Left or right, and does it matter?

Here is a policy document by a British political party: suggesting that people should vote for it because it would ensure ‘fair conditions in industry’, the better representation of women in Parliament, ‘increased prosperity’ and ‘better wages’, the abolition of slums, better ‘maternal and infant welfare’, ‘shorter working hours’, equal pay for equal work, ‘decent homes at economic rents’. So, which party was advertising all of these progressive policies? Well, it was Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. Ask anyone at all, and they will tell you that Mosley led a bunch of ultra-rightwing extremists. But look at these policies, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party could sign up to all of them. Of course I am not suggesting that today’s Labour Party is fascist, and indeed Mosley held all sorts of racist views that would be anathema to any true member of the Labour Party – but he did describe himself to his death as a man of the left.

When I was beginning to form my own political views in my teens, with the Cold War in full swing, identifying the left and the right was simple enough. The left supported or to a degree tolerated the Soviet Union and/or Chairman Mao, believed in the common ownership of key industries and services and argued for workers’ rights in their struggles with big business. The right supported the United States and NATO and believed in the value of free trade and capitalism and individualism. You supported one or the other of these positions, and that was it.

But the certainties of the Cold War world have been turned upside down. The USSR’s successor, Russia, now has as its admirers a mixture of old left nostalgia addicts, but also Donald Trump and what the media like to call the ‘extreme right’, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France. The latter, a little bit like Mosley’s fascists, mix anti-immigrant rhetoric with vague policies suggesting social concern; and for former (or nostalgic) communists, it has substructures that will sound comforting and familiar: a ‘politburo’ and a ‘central committee’. And its senior politicians are every bit as opposed to ‘neoliberal’ policies as the most committed member of the traditional left.

If the dividing line between left and right is geopolitical, then goodness knows how you would classify today’s politicians and parties: Putin, Trump, Farage, Assad, Le Pen are all on one side, but what side is that? And what about Angela Merkel, is she left or rightwing? If it’s all about economics, then how do we handle globalisation, freedom of movement (for workers and refugees), international trade?

In fact, the dividing line between ideologies is now almost certainly globalisation, though it is hugely complex. In America the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ movement shares with various voices of the ‘left’ a dislike of military interference in other countries, but more significantly than that wants to protect traditional cultures, and in particular the perceived (or claimed) ‘white’ history of the United States. Migration rather than economics is the new battlefield in the fight for votes. But it is really hard to identify the combatants, because the causes range from what is really just racism, to the fear of losing one’s culture, to a rampant nostalgia for some perceived golden era in which everyone kept to their ‘own’ places, to the suspicion that migrants take jobs or depress wages.

I am, though in no party political sense, a liberal. I believe in freedom and tolerance, in enterprise and innovation, and in fairness and justice. I believe that this outlook has brought progress, prosperity and enlightenment when it has been allowed to flourish.  But I am increasingly concerned that this kind of manifesto has almost no committed defenders in the global theatre of politics (though in Scotland I may not be so alone).

I doubt that the old left-right taxonomy still has much meaning. But I fear that the absence of any clear political direction will make this world a much less pleasant and a much more dangerous place. In the past, much of the key ideological debates came from the contributions of academics: Hayek, Friedman, AJP Taylor, Hobsbawm. Where are we academics now, in this new world of ideological disarray?

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6 Comments on “Left or right, and does it matter?”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    Thanks Ferdinand for this excellent post, I think you are quite right in exposing the striking similarities in terms of ideology of the opposite sides of the political spectrum, after all the founding fathers of Nazism and Fascism, Hitler and Mussolini, had the word ‘socialism’ in their manifestos. Interestingly, it was exactly during the cold war, a time when, as you (perhaps nostalgically?:) put it, “identifying the left and the right was simple enough” one of America’s great public intellectuals, Daniel Bell, published “The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties”. Bell, who described himself as a “socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture”, argued that the great ideologies that had dominated intellectual life since the Victorian era—Marxism, liberalism and conservatism—had all lost their power to grip people’s minds and stir their emotions. The future lay with technocrats rather than ideologies, with pragmatists who prefer itty-bitty ideas to bold blueprints.

