Navigating a path between Left and Right
First off, allow me to wish you a happy and successful 2012. I have always liked New Year and have come to view it, as something of a time for renewal. We are gifted, curtasy of the Christian Calendar, a holiday season (at least, one of the mind) which spans the close of the old year and allows us to begin the new. The result is that we are often able to subconsciously take stock of the old year in the form of Christmas cards, and once a year phone calls or text messages to distant loved ones and friends, and then, either by conscious resolution, or simply by seeing room for improvement in our self audit, begin to aim higher in the new year.
I suspect most bloggers start out with high-minded intentions (in part to justify our own egotism), in any case, but this post, more than most sees me conscious both of my own intentions and the lessons I have leaned since starting just under a month ago.
Partly as a result of my own consciousness of the coming new year, and partly as a recognition of my own changing circumstances, I sought some feedback from a friend as to the content and tone of my blog and have devoted serious consideration to his comments since then.
He was well equipped to judge independently both my tone and underlying message if only because his opinions and my own have abutted with one another so many times in the past, our friendship being founded upon a mutual political antipathy as well as, I believe, healthy respect. It is not so much that we necessarily disagree on any given topic, but that our approach to it has always, without exception been from polarised perspectives.
Some of his comments, I could argue with and others, I was tempted to dismiss out of hand. “Surely he had misread my intent…” But to do so was to miss the point. Anyone who reads a post will do so through the filter of their own prejudicial experiences and views and it is naïve to imagine my own thoughts can be communicated unadulterated to the reader.
Yet one comment in particular has caused me to think long and hard about how I approach blogging in general and what I want to say. It implied that I had allowed myself to:
“fall in the trap of the mainstream media by adopting the conventions which have been devised by the left.”
Now, instinctively, I disagree with this analysis and want to argue it. For one thing, it implies that I pick up my news from a particular source and then tackle the issues accordingly. For another, it implies a left-wing media conspiracy which to my friend, as a man of the political right, ensures that my own agenda is influenced by a left-wing, British, metropolitan Social Democratic agenda such as that often accredited to the BBC.
Yet, simply pushing against this assertion is intellectually dishonest and to my mind, counter to the intentions of Crabbitat. In as much as this blog has a mission statement it is to look at the world partially, but without certainties, to be publicly introspective and avoid preaching. So, while the opinion hurt, it is worth examining and looking at honestly as I suspect that in an American Election Year, the polarisation of political discourse is going to widen, not contract, and increasingly, my blog, as with all others, will be viewed from a “with us or against us” stand-point.
If that is the case, then it is far from unique in history, where political opinion tends to polarize when times are difficult.
In Britain, complaints of print press media bias have been a feature of Labour Party polemic for years. Not long ago, the Scottish National Party was so concerned that they could not get their message across, that they spent a sizable portion of their electoral budget producing their own newspaper. Meanwhile, on two separate occasions, people have posed the question to me as to why the human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti appears so often on Question Time when her views exercise such a marginal impact on voting habits.
But, with polarisation comes perceived victimhood and with victimhood comes intolerance, and when casting my eye over the majority of blogs, I have been struck by a strong seam of frustration and anger running through many of these. The majority appear to be what the Americans would define as Conservative, or Libertarian, in orientation (which may, as my friend, appears to believe, be the result of a left-wing, media bias which denies ‘the Right’ a voice in traditional mainstream media).
This is an argument I am familiar with and concerned by. As a regular watcher of Fox News, I am both fascinated by and often inspired to think about its assertions that there is a left-wing media bias and that “Liberals” and “Progressives” are conspiring to deny a voice to the true American instincts of “Conservatism” and “Libertarianism.”
In particular, I am fascinated by Anne Coulter, a Libertarian Broadcaster and polemicist and frequent contributor to the Fox News agenda. When my friend pronounced himself to be a Libertarian, it is to Coulter, I initially turned to understand what this philosophy actually stands for.
I have subsequently thought long and hard about Libertarianism in general and about the essential differences and similarities between british and American libertarians. I may well explore these in future posts. But one thing they both appear to share is a belief that “The Media” (By which they mean, the broadcast media) entering the homes of people on a day-to-day basis, maintains a socializing (indeed, Socialist) agenda, which acts as a form of fifth column for so-called progressive politics to influence the voting habits of right-minded people.
