Who are the Left?

by John Quiggin on February 6, 2004

A number of posts in various places lately have raised the question “Who are the Left?”. The ambiguity on this point goes all the way back to the origin of the term, when the Jacobins and their allies were seated to the left of the chair in the National Assembly while the conservatives sat on the right. From this beginning the term “Left” has been used to refer both to the more radical half of any political spectrum (arguably the natural interpretation, if the symmetry between left and right is to taken seriously) and to the conscious or unconscious heirs of Jacobinism, that is to revolutionary vanguard groups.

Update and concessionReading the comments, it’s evident that I have not been as clear as I should have been about the way in which the term “Left” is used in the US, and that, even with clarification, there are problems with my argument. Rather than focusing on the Democratic Party, I should have looked at the term “liberal” which roughly encompasses the left side of the political spectrum in the US. My claim would then be that there is a sharp divide between liberals and the vanguard/Jacobin Left in the US which does not exist in other countries. I’ve certainly seen plenty of examples of this [try Googling “liberals and the left” to find some], but the comments thread shows lots of people treating the two as being part of the same spectrum, which contradicts my claim. So, to clarify, my comments suggesting that the US Left was characterized by reflexive opposition to US foreign policy were not meant to apply to anyone who would regard themselves as “liberal”, with or without qualifications such as “left” Now read on

Outside the US, this hasn’t usually created fundamental problems. Typically, the left half of the political spectrum has been represented in the political system by a nominally socialist party, coexisting with a range of more-or-less Jacobin groups which have mostly been excluded from political power. A whole string of qualifiers such as “moderate”, “radical” and “extreme” have been used to distinguish different points on the spectrum.

If anything, the problems with the term “Left” have diminished in the last decade or so. Marxist-Leninist parties on the far left have largely disappeared or transformed themselves into social democrats. The idea of a “Third Way”, which seemed to pose a radical challenge from the right wing of social democracy has largely fizzled – the crucial moment was the admission of the Blair-Brown government that taxes would have to go up to pay for better health care. Greens, for the most part, are mainstream leftists who choose to put more stress on the environment than others, and dislike the authoritarian structure of the larger left parties. Daniel’s recent quip about Crooked Timber applies pretty accurately to the (non-US) left as a whole these days – opinion runs the gamut from social democrat to democratic socialist.

In the US, it’s a completely different story. Obviously the left half of political opinion is represented by the Democratic Party, but neither their history nor their current views qualify the Democrats as “Left” in the sense in which the term is understood elsewhere. From the 1850s to the 1950s, and to some extent beyond, the Democrats were the defenders of slavery and segregation. Even disregarding this aspect of its history, the party is essentially an amalgam of the liberal, radical [in the 19th century sense] and populist parties that were overtaken, everywhere else, by the rise of the socialist/social democratic left. The usual fate of such parties was to split, with the resulting fragments being absorbed by the conservatives on one side and the socialists on the other.

In the US, the term “Left” therefore refers exclusively to groups and individuals whose approach is modelled on that of the Jacobins. Since the Democrats have the support of the organized working class locked up, the support base of the Left is almost exclusively petit-bourgeois, as was the case with the Jacobins, and the political approach is that of a group that has no realistic prospect of exercising power at any level, barring a catastrophic collapse of the existing order. This isn’t entirely bad, since power inevitably involves sordid compromises and corrupt bargains, but on the whole the costs exceed the benefits.

Not everyone who has adopted this style of leftism is an American. Until his recent conversion (discussed below), Christopher Hitchens fitted tne mould pretty well and so, in a slightly different way, does Tariq Ali.

In domestic policy terms, there is little these days to distinguish the Jacobin Left except for a residual attachment to provocative rhetoric. Hardly anyone is seriously committed to the traditional central plank of Marxism-Leninism, the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in the developed countries, or even to 1960s New Left visions of radical separatism for women, blacks and other oppressed groups. Particularly among the former New Left, postmodernism has played an important role in popularising the (always appealing) idea that a purely semantic radicalism is both necessary and sufficient for the maintenance of Left credentials. As far as defending traditionally socialist causes like public ownership and the welfare state is concerned, social democrats have been far more active than the Jacobin left.

