The re-birth of the left/right divide?

Occasionally in this blog I have expressed some sentimental regret about the disappearance of ideology as a driver of political debate. It sometimes seems to me that when we had the Cold War and the accompanying competition between fundamental policy perspectives it was easier for the wider population to be engaged in the bigger political questions. Back then, or so the nostalgic instinct in me feels, people were interested in how society might be improved (though they might differ on the prescription) where today they get edgy about the outcome of the latest series of ‘the X-Factor‘.

However, if ideology looks like a corpse, there are a few people giving it a hard kick in the hope that it may be resuscitated. For example, have a look at this conference on Marxism planned for early July. Yes, it’s sponsored by the Socialist Workers Party, who are not exactly the proponents of subtle political argument,  but it has gathered an interesting array of speakers. Some of them will have their feet high up in the air, but it should still be fun. If I had the time I’d almost be tempted to go.

And across the Atlantic that old warhorse of the in-your-face right wing, Newt Gingrich, has been telling the Fox News man Glenn Beck (no lefty either) on the occasion of the annual knees-up of the National Rifle Association (oh heavens, the combination of all that) about his new book, To Save America. And why did he write it? Let the man speak:

‘I mean, I thought after Reagan defeated the Soviet empire and tax cuts led to economic growth and believing in America led to the most dramatic period of positive progress, I really underestimated the depth of the Marxist, secular, socialist mindset in the academy and in the bureaucracy and in judgeships and in the newsrooms.’

So can we hope that stuff like this will reignite the ideological engine of political debate? Alas, I doubt it. If we have to rely on the Socialist Workers Party or Newt Gingrich to lead the new movement, we’ll end up with debate as pantomime, with cartoon characters hitting each other with big clubs rather than intelligent people engaging in competitive analysis.

Just a few months ago I attended a gathering at which a senior Irish politician predicted with some enthusiasm that, after the bankers and property speculators had nearly brought capitalism to its knees, a fiery rivalry between ideological positions would return. As far as I can see, that’s not happening, and I doubt it will. But if it doesn’t happen in society, maybe it should in the universities, which should always be clearing houses for arguable concepts and propositions. We should be pushing the idea of principle (rather than opportunism) as a foundation for policy, or of the benefits of a coherent frame of reference in political discourse.

Having at one stage in my life been strongly driven by ideology, I don’t think I could myself return to that; but I would find a wider political debate based on something more fundamental than the desire to manage as best we can to be refreshing.

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16 Comments on “The re-birth of the left/right divide?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Are you thinking just of Ireland? Ideology is alive & well elsewhere: the Tea Party candidate, Rand Paul, won the Republican primary here in Kentucky last week.
    Personally, I dislike ideological positions, a form of intellectual laziness in my view.
    The real challenge in developing public policy is to think through each problem in all its messy detail. In some cases the best solution may be “right wing” or in others “left wing” [whatever that means]: I simply don’t care. As my old china Deng Xiaoping said “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”.

    • Kevin, I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘ideology’. For myself, I don’t regard the cocktail of insecure intolerance that the Tea Party Movement stands for as ideology; they are more about wanting to hold back change, rather than about developing a set of coherent values.

      I suppose what I am nostalgic about is the competition of ideas that created some really interesting work in the period from the 1960s to the 1980s. The clash of ideologies in particular brought us some really interesting academic writings, both on the left and the right. More recent output (present company excepted of course) has been rather dull by comparison.

  2. iainmacl Says:

    @kevin: I don’t think its always intellectual laziness, rather than an alignment with a set of core values and principles. You say, ” In some cases the best solution may be “right wing” or in others “left wing” [whatever that means]: I simply don’t care. ” How do you judge ‘the best solution’ then? What is the values framework you use? is it the one that maximises profit, or best benefits the environment, or ……..