In America, this view is based, I believe, upon the perceived domination of ‘National’ Media by Eastern or West Coast liberalism which pervades, according to the thesis, the underlying messages of movies, and the news, the political undertones of popular television series and the representation of family, or government or crime or society.
Similarly, in Britain, the media is often criticised, by my friend, as having a bias in favour of the left. Here, he emphatically means the broadcast media as the print media is both historically, supportive of conservative political and social views and (importantly, if the theory is to be credible) irrelevant to modern lives, usurped by social media, Blogs, online media sources, etc.
In other words, to the Libertarian (and more importantly, to Conservatives, generally) the essential characteristics of their message and the essential Americaness or Britishness they represent, are usurped by an invidious, and essentially un-American or un-British coercive agenda. Put simply, The left is progressive and revolutionary and has taken possession of the Media in order to advance its various causes and values.
Now, first off, I remain unconvinced by this analysis for the dual reason that it both implies that people will easily be duped into adopting positions counter to their own way of thinking when their guard is down, and simultaneously ignore the fact that when their guard is up people instinctively tend towards sources of media they trust. What is more, people instinctively do this even when States officially sanction one media source while issuing harsh reprisals to those found accessing others.
A recent journalistic memoire, I read recounted an encounter during the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, in which a truck load of Red Army conscripts were fascinated by the pop music they had heard on “The Voice of America” radio. It should be remembered that Soviet Citizens still read Pravda as well. In one party states, it is best to know the view of the state on a given issue. But, that does not mean that the androgynous colour of David Bowie did not have its appeal to a teenager from Krasnodar, forced to don military fatigues and be shot at on the outskirts og Kandahar.
My own reading of political attacks on media outlets, is that they ignore two fundamental truths about human beings, namely, that all people instinctively distrust voices that seem to them counter intuitive according to their own personal experience and that within the darwinian experience of life, Homo sapiens are neither entirely individualist, nor entirely selfless. Rather, like all primates, we are actually capable of both.
An adherent to conservative nationalist ideology on either side of the Atlantic, might deem Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights as essential guarantors of our way of life: sacred texts, institutions fundamental to our way of life. And few on the center left would disagree with this. Indeed to find someone who would disagree you would need to look to a person situated to the extreme ends of political spectrums.
Communists, for example would argue that the revolution leading to the dictatorship of the proletariat would sweep away the iniquities of the system enshrined in Magna Carta, and Anarchist would point out that Magna Carta or the bill of Rights are corruptions of mankind’s individual freedoms because the freedoms they espouse are freedoms at the expense of someone else. Meanwhile, a Fascist would remind you that in the struggle between national institutions, their can be only one winner and that to return to the essence of magna Carta it is necessary to surrender to the national struggle to overcome other, competing ways of life.
But as Fascists, Communists and Anarchists, are mercifully thin on the ground, it is safe to imagine that for the most part, the freedoms of individuals within the state, are not threatened on a daily basis by subversive conspirators in the BBC, or CNN. Indeed, even if they are, the reality, is that people will simply move to other media outlets.
Rather, what threatens civil liberties, has nothing to do with these modern secular institutions, but the apathy of the electorate.
So why the continued fuss on the part of the right? Ah, well, the answer appears to be these pesky socialists again. You see, the left-wing conspiracy appears not only to dominate the broadcast media, but the education system as well.
Like termites, they not only teach our young, indoctrinating them with their internationalist un-American or un-British views, but control the school curriculum as well. The theory appears to be that successive left-wing ideological modernisers took the education system and set about ensuring that children were taken out of a disciplined educative structure and allowed to flower at their own pace. Meanwhile the teaching profession was able to replace the rigours of academic earnestness with a systematic indoctrination of left-wing ideological credence. Our young are too vulnerable to exercise the discretion, we adults have. This is indoctrination of the sort you see satirised in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Crucible. Ordinary, God-fearing Americans mind altered by invisible coercive and malevolent forces of evil, their freedom to think and act independently, compromised beneath an ideology bent on turning us into socialist automatons.
Historically this is significant because both Body Snatchers and the Crucible were reactions to the last great polarisation in which the right of American politics felt at existential threat. Yes, both are reactions to the perceived threat of Communism characterised by McCarthyism.
