George Hoare, 11 August 2008
What is politics about? In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was sufficient to say: Left versus Right. The conflict had many dimensions. The sociological: working class versus the middle and upper classes. The philosophical: equality versus freedom (of exchange, to accumulate). Over change: radical social upheaval, reform or even revolution, versus conservatism and turning back the clock. Over our possessions: private property versus its abolition.
Within these dimensions, the banners of Left and Right denoted ‘a tradition and a project’ in Steven Lukes’ words (2003: 611) The ubiquity of Left and Right was such that the Left and Right positions on pretty much any important social issue were taken for granted: the Left was for abortion, the Right against; the Left was for gay rights, the Right thought them to be pernicious (perhaps both the rights and their holders); the Right was for custom, tradition and religious belief, while the Left wanted those things to be swept away as fetters on the free development of reason and creativity. In short, the battle lines were clearly drawn.
In an important sense, ‘politics’ and ‘Left versus Right’ were the same thing – conflict, debate, people expressing their interests and their identities, and, above all, disagreement over the fundamental questions of human nature and social organisation. Left and Right express an irreducible element of what politics is about: conflict. We must add: Left and Right also make that conflict legitimate, since they put the two (or more) alternatives on an equal footing, neither option placed higher or lower than the other.
A claim that Left versus Right ‘has ended’, then, is barely distinguishable from a claim for the ‘End of Politics’. And there are many, across the political spectrum, who have begun to doubt the old labels of Left and Right. Added to the old Right-wing cranks who have always been sceptical about Left and Right (they are ‘meaningless…they do not exist’ in the words of Anthony Kenny in the Spectator (2005)), there are now a new set of questions about the plausibility of Left and Right. Have they been exhausted, as a result of the failure of the Left in the 1980s? Is socialism ‘operationally empty’ after the fall of the Soviet Union, leaving the Left rudderless? Are Left and Right running out of steam since they have, through a period of alternation, achieved their aims? Even more grandly, has liberal capitalism triumphed over the world, and over History, to bring about the final stage of human government and the irrelevance of any and all alternatives? Finally, should we be pleased if, as some say, politics has essentially mined itself out, and we can get on with the more important business of living our lives, creating relationships, projects and art? Or it is just that we’re searching around for what comes after Left and Right and that the interim will obviously be a bit confusing?
These questions show that it is no longer taken for granted that politics just is or should be about Left versus Right. If we think it is, we now have to argue for it. There are two major political developments which we need to recognise, however: the first is the political elites themselves want to dispense with Left and Right, and the second is that the terms speak less and less to ordinary people’s attitudes towards contemporary politics. This first trend can be seen in the avowed aim of political elites across Europe and beyond to remove the conflict between Left and Right from politics, and replace it with consensus or another type of supposed forward motion. New Labour’s Third Way blazed a trail in this regard. In Tony Blair’s own words, New Labour’s aim was one of going ‘beyond the traditional boundaries of left and right, breaking new ground by escaping the sterile debates that have polarised our politics for too long’ (1996: 298).
But the emptying out of politics of the content of Left and Right has left a void. It is quite unclear what can fill it. Without Left and Right as the accepted expression of competing sets of ideas about – and interests in – how society is run, the only remaining option for the content of politics is morality. As the political philosopher Chantal Mouffe writes,
‘what we are currently witnessing is not the disappearance of the political in its adversarial dimension but something different. What is happening is that nowadays the political is played out in the moral register. In other words, it still consists in a we/they discrimination, but the we/they, instead of being defined with political categories, is now established in moral terms. In place of a struggle between “right and left” we are faced with a struggle between “right and wrong”. (2005: 5) (emphasis added)
Alain Badiou likewise points out the ‘socially inflated recourse’ to what he calls the ‘ethical’ dimension in the political domain (2001: 2). Contemporary trends attest to the colonisation by ethics of the political sphere. The rise (and rise) of ethical consumerism and environmentalism clearly substitute an ethical imperative for political debate. Interventionism and social engineering use the language of ‘right and wrong’ and moral justification. The politics of right versus wrong is very different from Left versus Right. Ethical responses to societal problems characteristically take on individualised (rather than collective) forms. It is a case of ‘what would Jesus/Al Gore do’ rather than ‘what together can we do’, as the latter requires mobilisation of interests and political principles as well as political debate and argument.
