Friday, 21 December 2018

What does it mean to be left-wing?

I’ve noticed a lot of name-calling on the social medias lately, with words like ‘neoliberal’ and ‘centrist’ being hurled at bemused people who consider themselves progressive left-wingers.

This has caused some to decry that they don’t know what neoliberal means, since they know they aren’t one but are being called one anyway. Queue false incredulity from ‘true believers’ on the left.

The simple fact is that the loss of faith in state planning by many on the left has led many away from the traditional left. This creates problems when viewing through the familiar political compass.

Traditional political compass

According to the traditional compass, above, left-wingers are split into libertarian (anarchists) and authoritarian (socialists). But what does it mean to be left-wing?

One answer is that left-wingers want government control of the economy so that it is run for the benefit of the people or the workers. On this view the political spectrum runs from free-market to government-control.

 The problem with this is that it leaves no room for left-wingers who don’t believe that state-run industry is a good idea, or that it is simply wrong as the state should not exist.

Another answer is that left-wingers want governments to redistribute resources from the economically successful to the less successful. This is less radical in one respect—it doesn’t require the overthrow of capitalism and this isn’t its aim. It requires tough regulation of firms to ensure that they act in the public interest, including price regulation if there are natural monopolies. More distinctly, it requires large-scale redistribution from the more economically successful to the less.

 But if left and right are understood in the ‘old’ way then on this compass there is no place for the distinction between those who would want state control of all industry, those who seek the abolition of private property and those such as myself who advocate a maximally redistributive form of capitalism. Personally, I argue for extreme interference in people’s post-tax income, but not for state control of industries or the removal of all state apparatus.

The kind of position I am referring to was called the ‘third-way’ in the 90s, but is more correctly termed liberal egalitarianism. Liberal egalitarians support whatever economic system works best for the worst-off and want to ensure that everyone has political and personal freedoms. 

The 'third way' was castigated after the failure of the Clinton and Blair governments to that much redistribution. As a side, note, I think they did more than credited, it was nowhere near what many supporters of a ‘third-way’ would want. Critics would point out that this is inevitable since the position acquiesces in a pro-market ideology, while defenders would point out these movements were either unambitious or hamstrung by the political climate.

When compasses fail

Something is wrong with a spectrum or compass if two very different political positions come out as being the same. Or if someone would label themselves in one position but others would place them somewhere completely different.

Both of the above compasses (compii?) fail to reflect the variety of left-wing thought. The simple fact is that the left splits into represent different dimensions – statist/central-planning, reformist/redistributive, and anarchist/utopian.

Does authoritarian-libertarian axis do the job?

Most people will be thinking that I’m missing the importance of the other axis, which adequately allows us to take account of the old-new division. We could ascribe authoritarian as state-control and libertarian as less state control over the economy. This is plausible, and it is probably how many people see that axis. But I don’t think this solves the problem.

After all, this means that the bottom left section contains radically different political views in the same positions. Traditional left-wing anarchist/libertarian thought would appear here as they are against state interference. However, so would supporters of redistributive capitalism, even though these are totally different systems.

The other (authoritarianism) axis is also of course multiply-ambiguous too.

It refers to the level of state interference in people’s lives, but it isn’t necessarily the case that more interference in one realm implies greater interference in another (though libertarians would no doubt claim this). This axis could instead be considered the distinction between social conservativism and libertarianism.

There could be a theocratic state which was very intrusive regarding people’s personal relations, but quite laissez-faire when it came to economic interventions. On the other hand there could be a state which was very libertarian about people’s lifestyle choices but very interventionist as far as private property ownership was concerned.

So, we could ignore the social-conservative dimension and focus on economic interference alone. But then the highly redistributive liberal comes out.


So, should we come up with a hologrammatic cube?

Or an even-more multi-dimensional representation of political space (using sounds or something)?

I don’t know.

But I do know that the left is, as ever, split between various factions with incompatible views while the (perhaps less numerous) right is broadly in agreement on the issue of (relatively or selectively) free markets.

What I don’t appreciate is when people mis-represent the left-wing redistributive liberals such as myself as having a view with which we vehemently disagree. Left-wingers who agree with us on the badness of free-market capitalism label us as ‘neoliberal’ supporters of free-market capitalism.  Right-wingers who agree with us about the badness of state-run economies or the abolition of private property label us as socialists or communists. But we support private property and freedom of enterprise.

Perhaps the only solution is to acknowledge that redistributive capitalism is a valid position and engage with it properly rather than in name-calling. People don’t just hold this position solely as a result of cynical electoral calculation and triangulation (though that be the case for some politicians). Liberal egalitarianism is an attractive political philosophy and can plausibly be considered to offer the best life prospects for working people.

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