of providing equal benefit to all members or primarily in the interests of some subset thereof (the theoretical possibility of people organizing themselves into a society that was not intended to benefit any of them is self-evidently absurd). Setting aside cases in which the privileged subset would comprise a majority of the population, it is obvious that most people, given the above choice with no further specifications, would prefer the first option. Yet, when we look around us, it is the second alternative that is everywhere prevalent; and given that universal suffrage is in place in many of these unbalanced societies, we must assume that most of their members approve of such arrangements.

In practice this counter-intuitive finding can be attributed to a number of factors, not least of which is the external coercion that can be brought to bear on any polity that fails to accept the privileging of a comprador elite over the general populace. However, this state of affairs can also be taken as an indication of why the question of human nature must always take precedence over value judgements, as in the hypothetical scenarios discussed hereinafter.

Let us say, e.g., that we feel moral repugnance at the idea of a certain group of individuals lording it over everyone else. Let us further suppose that we believe either that this arrangement is ultimately to the benefit of everybody―perhaps because the ruling class really does know how to manage public affairs as the ruck does not―or that matters could never be different because most people are too ovine to contest their subjugation. The rational response would be to either support the status quo or to give up politics altogether as a bad job; certainly, neither scenario gives any grounds for an emancipatory politics.

Imagine, now, a contrary situation in which we feel the same revulsion at class rule but do not accept that some people are inherently suited to govern (and thus that class rule provides a net benefit to society), nor yet are we convinced that the populace can never be moved to resist. Here, clearly, scope for an emancipatory politics does exist.

What separates these instances is not divergent ethical intuitions but contrasting views on whether a different state of affairs is possible or even (in light of the limitations of the world we live in) to be desired. This shows that political allegiance must ultimately be based not on whether one regards a particular civic order as morally optimal but on determinations of how to make the best of things, given the constraints imposed by human nature. As previously noted: before one can offer sensible prescriptions for what people should do (which is the stock-in-trade of political parties), one needs to have some idea of what humans are able to do―which is why differing conceptions of our species-being must already be present for competing political ideologies to emerge at all.


Material preconditions for the development of political ideology

Politics, understood as individual or factional contestations for dominance, has been with us from time immemorial. Over the course of those millennia most of those who strove to achieve power were no doubt motivated in large part (if not entirely) by self-interest, though others were surely impelled by less selfish considerations. Either way, however, for far the greater part of the many thousand years since the first polities were constituted, more or less all such aspirants would have been bound together by certain foundational assumptions that together served to delimit the boundaries of the political.

Of such notions, amongst the most important was that humans are inherently unequal, not only in their abilities but in their intrinsic worth. In consequence it was deemed condign that some should have more than others―even in "democratic" Athens, women and slaves did not rank as full people and were therefore not entitled to the privileges of citizenship. Another component of this elite perspective was the belief that the extant state of affairs did not admit of improvement: it was possible for civilization to go backwards but not to move ahead. Indeed, the prevailing opinion in most times and places was that matters were going from bad to worse; just trying to hold the line against a complete breakdown was about as much as could be expected of whomever was in power at a given time.

It can be assumed that, across such a vast span of time, many individuals must have held different views. However, throughout the duration of this period the material conditions of human life almost everywhere were such as to rule out any possibility of a more progressive perspective being given political expression.

As Marx observed, until the productive forces reached a stage of development whereby all members of society could always be adequately provided for, the competition for scarce resources ensured that, time and again, "all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced" since the only alternative was "want...made general." In other words, in the face of endemic and recurrent shortages―the normal state of nearly all pre-industrial agrarian societies―there would inevitably be some individuals that were prepared to use force to ensure that they never had to do without. Other members of society might attempt to resist such extortion but even if they succeeded in seeing off one such group of violent aggressors there would always be others ready to try the same trick. In the end, it usually made more sense for the general populace to accept the Mafia-style "protection" of one or other of these ruffians and get on with the business of living.

It is easy to see how, once such a tyranny had been established, the rulers and the ruled―though perhaps the former especially―would come to understand themselves as qualitatively different from each other. Likewise, both parties would have good reason to suppose that the main alternative to the existing relations of dominance would be a collapse into universal mayhem.

