23 April 2007

23 April 2007 - What is the left wing?

I was thrilled to discover last night that this blog has been nominated for two awards in the Third Annual 2007 Jewish & Israeli Blog Awards. One nomination is for Best New Blog, and the other is for Best Left Wing Political Blog. To vote for Best New Blog please click here, and to vote for Best Left Wing Political Blog please click here. The first round of voting runs through Sunday 29 April 2007.

I must admit that it came as a surprise to be nominated in the “left wing” category. While I identified with leftist thought and with the politics of the left for most of my life, today I don’t define myself in those terms. Nor would many other people define me that way, based on my support for free markets, my skepticism of socioeconomic rights, and my support for Israel and for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

What do the terms “left” and “right” mean, anyway? When I was in fourth grade, growing up in a solidly Democratic suburb of Chicago, we learned that the basic difference between Democrats and Republicans was that the former sided with workers and the latter sided with bosses. In high school, these definitions appeared to shift: the left favored the public sector and the right favored the private sector.

Through the 1990s, as American politics became more partisan and divisive—even as the parties converged ideologically—you were “left” or “right” depending on who you trusted as a last resort: the left trusted the government and the right trusted the church. Or maybe it was who you trusted in the first instance: Hillary Clinton said, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and Bob Dole replied, “It takes a family.”

My geography textbook depicted the political spectrum as a horizontal axis running from “radical” on the left to “reactionary” on the right, and the Democrats and Republicans as two bell curves with peaks either side of the center. More recently, I’ve taken the Political Compass test, which uses both a horizontal “left-right” axis and a vertical “libertarian-authoritarian” axis. (I fall somewhere near the middle.)

In university, we learned to identify the right with fascism and the left with communism, and to accept that capitalism and socialism were simply moderate, democratic versions of these two extremes. The left, we were told, concerned itself with class, which was based on economic analysis, while the right busied itself with race, nation, religion, ethnicity and other categories which were merely arbitrary.

We were never assigned liberal thinkers like Popper, or Hayek, who pointed out that fascism often grew out of socialism and that the two shared a common fixation with centralized economic planning. We were, instead, set to read Marx, ad infinitum. (I was recently assigned Marx’s On The Jewish Question for a law school class. It was the third time I had been assigned to read it in my academic career.)

When I returned to South Africa, I found that left and right had referred not only to competing ideologies but to competing nationalisms. Right-wing meant Afrikaner nationalism; left-wing meant African nationalism. The liberal Democratic Party (DP) presented itself in the historic 1994 elections as a centrist option, using the slogan: “If the left wins, nothing will be right; if the right wins, nothing will be left!”

Over time, these definitions have changed in South Africa. The trade unions and communists now accuse the government of abandoning the left, while the government counters by casting all opposition as right-wing. Today, the liberal Democratic Alliance (which sprang from the old DP) is described by the ruling party as “right-wing,” though there are plenty of old apartheid hacks in government.

The labels have moral connotations, too. In South Africa, at most universities around the world, and among America’s bicoastal elites, “left” is a synonym for “good,” and “right” equals “evil.” The labels are reversed throughout much of the American heartland, among many religious Christians and Jews and, increasingly, in parts of Europe that are struggling to deal with the influx of Muslim immigrants.

And yet what do these terms really tell us? Do they expand their original meaning, when they simply referred to different sides of the French Legislative Assembly—radicals on the left, royalists on the right? Perhaps they do: the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick observed: “Generally speaking, traditional autocrats tolerate social inequities, brutality, and poverty while revolutionary autocracies create them.”

Why, then, would anyone want to be identified with the left? Almost every species of left-wing thought today shares a common demonology, a conspiracy theory that sees events as the outcome of a struggle between a cabal of puppet-masters and the rest of us. This belief persists because it explains an increasingly complex world, and provides pleasure to the ego that imagines it might one day pull the strings itself.

And yet there seem to be plenty of reasons to avoid the right nowadays, not limited to specific objectionable ideas commonly espoused by right-wing parties. Where the left sees conspiracies, the right sees barbarians at every gate, threats emerging everywhere to our way of life (however defined). Occasionally, there really are conspirators and barbarians. Mostly, though, these worldviews are just tiresome.

I want to set aside the labels for a moment, and propose a different way of looking at politics. I believe that there are two fundamental purposes of politics. One is to perfect social life—to shape it according to a set of values and goals. The other is to protect members of society—to marshal the collective capacity of the group to defend individuals from immediate physical danger as well as poverty and want.

The first tendency aims at excellence; the second tendency aims at decency. And those, I believe, are the two ideal motivating forces in politics. These map roughly onto what we recognize today as distinctions between left and right. The role of right-wing parties is to establish and defend core principles; the role of left-wing parties is to speak for and attend to those people who are most vulnerable.

Neither of these two roles is exclusive to the left or the right, or to the political parties commonly identified with these labels. But both roles are necessary to a properly functioning political system. To the extent that the left is concerned with aiding the marginalized, I am a leftist; and when central tenets of our society are in danger, such as the sanctity of the individual, then I am, in that sense, a rightist.

My real creed, I suppose, is liberalism, which prizes individual choice but also the institutions that make choice possible. And institutions are, in turn, social relations among individuals conducted according to specific rules and for specific purposes. So I am not a radical individualist—but nor do I place my faith in the collective, as I once did. My views have moderated over time—but they have also become clearer.

Perhaps starting a blog about human rights and conflict resolution is enough to earn the “leftist” label. Or Perhaps the term “left” is being used here in the way “liberal” was once used in the U.S.—not in the classical sense, but to refer to a somewhat credulous optimism that people, and the world we live in, can become better. I am not that kind of “liberal”—but to the charge of optimism, I plead guilty.


At 4:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joel, I would add that Left and Right also have specific connotations in relation to Israel. Traditionally the Right stood for greater Israel and the Left for territorial compromise. Interestingly economic issues were not really a defining feature of this divide. While these simplistic definitions have broken down over the last few years, I do think that you need to consider your nomination in this narrower context.

At 9:47 PM, Blogger Joel said...

Point taken.


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