I wanted to continue the discussion I started last month about my growing sense of political alienation.i While I think the behaviour of politicians constitutes an important piece of an explanation for this feeling, it’s only one aspect of something complex and unwieldy, something I need to examine slowly, piece-by-piece, if I hope to gain a nuanced perspective over the whole. This month, I want to turn my focus over to political ideologies to try and improve this understanding, even a bit.
Recently, I’ve been getting a sense that the political ideological spectrum as we know it in modern times is constrained.ii To better see this, consider what people evoke when they bring up the Left or the Right in the here and now, at least in North America. As I understand it, Left typically entails an economy controlled by a large, centralized government, with significant social safety nets for the least of its citizens, whereas Right is understood to be synonymous with limited power of centralized government in favour of control by corporate, wealthy, and elite stakeholders alongside a limiting of supports given to the lower classes.iii But this portrayal of this spectrum is in large part a uniquely modern idea, and obtaining a better historical understanding of Left and Right can do a lot to show a way contemporary power brokers have been able to maintain a system that favours them and their clients through the limiting of discussion and thought.
It’s widely held that this political spectrum traces its origins back to post-revolutionary France, and it was entirely on the basis of where specific politicians with shared ideologies sat in the National Assembly. On the right side of the president of the assembly sat the monarchists—those who favoured a close hold to tradition when designing the new constitution, and who thought the king should have an absolute veto—while the “radicals” who were pushing for more change sat on his left.1 Although this portrayal is objectively factual, it comes off as somewhat misleading in my eyes, as it makes it sound like it was revolutionaries fighting for democratic reform, wresting power from the few for the benefit of the many. In actuality, this divide constituted a power struggle between elites, with the bourgeoisie—the capitalist owners—on the Left pushing for republicanism, loosening market controls, and greater civil liberties, not for the benefit of the average citizen, but because such changes provided greater privileges and power for the bourgeoisie over the traditional holders of power, the aristocracy, who constituted the Right. Though the idea of what makes up the political spectrum went through many changes over different times and places, the general concept that held true for some time at least seems to be this notion that traditional ideals were held on the Right while the push for liberal reforms largely came from the Left.
Over the following century, growth in labour movements and class consciousness in the lower and working classes across the Western world came with a push for greater worker rights and democratic reforms. With this, political ideologies shifted. By the interwar years,iv a new ideological space to the left of liberalism became occupied by socialist and anarchist ideologies, and the provision of power and authority in the hands of the commoner became part of the political spectrum. Incidentally, looking at the theoretical holders of power and authority within the respective ideologies suddenly provides a basis for understanding the interwar political divide. In the interwar Left, it was assumed that the average person would be in charge of economic and social decisions, would profit from labour according to work performed and actual need, and would have the ability to exert authority over proxy decision makers, such as politicians, especially in cases where such decision makers act against the will of the people. The Right––involving various capitalist and authoritarian ideologies––placed power in the hands of an elite governing group. People would be governed in a top-down fashion, where the elites would have the authority to enforce their decisions without requiring the consent of the governed, and they would have the right to draw greater wealth than the general population on a basis of either ownership of property or simply being within the power group. At this time, aspects like size of government weren’t important when determining a system’s place on the spectrum, because ideologies on both sides could involve various sizes of government, but the meaningful way to place it on the spectrum is by looking at where power and authority lies within that system. In this way, pushing for small government in favour of private control was an important component to right-wing libertarian ideology; leftist anarchists also promote small government, with a distinction that corporations and wealthy owners would lack power over workers and average citizens, with worker-owned factories, businesses, and industries controlling the economy. On the flipside, many types of socialists on the Left and authoritarians on the Right both advocated for governing centrally, but the important distinction between them is the power and authority average citizens possess to influence this government and guide policy.v Strong, democratic institutions were required for effective centralized governments in Left ideologies, but not for the Right.
