Beyond left and right: new categories please

In the papers today, another round of political rhetoric about our broken society and how it needs to be fixed. Tony Blair has weighed in on the riots, attempting to broker a third way between those who say it’s a crisis of morals and those who see a crisis of inequality. To me, and most of society I should think, it’s pretty obvious that it’s both and more besides. But doesn’t this sort of divide characterise every debate we ever have? It’s certainly true of our ongoing financial woes, forever divided between monetarist austerity and Keynesian spending, small government vs big government. Again, I reckon most people don’t think either side has all the answers.

So I wonder – am I the only one frustrated by the division of everything into left and right? And is this supposed spectrum of views holding us back?

My own views tend to be classed as ‘leftist’ by those who disagree with me. That’s not an ‘ism’ that I recognise in myself. I happen to think that left and right are defunct and irrelevant categories and we should stop using them. Here’s why:

It is irrelevant and arcane.
The terms left and right refer to which side of the king you sat on in the French national assembly*. Is that really sufficient to account for the whole gamut of global politics in the 21st century? There was a time when you could divide the world into two camps, though never neatly, during the Cold War. When that ended, the categories became irrelevant. India, China, Scandinavia, South America, the Asian tigers, and now the Arab spring have all revealed alternative political angles, new approaches, pick and mix political solutions. Global politics is far more diverse and far more interesting than left, right, or centre. Those categories are 20 years out of date.

It oversimplifies.
Left and right provide lenses through which we interpret current events and formulate policy. Those lenses occlude as many things as they include, and make ideology more important than practicality or objectivity. Opposing arguments can be herded together as one and dismissed as “those on the right”, or “those on the left”, rather than looked at for what they are.

It is inherently divisive.
There’s an old joke from Wales that says that no matter how small a Welsh village, it needs two churches: the one you go to and the one you don’t go to. Politics is the same. If all political opinions have to be filed into one of two boxes, cooperation is very difficult – it requires you to ‘cross the aisle’, and that’s a risky thing to do. Some of your colleagues will see it as a betrayal, and it’s best not to compromise or break ranks. (The design of government debating chambers makes this problem very literal – compare the seating plan of the UN to that of the House of Commons, and you get the idea. The traditionalists would throw up their hands, but I genuinely believe we should make our politicians sit in a circle.)

It excludes genuine solutions and stifles creative solutions.
Policy ideas often get mangled or misunderstood by the pointless necessity to crowbar everything into one of two categories. Take Hernando de Soto for example, who advocates radical land reform (cheers from the left) by formalising property rights (cheers from the right). Since cooperation is difficult, it’s easier to find reasons to dismiss these kinds of ideas than to work together on them.

It undermines democracy.
For both the US and the UK, the political system is essentially a cartel, with two parties that have more or less agreed that taking turns is better than working together. Monoculture is a bad sign in any field, and a plurality of views is essential for healthy public debate. Countries with more direct democracy and more proportional voting systems are less tied to these old divides.

It leaves our biggest problems unfixed.
With parties taking turns at running the country according to their oversimplified analysis and ideological priorities, it’s hardly surprising that the biggest problems don’t get sorted out. There is an ‘ecosocialist’ movement, but you will search Karl Marx’s works in vain for an environmental ethic. Margaret Thatcher might have been an unlikely advocate of sustainability, but it doesn’t appear to have been an essential component of her political philosophy. Likewise, neither side has a solution for long term economic stability.

Does anybody care any more?
Finally, is it possible that this supposed spectrum is one of the reasons why interest in politics is waning? If you don’t relate to either one, there’s no place for you. Why join a political party defined by an artificial and abstract set of values that don’t mesh with the real world? This is particularly a problem for younger voters. Left and right are rooted in the past, in the Cold War, in socialism and Reaganomics. For younger voters, that era is not in living memory. Without any way to relate to it directly, it comes filtered through the paranoia and prejudice of older voters. That bi-polar era of global politics haunts us along after the event, its terms used to demonise and divide, as the branding of Obama as a socialist proves all too clearly.

Left and Right continue as terms of reference because they’re simple and convenient. They’re great for ‘othering’ those you don’t agree with, and so they persist in political discourse. To me, they’re not just irrelevant, but are actually doing more harm than good. So let’s be done with them, and let’s respect the multi-faceted plurality of modern political thought, drawing good ideas together wherever they may be found.


    1. Good post. Like you, I’d be looking to who was acting justly and loving mercy, rather than picking a side once and for all. How can I cast my vote to benefit those least able to help themselves? Whose manifesto leads furthest towards peace, freedom, and human flourishing? Those could be seen as progressive values or principles of social justice, but ultimately they are spiritual questions. What’s the way of love? Which way does the kingdom of heaven lie?

      That’s not a static thing, either. It moves from one strategic and timely alliance to another, responding to the needs of the age. A movement for justice at one point in history could become an entrenched special interest further down the track – something the trade union movement might want to consider, for example.

  1. 40 odd years ago, at the time of founding the German Green Party, Petra Kelly said, “Greens are neither to the left nor to the right – they are in front.”