The crucial distinctions arise in international policy. The central position of the US Left is opposition to US foreign policy whatever that may be. By contrast, the broad non-US left is generally aligned, as regards US foreign policy, with the left wing of the Democrats, such as it is. So most of the US Left was opposed to all of the recent uses of military force, from Kosovo to Liberia, with Iraq being seen as simply one more example of the inherent aggression of the US state. By contrast, most of the non-US left supported all of these interventions, with varying degrees of reluctance, until the war with Iraq came along. Both by its nature, and because it was a war of choice being pushed by the Bush Administration, most leftists opposed the Iraq war.

The pattern can even be seen in the choices of those who supported the Iraq war. The archetypal example of a Jacobin who broke with the Left to support the war is Christopher Hitchens. As the debate has proceeded he’s moved more and more firmly into the Bush camp, pushing the party line on WMDs and pretty much silent these days about the Palestinians, whose cause he once embraced. Meanwhile, the general tendency on the broad left has been for those who on balance, supported the war to back away in the light of the predictable mess that Bush has made of things, while those who opposed it have generally sought to find some way of getting out without abandoning Iraq to chaos or a new dictatorship.

{ 28 comments }

1

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 02.06.04 at 1:51 pm

From the 1850s to the 1950s, and to some extent beyond, the Democrats were the defenders of slavery and segregation.

Odd choice of dates. Factions of the Democratic Party defended slavery and/or segregation from the 1820s, when the organization recognizable as the national “Democratic Party” really came into existence, up until the 1960s, when the national party finished the process–begun by Truman in the 1940s–of repudiating support for segregation. (The rejection of the segregationist Mississippi delegate slate at the 1964 national convention was really the final showdown in this.) The only real significance of the 1850s is that they mark the replacement of the national Whig party–which was as split over slavery as the Democrats were–with the national Republican party, which wasn’t. The 1950s aren’t even that significant, as they mark neither the beginning nor the end of the process by which the Democratic Party disentangled itself from segregationism.

“The central position of the US Left is opposition to US foreign policy whatever that may be.”

This may be the silliest thing I’ve ever seen the generally non-silly John Quiggin write. I literally had to scroll back up to the top of the page to see whether Glenn Reynolds hadn’t joined Crooked Timber.

2

Grant Dunham 02.06.04 at 2:48 pm

Since the Democrats have the support of the organized working class locked up…

I’d quibble with that one, too. NASCAR dads and all.

3

Bob 02.06.04 at 2:56 pm

Please refer to:

“A report, Beyond Left and Right: The New Politics of Britain, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs uses detailed survey evidence to prove that the left-right classification no longer operates in Britain, just as it has long since ceased to in America.

“Following American political scientists, Blundell and Gosschalk adopt a different classification. Voters are put into five groups, depending on their attitudes to economic and personal freedom.

“1 Conservatives (small c ) favour the free market when it comes to economic matters (economic freedom) but wants the government to have a powerful regulatory role on moral and ethical issues such as abortion, drugs or sex. A conservative, in other words, is keen on economic freedom but is happy with restrictions on personal freedom.

“2 A socialist, in contrast, favours precisely the opposite mix. He wants big government and severe restrictions on the market in the economic sphere but favours individual freedom on moral and social issues.

“3 The socialist shares this latter characteristic with the libertarian, the difference being that the libertarian wants the maximum possible personal and economic freedom.

“4 At the other extreme from the libertarian is the authoritarian, who does not want personal or economic freedom. The authoritarian believes government knows best in everything and that liberty will result in chaos.

“5 Finally, Blundell and Gosschalk selected another category, the centrist, broadly in the middle of the range on both economic and personal freedom.

“Mori then questioned a sample of 1,700 people to test whether voters were conservatives, socialists, libertarians, authoritarians or centrists. Somebody who wanted less red tape on business but firmly opposed the legalisation of cannabis was likely to be a conservative, while somebody who believed the private sector is always better than the public sector and favoured complete sexual freedom between consenting adults would be a libertarian, and so on. . .” – from: http://www.ukpoliticsbrief.co.uk/netsecure/Class%20definitions.htm

4

Scott Martens 02.06.04 at 3:10 pm

Bob, that classification scheme is rather self-fulfilling. If I broke society up into categories on the basis of the colour of their car, and then went and checked out what colour their car was, I’d also find my categories were remarkably good predictors of what category they would fit into. The page you link to points out how poorly this scheme predicts voting preferences. If you read carefully, they pretty much confess that this whole line of research has all the analytical value of a horoscope.

This whole “beyond left and right” business has always struck me as little more than a justification for traditionally leftist parties to adopt conservative polcies. You find the same kinds of ideas back in the 50’s and early 60’s when it conservative parties adopting leftist policies.