I am sceptical of the perceived bias of the “left-wing media” for a number of reasons. For one thing, if an adult in America or Britain dislikes the agenda of the news, he can turn over. Fox news is not banned in America. In Britain, independent News media on both television and radio are constrained by regulatory laws requiring them to be politically impartial, but then, so is the State broadcaster, the BBC, the financing of which, while much maligned by the right-wing in particular, actually serves to guarantee its political independence and impartiality. (indeed, what characterises much of the critique of the BBC, is not actually the independent news broadcasting, but the fact that it enjoys a privilaged position within the british media landscape). Talk radio in the US offers a predominantly right of center take on current affairs while in both Britain and America there is press and internet freedom allowing a predominantly right of centre take on the world to take hold.
A look through blogs confirms to me that most political view points expressed in this way conform to a right of center perspective.
The ‘Right’, my friend included, suggest that this is a reaction to leftist mainstream media bias, but for that to be the case, it would require that these angry people forgo their free unadulterated access to Fox News and force themselves to suffer a media outlet they perceive to be counter to their own views. And I simply don’t believe that these forceful and cogent blogs are the result of such manifest stupidity.
Moreover, if the left-wing conspiracy theory is to be believed and our children are under the daily, state sanctioned tutelage of socialist conspirators, I suspect that the The Socialist International is wasting both it’s time and money.
In my experience (admittedly limited) of children, they tend to express opinions based upon a purer sence of fairness than adults. The reasons for this are simple. Firstly, children have not been compromised as adults have. They can look upon taxation policy (for example) in terms of fairness, because they are not obliged to support a family on what is left. They can prioritize animal welfare or Aid to foreign flood or drought victims because they don’t earn the money required to finance these ventures. They can be passionate about the virtues of democracy, freedom, enterprise and fairness because even in democratic societies, they are constrained by their junior status from exercising their voice in the workings of society.
But children grow up and enter society and are obliged to survive within its structures and this exposure enforces their opinions of how it should operate as well as how it does.
And here is a critical point. Virtually every single survey of social attitudes recorded among the young across the traditional ‘1st World’ records social attitudes among young people becoming more conservative.
In other words, if the left have, as the right suggest, been plotting to subvert our democracy by manipulating our young, where is the evidence for this? Because put simply, it is increasingly The right, who are winning the hearts and minds of our young; at least among those not completely disenfranchised from the debate altogether.
To argue in this context that The Right is victimized when in reality, it is the hegemonic power occupying the centre of the political spectrum across the Western World, is nothing short of paranoia. Moreover, it is the incarnation of the culture of victimhood which characterises a polarizing political landscape, in times of economic hardship.
There are relatively few middle-aged radicals of any political hue. Time, and exposure to bureaucracy gradually stain idealism to the point where we all mount the treadmill in the same fashion. There is a grey automaton quality to a commuter train bound for Wall street, just as their was in 1950’s Moscow.
And in any case, are most teachers socialist? Well, let us suppose for a second that they are. Is this really that surprising? Teaching is not a hunter gatherer occupation. teachers leave the task of todays wealth creation to others. Theirs, like nursing, or policing, is essentially a caring vocation. That is not to deny that there are people who enter it for malevolent or, indeed merely idealistic reasons. But once in it, a teacher is obliged to prepare children for adulthood. doubtless there are some who view this responsibility merely within the confines of preparing children to pass examinations. Meanwhile, doubtless others view this as an opportunity to espouse a world view, and those that do, will, perhaps inevitably, not be drawn from the successful wealth creating or entrepreneurial classes, because if they were, they would be off, running businesses, or inventing things and enjoying the rewards, our capitalist, free market affords such people.
In other words, a capitalist free market society, essentially ensures in its structure that those best suited to earn the big rewards with do so while those best suited to maintain the tribal homestead will find themselves in professions which encourage them to do so.
What they will not do, is prevent people from succeeding or failing in a meritocracy on merit. Children will grow out of idealism just as sure as babies will move onto solids.
But that still leaves the school curriculum. Is that not the result of Socialists meddling? Well as a recipient of just this dumbed down education, I have to say that the case is both arguable and not proven.
