Monday, November 10, 2014

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Some years ago, I remember asking an audience when they last thought of killing the king of France.
It is not such an absurd question as it seems.
Here we are in the French national assembly in 1792 or thereabouts. The constitutional monarchy that we’ve developed since 1789 seems to be breaking down, the conservative monarchies of Europe are now at war with us and trying to stifle our revolution and our king seems to be complicit in their efforts. Why, he even tried to run away and join them, but some of our national guard managed to arrest him at Varennes.
So now we’re gathered here and we’re debating what we’re going to do about it.
On the Speaker’s extreme left sit those who say we should chop off the king’s head forthwith and declare a republic. Centre-left of the Speaker are those who say yes, let’s declare a republic but why baptise it in blood? Surely it would provoke less of a reaction if we continued with the king under house arrest, rather than executing him, and so denied extreme conservatives the excuse for an uprising. On the Speaker’s centre-right are those who say no, don’t get rid of the king – the people need a unifying figurehead. But let’s limit the king’s powers a bit more and ensure we have a really good constitution for a constitutional monarchy. And on the Speaker’s extreme right there are a few – but only a few – who say this revolution has gone far enough and the king should be retained with full powers. (Secretly, but without declaring it in the assembly, some of them would like the whole system of absolute monarchy to be restored).
So there, in the French national assembly, and related to time-and-place-specific issues, and coming about simply because of the accident of where factions were seated in relation to the Speaker, we have the origin of the political terms “left” and “right”, both of which can be further qualified with the words “extreme” and “centre” (or “moderate” if you prefer).
And this was the point of the question I put to that audience.
At that revolutionary time and in that place, the terms “left” and “right” meant something specific. But the connotations of those political terms are now so vague that they have come to mean a great variety of very contradictory things. So I was challenging the audience to define what they really meant now by “left” and “right” in the political sense. If they couldn’t define what they meant, then they might as well be using the terms to signal what they thought about the execution of Louis XVI.
I was being facetious, of course. (You know me by now.) I am aware that for many years there was a sort of meaning to the political terms “left” and “right”. By and large, the Right were conservatives who hankered after a settled and traditional order and (in their extreme version) would impose it by authoritarian means. In whatever European country you were, you could expect the Right to support king-and-country and probably also to support the teachings of the church (i.e. whichever church was dominant in that country – Catholic, Protestant or Eastern Orthodox), especially on matters of private morality. By and large the Left were opponents of the traditional order, and were those who spent most of the early nineteenth century limiting or opposing the power of monarchies, seeking a broader franchise and defying the authority of the church. Sometimes they too wished to impose their agenda by authoritarian means – though in their case this meant revolution.
But even early in the history of political “left” and “right”, the terms become confused. Remember, ALL political terms are slippery and are capable of multiple interpretations. “Conservative”, “liberal”, “progressive”, “reactionary” etc. – they are all really relative terms. When we say “left” or “right” we always have to ask, “left” or “right” in relation to whom or what?
And with the genesis of Marxism and socialism, the earlier meanings of “left” and “right” were hugely modified. Hitherto, many on the “left” had been liberals – that is, those who promoted individual freedoms and sought to limit the powers of the state as represented by bad old authoritarian and absolutist monarchies. Now, most on the “left” wanted a greatly enhanced role for the state as an interventionist economic arbiter.
I’ll skip by one very obvious paradox – the paradox that in their most extreme forms Left (Communism) and Right (Fascism) have very little to distinguish them from each other. One-party states with little tolerance for civil rights, massive surveillance of the population, oppressive censorship and frequent violent repression are very like one another, regardless of whether their theoretical origins were on the Right or the Left.
But talking of their less extreme manifestations, Left and Right are now terms foxed by that other pesky term, “liberal”.
I’ve noted that often “liberal” is used as if it is a vague synonym for “Left” –especially by Americans. “Those damned pinkos and liberals just want more Big Government” – that sort of thing. Lefties and liberals are also supposedly at one on issues of private morality – gay marriage, legalised prostitution etc. 
But the reality is that the left-wing and liberal agendas are more often in conflict than collusion. In the last forty years throughout the Western world, it has been governments that are labelled “Conservative” (and therefore, according to the older terminology, right-wing) that have successfully promoted the neo-liberal doctrines of the supremacy of the market, privatisation and limited government spending, supported by the myth of creating the “level playing field”. Yes, many Social Democrat and Labour governments have also supported these policies (as New Zealand knows), but it has been their most “left-wing” members who have resisted them.
Whether or not we like them, these neo-liberal policies, identified with the New Right, really are the direct descendants of the first wave of pre-socialist liberalism after the French revolution, when they would have been supported by the original “left”.
I should make another obvious point here. Those issues of private morality are (with the much diminished influence churches now have in Western societies) no longer markers between “left” and “right”. Supposed “conservative” parties are just as likely to support gay marriage etc. as supposed “progressive” ones. And why not? Isn’t liberalism mainly about having as little control over people’s lives as possible?
So where do we end up with “left” and “right”? If the terms have any political meaning at all now, it has nothing to do with issues of private morality or what is vaguely (mis)called “social policy”. It has to do with economics. It has to do with how wealth is or is not shared. My sincerest apologies to feminists or gay rights activists who thought that their agendas were the most fundamental with regard to the human governance, but the brute fact is that wealth and poverty are the most essential features now separating political parties.

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