Growing up my parents weren’t politically active; they still aren’t and I’ve seemed to inherit the same ambivalence towards actual political parties, mostly due to perceived corruption. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t hold values or express political views. They certainly did and those values and views decidedly leaned Left…well, kind of. More on what the Left represents a bit later. First, a brief recap of those values and views inculcated from childhood.
There was a somewhat paradoxical view of the role of government. On the one hand it was felt that government should provide more services for the poor, universal health care and improve education yet at the same time it was felt that government needs to do less; it had gone too far in interfering with individual rights to build, to work and to cultivate.
In typical hippie fashion, they consistently preached against centralised authority from the government or centralised production from industry, always in favour of more independence and autonomy, the local, the organic, the natural and ecologically sustainable.
Closely related to this there was a strong aversion to participating in industrial capitalism, working for large corporations as well as any kind of socialism such as working for unions or large institutions of the state, be they through government contracts or directly for the armed forces. Part of the attraction for my father in particular to immigrate to the US was opportunity for entrepreneurship: independent, self-supporting responsibility.
As appreciative for such economic opportunity as they were, they maintained the view that the cultural heart of the UK and US was defined by a master-slave dynamic. They would frequently point to what they perceived as the police state and the prison system as two of the conspicuous domestic manifestations of the inherent brutality of Anglo-American culture.
I would say they had an instinctive attraction for multiculturalism as a bulwark against the aforementioned brutality, maintaining a hope that the master-slave dynamic could be tempered by other ways of thinking, an influx from other cultures, ethnicities and languages or from oppressed minority viewpoints extant within the culture. Benefits were thought to be unidirectional: Anglo-American society stood to benefit from cultural influx but should respect and not interfere with other cultures abroad.
Many of the politicized moral viewpoints such as abortion, gay marriage, gun control, they had opinions on these things but not strong enough to advocate for government interference. My point in mentioning all of this is not to address their beliefs in a point by point manner, rather to establish the background and early influences on my own thinking in light of what I’m to discuss next.
Left & Right
I’d like to take a moment and digress to recall where the political designations of Left & Right originate: Revolutionary France. When King Louis XVI faced a crisis in government, he convened a meeting of the Estates General. The first estate or class, representatives of the church and the second estate, representatives of the nobility sat at his right. The “Right” was characterised by “privileges”, quite literally “private laws”, largely in the form of tax exemptions whereas the third estate seated at left represented the commoners. The “Left” comprised about 98% of the population yet held very little in the way of political representation or land ownership although they were increasing in economic power.
From this background there are a couple of ways about thinking about the “Right”. It mostly concerns organisation of a society under religious hierarchy and aristocracy. Largely due to the fallout of the French Revolution this form of societal organisation has been wholly dispensed with in Western civilisation. There’s no political “Right” to speak of anymore. Western nations are now all organised as liberal democracies, the state institutions typically distributing governmental authority through several levels from the national down to the municipal and across branches: executive, legislative and judicial. Likewise, economic power has been distributed in Western nations between the public and private sectors, although the percentages will vary from nation to nation. In conclusion, it’s my observation that all Western governments are at the national level now variations of the “Left”, being populist oriented.
Privilege & Discrimination
Some might rightly protest that privileges continue to persist and that they are closely tied to discrimination. This is of course true in a straight forward legal sense. Many privileges based on discrimination are broadly accepted. For example, we discriminate and have instituted laws particularly applicable to minors, obligating them to receive an education and forbidding them from driving or drinking alcohol. Similarly, senior citizens are granted certain privileges in our societies, yet another aged based form of discrimination. In both cases these privileges have been instituted to support or mitigate harm to vulnerable populations of the young and elderly respectively.
However, other privileges and forms of discrimination have been rejected as being arbitrary, sexist or racist. Consequently, private laws that discriminated against groups on the basis of religion, sex, race or ethnicity have been progressively repealed in Western societies. As a result, a substantial amount of the arbitrary legal barriers to education, land ownership, employment, and voting have been removed. By contrast new privileges for those perceived as vulnerable members of our society such as the impoverished and disabled have been instituted. Essentially, Western societies have become more “Left” or populist than they or any societies for that matter have been in human history.
I observe there is a confusion in common parlance of “privilege”, private laws of the state, with the negative connotation of “discrimination”, policies of institutions or attitudes and actions of individuals that create barriers against others who are identified on the basis of race, sex, religion or some other arbitrary characteristic. Ironically, what is commonly called “discrimination” is rather a lack of it. By categorising or identifying all members of a sex or race to be the same in fact shows a lack of discrimination in its positive connotation, an inability or unwillingness to divide or separate individuals on a meaningful basis.