    As for the SWP; when I was a student (in Britain) they were almost exclusively made up of the children of very wealthy families having a bit of a rebellion against daddy whilst at university. They were often recognised at protests and marches by having the most upper-class southern counties accents on their megaphones. It was thought that when the revolution finally came, their molotov cocktails would probably be in the best vintage bottles….

  3. John Says:

    It’s difficult to classify approaches to the question of how we should see the world and how we would like it to be and what are we going to do to get from here to there into just two two – left and right. Cut that across another dichotomy – radical and conservative and you you have four. But here’s a go in the roughly two minutes I have available: Radicals are those who advocate profound or significant change and produce new ideas and sometimes political groupings to achieve that end, while conservatives favour the status quo. On Left/Right, which concept I think we owe to the French Revolution, the Left were the radicals and the Right the conservatives, and that correlation still exists – roughly. But how are we to deal with the radical Right in that schema, and the conservative Left? Another dichotomy that is often made is between the objective interests of the workering class – those who actually produce, and the ruling class – those who determine and expropriate the objects produced, with a popular correlation of the Left with the former and the Right with the latter. What Ferdinand is advocating, I think, is an intensification of the dialectic between these forces and positions, possibly as a form of entertainment. However, history has assigned the role of the academic in such a way that he is merely the a posteriori documenter of events and ideas rather than being instrumental in them.

  4. Victor Says:

    There is a very clear ideological divide in the world today and it is very different from that of the last century.
    The current and future ideological divide is between

    1/ State Capitalism and the One Party State represented by China
    2/the Free Market System with Multiparty Democracy represented by the West/Japan/S Korea.

    These are 2 radically different ideologies and they are in increasing competition and the people are choosing sides.
    Google made its choice recently when it moved out of Mainland China.
    China has launched a very successful propaganda campaign through its State sponsored Confucius Institutes which now are in the hundreds, typically located in major research universities— China wants the intellectual property as well as a platform to promote its world view.
    You can see this new battle of ideologies most clearly in Africa where China is acquiring vast empires of strategic resources, Oil, minerals etc while supporting totalitarian regimes that serve its strategic intent — a new form of colonialism, some say.

    You do not hear much about this ideological discourse between China and the West/Japan/S.Korea — in the Universities — yet
    It looks like Russia is now following the China model — because it works. Others will follow.
    The main challenge China faces is demographic– it might get too old before it gets rich enough.

    • Interesting – though I confess that I don’t see China as an ideological state.

      • Victor Says:

        China was certainly an ideological state to the 20-43 million people who died in famines caused by Maos ideology.
        It was an ideological state for those involved in Tianamen Square in 1989.
        It is ideological state now, in 2010, for Google and they have chosen not to business under that ideology.
        It is an ideological state for those dying on the wrong side, ie, non China side, of the civil wars in Africa.
        If you do not see China as an ideological state then what exactly is an ideological state in your view?

        China has a very successful ideology–on its way to becoming the worlds leading economy and it already owns a massive amount of the West’s debt — he who pays the piper calls the tunes.

        China’s ideology may very well become the dominant ideology in the near future for – good or for bad

        • Victor, I regard an ideological state as one that acts (for good or ill) on the basis of a set of political values and principles. The Soviet Union was an ideological state, as (I believe) was Ronald Reagan’s United States. Whether we approve or disapprove of today’s China, I don’t believe it acts on the basis of any such politically driven value principles. It is the ultimate example of a state whose system is driven by pragmatism rather than ideology. Mao’s China was ideological.

  5. Victor Says:

    OK — An ideological state as one that acts (for good or ill) on the basis of a set of political values and principles.

    Every political system entails an ideology.

    The West/Japan/S.Korea/India have a common ideology based upon
    1/ Democracy
    2/ Property Rights eg Intellectual Property Rights
    3/ The rule of Law and fair trials
    4/ Free Press
    5/ Human Rights
    6/ Freedom of Religious Practice

    China does not support 1/,4/,5/,6/, and some would question is status on 2/ and 3/

    Clearly China represents a very different ideology.

