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How to Tell your Left from your Right: part 2

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
St. George's Hill, 1649: "You poor, take courage. You rich, take care./ This earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share./  All things in common. All people one."
St. George's Hill, 1649: "You poor, take courage. You rich, take care./ This earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share./ All things in common. All people one."

This is the second section of a two-part essay that addresses the question of what most fundamentally distinguishes Left from Right. In this section I describe the current impasse of the Left and argue that the only way to get past it is to consciously direct our politics in accordance with the progressive view of human nature that is at the heart of what it means to be of the Left.



Strong and weak variants of egalitarianism

As the milder form of egalitarianism would have it, the mass of humanity is in principle capable of wise governance but the specific conditions that obtain at this time (e.g., lack of education amongst the general population), coupled with the urgency of the problems now confronting humanity (climate change, etc.), make it necessary to circumscribe democracy until the crises are past. Here, in effect, we see a return to the situation prior to the Black Death where a progressive view of human nature was feasible in the form of private belief but not as a basis for political action.

The more resolute version entirely dispenses with the idea that humans all possess broadly similar capacities, holding instead that some people are inherently smarter, nobler, braver, etc., than the mass of the population. That said, even the strong variant maintains that everyone is of equal moral worth, which means that consideration must be given to the welfare of all alike. Happily, since the superior beings are both purer of spirit and keener of intellect than the rest of us, it is to everyone's advantage that these titans be given free rein (not to say reign).

With the stronger variant, liberalism for all intents and purposes breaks with the Left's conception of humanity and goes over to a right-wing view. For although, in practice, ruling classes have tended to fancy themselves both more able and more worthy than the lower orders, there is no necessary relationship between the twain (though, to be sure, they certainly do reinforce one another).

Throughout history, most class societies have been premised on the assumption that some human lives count for more than others. This held true even where this postulate was directly contradicted by the state religion. For example, Islam and Christianity both taught that all souls were equal before God yet regimes dominated by one or other of these faiths had no compunctions about enshrining unequal status in law, not least by sanctioning slavery.

One of the great successes of the Left has been to make it all but impossible to openly espouse such beliefs. As we have seen, after the Black Death the lower orders began organizing on the principle that all people are one. This movement continued to assert itself over the next several hundred years―most notably, perhaps, during the English civil wars of the 1640s―reaching a high point in the French Revolution, with its edicts on manumission.

Matters came to a head in the 20th century. The horrors of Nazism showed once and for all where the Right's differential evaluation of human beings must logically lead, which gave "actually existing socialism" a tremendous moral advantage in the Cold War. Ultimately this compelled the capitalist powers to swear off colonialism, Jim Crow and apartheid―in the process rendering canonical the Left's belief in the radical equality of humankind.

This marked an immeasurable advance; and yet every forward movement short of final victory is bound to be fraught with contradictions unforeseen by those who brought it about (in the words of William Morris: "When it comes it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under a different name"). So it was here. It gradually emerged that capitalism, unlike previous iterations of class society, had no need of the idea that people should be categorized and ranked on the basis of their filiation. Indeed, though the ruling classes of the capitalist states only adopted this enlightened social outlook under compulsion from the Left, the change served more to reinvigorate capitalism than to undermine it.


Capital takes a progressive turn

There is a very strong association between the Right and various forms of bigotry. One reason for this is that the further to the right one goes the more (and the more virulent) is the prejudice one encounters. Another, as I have been arguing, is that throughout history the default perspective of the various ruling classes has always been right-wing―that is to say, they have always despised the general run of humanity. These worthies have nearly always been of the view that both their own high quality and the shortcomings of everyone else were heritable characteristics. Nonetheless, as indicated above, this correlation is accidental rather than essential, as revealed by capitalism's (admittedly forced) conversion to egalitarianism.

This new-found egalitarianism proved a nice fit with what Marx termed the "doubly free" condition of workers under capitalism: free of anything of value but the ability to work; and free to dispose of that ability to work as its possessor saw fit. The supposition that workers enjoyed good fortune in having the right to sell their labour, in combination with the idea of the commonality of all people, served to emphasize the liberating effects of capitalism. Under this conception each of us is free to forge our own destiny by dint of hard work, in contrast to those outmoded societies wherein one's fate is determined by accidents of birth.

