Left, Right and Plain Wrong

Sunday, 7th April 2013

When political analysts first chose to classify opinions on a left-right spectrum during the French Revolution over 210 years ago, the left stood up for the underprivileged working classes, while the right defended the interests of the aristocracy and the emerging class of entrepreneurs. That was long before the emergence of the welfare state, mass consumerism and the globalisation of labour markets. During the latter half of the 19th century the left became identified with socialism and the transfer of ownership of the commanding heights of the economy to the workers. In the early 20th century the aspirational left branched into advocates of an international workers' state, often calling themselves Marxists, and social anarchists. The latter group saw no role for big business or central government and believed power had to be devolved to small communes and cooperatives as any large organisation, whether nominally public or private, is destined to subjugate both its employees and users.

As workers' organisations grew and their influence spread, the left came to be associated with many other social struggles of a rapidly industrialising world, from women rights to anti-imperialism. However, there was no default left view on each and every lifestyle issue. By and large the workers they claimed to represent were, and indeed still, are a fairly conservative lot tied to their homeland's traditions and often very religious. In a way leftwing thought grew out of the liberal enlightenment, the idea that human ingenuity can lead to infinite technological, social and economic progress and thus put an end to the evils of poverty and class division. In the early years of industrialisation, many radicals would despise the extravagance of the rich because so little was shared with the working poor and social welfare was limited to begging and charity. Social progress clearly meant extending the benefits of technology to the workers without whose labour the great imperial powers would never built their empires. Consumerism, i.e. the pursuit of economic growth through greater consumption of non-essential lifestyle products, remained the preserve of wealthy professional classes in most parts of the world until the 1950s, the automotive revolution and the advent of affordable television sets for all.

The Russian Bolshevik Revolution saw the emergence of a rival economic model to the laissez-faire free-market capitalism that had prospered in France, Great Britain, the US and later in Germany. Before 1917 much of the Russian Empire had remained a feudal agrarian society and industrialisation was mainly concentrated around Moscow and St Petersburg. The leadership of the new Soviet Union set about to industrialize the rest of their country through central planning. The whole federation was run as one large multinational monopoly in the guise of an enlightened workers' state progressing towards a socialist future and presenting itself internationally as a champion of workers' struggles and a fierce opponent of imperialism. While many self-declared Marxists and Leninists have written of the betrayal of the Russian Revolution and the failure of similar revolutions in other more advanced European countries, most notably in Germany, the left was tarred by its association with the excesses of Stalinism.

In reality laissez-faire capitalism, as envisaged by Adam Smith, namely peaceful trade among entrepreneurs with well nourished and educated skilled workers, had always been a myth. In the early stage of the industrial revolution, former peasants flocking to the mines and factories suffered a marked decline in living standards with very high infant mortality, not only through disease but workplace accidents, very long working hours (12-16 hours being the norm) and little time for leisure. The infrastructure required for rapid industrialisation and the growing need for a skilled workforce could only be provided through state intervention. No capitalist was powerful enough to coordinate the construction of the railways, roads, houses, schools and plumbing on which industry relied to thrive. As capitalism expanded, it relied on state intervention to gain control of resource-rich colonies and open up new markets. Many predicted the end of capitalism after Wall Street 's Great Crash of 1929, but the state intervened to save not only capitalists, but social order through a fledging welfare state. Ironically, both fascist Italy and Nazi Germany implemented the same kind of Keynesian economics, i.e. close partnership between big government and big business, that first Franklin Delano Roosevelt and then European social democrats have hailed since.

The outcome of the Second World War set the stage for a new era of mass consumerism alongside a benevolent welfare state. Most European countries were governed by Social Democrat or Conservative parties, who would argue merely over the extent of state intervention and various lifestyle issues as technological progress saw rising living standards and more leisure time. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this model of development was restricted to North America, Western Europe, Japan, Korea and Australasia.

While the left appealed to notions of social progress and various struggles against prejudice and injustice advocating greater social equality and solidarity, the right appealed to god, country and family. Ironically this struck a chord not only with religious leaders, who before the advent of the welfare state saw themselves as upholders of social justice, but with common folk too especially in more ethnically homogeneous regions outside the main metropolises that had attracted millions from diverse regions. Commoners also tend to hold greater national and regional loyalties than their more expensively educated and better-paid compatriots, often much more cosmopolitan and internationalist in outlook. Honest working people have long taken a very tough stance against fraudsters, gangsters and thugs in general, whether these hail from the privileged property-owning classes or at large among the underprivileged working classes. Last but not least, ordinary people have tended to have more traditional values on issues such as women's rights, sexuality and even ethnic diversity.

Not surprisingly, throughout the 20th century we saw apparent sudden swings and alternations from left to right and vice-versa. Mussolini started his political career in the Italian Socialist Party, coined the term corporatism, believed in a strong partnership between Italian industrialists and the state and advocated social solidarity. Was he a product of the left or right? Indeed how did Stalin's Soviet Union differ from Hitler's National Socialist Third Reich other than their purported ideologies?

The end of the cold war around 1990 and China's embrace of Western consumerism in the late 1980s also saw a rapid acceleration in corporate globalisation, i.e. the transfer of power away from nation states to large transnational corporations and nongovernmental organisations. For a fleeting second, some pundits believed the great ideological conflicts of the 20th century had come to an end. In 1992 Francis Fukuyama wrote “the End of History” announcing to the world that liberal democracy had triumphed over communism and fascism, a vision supported by other global developments such as the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Now, the old left-right moved onto more social and lifestyle issues, more a battle between liberals and conservatives than between aristocrats and workers.

Yet, as Francis Fukuyama later admitted, history hadn't ended at all, the new ruling elite had merely adopted the internationalist and progressivist rhetoric of the old left. While the new rulers of the world had really just evolved from the old imperial rulers and capitalist bosses, the public perception of this brave new world may well be remembered in years to come as one of the best rebranding exercises in history. New global brands such as the United Colors of Bennetton, Starbucks, McDonalds, Apple Computers, Sony, Microsoft, VW, Exxon, Coca Cola, Nike and Adidas hid their true business practices behind a mirage of youthful, multicultural, shiny, happy consumers enjoying their products.

After the tough postwar years, Western Europe enjoyed over 3 decades of relative peace and social cohesion. I emphasise the adjective, relative, because the period had its fair share of crises and struggles, but by and large Europeans had never enjoyed such a high standard of living and the gap between rich and poor narrowed considerably. By 1970 most Western Europeans could read and write, had a home with water and electricity and a job. Most households had at least one car and ordinary people could afford goods and holidays that once seemed the exclusive preserve of the upper middle class. However, contrary to conventional wisdom, such social peace, based on near full employment and widespread prosperity, could not be achieved without significant commercial protectionism and state intervention.

To be continued....

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