    Fair enough to her. Fair enough to you Jeremy too . . . discussion under your seven headings points well at what has been the ‘false-dichotomy’ embedded in the heart of ‘party-politics’ here and elsewhere for that forty years and more.

    It remains a great challenge to link where we’re all at now to where we need to be in 40 years – say with global climate change – however. And any remnant of ‘them-and-us debates’ will continue to ‘other’ [like that J – neat] not so much the people but the issues we don’t really want [or perhaps know how] to deal with.

    1. yes, and I think the pigeon-holing of environmentalism as a concern of the left has been disastrous. Sometimes it’s been inadvertent (see Al Gore), and sometimes deliberate, as a way of avoiding difficult debates. Someone’s been very successfully telling Americans that sustainability is tantamount to communism… Without naming any names, I can think of a few people who would benefit from such an idea, and have the means to propagate it… History is not going to be kind to such people.

  2. Could not agree more Jeremy! Have been on about this myself in various conversations with people, although not written about it…these labels are now an anachronism of the 19th/20th century, and more of a divisive straitjacket than a useful political distinction. The Global Footprint Network has suggested that if there is an ideological divide, its between people who accept physical limits to growth, and people who don’t.

    ‘I genuinely believe we should make our politicians sit in a circle.’

    Yes, and not only that, but they should NOT physically grouped together in terms of their party or alignment! Arthur was a pretty clever bloke when he conceived the idea of ‘the round table’.

    Re: your observation about the French – originally, the King’s most trusted advisor sat to the right (hence, ‘right hand man’), and those who provided a different (but not always opposing) view to the King and his advisors sat to the left. The Latin for left is ‘sinistra’, which where we derive the word ‘sinister’. So the very idea of change is bound up in concepts of being threatened!

    Culturally, these ideas are embedded deeply, and stretch back long before Cold War politics or the alignment along capital/labour divides.

  3. Those remarks are a little opaque. ‘Making Wealth History’ would hardly be read as ‘pro-capitalist’ either. Perhaps being ‘binary’ is unavoidable, but more transparently so is an option don’t you think?

    The ‘left-right’ false dichotomy is ‘binary’ and it also evident in ‘local-versus-global’ and ‘short-term versus long-term’ and from virtually any view-point, ‘pigeon-holing’ [wherever and on whatever scale such type-casting may still persist] is still captive to the fundamental ‘them-and-us’ dilemma.

    So the question becomes, what is a model [‘an example’] of ‘enlightenment’ that is both universal and personal and yet ‘practical’, live-able and if possible fun – in other words, day-to-day, how does one live one’s life?

    As the famous Upanishadic reply went to those seeking – and finding – answers on the path to this: – “neti, neti” [“not this, not this”] . . . . Where some would see this as ‘nihilism’, others offered the prescriptions of ‘religion’, ‘dialectical materialism’, ‘logical positivism’, ‘paradoxical wholism’ . . . and so-on and so-on . . . inferences, drawn and un-drawn, were everywhere and in all these we seem condemned to wander in numerous ‘rites of passage’ . . . It is all always a great challenge . . .

    But as the Haiku goes; “slowly, slowy, up Mount Fuj – O Snail.’

    1. Perhaps resorting to binary distinctions is inevitable sometimes, but the idea of balance would suggest that’s not actually very often. Local vs global is not an either/or, but a matter of wisdom to know which things are best sourced locally (food) and which are best sourced internationally (microchips). Likewise, my post-growth economics doesn’t fit into a pro vs anti growth dichotomy, but is informed by the idea of sufficiency, of ‘enough’. And what enough looks like is, once again, a matter of wisdom I suppose.

  4. Yes – a difficulty though remains what what you call ‘balance’ – what is locally sensible can be globally irrelevant and vice versa – growing and eating greens, can lead to health and sweeping the leaves can lead to enlightenment, but those don’t get the Chinese out of Tibet or lead to 350 ppmv . . . etc etc . . .

    Population, Production and Pollution all grow exponentially. Some say all are problems, some pick only one or two. The real problem created by this is simply that response measures such as they are, occur at the margins and at rates that are slower than the rates at which the problems progress.

    The growth/no-growth dichotomy has ‘pro’s’ and ‘anti’s’ whatever ‘post-growth’ ideas are projected. But if we’re serious about our kids coming out OK on the other side, some agreed global account of sufficiency is unavoidable, that is if merely hoping for the best is not to be actually overwhelmed by having had good cause to have been fearing the worst in the first place . . .

    In others words, if you step-out over a zebra-crossing and get run-over, you’re just as dead as if you’d been wrong. So however wise the good maxim of ‘sufficiency’ is – and it is – wisdom is more sorely tested by what is now happening than just being locally self-sufficient and sensible.

    ‘Balance’ – while locally sensible, relevant and perhaps even achievable – is in the circumstances of these global growth trends, in danger of being globally irrelevant for the simple reason that we are globally going more and more ‘out of balance’ without any path-integral account of where we really need to be in forty years time for example.

    This is not marginal.

    When ignorance is bliss and it is obviously folly to be wise – where’s left to go? – this too is a false dichotomy that doesn’t resolve or help us to get away from the Rhino that is charging towards the train we’re on. Its is difficult to be anything, let-alone wise, in the face of this.