Now let’s return to the modern ideological spectrum with the ideas of power and authority in mind. In both the Left and Right, citizens are governed in a top-down fashion by an elite group. The push from the contemporary Left for strong, centralized government in theory allows for some influence from its citizens on policy decisions when democratic institutions are strong, but the strength of these institutions in contemporary North America is likely worthy of debate.vi Otherwise, contemporary Left ideology maintains elite ownership of the majority of power, influence, and wealth. From this point of view, necessary components of interwar Left ideologies are completely absent from contemporary politics, suggesting a significant, rightward shift. But it’s wrong to just think of it as a shift. Through the exclusion of these ideas, thought becomes constrained. In this way, the range of disagreement between ideologies becomes similarly constrained. It becomes a disagreement of welfare and supports, of what these supports entail and what groups are deserving of such benefits, but it’s taken for granted on both sides that the doling out of such benefits should be out of the hands of the commoner. There is disagreement over who should decide who benefits or is punished and how, but the decider is always an elite, whether the politician or bureaucrat, the CEO or shareholder, or the military or police administrations.
And both sides of this constrained ideology have become adept at hiding this. On the Left, there’s this notion presented that supports for lower and working classes will inevitably lead to control of the economy and government policy by these same groups, but this remains to be demonstrated. These sorts of supports should certainly improve the quality of life of countless people, but I find it difficult to convincingly demonstrate either that the holders of power are likely to relinquish it or that the powerless will be better able to take it on the back of this.vii The Right owes a great deal of its rhetoric to these very ideas that I’m suggesting aren’t given a voice, but with an important distinction. Contemporary Right ideologies promote that governments infringe on individual liberty, and that the degradation of government power will therefore be a boon to the average citizen’s freedom. However, the plan is not to move power to the workers and the lower classes, but to wealthy individuals and corporations. Workers have a lower capacity to exert influence on corporate hierarchies than through even dysfunctional democratic institutions, but this goes unmentioned on the Right.viii Because such a misleading promotion of personal liberty seems to have traction in large segments of the population, I suspect that a Left that portrays these ideas more openly and truthfully would have the potential to draw support from groups that would otherwise classify themselves as being firmly on the Right.
But don’t think that I’m just suggesting that the Left recover and start promoting these neglected ideals on a basis of tactics, simply as a way to attract more people to the cause. By constraining thought and discussion in this fashion, there’s a stronger failure to identify issues and their causes, and we limit our ability to find solutions. When we neglect these ideas, we at the same time effectively corrupt basic, existential concepts of the Left, including what is meant by socialism. Socialism is now commonly understood to either be synonymous with authoritarian state-capitalism or welfare capitalism––depending on how favourable the definer is toward “socialism”––and in either case it’s placed in opposition with other forms of capitalism. In doing so, it becomes difficult or impossible to imagine anything beyond a capitalist world. People may rally against capitalism, but this lacks meaning when they propose capitalism as a solution. We become unable to even imagine that a worker-controlled economy could exist, or that smaller communities should be able to govern themselves effectively without top-down oversight, and we similarly lack the ability to imagine what either could look like. From this position, people could easily become dissatisfied with the state of the world or the nation or their jobs or their lives but, lacking understanding on the back of this constrained thought, seek solutions in untrustworthy places.
So, I hope we can give these ideas life once more and expand and shift political discussions leftward. These ideas have the potential to repair at least some of the divides that plague the working and lower classes, mainly because even far-Right ideologues appear to want to believe in these concepts in some form. And because expanded thought helps us to develop more sensible perspectives surrounding important issues plaguing our times, we all benefit from doing so.
i. Last month, I discussed the trends in contemporary politics of increased partisan-driven policy, muted responsiveness to public opinion, and a reliance on manipulation to support policy goals, as described by Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro in Politicians Don’t Pander.2,3 You’ll be able to understand what I’m talking about in this essay without reading the previous one first.
ii. When I refer to “modern times” here, I mean the period starting post-WWII, with such constraints strengthening more and more as we move closer to the present day.
iii. A simpler definition could be similar to that taken by Jacobs and Shapiro in their aforementioned book: that Left and Right is divided between liberal and conservative, or a divide between government activism on the one side and individual rights and minimal government on the other.4
iv. Between the First and Second World Wars.
v. Major confusion on this last point exists largely due to the promotion of nations such as Soviet Russia and the People’s Republic of China as textbook socialist states. In the case of the Soviet Union, anti-Stalinist, socialist writers in the lead-up, during, and post-WWII––including Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, and Simone Weil––attempted to draw attention to how the nation didn’t uphold socialist ideals in often horrific ways and to often horrific results. Noam Chomsky has frequently written and commented on this, clearly presenting the Soviet Union as an authoritarian regime administering a state-capitalist economy rather than a socialist nation.5 While specifics differ, the general ideas apply similarly to China as a socialist nation.
