What or Who is the Left?

Who constitutes the political left?

We have cases of Socialist Parties that are not really socialist; Labour and Workers Parties that do not primarily represent labour; and self-professed social-democratic movements that champion free-market policies in the name of a ‘modernized’ social democracy. Further confusion arises from the wielding of labels in political struggles to denigrate opponents. In the United States, for instance, President Obama is denounced by right-wingers as a’liberal’, a ‘leftist’ and, to round out the trinity, a ‘socialist’, whereas intellectuals of the left deny that the president is progressive at all. To further confuse matters, some well-respected commentators assert that the left-right distinction has no relevance for the solution of many contemporary issues including immigration, environmentalism and aboriginal rights. But what precisely does this claim mean? Left and right are surely among the vaguest terms in the political vocabulary.

One potential resolution is to adopt the traditional distinction that the left is concerned with equality and the right with personal freedom. This formulation is somewhat consistent with the origins of the distinction in the French Revolution, where those seated on the left in the Estates General challenged the existing hierarchical order whereas those on the right supported the existing order. But it is tendentious in assuming that #progressives do not place a high value on freedom.

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, the notion of the left expanded to include anarchists, socialists, communists and social democrats. Today, the left is often equated with all anti-establishment groups – those previously mentioned plus anti-war crusaders, feminists, militant environmentalists, consumer advocates, and the so-called anti-globalization movement. The left appears to be a concept with little analytical value.

To achieve greater precision, we can begin with the commonplace notion that the left developed as critics of capitalism. Progressives seek to remedy the ills of capitalism by means of either fundamental reform or transformation. In a sense, the left developed as the counterpoint to #economicliberalism and, today, neoliberalism. What constitutes this counterpoint is a set of abstract values and assumptions that clash, in most cases, with those of the right. I would argue that these values are trans-cultural – as are the abstract goals and assumptions that constitute liberalism/neoliberalism.

What are the values of the left? Five in particular tend to recur in the discourse of progressives. The first is not equality as such but equal freedom – the view that every citizen, and not just the elite, should have an equal opportunity to experience freedom, which is understood to mean the opportunity to shape a lengthy, productive and meaningful life. This view is radical because capitalism tends toward growing #inequality, as Thomas Piketty has recently established. But equal freedom is actually a value also held by ‘social’ liberals (or what Americans mean when they use the term liberal). Barack Obama or an intellectual such as Amartya Sen in his Development as Freedom, exemplify this form of liberalism. But social liberals break with the left (or others of the left) in the means they are willing to employ and the meaning attached to democracy. Social liberals are sanguine that equal freedom can be achieved through the instrumentality of liberal democratic institutions and markets that are as free as possible. The left, in contrast, believes in deepening democracy and treating markets with skepticism, seeking either to transcend markets or subordinate them to a democratic state or cooperative institutions.

Solidarity, a meta-norm, is thus the second value of the left. It denotes cooperation, trust and mutuality as both the means to equal freedom and as important ends in themselves. This meta-norm stands in contrast to the right’s focus on methodological individualism and personal rights. Closely related is the third assumption: that collective organization and action, particularly of the subaltern classes, is a prerequisite for equal freedom as well as valuable in itself as a reflection of solidarity. Grass-roots organization is characteristic of the left: the assumption that the poor and excluded will have to struggle to overcome their inferior status rather than rely on liberal-democratic party politics to grant them rights.

The fourth assumption is that equal freedom requires either restrictions on, or the elimination of, markets. Whereas liberals treat markets as having inherent value as a manifestation of economic liberty (and a prerequisite of political liberty), those on the left at most conceive of markets only as potentially useful in achieving prosperity. Some progressives believe that markets are necessary in complex economies; others hold that participatory planning is a feasible and preferable alternative to a market economy because markets, however structured, instil the values of possessive individualism. Regardless of this division, the left is united in the commitment to the primacy of politics rather than markets.

Finally, progressives commit themselves to a stronger democracy than the liberal-democratic representative model, with its emphasis on free and fair periodic elections, provides. It is true of course that this democratic commitment in the communist cases of the twentieth century was a travesty. But it is the rare socialist today who does not admit the dead-end that actually existing socialism represented, and who does not advocate strong democracy as the essence of socialism. Deepening democracy for some denotes the extension of democratic decision making from the political sphere to the social and economic spheres. #Economicdemocracy is another way of conceiving of socialism; for the most ambitious it involves #participatoryplanning. For others on the left, strong democracy entails, at least initially, the expansion of participatory institutions in the political sphere. Most commonly, as in the contemporary cases of the ‘pink tide’ in Latin America, this expansion takes place at the local level, often some form of participatory budgeting, with only consultative arenas at the national level. Obviously, for the primacy of politics to have any meaning, it must involve some deepening of democratic political institutions.

What I am suggesting is that the left constitutes a meta-policy paradigm. A paradigm suggests the goals to be achieved, the problems likely to be encountered, and the general strategies and policy instruments that can be used to deal with these problems. Two important implications follow from this approach.

First, the generality of the precepts leaves a lot of room for contention within the left. For instance, Marxist socialists seem often to express more hostility to social democrats than to capitalists. Whereas the latter are simply doing what capitalists do, social democrats who purport to be of the left hold out hope that the defects of capitalism may be rectified via reform rather than transformation. This view marks social democrats, for some, as more dangerous than the predictable capitalists. In short, a variety of political strategies, policies and institutional arrangements are compatible with the five abstract principles. Neoliberals are just as fractious as progressives, for their doctrine encompasses the range from market fundamentalism to social liberalism. There is not one left any more than there is one neoliberalism.

Secondly, it is unclear where to draw the line between the left and the right. Is Obama of the left? Do we include social liberalism, now known as the #ThirdWay, as part of the progressive movement? I tend to say no, because the Third Way diverges too far from the five principles identified earlier. But other commentators disagree. Social liberalism is either the left wing of the right or the right wing of the left; reasonable people disagree. There is, in the end, only so much rigour we can impose upon such ideologically fraught terms.

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