The Unbundling of the Left image

The Unbundling of the Left

2016 has been many things—you don't need me to list them—but it strikes me that it has been the year of the unbundling of the Left. I'm sure this is not a new development, and that the major political fallouts of 2016 have simply exposed (rather than created) the dissggregation I'm talking about, but things have certainly come to a head this year, with problematic consequences both for the Left and for many on the Right. Here's what I mean.

The binary political spectrum that has dominated my adult lifetime, and from what I can tell a good many other lifetimes as well, has been that of Left and Right. This binary was originally the fruit of the French Revolution, with its rive gauche and rive droite, and it was happily if accidentally reinforced by the emergence of communism and then the Cold War, in which the “free” market confronted state socialism and won. The Thatcher-Reagan era confirmed the post-War political alignments: moral conservatism went hand-in-glove with market liberalism and small government, and moral progressives (though most didn’t use that word) were almost always in favour of larger government, more welfare and tighter constraints on the market. The oddity of this—that conservatives on economics were usually liberal on morality, and vice versa—was noticed, but never what you’d call an issue.

Things have changed. There are now at least three axes which could viably run Left to Right, and the fact that someone is on the Left of one tells you little or nothing about where they will be on the others:

Socialism — Capitalism. Few people in the West today are pure socialists or pure capitalists. Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t believe the state should do everything (distributing food and land, for instance); Ron Paul believes the state should do something (e.g. fighting wars and policing). But the size of government remains a major area of debate. Should the government pay for trains? Roads? Healthcare? Schools? Universities? Unemployed people? Those with disabilities? Pensions? And how much? The more things a person believes that government should pay for, the larger they think government should be, and the more left-wing (in this particular sense) they are. I think of Rupert Murdoch’s question to Andrew Neil after hearing one of the Reagan budgets: “But what about government? Is government going to be smaller as a result of this?” That is one way of cutting the Left/Right cake. But only one.

Progressivism — Conservatism. Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the reaction that it generated in America from the mid 1970s to early 1980s, a second way of viewing people as Left or Right has emerged based on (to use an unhelpfully bland word) morality. Again, nobody is a pure “progressive” or “conservative”—we all want progress in some areas and conservation in others—but at the same time there remains a marked difference between those who think the gains of post-War individualism (like increased racial and sexual equality) outweigh the loss of pre-War social solidarity (in mediating institutions like unions, churches, political parties, societies, families, etc), and those who don’t. Yuval Levin’s treatment of this subject is the standout contribution of his excellent The Fractured Republic, I think.

Globalism — Localism (or Nationalism). Both of the previous axes were clear five years ago. What 2016 has really brought home to us (or brought crashing around our ears, depending on our perspective) is the third axis, and in particular the extent to which those who may be Left on the previous two may be Right on this one. Virtually all elite opinion-formers are globalists: people who think national identity, borders, cultures and customs matter less than they used to, and should be relativised or even ditched altogether if they prohibit economic growth. But a surprisingly large number of Western people have turned out, whether in America or Britain or France or Italy, to be localists: people who think those things matter more than they used to, and that internationalist trade deals and uncontrolled immigration benefit rich people more than poor-to-middle-income people. Not only that, but they have been prepared to vote on this basis, in numbers large enough to make previous Leftish alliances look very shaky. Where this leaves the Democrats, the Parti Socialiste or the Labour Party, going forward, is not yet clear.

As regular readers will probably know, I sit mildly to the left on the first, mildly to the right on the second—which disaggregates further, as these things do, into being progressive on race, the environment and war, and conservative on marriage, life and family—and firmly to the left on the third (which unfortunately coincides with the belief that everyone else is too, hence my terrible record of political predictions this year). That is quite a mouthful, and certainly makes things confusing. But that sort of muddled combination of Left and Right is now common to many, if not most, people in the West, and it doesn’t look like changing any time soon. And for now, it looks like being a significantly bigger problem for the political Left, who have always had to hold together middle class globalist progressives with working class localist socialists, than the political Right.

That said, I’ve been wrong about almost everything politically this year, so the odds are that the Left will have been rebundled before the pixels are dry on this post. We shall see.

← Prev article
Next article →