Left and right politics: an outdated paradigm?

A common argument in the Occupy movement is that it is not about left or right politics, but about addressing inequality and corruption, giving a voice to the majority who are excluded from all the important decisions that affect our lives. It is argued that, contrary to left and right politics, the movement is about tackling “up and down” and that the vast majority of people, regardless of their political beliefs, have a stake in the movement.

Left and right are seen as an anachronistic paradigm that divides people from one another, leaving them open to being manipulated by the two-party system commonly referred to as “democracy” (as if there is only one kind of democracy). Further, it is often asserted that what the Occupy movement is doing is new; therefore old paradigms will be swept aside with development of the struggle and shifts in the balance of power.

Can you spot the difference?

There is no doubting the pedagogical potential of the movement. For many people swept into political activism by it, many of the concepts being debated will seem new and radicalise their outlook. The concept “we are the 99%” has a powerful resonance and is a threat to the status quo.

Things must change, and there is no doubt that old paradigms that have restricted the emancipation of humanity need to be shattered. Divisions of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and activity, occupation, class and age all need to be questioned. All our existing institutions and methods of struggle need to be scrutinised, but we also need to learn from old methods and understanding as well as creating new ones.

What are left and right?

What is left or right is often debatable in this day and age. If we consider the question in terms of two-party politics, there can be no clarity, for, depending on the political situation and the mood of the masses, either “mainstream” party has the capacity either to implement progressive reforms or to attack the interests of the majority.

Even if we concede that in Australia, Labor is generally the lesser of two evils, there is no escaping that it is a pro-capitalist party with a neo-liberal agenda. It has introduced some of the worst policies in Australia's history such as the White Australia policy and mandatory detention of refugees, and has extended others such as the NT intervention and reinforced industrial laws that cripple trade union activities. In this context it would be fair to say that the old paradigm of left and right needs to be reconsidered, except that we’re not really comparing left and right; we’re comparing two right-wing parties committed to the interests of capital.

What is left?

We are left in a situation where the left is confined to grassroots activism, lacking a cohesive party that can consolidate the historical gains of the working class or set the political agenda. Such is the ideological confusion of the times we live in that the very suggestion of “working class” or the idea that it might constitute itself as a force that can challenge for power is rejected even among some of the left. Gradual minimalist change such as through the electoral road is revered, with emphasis on luminaries with slick media profiles; hence the success of the Greens.

Economic and political demands become separated, as are industrial and community campaigns. The class struggle is compartmentalised to the nth degree, atomised and often isolated. While the ruling class are conscious of their needs and able to use their reactionary nationalist ideology to divide us, the working class are denied the opportunity to develop their own theories, ideology and schools of thought. A great propaganda offensive is also thrown at existing theories of struggle, particularly Marxism, which is often denigrated as a dogma or irrelevant to today’s society.

In place of analysing labour history and the dynamics of capitalism, we are told there are no classes, there should be no “isms”, no ideologies, that there is no society, that we are all free individuals able to make whatever life choices we want and live with their consequences. This is a complete denial of reality, the elevation of idealism over material reality, a blindness to the inherent contradictions and structural weaknesses of capitalist society.

Political life cannot be understood simply in terms of the binary of left and right, but it is a basic classification that is still useful even if the terms are not absolute. In France, where the terms originated, the left was called “the party of movement” or change and the right “the party of order” (opposed to change).

The terms emerged with the French Revolution of 1789 between those who supported the monarchy and those who wanted it abolished. The Baron de Gauville explained at the time: “We began to recognise each other: those who were loyal to religion and the king took up positions to the right of the chair so as to avoid the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp”. (To this day, the right still view the left as rabble.)

A basic feature of right-wing politics is the defence of private property, and for the left, the quest for social justice and universal human rights, a more equal society. Just as they do now, the right completely opposed any attempts of working people or those without property to form any party or organisation of their own. With the establishment of the Third Republic in France in 1871, the terms were adopted by political parties: the Republican Left, the Centre Right and the Centre Left (1871) and the Extreme Left (1876) and Radical Left (1881).

The terms left and right came to be applied to British politics during the 1906 general election, in which the Labour Party emerged as a third force.

The sociologist Robert M. MacIver noted in The Web of Government (1947): “The right is always the party sector associated with the interests of the upper or dominant classes, the left the sector expressive of the lower economic or social classes, and the centre that of the middle classes. Historically this criterion seems acceptable. The conservative right has defended entrenched prerogatives, privileges and powers; the left has attacked them. The right has been more favourable to the aristocratic position, to the hierarchy of birth or of wealth; the left has fought for the equalization of advantage or of opportunity, for the claims of the less advantaged. Defence and attack have met, under democratic conditions, not in the name of class but in the name of principle; but the opposing principles have broadly corresponded to the interests of the different classes.”

Ideological confusion

Perhaps the most distorted understanding of left and right politics is the view that both ends of the spectrum amount to the same thing: totalitarianism. In fact this is mostly what is taught in high school. Not once at school did I hear the word capitalism. The crude formulation, arrogantly fed to school students was fascism = communism, and both are counterpoised to “democracy” which was touted as the highest point of civilisation.

That may be the view still held by most people, but it is far from the last word. The refusal to wage an ideological struggle against the ruling class reinforces the existing ideologies of self-interest and individualism. The premise that communism and fascism are identical is a buttress for the rule of capital. But while social democratic governments are the favoured form of rule for capital in times of relative peace, it can resort to the violence and repression of a fascist dictatorship when threatened with revolution or in times of war. The nationalist ideology of the ruling class feeds into the ideas of racial supremacy, laying the basis for such dictatorships, dividing the working class and preying on the more backward sections of the middle class.

The denial that the Occupy movement is either left or right feeds into the idea that it also negates any struggle between classes, that it is broad enough to include all people. Yet the very thrust of the movement is the struggle against the 1%. The fact that the police have been so repressive, responding with tear gas, water cannon and bullets, is proof enough that this is a struggle for power and the ruling class are nervous as hell about it. We must remember that this is an international struggle emanating from the Arab spring and mass demonstrations in Europe. While the US Occupy movement is inspiring, it is only a small fraction of a historic struggle against the rule of capital, and our actions should not be determined exclusively by the methods it has used.

Re-emergence of political consciousness

What we are witnessing is the gradual awakening from slumber of political consciousness. In Australia the Occupy movement has a long way to go before it reaches anything like mass proportions. It has very few ties to the organised sections of the working class; trade unions fighting their own defensive battles are still aloof to much of the far left. But the movement is proletarian in character; it encompasses those who have only their labour to sell in order to live. In the US the movement is quite broad, including both white middle class students facing substantial debt to masses of homeless people driven onto the streets through foreclosures.

Despite its breadth, it is still very much a movement of the left that encompasses the masses of the proletariat. That is not to say we should look at the movement dogmatically, for there are many shades within it, methods and forms of struggle that are redefining the left. The struggles across Europe, the US and the Middle East have taken on many forms over the past year: legal and illegal, peaceful and stormy, underground and open, local circles and mass movements.

Our century is most certainly one of upheavals, war and revolution, and this requires relearning old methods of struggle, but it also means that new understandings of struggle will emerge that throw everything into question. Indeed one day left and right will be an ancient paradigm. Till then we must hasten the revolution.