The politics of right versus wrong also reduces politics from a legitimate conflict between competing interests to a ethical puzzle in which there is essentially a ‘correct’ response. This is an important point. Debate is either pre-empted or reduced to squabbling over which option is ethically most worthy. A struggle between ‘right and wrong’ all but outlaws the expression in politics of our interests; questions of who gets what and how much are as unseemly and inappropriate to politics as a public discussion of sexual habits would have been to the Victorians. This is clearly something we must resist by continuing to put forward claims based on partisan, class, and group interests (and pointing out the hidden interests smuggled into others’ supposedly ‘neutral’ ethical claims).
‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are also becoming less useful ways of thinking about practical politics. This is a complicated development, and requires thought before responding. Political scientists point out that fewer people are willing to profess a clear ‘left’ or ‘right’ identity. The answering of ‘don’t know’ to the question of whether you are on the Left or on the Right is also disproportionately found in young people, and suggestive of the future. Old ideas of Left and Right are becoming irrelevant to how people think about themselves politically.
Moreover, the consistency of the labels Left and Right is endangered by the sprouting of new movements which use the labels in a dizzying variety of ways. If ‘Left’ refers both to the Old Left of communist parties and Stalinism and the New Left of students behaving like (and quoting from) Rimbaud, and insisting on the imperative to ‘change life’, and if these two disagree, is it a useful term? Can ‘the Right’ coherently refer both to the British Conservatives and the populist Dutch Pim Fortyn List who are anti-immigrant to protect gay rights? In short, hasn’t the breaking up of the old binary view of the world rendering Left and Right too imprecise to capture the ideological variation in modern politics?
Left and Right, then, are blurred – they try to refer to too much. Lastly, analyses of political parties based on traditional issues find convergence in the centre of the Left-Right spectrum. Like two ice-cream vendors on a seafront crowded end to end, the two parties have moved towards the centre to maximise votes. Obviously this is simplified, but, regrettably, today the process of gaining votes is not as different from that of selling ice-creams as it should be. On this view, Left and Right have shrunk closer together. Why bother using Left and Right and the language of spatial difference if the two options available are so close together on whatever issue you can name so as to be indistinguishable?
My argument here is that we can question the meaning Left and Right today without being in favour of getting rid of Politics with a capital P. Indeed, a critique of practical politics can naturally follow from the claims that we have gone ‘beyond left and right’. As Frank Furedi puts it, ‘left and right have become words in search of meaning… because of the absence of a living left- or right-wing political tradition’ (2005: 50).
So can we still say politics is about Left and Right? The danger is not with the terms Left and Right themselves, but with the movements that take the labels. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm was correct when he claimed in 2000 that ‘those who deny the existence of the division are generally on the Right’, since a denial of the conflict between Left and Right, and the claim politics is about something else, is strongly related to an acceptance of the status quo and the assumed redundancy of the Left’s aims of the removal of class inequality (2000: 95).
The difficulty for those who see Left and Right as indispensable to politics is that of reconciling, for example, a belief in the Left’s uncompleted legacy of the Enlightenment – equality, progress, freedom – with the realities of contemporary politics and what passes for the contemporary Left. The first step is resisting the temptation of moralising, and instead asserting the validity (and necessity) of interests in politics. The second step is harder. It is probably something like attempting to maintain the plausibility of political options that differ significantly from those available. The language and ideas of Left and Right are based on difference, alternatives, disagreement; their usage in contemporary politics is based merely on the differentiation of parties.
Maintaining an awareness of the meaning of Left and Right, and the history of their alternative and radically different ways of understanding politics, is especially important because the commonest act of bad faith in politics today is, to paraphrase Marshall Berman, to act as if we were born yesterday, and to ignore the power of the legacies of Left and Right to shape and define our politics, and how we ‘do’ it.
George Hoare is a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford, and a member of the Institute of Ideas’ Postgraduate Forum.
Alain Badiou, 2001, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil trans. P. Hallward, London: Verso
Tony Blair, 1996, New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country, London: Fourth Estate
Frank Furedi, 2005, Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, London: Continuum
Eric Hobsbawm, 2000, The New Century: In Conversation with Antonio Polito, London: Abacus
Antony Kenny, 2005, ‘The End of Left and Right’, the Spectator, 5 February
Chantal Mouffe, 2005, On The Political, London: Routledge
Steven Lukes, 2003, ‘Epilogue: The Grand Dichotomy of the Twentieth Century’ in: Ball and Bellamy (eds.), The Cambridge History of Twentieth Century Political Thought
"Just when Kant's formulation that 'the public exercise of reason should be free' had begun to seem so remote and exhausted, the Battle should reinforce one's faith in the enduring worth of dissent and of the free traffic in ideas"
Swapan Chakravorty, professor of english, Jadavpur University