5

Conrad barwa 02.06.04 at 3:10 pm

The idea of a “Third Way”, which seemed to pose a radical challenge from the right wing of social democracy has largely fizzled – the crucial moment was the admission of the Blair-Brown government that taxes would have to go up to pay for better health care.

Hmm, I would have thought it fizzled when it became apparent that Blair was adamant about sticking to Tory spending plans and shy away from even mild increases in direct taxation to fund Public Services; substituting the odd bit of redistribution here and there with creeping privatisation and the slow shift of insurance and insecurity from the shoulders of the state to the individual and the market.

Until his recent conversion (discussed below), Christopher Hitchens fitted tne mould pretty well and so, in a slightly different way, does Tariq Ali.

Well, Hitchens never struck me as all that impressive as a Leftist really; Joan Cocks did a brilliant sketch of his homage to Isaiah Berlin in her little book on intellectuals and the National Question. As a feature not uncommon to some English leftists, there is an adherence to one form of Marxist/Socialist theory in some form or another but at a personal and intellectual level there is a strong urge and wish to make sure that one is counted as part of the establishment and the inner circle; right school, Oxbridge, Union debating society, etc. that sort of thing. This kind of elitist-intellectual opposition is easier when there is no serious electoral challenge mounted by a party left of the social democratic position; so is not uncommon in the UK; Trotskyists fit into this schema very nicely as along with most kinds of ‘Third Camp’ socialism it allowed them to make a stand against both the USA and the USSR. A rightward move here is not unprecedented, Max Schachtman did it in the US; so Hitchen’s mini-conversion along the road to Washington is not unsurprising. Ali is a bit more of a complicated case, but then Pakistan unlike India didn’t have an effective Communist party to drag their cadres into localised politics.

Hardly anyone is seriously committed to the traditional central plank of Marxism-Leninism

Should this be “Marxist-Leninism”, I am not sure how long the former would have survived in the regime of the latter had he been alive.

Particularly among the former New Left, postmodernism has played an important role in popularising the (always appealing) idea that a purely semantic radicalism is both necessary and sufficient for the maintenance of Left credentials.

Well, yes and no. This interpretation has found favour with many of the more moderate activists and fits in well with a more comfortable lifestyle. But many of these supposedly ‘post-modernist’ thinkers were strong activists in their own right and clearly went far beyond semantic radicalism in their own activities. Of course this went down some highly bizarre directions, Foucault’s ill-advised support for some aspects and elements of the 1979 Iranian Revolution being a case in point as well as Deleuze’s support for sympathisers of the Red Army Faction in the then FRG and the Peruvian Shining Path. For many of these thinkers/intellectuals, there was a shift away from organised working-class based political parties and towards more focused ‘micro-struggles’ but this wasn’t to be seen as some sort of lapse into moderate bourgeois liberal politics. One could see it as a re-ordering of radicalism away from the way that orthodox Marxist understood it, but it clearly went beyond mere semantics and into the field of praxis. Action that would mainly be confined to pure theorising or words, would have been seen as either playing the poseur or acting in bad faith.

As far as defending traditionally socialist causes like public ownership and the welfare state is concerned, social democrats have been far more active than the Jacobin left.

Not to defend the ‘Jacobin Left’ but I would have thought that after the onslaught of ‘globalisation’ and the mediocre compromises of the Third Way, the whole point was that one couldn’t even rely on social democrats to actually defend these traditional pillars with any effectiveness of vigour. Behind the syrupy rhetoric there has been a wholesale accommodation to the market and to the right.

So most of the US Left was opposed to all of the recent uses of military force, from Kosovo to Liberia, with Iraq being seen as simply one more example of the inherent aggression of the US state. By contrast, most of the non-US left supported all of these interventions, with varying degrees of reluctance, until the war with Iraq came along.

Is this really true? Kosovo and the Balkans in particular, split many sections of the Left with not all supporting the NATO action and many feeling uncomfortable with it. The principle of military humanitarianism seemed to have been determined in these test cases and at least some of the warnings of more critical voices have been partially borne out by more recent trends. I do agree that there is a difference between the US and the non-US left; but I would have thought that a visceral and instinctive anti-Americanism would have been more a problem for the latter.