This result is not as surprising as it might at first seem. As early as the 1840s Marx had argued that a minority group that historically had suffered from systemic discrimination could not escape this legacy through the attainment of juridical equality in a capitalist society. For, as he pointed out, this would not release the group from the alienated social relations of capitalism―would, indeed, make the group more fully subject to these relations. In such a case, certain members of the group might graduate into the ranks of the bourgeoisie but the group as a whole would be unlikely to improve its material circumstances relative to the rest of society. Additionally, it would find itself more fully exposed to the anomie that characterizes life under capitalism.

The genius of the current ruling class is that they have realized that they can defend the hierarchical arrangements that allow them to monopolize positions of privilege and control without any need to resort to the unscientific notions, such as noble blood or racial purity, upon which their predecessors staked their claims. The contemporary elite, like other rulers before them, still believe that at any one time there are only a limited number of truly capable individuals to be found in any given society, and that this is an unchanging fact of human nature. Unlike earlier ruling classes, however, today's elite are not wedded to the notion that these paragons can only emerge from historically advantaged populations (males; the nobility; the white "race"; etc.). For them, it is perfectly natural that a black man should be president of the United States and that the German chancellor is a woman.


Capital discovers the benefits of egalitarianism

The advantages of the new regime are striking. Already mentioned was how capitalism's conversion to egalitarianism shored up its weak flank against the Left's claim that the system was inherently racist, sexist and so on. Another plus is that by permitting select members of disadvantaged groups to vie for the most prestigious positions in the land, capital ensures that capable persons are not excluded from the its service through irrational prejudice and at the same time it neutralizes these individuals as potential leaders of resistance to the system. A further benefit is that this liberality obscures the real basis of power in society. Since there is good reason to suppose that this last point is the most consequential of all, more needs to be said on this head.

The ruling class has long employed chauvinism as a means of provoking division amongst the lower orders. For example, in 17th century Virginia there was initially very little difference in the status of indentured white "servants" and black slaves. It was only after members of the two groups began to make common cause against the planter aristocracy that the law was altered to raise the social standing of all whites above that of all blacks.

This had the desired effect: indigent whites began to define themselves not in terms of the oppressive treatment that they were subjected to in common with people of colour but by the juridical status that they shared with wealthy whites. From these beginnings sprang what has been termed the "social wage of whiteness" in the United States. Poor whites who resented their exploitation by rich whites and who might otherwise have been tempted to rebel against it were bought off by the sop of their legal entitlement to treatment superior to that accorded any person of colour.

During the Cold War, Jim Crow became hugely damaging to Washington's prestige in the Third World. In the 1960s this, in combination with domestic pressure from civil rights activists, forced the US government to end officially sanctioned discrimination within the country. This aroused huge resentment on the part of white males living below (and in some cases above) the Mason-Dixon Line. These men saw this not only as a blow to their pride but as likely to open prime jobs―hitherto reserved for them―to competition from people of colour; Richard Nixon subsequently rode this resentment all the way to the White House in the form of his "Southern Strategy."

In the Northern section of the US the Democratic Party was traditionally less unfriendly to the labour movement than were the Republicans. The Democrats therefore might have made up some lost ground had they combined their novel support for the civil rights of African-Americans in the South with policies that favoured the working class as a whole. Instead, under Jimmy Carter they waved through the first of the monetarist reforms that would ultimately claw back most of the social and political gains that labour had achieved in the Fordist era and by the time Bill Clinton became president the Democrats were irreversibly committed to neoliberalism. Once working people had divined that the Democrats had no more use for them than the Republicans had they either divided along racial lines or gave up on politics altogether.

As we have seen, it was the ruling class that created the original rift between black and white in the American colonies and they who continued to foster it after the creation of the United States. When Jim Crow was abolished (to ensure the stability of the capitalist system, no less), the ruling classes acted to exacerbate rather than reduce the heightened racial tension that resulted. Yet instead of receiving universal reprobation for these machinations the ruling class has managed to firmly establish itself on moral high ground far above the fray. As the conventional wisdom would have it, the problem, as always, is with the commoners―in this case, with the legions of ordinary white voters who insist on supporting the regressive program of the Republican Party.


Re-enter the liberal, stage right

This is where our liberal friend re-enters the picture. Horrified by the thick-headed bigotry of the (white) working class, which is so blinded by its affinity for regressive social policies that it consistently votes for Republican politicians who only serve monied interests, our friend sees democracy as unviable and recognizes the need to place control in the hands of more responsible people. Cue George Soros and Bill Gates.