    These two different ideologies play out on the Web that have profound implications.

    China has a top/down control model with the Great Firewall
    The West/Japan/S.Korea/India support an open internet.

    It may well be that the China Ideology is the best hope for Africa — we will see.

    The West/Japan/S.Korea/India ideology has not taken nor worked very well in most of Africa.

    The old ideological divides played out in agricultural/ heavy industrial economies.
    The new ideological divide will play out in an information/service economy.

    The 2 ideological difference will play out in their policies on the Web.

    This is a whole new ball game — the god of Marxism is dead—– but the SWP still carry on the hollow rituals IMO.

  6. John Carter Says:

    So, unsurprisingly, given his recent outpourings, Victor stands bravely in defence of his own state’s ‘ideological position’.

    Within the last two years the Western banking system has all but collapsed, been bailed out by its servile representatives in government who generously offer to make the people pay for the resulting international financial crisis through attacks on public services, increased taxes and unemployment, while those who caused and in some cases actually planned the collapse not only get off but are allowed to stay in positions where they can do it all again.

    And Victor’s response? He conjures up a meaningless ‘idelogical state’ category in which, apparently, all states have an ideology (!) and his will win out in some ‘ball game’ played out over the internet.

    Bravo! We have another candidate for the ‘conservative’ position Ferdy. Join the queue over there Vic. The section marked ‘postmodernist fantasy’. No we’ve run out of the T-shirts. Still a few ‘single-issue pragmatist’ going if you’re interested.

  7. Victor Says:

    Sorry John–
    We realize that you suffer from Gilles de la Tourette syndrome

    Never seen it typing before–wonders never cease.

    Could you get Sally to express your thoughts in cogent plain English

    Thanks and our condolences–

    have you tried Haldol / Haloperidol ?

  8. Victor Says:

    Oh dear!

    We should have never mentioned Haloperidol

    Now we are part of the Pharma/ Academic conspiracy that the Dylan Evans, aka The Pink Panther, aka Austin Powers has revealed– the crafty intrepid investigator that he is–

    Now Evans has changed his story— yet again — today he says in the Irish Daily Mail that the whole thing was a hit job on him because he was investigating a vast secret conspiracy between Pharma and Academia— yawn

    quote from a blogger

    ” The way you expose a pharmaceutical-funding corruption scandal is to show a paper on bat fellatio to the wife of a possible corruptee.
    Works every time.”

    see —

    Evans has completely lost his marbles– time for the white coats and the funny farm again, like when he went psychotic after his Scottish commune blew up.

    Evans has done a lot of damage to the cause of Academic Freedom by crying wolf, lying and, in the end going bat-shit crazy

    Carl Popper had a sane way of evaluating scientific and political theories/ideologies.
    Marxism and the bat-shit crazy Evans are in the same categories— they do not get past go — they go to jail, if the asylums are full– that is

  9. John Carter Says:

    Not exactly New Left Review this, is it? If we’re not careful Vic, you and I are in danger of turning this thread into a Punch & Judy show. Shall we shut up and leave it to the academics for a while? Prat.

  10. Victor Says:

    @ John Carter

    Hey John

    No troubles— I used to be an academic, then got lucky in the Dot-Com boom, so we are mainly philanthropists these days.
    Always had an affection for Ireland and do not like to see decent people abused– thus our involvement in the fruitbatgate debate.
    Hope we helped out.
    Our political philosophy is — to give decent people a decent chance — pretty naive– but it is what it is.
    UCC seems to have some real decent talent — good to get the worm out of the apples fast.

    We understand that a debate re China — for good or ill– has no interest so we will move on.

    Well– great interacting with you all — looks like Evans is out– all that is left is senseless bickering — Mr and Ms Kennedy behaved with dignity and grace when attached by a sociopath.
    We have seen such situations before, believe me, but that couple deserves applause



    Happy Web Trails — keep your teeth and claws sharp and your coat shinny — then relax– until the next time—

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