The archetypal example of a Jacobin who broke with the Left to support the war is Christopher Hitchens. As the debate has proceeded he’s moved more and more firmly into the Bush camp, pushing the party line on WMDs and pretty much silent these days about the Palestinians, whose cause he once embraced

Well, I think he still is clear about the unpalatable aspects of the Bush regime; and it is amusing that when this surfaces on occasion in interviews with the more rightwing media, that his interlocutors become alarmed and steer the conversation back to the faults and problems of the ‘Left’. The ‘Islamo-fascist’ tag as Tariq Ali has noted was in a way quite smart as it was bound to push the buttons of assorted leftists programmed to see red when the fascist label was wheeled out. Hitchens has simply switched to the lesser evil framework, whereby the threat of ‘Islamo-fascism’ has legitimated all sorts of dubious alliances and compromises with other less than savoury forces; this is not totally out of synch with a certain Leftist position from the period leading up to WWII where defeating European fascism was seen as the primary goal to which all others should be subordinated. Depending on the context, this position was taken by various leftist factions, including Stalinists and non-Stalinist Marxists at the time; but this time around I think for obvious reasons it is a mis-interpretation to cast current strains of Islamic fundamentalism in this way. As for other erstwhile fashionable causes like the Palestinians, no doubt once the mega-menace of Islamic-fascism has been defeated then all the other pieces will fall into place, or so the argument goes. It should perhaps be noted, that at least some of the support for the Palestinian nationalist movement tend to be somewhat instrumental, as it has been for many national-liberation movements; there is an element of trendiness here but also tactical positioning as these movement tend to be support in the early phases of struggle when they can legitimately claim to be suffering from some form of neo-imperialist oppression or indirect colonialism but which evaporates quite quickly once they obtain statehood or their main political demands. If/when a Palestinian state does come into existence, one can expect a sharp dropping off in its popularity amongst quite a few leftist circles (especially if the antics of the PA were anything to go by).

Certainly there is something to Peter Hitchen’s comment that many of these former Marxist Leftists still retained their Leninist adherence to state power and its coercive uses but had simply switched the ideology in which they sought to articulate and shape its exercise. This is a little crude but it captures some of the common dogmatism that exists on the Right within those who make this kind of Augustinian transition.

6

Russell Arben Fox 02.06.04 at 3:19 pm

I agree with Patrick. While this is, in general, an interesting and insightful typology, it derails when it attempts to fit foreign policy into its schematic. To pluck an example from the European side: the idea that the European left, fortuitously instituted in a range of social democratic-socialist-green-type parties, has been able to respond with balance and pragmatism to the reality of American power, whereas the U.S. left, deprived of anything except an atrophied Noam Chomskeyesque-intellectual-petit-bourgeois-base, has genuflectively been opposed to all American interventions, elides utterly the vicious and widespread anti-American protests throughout Europe–even by social democrats–which attended Reagan’s confrontational policies towards the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Bush II is hardly the first American president to throw the isolationist angst of the European left into sharp relief; it’s been equally present there as it has been among American leftist circles. Consider Paul Berman’s recent, very sympathetic treatment of Joschka Fischer, and the ideologies and ideologues he has struggled with among the German left (including with himself) in order to get to the point where he is “generally aligned, as regards US foreign policy, with the left wing of the Democrats.” The problems of the left in addressing intervention are by no means any more clear or coherent on one side of the Atlantic than the other.

7

Russell Arben Fox 02.06.04 at 3:31 pm

“At the other extreme from the libertarian is the authoritarian, who does not want personal or economic freedom. The authoritarian believes government knows best in everything and that liberty will result in chaos.”

Bob, I realize you’re just quoting a study, so forgiven my ire. But I can’t stand this crummy two-axis measurement; it is, at best, a very superificial analysis of the options available (freedom or restriction? economic or personal?), at worst, a very successful libertarian ploy to make small government seem the best of all possible worlds. Since when do all “restrictions” come from the state? Since when are all collective purposes “authoritarian”? Since when is a concern for social and moral capital a constrasting concern with economic equality? Sheesh.

More from me here: http://philosophenweg.blogspot.com/2003_09_01_philosophenweg_archive.html#106452049985483597

8

Chris Clarke 02.06.04 at 3:51 pm

Hitchens’ “conversion” was not that big a surprise to many of us in what passes for the US left. The point made above with regard to Hitch’s primary allegiance being to his class is spot on. On the odd occasions when he writes about people not in the political intelligentsia, whether in US flyover country or cabdrivers in Karachi, his condescension is palpable and malevolent.