If our friend lived in Europe the situation would, if anything, be even clearer. With the voters showing increasing dissatisfaction with the fiscal austerity needed to repair the economy (or at least satisfy the bond markets), and venting this in uncouth displays of anti-immigrant violence, what answer could there be but to ensure that voting can't change anything?

Of course, mockery is cheap and our liberal friend's conclusions really cannot be faulted given her premises―which brings us to the crux of the matter. Liberalism's problem is that while it values the egalitarian ideals of the Left it tends to get tripped up by the Right's gloomy view of human nature. As noted above, the most fundamental aspect of the right-wing Weltanschauung is that, always and everywhere, the great majority of humans are of indifferent quality, while some very few have the capacity to excel. Our liberal friend may start out with the idea that there are no great differences between individuals but if the average person supports politicians who downplay climate change or want to get tough on crime then our liberal friend will find it hard to resist the Right's claim that most people are selfish or stupid. Once this is admitted, aristocracy (in the original sense of "rule by the best") comes to seem like the only sensible approach to politics.

Our liberal friend may conclude that the apparent selfishness and stupidity of her fellow citizens is not a static feature of the human condition but rather an artifact of the deluge of pro-capitalist propaganda that we are subjected to every day of our lives. All the same, aristocracy will still make for a tempting solution. For if the problem is disinformation, how is our friend to counteract its elemental force given capital's overwhelming advantage in communications?

Even if our friend somehow believes that the truth must out eventually (a triumph of faith over reason if ever there was one), how can she be sanguine about it happening soon enough to make a difference? She can't expect global warming and other agents of environmental catastrophe to wait for the masses to see the light; immediate action looks to be required. Perforce, the task must fall to the ruling class as the only ones capable of acting with dispatch. While she may suspect that the elites are no less selfish, on average, than the masses, the crucial difference is that the former, being highly intelligent, can be expected to act rationally―which, in the first instance, implies taking action to preserve the planet as a viable habitat for human life. If aristocracy is needed to save the biosphere, then so be it: after all, we can always revert to democracy once the emergency is over.


Enter the radicals, stage right

I have designated our friend a liberal but it is important to understand that people who are more avowedly radical or left-wing often end up thinking similarly. For if our liberal friend can easily come to see her fellow citizens as narrow-minded and bigoted then it seems all the likelier that someone of a more radical persuasion might come to the same conclusion. Since the people at large cannot very well be conscripted to fight against themselves, activists who wish to combat prejudice are likely to see nothing for it but to seek institutional support. However, if the original problem is understood to lie with the general public then having recourse to truly democratic processes will prove unavailing here. In consequence, activists will see little choice but to unambiguously align themselves with centralized authority over against the citizenry.

As we saw with our liberal friend, the radical activists need not share the right-wing belief in the inherently flawed character of most humans. The activists might suppose, e.g., that the prejudices of the masses, such as xenophobia, are due to ignorance―nothing that education can't fix.

Yet here they run up against the same issue that our liberal friend confronted. If the masses don't know what's good for them (or what's good, simpliciter), they can't be expected to support initiatives that will create a virtuous circle of righteous learning giving rise to righteous action leading in turn to the development of further righteous learning, etc. In such a pass, what else is there to do but seek out friends in high places?

I have been pleading the reasonableness of a flight to hierarchy by liberals and radicals alike and at this point it might seem that my argument has been rather too successful. Electorates everywhere are embracing right-wing―in some cases, fascist―politicians; does this not imply that voters are either foolish or wicked? So it would appear. While, as noted above, this doesn't force me to agree with the right-wing idea that humans are basically rubbish, it certainly does suggest that aristocracy might be a better option under prevailing circumstances.


Putting in a good word for aristocracy

At this point it might be well to ask why leftists instinctively shrink from association with the word "aristocracy." In the main this is doubtless due to the modern understanding of "aristocrat" as designating a person of noble rank. The Left, long before it made hegemonic the idea that prejudices such as racism and sexism were monstrous, succeeded in turning bien-pensant opinion against the idea of hereditary status, so it is only to be expected that liberals and radicals alike would look askance on any attempt to reintroduce such arrangements. This, however, is not the way in which I have been using the term. Instead, I intend the word to be understood as it would have been by Plato or Aristotle: literally, "rule by the best"―best in the twin senses of being morally exemplary and most capable.