Certainly, successive governments in Britain dismantled the Grammar School System (Education Minister in the Heath Government, Margaret Thatcher, presided over more Grammar School Closures than any other minister and earned the ire of her Prime Minister when is own Grammar School was closed).
The abolition of the 11+ examination system and the replacement of fact based “O” levels with skill based “GCSE’s” are widely credited with adding to this mix by ensuring that facts are not taught or knowledge of these, not tested.
Yet, in socialist societies, real ones, the standard of education is very often far in excess of free market economies. While the “dumbing down” of the education system in Britain, has coincided with a privatisation of examination boards and an opening up to a light touch regulation ensuring that schools were able to select the examinations which bore the best grades, rather than those which most rigorously tested students.
Which is not to criticise, the involvement of the market in schooling as such. Rather, it merely serves to illustrate that where a genuine will exists to educate children to a high standard, this can be done by any political society and where there is a lack of will to do so, that society will suffer from a poorly educated populus in due course.
In democratic and capitalist societies, the danger this poses is greater because the contract drawn between people and state, is based upon increased living standards and voter engagement.
Were these are not self-evident, apathy flourishes and propagandists of the right and left, are able to present their agendas without critical engagement.
In most of Europe and North America there remains a post cold war consensus that both social & economic liberalism, provide the best framework for allowing individuals to prosper. While competing political parties, countries, regions and localities might differ on the specifics of how this should be achieved, both in the US and EU States, the party which has successfully occupied the centre has generally been the party of governance.
It is wrong to suppose that governance of the centre is new; a product of the collapse of communism alone. On the contrary, it predates the rise of elected democratic governance altogether. In Britain the rule of the centre was the effective battleground over which 19th century Liberals and Tories fought. Similarly, in America, politics evolved in the ‘1st Party System’ around the centre, only to polarize with the rise of the growing secessionist movement during the middle of the 19th century.
While in Europe, as in the US, political polarization between Left and Right emerged only slowly during the 19th Century and were driven by three principal developments.
- Extension of the franchise
- The development of alternate political philosophies
In the US, a rapid divergence between Northern and Southern States’ economic models, which took place between the 1830’s and the schism of civil war in 1861, was in no small part the result of rapid industrialization in the north married to increasing centralisation of power, which, far from being driven by the State, was essentially the result of private initiative bolstered by loans from London. The standardisation of the railway gauge, the introduction of the telegraph and the increasing mechanization of production which characterized the northern US during these years, had the effect of shrinking the nation and encouraging the spread of ideas from the East. The slow pace of economic development in Southern States and the corresponding retention of devolved ideas and power was a principal motivator behind increasing calls for ‘States Rights.’
In effect the South came to perceive the North as unduly interventionist (in modern parlance, Big Government), denying the Southerners liberty to continue their own way of life.
In Europe, the rapid industrialisation of the economies led to growing disparities in electoral representation as traditional areas of power and wealth were eclipsed by the new economic drivers. In Britain this influence can be seen in Manchester, where electoral representation was granted as a result of reform acts and which later informed the works of Marx & Engels.
2. Extension of the Franchise
The rapid industrialisation of Europe and the US led to a mushrooming in the size of towns and cities as people were drawn to these centers of employment. The deleterious effects of overcrowding and squalor gave rise to increased study and polemic in both the secular and religious spheres as to the best way to cater for this new, urban poor.
While this is a complex subject in itself, the net result can be seen to be increasing demands for literacy and representation for the poor.
In the United States, issues of enfranchising the poor were complicated by the economic reliance of Southern States on Slavery. While arguably, the Civil War began as a result of Confederate demands for liberty from over-reaching and interventionist Federal Government, the effect was to bring to the for, ‘slave rights’ and result in Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation.
3. The extension of alternate political philosophies
Across Europe and (to a lesser degree, North America) a substantial body of philosophical work was produced during the period seeking to provide alternative methods of looking at the plight of society. Again, this subject is vast, but the work of Paine, Hobbes, Carlyle, Marx, Darwin, Ruskin & others was to transform the way humanity viewed itself in the 20th Century. Other figures two, would influence the prevailing mood. Harriet Beecher Stow is derided by many today, but her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was instrumental in galvanizing the anti-slavery movement in 1850’s America and the widespread popularity of her book may arguably have influenced the public mood in Britain against intervening in the Civil War on the side of the cotton-producing South.