And don’t forget his principled opposition to abortion, exceptions being made only when it was his girlfriend who got knocked up.

Good point as well with regard to the “semantic” left, although I’ve found such types are generally confined either to sectarian groups or to college campuses. This is a fine setup, as they are thus free to discuss amongst themselves and the rest of us can largely avoid contact with them.

One last comment: the assertion that “Greens … are mainstream leftists who choose to put more emphasis on the environment than others,” while accurate in the sense intended – describing political parties in Europe – should not be construed to apply to lower-case g greens, a.k.a. environmentalists in general. Having worked in and reported on that trend for the last two decades, I can assure you that political thought among environmentalists is incredibly diverse, with a strong fundamentalist authoritarian trend in what is generally thought of as the “extreme left wing” of the movement. For every Nader there seem to be at least five Garret Hardins or Paul Watsons. The generally tame, DLC-oriented Sierra Club is now fending off an incursion by radical enviros of the xenophobic right wing, for instance.

9

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 02.06.04 at 3:59 pm

Conrad Barwa and Russell Arben Fox do a much thoughtful job than I did of answering John Quiggin’s assertion that “the central position of the US Left is opposition to US foreign policy whatever that may be.” I’ll just add that as American who was raised in a left-leaning family and whose adult political views are basically left-wing, this doesn’t match up to my reality. It’s undeniably a common smear against leftists and liberals, but if it were really true that we oppose anything the US does in the world just because it’s the US doing it, we’d have been wearing “US Out Of UN” pins for the last fifty years.

10

CY 02.06.04 at 4:10 pm

I’m not a big fan of Hitchens. But I’m not sure it’s fair to say that he’s basically dumped the Palestinians. Here are some recent remarks that don’t really look like backsliding to me.

11

Bob 02.06.04 at 4:19 pm

Scott: “If you read carefully, they pretty much confess that this whole line of research has all the analytical value of a horoscope.”

It rather depends on what one infers from the research. As best I can gather, the strategists for the Clinton campaign in 1992 and again in 1996 applied the analytical techniques to select policy bundles that would maximise his electoral support in the presidentials without giving too many hostages to fortune or offending too many special interest groups.

New Labour in Britain sent observers to the 1996 Democrat campign to climb the learning curve and then imported the techniques to Britain, which is why the successful campaign of New Labour for the 1997 election was characterised by the use of extensive polling and focus groups. There was much media comment on that at the time and about how New Labour had finally sacrificed political principles for electoral expediency. The next step in the unfolding ideological saga was Blair’s launch of the Third Way in early 1998, with its provenance going back to Mussolini.

Russell: “But I can’t stand this crummy two-axis measurement; it is, at best, a very superificial analysis of the options available (freedom or restriction? economic or personal?”

I agree but then I believe that advanced practitioners of the psephological analytical techniques have progressed to at least seven dimensions since. Anyway, two dimensions is an order of magnitude improvement on the simple linear political spectrum, stretching from left to right, as inherited from Revolutionary France. One persuasive reason for abandoning the simple linear spectrum is that Stalin evidently had no insuperable ideological objections to the Soviet Union signing up to a Friendship Treaty with Nazi Germany on 28 September 1939 when Britain and France were already at war [Norman Davies: Europe (1996), p. 1001].

12

dsquared 02.06.04 at 5:05 pm

Scott wrote:

This whole “beyond left and right” business has always struck me as little more than a justification for traditionally leftist parties to adopt conservative polcies.

in which context it is worth noting that the first people to start searching for a new politics “beyond left and right” found the “Third Way” they were looking for in Fascism, the original Third Way.

13

Ophelia Benson 02.06.04 at 5:55 pm

“From the 1850s to the 1950s, and to some extent beyond, the Democrats were the defenders of slavery and segregation.”

That’s not right. Not for the whole period, and not the whole party. From at least the ’20s on, the Democratic party was an amalgam of defenders of slavery and segregation, and other allegiances and interests entirely. The party put up with the segregationists, and were often drastically compromised by them – but it’s not the case that the whole party was pro-segregation.

“Since the Democrats have the support of the organized working class locked up, the support base of the Left is almost exclusively petit-bourgeois, as was the case with the Jacobins, and the political approach is that of a group that has no realistic prospect of exercising power at any level, barring a catastrophic collapse of the existing order.”