Heredity need play no role here, though it is true that it always seems to be trying to slip in by the back door through mechanisms such as sociobiology and genetic determinism. Be that as it may, in political theory it is no necessary part of the concept of aristocratic rule that those qualified to exercise power must be of a certain lineage or background; logically, all that is required is merit. As discussed earlier, capitalism (even if it had to be forced to it by the Left) has done very well out of the idea that someone born into the most humble circumstances is as fully entitled as any other person to rise to the very apogee of control. As such, aristocracy cannot be dismissed on the ground that it discriminates.

Another possible objection is that it is unfair for a small number of people to have power over everyone else but in response it may be rejoined that this is already the situation under standard forms of democracy. True, in a democracy the leaders are elected by popular ballot, whereas the governors of an aristocracy would be awarded their places on the basis of expert evaluation. Yet as long as no aspirant is turned away on prohibited grounds (race, sex, etc.), is this kind of process inherently less fair than an election? Such procedures, after all, are the norm in professional settings: future patients do not determine who will be granted a medical license; the College of Physicians does. Indeed, the whole idea of having the masses select their leaders comes to seem decidedly odd once one has conceded that most people (be it by nature or due to socialization) are incapable of gauging what is in their own best interest, never mind society's.

Thus far I have spoken of aristocracy as presupposing that the highest levels of both virtue and ability are reliably combined in the same persons. Were this true in reality then it would seem indisputable that these paragons should be placed in charge of all public affairs; but this claim is obviously controversial. While most people would doubtless allow that certain individuals are vastly more intelligent than the rest of us, and perhaps also that some people far surpass the remainder of humanity in their spiritual excellence, I can't imagine too many people saying that there is much overlap between these two sets: Werner Braun was definitely a smart guy but "ethically, he was kind of shaky"; no doubt all would agree that Francis of Assisi was saintly but few would assert that he was a genius.

Returning once more to our liberal friend, however, we can see that driving a rift between virtue and ability does not have to be fatal to the aristocrat's case. Though our friend was not convinced that the elites were any less selfish than the rest of the population she reasoned that it was enough that they were cleverer: for this meant that they would have the sense to recognize that it was imperative for their own sake that they end or restrict ecologically reckless activities. Once the elites had ordered affairs so as to preserve themselves everyone else could ride for free on their coattails.


Second thoughts about aristocracy

Still, even this is not the end of the matter. First, we would be rash to assume that the measures taken by the elites to safeguard themselves will necessarily provide relief for anyone else. For example, the ruling class might respond to climate change not by working to slow it down or mitigate its effects but by building shelters for themselves while leaving the commoners to take potluck in the expanding wastelands.

A second point is that while I emphatically reject Hardt and Negri's trope of an Empire that is everywhere and nowhere, I believe that the mechanisms of control under capitalism are far too varied, diffuse and involuted for the ruling class to radically change course, no matter how much their own interest―potentially their very preservation―would seem to demand it. The United States is incomparably the most powerful country in the world and the president of the United States is (probably) the most puissant individual on Earth; yet neither the United States nor its president can defy the imperatives of capital, which has a logic of its own. Short of rejecting the system in its entirety, all they can do is tack a few points this way or that as they run before the gale.

Early on in this paper I asserted that the primary distinction between Left and Right is that the latter holds that human nature is both sordid and fixed while the former posits a species-being that is not intrinsically bad and that varies according to existing conditions. On this basis I stated that the Left is predisposed to egalitarianism while the Right is wedded to hierarchy. I proceeded to argue that the democracy to which the Left's egalitarianism has given rise has turned out to be a disappointment. In the neoliberal era electorates everywhere have consistently returned to power parties that enact regressive policies. In light of democracy's failure I suggested that aristocracy might be a better alternative but after some examination concluded that its promise was false.

If neither democracy nor aristocracy offer means to make the world a better place for all, where does this leave leftists? One possibility would be to give up on politics altogether, reasoning that, as in the long ages before the Black Death, one may cherish a progressive vision for humanity in petto but there is simply no way to turn this conception into a movement for change. Given the parlous and deteriorating state of the world, however, it is hard to imagine that one would subsequently experience much peace of mind.

The other main option is to insist that what is needed is not the liberal variant that is synonymous with democracy today, still less the constriction of liberal democracy into aristocracy. Instead, what is required is the form of social organization that gives egalitarianism its fullest expression; in a word: communism.