    However, one could even argue that the problem with the left-right taxonomy is of a more “existential” nature, this is the point of philosopher Crispin Sartwell, who having charted the historical emergence of the terms, concludes that:

    The arrangement of positions along the left-right axis—progressive to reactionary, or conservative to liberal, communist to fascist, socialist to capitalist, or Democrat to Republican—is conceptually confused, ideologically tendentious, and historically contingent…..Our mistake was that we believed the account these ideologies gave of themselves. …We might think of the left-right spectrum as a single ideology rather than a taxonomy of opposites. Thus, the left/right or Democrat/Republican split—which turns American politics into a hyper-repetitive, mechanical set of partisan bromides about free markets versus government programs with egalitarian results—depends on a historical mistake. (http://tinyurl.com/mzwuwsg)

    So it would seem that the current political scenario has just revealed the initial “mistake”. To paraphrase Sartwell, our ideological original sin was “to believe the account these ideologies gave of themselves”, to foolishly believe that the grand ideological narratives were true. I have to say I have some sympathy for Sartwell’s position but I also share with you an awareness of the danger that the “absence of any clear political direction” might cause. In fact such danger has become too apparent to ignore, particularly in the ruthlessly effective rebranding of Europe’s “new extreme right” across Europe. In a brilliant article on the above topic Sasha Polakow-Suransky discusses how some of the fundamental tenets of 20th-century leftist thinking, such as anti-racism and anti-colonialism, “have now become establishment thinking” in much of the West — and are therefore in the crosshairs of a nationalist, anti-establishment backlash. http://tinyurl.com/zr9bb96

    I think it is not accidental that the word nostalgia recurs in your post, in fact it is only by reflecting upon such complex concept that we can make sense of the current political situation. As Samuel Earle writes in his recent “The politics of nostalgia”:

    Nostalgia comes to us, comforts us, and offers us a well-trodden route back home, to a place where we are always at the centre. If this nostalgia, and its racist divisiveness, is to be overcome, we need a new narrative—and a new politics—of inclusion and empowerment. People need to feel like they belong, but generating this feeling without xenophobia and outward hostility is one of the greatest challenges that we face. As Svetlana Boym, author of The Future of Nostalgia, writes, “it is algia—the longing—that we share, but nostos—the return home—that divides.” ¬ http://tinyurl.com/zyjyrzj

    We live in an age that academic Mark Lilla defines as “reactionary”, one when “the reactionaries of our time have discovered that nostalgia can be a powerful political motivator, perhaps even more powerful than hope.” http://tinyurl.com/z9w86bj

    Lilla might be right, however at the start of a new year, a time when hope is almost a statutory requirement, I would wish that hope itself regains some of its lost appeal, that the credibility of facts and expert arguments is restored and, most importantly, that idealism is reinstated from its current burocratised status to the one of moral political motivator par excellence it deserves.


    • That is a wonderful response, Anna, and gives me some further reading to do.

      I think that the supposed left-right divide gave everyone (myself included) the illusion of clear choices. Good or bad, virtue or subversion. People will continue to look for such easy binary choices, and will not stop at buying snake oil in the process. And I absolutely agree that nostalgia can become a toxic motivator in he process.

      The anti-establishment nature of current popular choices is itself an interesting thing to examine. All of the standard bearers of this movement, be it Trump and his team of bankers and billionaires in the US, or the likes of city traders (Farage) and bankers (Mervyn King) in Brexit Britain, are pillars of the establishment. They have, brilliantly, managed to sell themselves as opponents of the society that they especially represent.

      For all that, a happy New Year to all of us!

      • iainmacl Says:

        Excellent discussions here with some really pertinent implicit points regarding the development of identity versus alienation. And indeed the ‘classical’ post-war European division of supposed ‘left’ and ‘right’ to a considerable extent provided labels of attachment and offered scope for allegiance rather than always delineating ideological difference on the basis of ‘where power lies’ or should lie and also covered up the extent to which allegiance was ‘tribal’ rather than founded on sophisticated understanding of political philosophy. I agree that we do need a renewed intellectual project, one which engages more broadly and offers alternative conceptions that are far more in tune with the urgent needs facing us in these troubled times. The challenges are enormous and some of them lie beyond the traditional/historic arguments over power structures and territory, and instead need seriously to address the global climate crisis, sustainability and equal rights.

  2. Vince Says:

    When you offer the status quo to those without much by way of prospects, anything or anyone offering even a smidgen of hope will triumph.
    It isn’t necessarily the intent to go left or right with the vote as we’ve seen in southern Europe in any committed political way but it just so happened they offered the ‘hope’ at the time.

    In a way, the election in the US was a triumph for the liberals. The voters saw that HRC as with Obama, nothing was going to be different and the tain would continue down the same tracks. They saw her not as a woman but as the Establishment.


    • Yes, but what is remarkable is that the populists who have made this apparent anti-establishment breakthrough are themselves hugely typical pillars of that same establishment and will cement the establishment’s privileges – see my response to Anna above.

      • Vince Says:

        True, but if we take Obama as an example. He is a technocrat, but he was elected via an agenda of the Dems to get a black POTUS. But what he wasn’t able to do was to get a then and us going that lit fires. He became the black president that had the Missouri national guard enter a black neighborhood that was patently being racially abused by the county and city administration, and didn’t send in federal authorized to protect the citizenry. And that was but one. Why would those very people elect a House and Senate to bolster his power.
        You see he didn’t have to succeed, he just needed to be seen trying. For heavens sake even the serfs fully believed if only the Tzar knew of their plight he would help.


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