The Dems don’t have the support of the organized working class locked up. If only they did! If only they did 1. the organized working class would be a lot bigger and better off (the Taft-Hartley act would be repealed, for a start, so employers would not be able to hire scabs to replace striking workers, thus making strikes very difficult and workers nearly helpless) and 2. the Democratic party wouldn’t be such pathetic sell-outs.

And I’m not sure about the realistic prospect, either. It was only a few years ago that Democratic control of Congress seemed to be a law of nature. Change happens.

14

jamie 02.06.04 at 5:56 pm

“Greens, for the most part, are mainstream leftists who choose to put more stress on the environment than others, and dislike the authoritarian structure of the larger left parties. ”

I’d question that. Surely what distinguishes a committed green from a conventional left or right winger is the central notion that we are running short of resources and/or are poisoning the planet through economic development, which must therefore be scaled back drastically. Both left and right have traditonally been parties of “more” who have differed on how you produce and distribute. The Greens are the party of “less”, and their opposition to capitalism is mainly because that’s what drives economic growth right now.

15

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 02.06.04 at 7:02 pm

I’m not at all sure that’s true of everyone who identifies as “green.”

Whether it logically ought to be is a different question, but there are certainly self-identified greens who believe you can have both economic growth and a radically increased commitment to environmental preservation.

16

drapetomaniac 02.06.04 at 7:29 pm

. It’s undeniably a common smear against leftists and liberals…

esp from white, male nominally leftists and liberals. i note white and male bc i think there’s a significant overlap between this tendency and the left-for-dead thesis.

Is this really true? Kosovo and the Balkans in particular, split many sections of the Left with not all supporting the NATO action and many feeling uncomfortable with it.

indeed.

17

Ophelia Benson 02.06.04 at 7:46 pm

Oh those pesky white males. If only they would

18

jamie 02.06.04 at 8:23 pm

“…but there are certainly self-identified greens who believe you can have both economic growth and a radically increased commitment to environmental preservation.”

Yes, comrade, but we need rigour and discipline in this glorious movement of ours!

Seriously, while there’s a whole range of overlapping sympathies between green or green-ish views anbd affiliations right across the political spectrum (Prince Charles!) you have to identify a point where Greenness forms the basis for programs for political change political change, and that’s the point where they and the left diverge. Otherwise it’s a debate about the precise point after dinner at which one does the washing up, and who does it.

19

Wayne Eastman 02.06.04 at 10:48 pm

As opposed to Quiggin’s historical/comparative line (or Matthew Yglesias’s philosophical one), I prefer an interest-based line: The left supports the interests of the economically left-behind and the cultural vanguard.

Are there problems with the proposed definition? Oh yes…for one thing, there are plenty of difficulties with defining interests and vanguards. Still, IMNSHO, the proposed interest-based definition of left (and right) is more concise and explains significantly more about the left and the right and the way their competition works than definitions based on principles such as equality, or definitions based on an itemization of particular positions or national circumstances.

Marx’s group-based interpretations of left and right now have a poor reputation, (deservedly in my view), and principle-based interpretations like Matt’s, such as the equality-based interpretation offered by Norberto Bobbio in his well-argued Left and Right, strike me as the dominant analytical mode for understanding L and R nowadays. But I think we’re in the grips of an intellectual market failure. All libs and cons want to justify what we’re doing, which is quite right, and indeed our job. But it’s an error to assume that our justifications of our line will track the actual logic of the difference between left and right. If we make that assumption, as I believe many of us do, we shortchange interest-based explanations of left and right that do not correspond with our justifications, even though they may–and do, IMO–work better than principle-based explanations.

20

gordon 02.06.04 at 11:52 pm

It seems to me that the crossover between greens and socialists arises from the use by both of such inclusive terms as “we”, “society”, “the human race” etc. As long as you perceive environmental degradation as affecting everyone, and environmental protection as benefitting everyone, you are likely to be confused with a socialist. Political action which benefits everyone will probably benefit the lower classes proportionately more than the ruling class, so any environmental protection based on “we are all at risk/we could all benefit from action” logic looks like socialism to class-based right-wingers.

21

John Quiggin 02.07.04 at 12:39 am

To defend my statements on Kosovo and Iraq, I’ll observe that AFAIK, no mainstream left party (my first sense of Left) opposed the Kosovo intervention* or the war in Afghanistan (there were, as I noted, reservations) and all, except the British Labour Party, opposed the war in Iraq.