Thus matters stood, in essence, until the Black Death―to this day, the single most terrible catastrophe that humankind has ever experienced. The unprecedented mortality of the plague wrought social and economic changes that decisively undermined feudalism and strengthened the hand of the lower orders (peasants and burghers alike). This created the possibility, as never before, to organize political activity on the basis of changing society rather than as a game of musical chairs on the part of the elites.

Yet, as I have been arguing, a progressive politics cannot coexist with a conservative view of human nature. Thus the commoners could not have made a bid for power had they continued to accept that the preeminence of the upper classes was a law of God or nature. However, another momentous consequence of the unexampled calamities of the 14th century (the Black Death chief amongst them) was that all the old certainties were overthrown, including the supposition that everybody should know their place.

This new understanding is clearly to be seen in uprisings such as the 1381 Peasants' Revolt in England and the 1524-5 Peasants' War in Germany. In the former, John Ball proclaimed that: "From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by unjust oppression"; in the latter, Thomas Müntzer used the slogan "omnia sunt communia," ("everything belongs to everyone" in the idiomatic translation of the Luther Blissett writing collective).

As suggested by this thumbnail historical sketch, the Black Death can be seen as a watershed in the evolution of politics. From the emergence of the state form until the plague visitation of the 14th century, the material conditions of human existence rendered it impossible to orchestrate meaningful opposition to hierarchical modes of governance (that is to say, class society). It was only in the wake of the Black Death that an egalitarian reconstitution of power relations became a genuine possibility.


Left and Right perspectives on human nature

Here, at last, we can resume the central discussion. Having shown that ideological politics originate in disagreements about human nature, and in turn that a given view of human nature can only achieve political expression if it is consonant with people's living conditions, we are finally in a position to again take up the issue of what separates Left from Right.

I have urged that the primary distinction between Right and Left is that of opposing conceptions of human nature. Analogously, I have discussed how for thousands of years the production process in agrarian states was such as to presuppose a class structure and how this conditioned the idea that hierarchy was a necessary condition of all social organization. Developing this theme I noted that the shortage of labour and the general crisis of feudalism that followed the Black Death gave the lower orders an unprecedented opportunity to assert themselves―but that they could have done nothing had they remained chained to the belief that there is a god-given order of human worth.

In my estimation it is not simply that in either case we see a manifestation of how politics rests on views of human nature; rather, I would say that they map on to one another. As I see it, the right-wing notion of what humans are like is but the latest incarnation of the age-old Weltanschauung of the elites while the levelling spirit of late-medieval peasant revolts is at one with the world-view that came to be characterized as Left during the French Revolution.

The divisions here are twofold. First, the Right holds that humans are typically sanguinary, selfish and stupid while the Left takes a less dim view of the species. Second, the Right believes that human character is always and everywhere the same while the Left considers that each individual has a unique potential which can and will be expressed differently depending on (at least) the circumstances of her upbringing and the type of society in which she lives.

These opposing theories of human nature have the most profound political implications. In propounding claims concerning not only what people are like at present, but also about the limits of what humans can be like under conceivable circumstances, the two sides necessarily establish competing logics for how we should order our affairs, now and in the future.

Since right-wingers expect people to be greedy, the Right looks to the market's invisible hand as the one sure way to transform private vice into public virtue. This naturally leads to the valorization of commercial exchange as the basis for all social relations. It also lends itself to a prescription for the recognition of inviolable rights in private property along with the imposition of draconian criminal law. Additionally, it ineluctably gives rise to the veneration of the organized violence of the state security apparatus as the bulwark of the decent citizen, without which The Other―foreigners, the indigent, etc.―would seek to forcibly rearrange the distribution of wealth to their own benefit.

Right-wingers dismiss humans as a sorry lot overall but the Right typically offsets this negative general assessment with the enthusiastic endorsement of select individuals who are able to establish themselves as leaders, particularly in fields such as commerce, politics and the military. This tallies nicely with the impulse to establish a sovereign power capable of maintaining order by force―the Leviathan without which a Hobbesian war of all against all would render human life "nasty, solitary, brutish and short."