vi. How this is viewed largely depends on what is thought to be important in a functional democracy. I suspect the majority of people would consider political systems in Canada and the USA to be highly democratic due to generally free elections, with reasonable protections in place to prevent outright fraud and coercion, alongside universal suffrage––though with the US losing some credibility on this last point due to felony disenfranchisement. However, both systems are arguably flawed democratically due to a myriad of issues, like the Electoral College votes in the US not necessarily reflecting the popular vote, parties in Canada winning a majority without winning the popular vote, lack of choice between parties or candidates––including in Canada, where there are more parties, though all arguably fall ideologically within the modern constraints discussed in this essay––and a demonstrable inability for average citizens to influence government policy decisions. A great reference for the latter point is the aforementioned Politicians Don’t Pander.3
vii. I’ve heard the argument made that such supports would lessen pressures on these groups, which would give them better ability to learn about the causes of their oppression and exploitation, ultimately allowing them to fight back. My counter-argument would be that meeting basic needs within an unfair system can help keep the oppressed happily oppressed, so long as the beneficiaries of this oppression understand what is actually needed to keep the oppressed satisfied. These are both theoretical arguments with little to no support for either of them as far as I’m aware, though the pro argument reminds me of Marxist ideas of the inevitability of egalitarianism within society. In Oppression and Liberty, Simone Weil criticizes Marx for incorrectly extrapolating to arrive at this idea, that the assumption was made that because power will transfer from those at the top to groups that previously possessed less power––from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie in revolutionary France, for example––this process will continue inevitably to the lowest classes. Weil presents the idea that, far from this transfer continuing down to the bottom, it has been shown to transfer only between privileged groups throughout history.6 Keep in mind, as well, that different forms of welfare capitalism—the general system that such ideals of the contemporary Left fall into—were originally developed with the objective of neutralizing militant labour organization, and not in order to shift power to the lower classes.7
viii. A great reference for this is Business as a System of Power by Robert Brady.8 In it, he investigates manufacturing companies and associations across both the totalitarian bloc of WWII and liberal-capitalist countries and finds common trends toward monopoly control of industries, rigid, centralized hierarchies, and totalitarianism, all while significant funding from private industries across major capitalist nations went into propaganda campaigns aimed at influencing economic, political, and social policy, all in order to further consolidate power. An instructive passage concerning the US system is probably worth quoting at length:
Within the corporation, all policies emanate from the control above. In the union of this power to determine policy with the execution thereof, all authority necessarily proceeds from the top to the bottom and all responsibility from the bottom to the top. This is, of course, the inverse of “democratic” control; it follows the structural conditions of dictatorial power. In so far as the lines of control native to the private business corporation have been kept unsullied by important compromise of principle, they approximate those long familiar in the structure of modern military formations. Here, what in political circles would be called legislative, executive, and judicial functions are gathered together in the same hands. And these controlling hands, so far as policy formulation and execution are concerned, are found at the peak of the pyramid and are manipulated without significant check from its base.9
- Carlisle M. “What to Know About the Origins of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ in Politics, From the French Revolution to the 2020 Presidential Race.” Time, 14 Sep 2019. time.com/5673239/left-right-politics-origins/. Accessed 11 Nov 2021.
- Kosoris A. “Politicians and the public.” 11 Feb 2022. kosoris.com/essays/politicians-and-the-public/
- Jacobs LR and Shapiro RY. Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness. University of Chicago Press, 2000.
- Ibid., p. 32.
- Chomsky, Noam. “The Soviet Union versus Socialism.” Our Generation. 1986; 17(2). chomsky.info, chomsky.info/1986____. Accessed 29 Apr 2021.
- Weil, Simone. “Fragments, London 1943.” Oppression and Liberty. Routledge Classics, 2001, pp. 147-159.
- Brady RA. Business as a System of Power. Columbia University Press (Leopold Classic Library Reprint), 1943, pp. 285-286.
- Ibid., p. 217.