By contrast, most (or at least large sections) of the Jacobin left opposed Kosovo, Afghanistan and all the others I’ve mentioned. The Glenn Condell 02.07.04 at 3:34 am

This is all very interesting, but we’ll never really get close to what the left (or indeed the right) actually ‘is’; any small piece of common ground would be dwarfed by acres of disagreement. And what to do with it once we find it? This was always true, but is perhaps truer now than ever. Wayne Eastman’s interest-based method seems in this time of realignments to be the most sensible approach.

A more salient exercise than definition might be to limn the uses of this bipolar typology and how effective they are; ie, the way a casual classification as either left or right casts the subject into a straightjacket of assumptions, the shackles of which few people have the time or energy to shake off.

You see it all the time and there are plenty of examples of left to right, but right to left classification is far more pronounced from my admittedly progressive perspective. ‘The left’ is a hold-all for anything that doesn’t chime with the ascendant US hubris (now starting to crack thank God) – read any Brooks or Friedman or Hitchens.. the way anyone who stands opposed to the war and it’s provenance is tarred as being a ‘full-mooner’ from Planet Chomsky… the way us Mums and Dads and church groups and yes, long-haired students were tarred as ‘far left’ or ‘anti-American left’ or ‘extreme’ or ‘fringe’ – or at the very least as sheep being skilfully mustered by covens of wicked far lefties, ‘effectively’ in cahoots with Saddam.

As Quiggers says ‘Hardly anyone is seriously committed to the traditional central plank of Marxism-Leninism, the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in the developed countries’… so despite the strenuous efforts of well paid right wing (there I go!) commentators to paint a scarifying picture of a long dead threat (ie; widespread actual communism), most of us who read beyond the headlines know it is a crock. We simply refused to eat shit; it’s that simple.

What bothers me is how far this meme-disease seems to progressed in the US; a development of great importance for the rest of us. The phrases ‘the left’ or ‘liberals’ have been so successfully traduced by a media owned and largely operated by people whose interests are not surprisingly best served by Republicans, that the real threat coming from the right has been obscured. Joe Sixpack and Jenny Sixpack will be voting in November and their decision to a large extent determines the trajectory of all our lives for the next four years, in truth well beyond.

I’m not satisfied that they go into this armed with the facts, or even with a range of easily available viewpoints through which to arrive at an informed outcome. (I’m obviously a native of Planet Chomsky..) Too many of them have had anti-liberal attitudes imprinted in them… they understand that expressions of hate for progressives (or fierce support of the right) will earn them media approval (or at least a pretence of tolerant distance)while your occasional liberal utterance is abused, ridiculed, marginalised. And so you write a sign saying ‘Goddam morans – Go USA!’ and harrass those few brave souls who refuse to eat the ordure you swallow without blinking. You find yourself vigorously agreeing with aggressive songbird Toby Keith and burning your Dixie Chicks CDs, wondering what you ever saw in those ‘Fat Slags’.

A determined and sustained political distortion has existed in the US since Nixon and this has prevented the home of the brave from truly becoming the leader of the free world. The right only manages to lose when it overreaches itself, which it does on a regular basis thank God. Happily for them Diebold and other Republican-linked voting machine makers have stepped into the breach to help with the threat of increased Democrat turnout in November.

I have made contact with a number of fairly well-known conservatives over the last year or two, generally those who’ve joined the ‘Disillusiond Right-wingers Club’ in that time. Normally I respond to pieces they’ve written on Iraq; the sinister leadup and the disastrous results. I make the point that our differences still exist (they still want to allow foxhunting or abolish single mother welfare or whatever and I still want progressive taxation and proportional representation et al) but that the relative unimportance of such divisions is thrown into sharp relief at a time like this, when all informed people with a degree of decency are appalled at what has been done in their name.

The real divisions right now are between those of us willing to let lapse our participation in our democracy and those of us who refuse to be quiet. Between those who’ll eat bullshit and those who won’t. Between citizen and subject.

You’ll find both kinds on both sides.

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roger 02.07.04 at 8:37 pm

Conrad, as I remember it, Deleuze’s “support for sympathisers of the Red Army Faction in the then FRG and the Peruvian Shining Path” was confined to not supporting their illegal extradition to face what he thought of as trumped up charges before unjust tribunals. Not exactly the same as supporting the tactics and ideology of either group.

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Conrad Barwa 02.08.04 at 3:25 pm

Conrad, as I remember it, Deleuze’s “support for sympathisers of the Red Army Faction in the then FRG and the Peruvian Shining Path” was confined to not supporting their illegal extradition to face what he thought of as trumped up charges before unjust tribunals. Not exactly the same as supporting the tactics and ideology of either group.