Unlike the Right, the Left does not expect humans to be always and everywhere selfish, believing instead that we are actuated by a variety of motivations, at least some of which are pro-social. Thus, for the Left, not only is there no need to elevate the pursuit of private gain to the level of an ideal but this approach is seen as perverse since it only serves to bring out the worst in people. Similarly, striving to maintain civic order through exemplary violence as meted out by a sovereign power is regarded not simply as unnecessary but as inimical to healthy social intercourse.

Perhaps most importantly, for leftists (as for John Ball of old) it is axiomatic that all humans are fully equal in worth and at least roughly equivalent in ability. In consequence, ascribing differential inherent values to individuals or to groups of people is anathema to the Left; but this view also has extremely important implications for social organization. It indicates, at a minimum, that positions of control or privilege within a society should be open to all members without discrimination. Taken to its natural conclusion, however, this perspective entails the proposition that, as nearly as possible, each member should possess the same effective degree of power―in other words, it requires that society be so constituted as to limit and ultimately to eliminate positions of control or privilege.


Liberal and radical conceptions

This last point holds special significance because it marks the parting of the ways between liberals and radicals. The former are largely indifferent to questions of political economy so long as civil liberties (free speech, the franchise, etc.) are provided for, while the latter consider that formal equality before the law counts for little when the system ensures that the masses lack any effective means of intervening in public affairs.

In the context of the present discussion, perhaps the most important consequence of this divide is that liberals, in scanting consideration of the real distribution of power in society, smooth the way for the wealthy to take government and other major institutions in hand. Under liberal democracy, elected representatives are, ex hypothesi, the tribunes of the people; so when it comes to seem that, to be electable, a politician must be conservative, liberals are confronted with a choice. They can either decide that liberal democracy is not democratic enough and press for radical change or they can conclude that liberal democracy offers more democracy than the benighted masses can handle and seek to curtail the power of the electorate.

While it is not completely unknown for a liberal to be radicalized under such circumstances (here, Chris Hedges springs to mind), a shift to the right is far more common. This is only to be expected. The typical liberal tends to be well-educated and at least moderately well to do, with a professional career or the prospect of one. Looking around her such a person is apt to find that, along with her peers, she holds more progressive views than the majority of politicians―and thus, presumably, the electorate that votes for them.

What is such a person to do? She can continue plugging away, supporting progressive causes and hoping voters will eventually see the light but if―as in the current neoliberal era―electoral politics only ever seems to go from bad to worse, at some point she must recognize that the system isn't working.

At this stage our liberal friend could determine, like Chris Hedges, that the fault is with the system and not with the people. This, however, she is unlikely to do since to act on this conviction would require her to acknowledge her own privileged place within the system and quite possibly jeopardize it. Most of us are not so self-sacrificing and even those individuals that are must still reckon with the likelihood that their sacrifice will be to no purpose. After all, it is one thing to deprive oneself where this is sure to be of benefit to others but quite a different matter when the odds are that no good will come of it―and it must be said that the odds of achieving radical change are not inspiring at present.

A more natural response would be for our liberal friend to seek ways to shift more power into the hands of educated people like herself―people who can be relied on to make decisions that are in the best interest of everybody (in contrast to the purblind voters who keep falling for the wrong candidates). Thus the bien-pensant support for everything from non-governmental organizations, to investment treaties that override national law, to the technocratic supra-national structures of the European Union. By taking this route our liberal friend is able to retain her elevated status with a clear conscience and even to see it as an essential condition of her being able to perform her duty to society. The only difficulty is that her wrong-footing the electorate would seem to fly in the face of her professed belief in the equality of all. One way to justify this course while maintaining allegiance to an egalitarian ideal is to say that the world we live in does not admit of the possibility of substantive equality. This line of thought can, in turn, be resolved into weaker and stronger versions.



Many thanks to Erin Dempsey, who greatly assisted me in thinking through some of the key ideas in this essay.

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