Enter communism, stage left

It is not possible here to enter into a detailed discussion of the differences between communism and liberal democracy but for clarity's sake a few salient points need to be mentioned. I list them below in no particular order.

First, cooperative ownership and management of the means of production to ensure that no one can exercise power over others through economic means. Second, the elimination of coercive institutions such as spy agencies and the police so that people would not be terrorized by organized violence. Third, arriving at decisions through the interlinking consensus of neighbourhoods and other small communities, rather than having them made on high and laid down by decree. Fourth, ensuring that all people are able to pursue their full range of interests so as to develop in each person a lively, engaged, many-sided intelligence. Fifth, organizing the activity of society so that few or no essential functions are so specialized that only their immediate practitioners possess the relevant knowledge to make decisions about them.

Points four and five, in particular, show up the special pleading inherent in the appeal for aristocracy. When all people have rich and comparable learning environments, and the same high level of social support, there is every reason to believe that their attainments will be similar: consider how many times women have been told that they could never perform as well as men in a given field, and how in each instance they have proved the naysayers wrong. If, all the same, certain individuals did continue to stand out as uniquely accomplished there would still be no reason to base the operations of society on the superordinate abilities of these people. For example, it might be the case that only a select few persons would, under any circumstances, possess the combination of aptitude and ability needed, along with years of study, to fathom the equations used to design financial derivatives; but who says society needs these investment instruments in the first place?


Can we get there from here?

In saying all this I am not forgetting that part of what bedevilled both our liberal friend and her radical counterparts was the question of how to initiate movement in the proper direction. All of them concluded―quite reasonably in my estimation―that even if the Right was wrong in saying that the masses are innately defective, and that the problem was merely that the people were misguided, attempting to lead them onto the correct path in a timely manner was a hopeless task.

One key aspect that sets my communist option apart from these Left/liberal elements is that I don't agree that, in voting for right-wing candidates, the masses show themselves to be either morally or mentally defective. Instead I would say that contemporary working-class voters who side with the parties of the Right are looking after themselves as best they know how in difficult circumstances, and that if this often ends up implicating them in unsavoury policies this occurs, for the most part, under compulsion

Our liberal friend, the radicals and the Right all accept that elections in liberal democracies reveal the true preferences of the voters. They believe this both because it seems self-evidently true where elections are contested and free and also because this is an essential part of the catechism that is taught to everyone in our society and reinforced at every turn in the public sphere. The trouble is that it isn't true. In our society, all parties are parties of capital and therefore whichever party is elected, capital wins.

Far from being too obtuse to comprehend the consequences of their actions, commoners typically understand what they're doing quite well. For the most part they vote for anti-immigrant, pro-austerity parties not because they hate foreigners and attach no importance to public services. Rather it is because they know that no matter which party is elected―and this includes supposedly leftist formations―it will impose budget cuts; and because when it is impossible to imagine wresting anything from those above you (the rich), you either kick at those below you (immigrants) or yourself get dragged down to perdition.

Here the mainstream Left―and in particular its more liberal sections―makes a bad situation infinitely worse by attempting to fob off its own fatally compromised politics as a legitimate alternative for the working class. People living in straitened circumstances are too canny to swallow such poppycock and the result is that they decide that the Left has nothing to offer them.

What, then, ought to be done? The Left should abandon its supercilious supposition that the masses are errant children who need to be scolded or cajoled into supporting progressive candidates and recognize that, under current conditions, it is entirely rational for the working class to vote for right-wing parties. The only way to change this would be to offer a meaningful alternative; and since no meaningful alternative is possible under the present dispensation then the Left must offer something that is truly different, which can only be communism.

It might be said that this is all well and good but, since I have already stated that the Left has no hope of winning an information war against capitalism, the idea is dead on arrival. Not so. The key is that the Left must leave off telling and start showing―or more correctly, it must give the working class the chance to experience something of communism.

Marx advised that communism presupposes "universal intercourse," so naturally echt communism cannot exist while capitalism remains in place. Still, what the Left could do is lead communities of resistance to capital wherein people would seek to cooperatively satisfy their needs in conscious defiance of and opposition to capitalism―including that branch of it known as "the state."

This would have the effect of concretely demonstrating that capital is not the inevitable order of the universe; there are other ways of being in the world. It would win support for the Left by bringing about real improvements in people's lives instead of forever peddling false promises about what leftist candidates would do if elected. Perhaps most important, it would vindicate the Left's centuries-old bedrock belief that all people can and should be one.




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

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