Roger, as far as tactics go I would agree with you for the most part. Deleuze organised the defence of one of the lawyers for the accused in the Baader-Meinhof Gang, when he had fled to France after being accused of illicitly passing on information to the organisation. It was also when he had a final split with Foucault who refused to participate in a petition and attempts for repatriation; from the selected writings on the issue at the time; what was at stake was not the truth of the charges, these were seen as tangential but rather the problems of authoritarian control that any accused of anti-state terrorism would face in such a trial; and given his distrust of such disciplinary regimes, Deleuze’s opposition to it, independent of the ‘innocence’ of the accused. As for the Sendero Luminoso; this is not exactly a new item; on and off Deleuze supported the ideology of various Maoist movements and groups though his ideology and notions of any social and political utopia were significantly more revolutionary and libertarian than theirs. Again, I think it is in one of the volumes of interviews with Foucault, where a Shining Path member expresses some puzzlement as to why exactly Deleuze is sympathetic to their position, saying that Satre’s support is understandable given his political programme and reading of historical materialism, while Foucault’s support was based on his concern with confinement and repressive structures of surveillance/control. All this doesn’t mean that either of these figures supported or endorsed terrorism of any kind on some sort of blanket level; but they did not a priori discard it as a tool and they certainly did not see it as the kind of repulsive or consuming danger that more orthodox Liberals and Social Democrats did. This is to be expected given the strong anti-Humanist streak in their works and thinking, traceable back to the influence of Structuralist Althusserian Marxism; and problems of subjectivity and agency, which recur in their social schema. Which isn’t to say that they automatically espoused violence, but just that their approach to it was very different from traditional Liberal Democratic paradigm and to expect them to condemn or reject it on moral or political grounds is quite mistaken.

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roger 02.08.04 at 3:53 pm

Conrad
Hmm. As I remember the comment to Foucault that you are talking about, it wasn’t the Sendero Luminoso, which wasn’t well known in France in the seventies — hell, it was clandestine even in its native Peru, and by the time it announced itself — with the grotesque stunt of hanging dogs from poles — Foucault was dead. It was from a French Maoist group. Foucault, in his interviews, sometimes played a sort of ideological chicken — for instance, praising the “September massacres” as an example fo spontaneous justice. Which is rather like praising lynching in the South as an example of spontaneous justice. On the other hand, I rather like Foucault’s devil may care attitude — he used interviews to try out ideas. Foucault would have made a hell of a blogger.

By the way, have you read Nicholas Shakespeare’s novel about the Sendero L., The Dancer Upstairs? Excellent novel.

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Conrad barwa 02.10.04 at 2:32 pm

Roger,

I will have to check the quote but I have a sinking suspicion that you are right; in which case I will have to eat my words;)

By the way, have you read Nicholas Shakespeare’s novel about the Sendero L., The Dancer Upstairs? Excellent novel.

Haven’t read the book but I have seen the film, which is very well made. There is, though, a strongly reactionary reading of the text which annoyed me very much – all committed to anyform of radical social change are presented as nihilists. Even being generous the work seems like a plea for middle-class liberalism as a solution to the political and economic problems faced in the nameless Latin American country and comes off as unconvincing. In the film at least, it is not really clear why the police captain, witnessing the corrupt order and the discrimination inherent in it, decides to prop it up; a sort of ‘whisky priest’ analogy comes to mind but I just didn’t quite buy the whole concept.

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pdm 02.13.04 at 6:49 pm

The real divisions right now are between those of us willing to let lapse our participation in our democracy and those of us who refuse to be quiet. Between those who’ll eat bullshit and those who won’t. Between citizen and subject.
You’ll find both kinds on both sides.

I disagree—-I think that conserative ideology is INHERENTLY one that reduces us into OBJECTS (to be used, abused and disposed as the Chosen Few see fit), as opposed to living, breathing, thinking beings. Patriarchy reduces women to sex objects, capitalism reduces workers to profit/productivity objects, white supremacy reduces non-white folks into hate objects, religious fascism (be it Zionism, Islamo-fascism or right wing Christianity) does the same for persons of different religions—or the unbelivers.

The great impetus for the great social-change revolutions of our time (civil-rights, socialism, feminism, anti-Zionism, etc.) is those “objects” who ain’t gonna put up with that shit no more……

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