    1. Aubrey, here again (as so often before), you speak much sense. If I may paraphrase: is there a balanced path to balance anymore?

      Or what is the path of proportion, wisdom and enlightenment in a world hurtling headlong into dark foolishness?

  5. “What is the path of proportion, wisdom and enlightenment in a world hurtling headlong into dark foolishness?”

    Dear Byron, you sort of know how to push my buttons . . . blimey!

    Others may not want to go this way – I do realize this – but here is short, occasional essay showing a somewhat different take on C&C than is routine-usual. If nothing else, it is certainly beyond the left/right see-saw that Jeremy has rightly complained about. It is also here: – http://www.gci.org.uk/Documents/Jelle_5_.pdf

    Starting from a ‘unitary’ perspective, this seeks to relate the short-term/long-term row, to the full-term requirement of the ‘long-now’, by drawing attention to what is definitely going to happen over the next forty years in the context of what has been ‘true’ since before humans entered the picture [and will be true long after we’re gone] and saying OK, if that’s a given – ‘che sera sera’ – what will be with C&C?

    Put together with new friend Jelle Heilkema [ex-FAO] in Rome over the last few days, it attempts to find in the tin, what it says on the label: –

    “This short paper takes a ‘Chaldean algorithm’ and suggests the relationships between music, mathematics, meaning and international efforts to deal with climate change.”
    Beat that!

    Dr Phil Hanlon’s beautiful web-site is here: – http://www.afternow.co.uk/transformational-change . . . . and Phil was asking whether the essence of Plato’s dictum – the good the beautiful and the true – was that ultimately, we do things because they are ‘beautiful . . . ?

    Whatever, but imagine being kissed by Venus 25 times as we complete the Contraction and Convergence event we need to survive . . . . Faustus, eat your heart out! . . . ”

    And so sweet stranger give it welcome; as there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in the philosophy of many people.

  6. It’s a point which was being made by the old UK Liberal Party back in the 1950s and 60s. The more often it’s put forward the better, and you put it very well.

  7. From the political point of view, what’s needed is an abandonment (or sever dilution at the very least) of the power of the whip and patronage. It is that which always drives policy makers into two opposing camps .. left and right, up and down, eggs and bacon, or whatever. It means we’re forever re-enacting adversarial battles and wars instead of thinking about collaboration and support to overcome obstacles.

    So its not the definitions which need changing, but the very process itself. Policy makers need to be able to form fluid alliances when they genuinely agree with their peers, not skulk in back room deals in order to get their pet project through. Genuine transparency must be the watchword.

    1. If you subscribe to party politics as it is, the whip serves an important function – it keeps MPs accountable to the manifesto that they stood by when soliciting votes. In theory, it is how the party holds its individual members to the promises that they made collectively. In practice, it also serves as a tool to maintain party lines and to isolate MPs who break ranks.

      In a more proportional system, there would be much greater diversity and thus greater ‘liquidity’ (something considered a good thing in economics and apparently a bad thing in politics). Parties would have to make alliances for every vote, and the need to cooperate would rise to the fore. In my mind, the battle is for electoral reform, and the issue of the whip and patronage would naturally follow.

  8. The Scottish parliament is seated in a semi-circle and has technology to enable any MSP to sit in any seat and their electronic vote be counted from there.

    But I think they still sit in parties. Can’t help themselves…

  9. Since reading your post (I subscribe, so read them all) I came across a really interesting image showing Left vs Right from Information is Beautiful.

    You may have seen it but if not, check it out:


    I’m not sure if it particularly challenges what you wrote but I found myself almost exclusively falling on the Left (and feeling surprisingly angry towards those who fall on the Right) so tend to think these categories must have some relevance/purpose.

    Would be good to know your thoughts.

    1. Hi Joe, yes, I’ve seen that graphic. It’s a nice summary. My problem is what’s missing – any sign of sustainability on there?

      I also resent having to choose a side between just two options, because you don’t get to talk about anything on the other side of the divide. If you’re on the left, you don’t get to talk about values, or strong families, or the countryside. And if you’re on the right, you can’t talk about equality or demilitarisation. Some things are just too important to be off limits, and a bipolar politics means only half the issues are on the table at any one time.

      Of course, the categories work to a certain degree, but how much better would our politics work without them?

  10. Jeremy, it might be worth looking into the historical origins of the opposition. The idea that it would all be better if we could just exchange ideas reasonably is childish at best. It is actually more likely going to contribute to disabling actual political struggles – why can’t we all just get along?
    There are real people with power and money who have no intention of giving up their present position. They cultivate stupid ideas like lets just do away with silly classes. The left is in a chronic state of decline because its representatives are too stupid to read history and engage in fuck you politics.

    1. Well, that’s a highly cynical position. I don’t expect some utopia of consensus politics, but things don’t need to be as polarised as they are in Britain or the US. There are plenty of countries with a healthier range of political parties and a tradition of alliance and coalition.

      I’ll tell you what’s childish: the way politicians boo and jeer at each other across the table in Parliament. That’s the kind of us-and-them, left-and-right playground behaviour that alienates people.

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