Beyond left and right?

October 8, 2012

Jason Netek examines an idea put forward by some progressive commentators.

SHOULD ACTIVISTS be trying to overcome the distinction between left and right?

When you think about the people and organizations that are associated with the right in this country--Mitt Romney, Todd Akin, the Tea Party or anti-immigrant vigilantes, to select a few examples--it probably doesn't occur to many readers to want to overcome what separates us from them.

But there are liberals and radicals who make the case that classifying people on one side or the other misses beliefs and values that all sides share--and that focusing on challenging the one stops us from accomplishing as much as we could.

Thus, in March, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow said in a Daily Show interview that the issue of the growing military industrial complex "is not a right-left thing." By this, she seemed to mean mainly that this is an issue where neither of the two political parties in the extremely narrow U.S. political mainstream have clean hands.

But others believe that the two sides might find more common ground if there wasn't so much partisan bickering. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart is a good example of this viewpoint. In 2010, he and Stephen Colbert organized a semi-serious rally in Washington, D.C., around the idea of "turning down the heat"--that is, more moderation and less protest in national politics.

Tea party protesters in St. Paul, Minn., protest the Democrats' health care legislation
It doesn't take long to see how the Tea Partiers differ in fundamental ways from left-wing activists

Though the rally was obviously directed mostly at the antics of the right-wing Tea Party, Stewart also spoke out for more bipartisanship. At the same time, however, Stewart has been a fierce critic of the inability of those same politicians to do anything meaningful when they do agree.

This is the first thing to say about the idea of "getting beyond" left and right. If the only differences between left and right were the differences between the Democratic and Republican Parties, then Jon Stewart might have a point. In reality, the difference between the two parties is more like that between center-right and just plain right.

Often, when someone speaks of moving "beyond left and right," they're really just expressing exasperation at the lame political system they live under. The widespread frustration with a political system that operates at the beck and call of a tiny super-wealthy elite is sometimes expressed as equal disgust with the two political formations that manage the system.

BUT THERE is a broader point being made by some writers and commentators. That disgust is correctly displayed in the form of protest and other meaningful political action, but is it all the same?

For example, Rolling Stone published an essay late last year by journalist Matt Taibbi called "Why Occupy Wall Street is Bigger than Left vs. Right." In it, Taibbi wrote: "Occupy Wall Street and the millions of middle Americans who make up the Tea Party are natural allies and should be on the same page about most of the key issues."

Actually, Taibbi has written more than a few pieces denouncing the ugliness of the U.S. right, both before and since the article in question. So his argument isn't that there aren't significant differences between the two, but rather that there are certain times when the differences should be secondary.

The Tea Party and the Occupy movement perhaps have some surface similarities. Both represent a challenge to the status quo in the financial world and national politics. Both complain about the greed of the bankers and the corruption of political power.

But the differences between the right-wing Tea Party and the left-wing Occupy movement are much more significant.

The Tea Party wasn't, ultimately, a grassroots movement at all, but was carefully orchestrated by top Republican operatives. Both these national figures who shaped the Tea Party and those who embraced the creation at a local level shared ideas such as opposition to unions and the welfare state, and the need to relax regulations on business. And of course, the most important message of the Tea Party was against "big government"--whether in the form of a bailout for bankers or social programs that benefited ordinary people.

The Occupy movement was different in almost every respect. Unions were a central source of support for the struggle, and Occupy and labor activists organized together. Occupy spoke out for more government programs to help the poor and working people, and it aimed to curb the power of corporations. The movement's focus was not on "big government," but on the corruption of political power in the hands of leaders who served Corporate America above all else.

Earlier this year, Arianna Huffington spoke out along similar lines in an interview for Al Jazeera: "I don't see American politics as a left-right game. I think that, in fact, when we continue to see it as a left-right game, we are having a much harder time laying out the choices for the American people." Huffington offered up the example of Brazil, where she claimed there was a national consensus embraced by "the so-called left" to "the so-called right."

There are many problems Huffington's analysis, but one of the most obvious is that left-wing and right-wing ideas are clearly counterposed to each other, and which one prevails matters quite a bit. Far from being an abstraction, the battle for ideas is rooted in material interests.

Right-wing ideas like nationalism, sexism and racism are specifically designed to divide people, both by keeping down sections of the majority working class--like African Americans, in the case of the racist New Jim Crow system of mass incarceration, for example--and by encouraging other sections of that class to believe they have an interest in the existing social order, rather than in uniting with the rest of the majority to challenge it.

Left-wing ideas like internationalism and opposition to sexism, racism and other forms of bigotry seek to overcome the divisions in society, ultimately in order to unite people in a common struggle against a common exploiter and oppressor. While not everyone with primarily left-wing ideas is a socialist, the struggle to make these ideas a reality invariably comes up against the limitations of the present system.

THE TERMS "left" and "right" as political concepts go back to the French Revolution of the late 18th century. Inside the National Assembly established by the revolution in 1789, deputies sat with others they generally agreed with and apart from those they disagreed with. On the right sat proponents of a constitutional monarchy and on the left were the proponents of a republic.

Thus, "right" became associated with traditionalism and conservatism and "left" with progress and radicalism.

The meanings of these terms changed with changing circumstances. After the overthrow of the monarchy in 1792, the deputies in the successor body to the National Assembly who sought to "finish" the revolution sat on the right and those who saw the revolution as something which had to advance further stood on the left.

The French Revolution was a long time ago but have we moved beyond this basic dichotomy between the forward-looking left and backward-looking right? Not by a long shot.

The best way to stand for justice, freedom and equality for working people is to work to strengthen the left--and to challenge the right at every turn.

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