Defending the Left-Right dichotomy

Following Pablo’s piece on Kiwipolitico, where he ascertains that ‘the Left is well and truly dead in NZ’, I noticed that there was relatively little commentary, well, aside from Whaleoil.

(A silent acknowledgment of a shared sentiment, perhaps?)

I don’t actually think the Left is dead, rather I think it’s dormant, largely due to what Pablo identifies below:

Many of the Left political elite prefer to maintain their positions in the status quo rather than heed the demands of their grassroots to push for fundamental change. Their concerns are about the distribution of power and resources–their own and that of the organizations they front–within the system as given, not about changing the system.

Many argue that the Left-Right dichotomy (LRD) is increasingly unhelpful and results in meaningless political generalisations. Others insist that the traditional LRD has changed (I’ve written a little on this see: Politics as a broader spectrum than Left vs Right, note that some of my views may have changed or slightly altered).

Bryce Edwards wrote about The Changing Nature of Ideological Conflict in NZ Electoral Politics in 2009. He suggested that many other dimensions are at play that can conflate and/or confuse where parties sit on a political spectrum. For instance, Liberalism is often conflated with the Left and Conservatism with the Right, yet we can all probably think of examples where this simply isn’t true.

In my experience, the generally accepted convention is that Left is symbolic of a Socialist economic vision (noting that there are variations within that Socialist worldview) and that Right is symbolic of a Capitalist economic vision (again noting that there are variations within that Capitalist world view). Given the wide scope necessary for discussing political spectrum’s and the various dimensions at play in full, this post is limited to discussing the LRD with regard to the conventions set out above. I am not presuming to be an authority on the issue and I acknowledge the risk of confirmation bias by limiting the discussion in this way.

Unsurprisingly then, I largely disagree that the LRD is either unhelpful or meaningless. Why?

Firstly, many of those who say the LRD is meaningless, still refer to it when discussing their own political views or the views of others. Arguably because its helpful for (1) differentiating their views from others, especially if one wants to create distance from a view they strongly oppose and (2) for building a rapport with like-minded individuals or groups. It is at least a helpful and meaningful as a reference point.

(On a side note, I notice that it is mainly those who have identified as Left who tend to disapprove of the LRD)

Secondly, it tells us something about the parties, that is whether they broadly subscribe to a Socialist or Capitalist worldview. Its helpful because as noted above, it gives us a reference point that we can assess or analyse the parties against and it highlights if the respective parties policies are consistent with the visions they proclaim.

However, I do think that the sentiment of meaninglessness has some teeth, that is, when a party claims to have a specific alignment (i.e. they usually indicate if they are Left or Right) but their policies are inconsistent with that alignment. This can make the LRD appear meaningless, but in my view, it only makes what the party says meaningless. It does not impinge on the LRD itself. Moreover, it legitimates the use of the LRD as a measure of credibility or honesty.

Lastly, the LRD is helpful for retaining a space for socialism to further evolve.

Morgan Godfery, blogger at Maui Street, tweeted:

which he later qualified as being the ‘the modern left’.

I can see the attraction in wanting to expand the definition of the Left to include those with socially democratic values albeit with capitalist inclinations. As a Socialist in a Capitalist society its difficult to reconcile ones practical life with ones ideological views. What I worry about is developing a concept of the Left that is so incoherent that it becomes both meaningless and unhelpful. I consider that including Capitalism within a Left framework is to concede to Capitalism. That is, we reinforce the  position that NZ Labour party have perpetuated since 1984 – that Socialism is an untenable vision.

Socialism is not the shit stain that Capitalists (irrespective of whether they call themselves Left or Right) proclaim and as such I think the LRD should be preserved because the ‘Left’ space gives Socialists a reference point (at least) that is unimpeded by an ideology with which it is inconsistent to further develop. Additionally, by allowing Socialism to evolve unimpeded, this may help to overcome the pejorative way in which a large proportion of the public view Socialism and the Left. So to this end, I defend the LRD, especially so in the current political economy.


One comment

  1. Yes, I agree with your post, the Left is dormant, and in two senses. First, theory. The term ‘Left’ is not sustainable without its strategic ability to adapt to new situations and opportunities. What works against the interests of capitalism’s dominance over the working class, broadly defined, is Left. I think of it as an antagonism and a critique of the system. Second, practice. The term ‘left’ demands more than a sign, it is a practice. I don’t see a lot of practical work in this vein outside of marginal high-profile activism. The options for engagement ‘seem’ to be polarised and closed down, as if either one lives a life of compliance, or one resists outright. Who decided this? Where I think the term ‘Left’ is valuable is that it does not subscribe to that binary, but rather seeks to name a space of creative divergence. What forms could that take? That would be for participants to explore. I’m not sure NZ has a culture of experimentation in that sense. Or, it does, but is subject to a strange conservative left, ‘old left’ maybe, who would limit the political to issues of representation. My two cents.


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