I’ll conclude this section with an anecdotal, personal experience of racism. As a child my parents moved from the very multicultural cosmopolitan New York City to the small city of Denton, TX. My mother is English/Irish on her father’s side, Russian Jew on her mother’s. My father is Jamaican of mostly English but also African ancestry. Cousins on my father’s side reflect the ethic diversity of Jamaica: white, black, Chinese, Indian and every shade in between. My school population in Texas at that time mostly consisted of blonde haired blue-eyed white folks with a minority of blacks and Hispanics. I might be fair skinned but between my accent and curly black hair I didn’t “pass”. I was immediately identified, labeled and called “Jew nigger” …for years. Apparently, I’d killed sweet Jesus and was worse than the blacks and Mexicans because I belonged to the “Mud” people. This was all accompanied by physical violence. Trust me, it wasn’t pleasant, I don’t have a single friend from my childhood in Texas. In retrospect, what really bothered me the most about the experience was that it was so irrational so intellectually impoverished. I was confronted with ignorance, slogans, and a superficial view of purity based on external appearance, there was no discussion possible.
Liberal & Conservative
I often hear the terms liberal and conservative interchanged for left and right. That’s just not correct or at the very least not nuanced enough. Conservative pretty much means what it sounds like, those with a tendency to conserve the status quo. It does help if that status quo is working out for you. This certainly was the case for the clergy and aristocracy of revolutionary France; they had a vested interest in things staying as they were so in this case being conservative and holding privileges at the King’s right hand were aligned.
However, being conservative is also largely a personality trait. A good many people just are resistant to change, especially rapid change. That’s actually quite understandable. Change can be stressful, it brings uncertainty even chaos. The old cliché, “if it ain’t broken, don’t fit it” generally holds. However, a key part of that phrase is “if it ain’t broken”. The world is complex and dynamic; often times laws or systems that worked fine for years aren’t working quite right anymore or they might be working for you but aren’t working for your neighbour. If they’re not working at least reasonably well for everyone then it’s time to talk, it’s a time for openness to change which is one sense of being liberal.
I’ve been asked if I’m more conservative or liberal. My response is, “it depends.” In my case it’s not a presupposed ideological commitment but a responsive behaviour to the immediate context. Perhaps my default position is conservative, specifically caution against hubris. Even when confronted with a problem, I feel one must not take those who established laws or customs beforehand for fools and oneself or one’s generation as the insightful genius. Be sure any change you institute doesn’t make the situation worse or generate a collateral issue of greater severity. Phrases like “Anything is better than this!” in reference to some significant change, are seldom true or as easily implemented as they are to say.
Liberal & Progressive
Liberal has another, really distinct meaning more to do with being as free, autonomous and independent as possible, particularly from the state but also private industrial enterprises that might furnish basic necessities such as food, clothes, shelter and medicine. The focus of this kind of liberal outlook is on personal responsibility and self-reliance. Generally, among such liberals there is a distrust of large complex systems, anonymity and authority, particularly authority imposed impersonally from bureaucracies far removed. Interestingly, liberal in this sense does not necessarily entail being open to new ideas or ways of organising society. Often, it’s a disposition towards creating a cyclical, sustainable lifestyle married to a sense of place. I find it unsurprising that many farmers who cultivate crops or raise livestock with their cyclical patterns of growth adopt this view.
By contrast progress literally means to step forward, a linear orientation that has some goal, often nebulous in mind. Naturally it prompts the question of what exactly might be the destination. Greater happiness? Elimination of poverty? Salvation? Nevertheless, progress is undeniable. Our cities are the physical result of decades of industrial and technological progress. Many problems of city life have been solved, many more generated; therefore, more technological progress is needed ad infinitum. Technology however, is only one aspect of progress. Technology adjoins to the idea of social progress as well. Just as we can create better, more efficient physical systems so too can we create better social systems. In both cases such efficiencies require a large degree of capital investment. Therefore, it’s important that once we’ve determined the best way to do something physically or socially that everyone, everywhere complies. Unsurprisingly, that level of compliance to keep everyone, everywhere, increasingly everywhere globally on the steady path of progress requires many different people in many different places relinquishing authority and responsibility, to accept perhaps a specialised role of something much greater than themselves, to conform and submit to the collective spirit of progress!
As you might have surmised, I find the progressive outlook authoritarian, illiberal and invasive. It’s hubristic in thinking it knows what’s best and feels that certainty gives it the right to impose its view. There is a great emphasis in my view of controlling human behaviour through passivity and dependence. The doctrine of progress manifests all the false compassion of an Oedipal mother.
I do believe the progressive doctrine combined with a muddled understanding of privilege and discrimination has led in my lifetime to a tragic corruption of Left values that need to be redeemed. In a continuation of this essay I'll address a typical example of the current intellectual poverty of the Left and how a renewed religious impulse has manifested itself in a secular credulity.
Contributed by Patrick Webb