The complex and intertwining influence upon 19th & early 20th Century politics are barely touched upon, above. It should be noted for example that the age coincided with considerable confidence among western powers in the civilizing effects of their way of life. Note too that this was a deeply religious age, with the teachings of the bible at the heart of most enlightened thought of the time. Indeed, it could be argued that Christianity enabled the development of greater liberalisation of people’s way of life through it’s strong, regulation of human conduct.
It is, after all, much easier to emancipate an unruly class who attend the same sermons preaching the same moral conduct and observance of the same modes of behavior to which you, yourself proscribe.
In other words, the great political battles between extremist ideologies which Characterised the 20th Century has it’s roots in the enfranchisement of the urban working class during the 19th Century which in turn has it’s roots in the political and economic developments arising from the Enlightenment in the late 18th Century.
In responding to the growing disparities witnessed between the urban working class and the rest of ‘Civilised’ Society, intellectuals, theologians, economists, scientists and reformers alike, responded by producing a series of theories and ideas which would collectively alter the 20th Century, often in unintended ways.
The break down of the post cold war consensus which emerged from the collapse of Communism has been misleading. Far from being strident and in positions of power, the social democratic parties of North America and Europe have been in almost universal retreat for the last two decades, while the free market economic model championed by ‘Monetarists‘ in the 1970’s has become almost orthodoxy, it’s twin pillars, of deregulation and non-intervention being preached and extended by parties of the left and right in the 18 years following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In almost every advanced economy on the planet, the “left” sit further to the right than they did twenty years ago. So why has the spectrum begin to schism again as it did in the 19th Century, when rapid economic growth saw the western world move sharply to the left?
The answer must surely lie in the reversal of the demographics and economic dominance of the West in relation to the rest of the world.
Living in the Middle East, a region of rapid demographic explosion, where more than 50% of the population are under 35 years of age, it is striking to return to Europe and see the sheer number of grey heads. And this aging is reflected it seems in the young, who, surveys show, are more and more conservative in outlook and less optimistic about the future than their parents.
This is reflected in a number of ways. Popular films appear to be dominated by tales of supernatural threat and apocalypse, mirroring a vague perception that our own civilization is in terminal decline. Political engagement has been in rapid decline as well, while in several European Countries, religious observance is essentially a minority pass-time.
There is a dichotomy here. On the one hand, it is the progressive, not the conservative who should be most worried. Entering his third decade of decline, his economic and social models are largely distrusted, rightly or wrongly, while his grip on power is loosening across the western world. On the other hand, it is right-wing libertarians who fill the blogosphere, with concern for the future of civilization and anger at the intrusion of the State and the decline in the teaching of Christianity.
In Britain, conservatives worry about the socialism of the unaccountable EU, while in the US, the Federal Government has been effectively paralyzed by an ideologically pure Republican faction who see the extension of healthcare provision as both morally and economically un-American in instinct.
Both perspectives cannot be right. Or can they? For the fuel that powers the existential fears of the right are essentially related to global decline. Conservatives are essentially nationalist by instinct and measure success relative to their competitors. Socialists are internationalist by temperament. The interests of the nation-state are subservient to that of class. Thus in America, the economy can move almost inexorably to the right but decline relative to Asian economies. The reasons for this relative decline are trade deficits incurred as a result of uncompetitive industries as much as anything else. Yet the arguments ironically revolve around whether the Republican Party’s dogmatic imposition of tax cuts without equivalent reductions in defense spending is as much to blame as the imposition of healthcare initiatives, instituted by Democrats.
In Britain we view the State as essentially a left-wing idea and any expansion of it as heralding socialist policies. In this, we share a distrust of the State with Southern Europeans, who in large part refuse on mass to pay taxes imposed by national parliaments. This is not a million miles from the libertarian view of taxation. The converse of this model is a German economy which is highly federalized, with multiple layers of State representation and high levels of competition regulation within a highly diversified and export driven economy.
This is not to suggest that the British should follow en-masse, the example set by the Greeks when it comes to adhering to the States taxation legislation. But it does illustrate that much of the arguments between right and left are effectively simplistic, based as they are upon fundamentally skewed interpretations of well-being. No one pretends that the German economy is perfect, nor that it is not exercised by the same demographic travails as it’s Western counterparts. Yet, it’s populous retain a consensus as to the structure of it’s State and financial sectors which is increasingly absent in Anglo-Saxon world.
Further more, the German economy has tended not to expose itself to an unregulated free market or move wholesale to a service driven economy as the British and Americans have. The result is that it retains the strongest balance of payments sphere of influence in Europe rendering it well placed to dictate the terms of European integration, should it judge the price worth paying.
Yet for the Anglo-Saxon world, the relationship between the economy and the State continues to be an increasingly problematic one. The characterisation of my posts as falling into a left leaning media agenda is a symptom of this polarization. On the one hand, we have the individual and community, whose economic values are dictated by hard work and free enterprise (No longer by religious faith). On the other, we have society, which stifles free enterprise beneath regulatory control and discourages hard work by rewarding idleness. Yet, the single biggest problem to have affected this model is that an absence of regulatory controls and an inaccessible financial model was permitted to prevail. Without the moderating influence of a powerful regulatory force such as religious morality or a State regulator, the economy was allowed to spiral out of control.
In this context, arguments as to whether right or left are responsible are effectively moribund because the economic model was that of the untrammeled right and once the transfer of risk from the financial industry to the State was completed, the example of the Greeks is illustrative in highlighting that an absence of belief in the power of the State to effectively spend our money is by no means the preserve of conservatives.
I stop short of the obvious conclusion; that we should abandon the left right dynamic in favour of some sort of middle way. Rather, my intention remains to explore my own relationship to the politics of the western hemisphere, and to try to do so in as iconoclastic and imaginative a way as possible. For it strikes me that part of the venom in left right discourse is based upon an inability to look honestly as our adherence to old economic orthodoxy.
Just as Churchill struggled with the new economic realities and took Britain back to the Gold Standard, with disastrous consequences, so to, the era of a self-regulatory market has not provided western economies with any antidote to relative decline in relation to the East; and it is notable that our responses so far, to recession, variously, greater integration, reduced spending (effectively repayment of debt) and economic stimuli are all responses based upon the old economic orthodoxies.
Might it be possible, if not likely, that a new economic age will shortly emerge? And, as I alluded to in previous posts, there is no rule which states that this must be one founded in Western Democratic Secular Consumerism.
Might it be possible that a new, economic or political orthodoxy is slowly emerging to challenge the uni-polarity of the last twenty years? Say from a tightly regulated and undemocratic model such as that of the Chinese economy today, or, indeed, some other variation of stripped down freedom as yet, unknown to me? And, if so, the secular, consumerist democratic model underpinning the arguments between left and right, might itself be gearing up to splinter just as,19th Century laissez-fair Liberalism once did.
For those of you who have read and surmised that i am a man of the left, or that i believe that there is no left-wing conspiracy, I actually want to make a slightly different point. You may or may not be valid in your opinion, but my main conclusion is that we are essentially all victims, here od an increasingly polarised debate in which right and left, speak not to the voter, but to themselves, convincing themselves of the fifth columnists at the heart of a monster conspiracy.
In this febrile context, reasoned impartial debate is strangled. My friend had little option to see my views as those of the opposite side, though i would maintain that in reality they are moderate and embracing both of social conscience and individual liberty, of a free market and a contract between the individual and the state.
But to the Libertarian, as to the Socialist, there is no room for this. You are either one of us, or a propagandist for the other lot.
My friend once postulated to me that I should start on the premise that the state is rarely the answer to any problem. It is a view, formed in the history of two very blessed and lucky countries, England and the United States. Yet other economic models continue to exist around the globe, models which draw different contractual lines between the individual and the State.
In other words, while Libertarians, would like, no doubt, to see the rights of the individual as paramount, indeed, inviolate, he needs also to look closely at the world around him and ask why in other countries, his views appear not to have taken hold.
For one thing is clear. If a socialist conspiracy can be argued about one way or another in our society, then the certainties espoused be Coulter, my friend and similarly committed proponents of right and left alike, have yet to win many arguments further afield.
Indeed, as China threatens to overtake the US as the worlds largest economy, the very polarisation which threatens to grip America and may yet emerge in the United Kingdom, appears to be stifling the ability of Governments to react.