Thursday, August 13, 2015

Myths of Left and Right

It is commonly believed that the "Right' in America is reactionary, looking to an idealized past that they want us to return to, whereas the “Left” is progressive and believes in social, technical, and moral progress leading us away from an ignorant, benighted past and toward a better future.

But that view is seriously flawed.

It is much of the “Left” that has embraced local economies, face-to-face transactions, “slow” culture (food, money, banking, etc.), walkable communities, communal ownership, tiny houses, appropriate technology, alternative energy, community gardens, cohousing, timebanking, gift/barter economies, organic (traditional) agriculture, homesteading, craft production, homeschooling, degrowth, etc. They are aware of planetary limits, against consumerism, for self-reliance, into community organizing and likely to throw away their television set.

Meanwhile, the “Right,” especially the Libertarian right championed by the captains of industry and Silicon Valley, embraces a strident rhetoric of unlimited growth and never-ending progress through technology. Artificial intelligence, GMO crops, frozen embryos, nootropic drugs, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, lab-grown meat, nuclear power, fracking, geoengineering, robot labor, space exploration, self-driving cars, hypersonic air travel, kilometer-high skyscrapers, urban sprawl, life extension, the “internet of things,” holographic advertising, Google glass, cybernetic implants, and so on. The Libertarian Right has cornucopianism as one of its fundamental driving tenets. For example, the popular libertarian blog Marginal Revolution recently had as a guest blogger Ramez Naam. The choice is illuminating:
Tyler and I are delighted to have the great Ramez Naam guest blogging for us this week. Ramez spent many years at Microsoft leading teams working on search and artificial intelligence. His first book, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement was a thought provoking look at the science and ethics of enhancing the human mind, body, and lifespan. More recently, I enjoyed Ramez’s The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, an excellent Simonesque guide to climate change, energy and innovation.
Here are some other nuggets of wisdom from our libertarian friends:

Dystopian Future? Yes, Please.

Laugh Now (while you can)

Should we care if the human race goes extinct?

The right also combines this with free market fundamentalism that asserts that the market makes us more moral and less violent, and a constant demonization of the past as a Malthusian nightmare of unremitting poverty and violence that the “free market” saved us from by encouraging unlimited private wealth accumulation. Furthermore, it will continue to expand living standards in perpetuity and eventually solve all problems, as long as we don’t “interfere” in the “natural” workings of the Market. Economic growth, unlimited global trade, shrinking government, privatization, deregulation, corporatism, financialization, anti-unionism, crytocurrencies, open borders, natalism, “voluntary cities,“ free trade zones, urbanization, cap-and-trade, etc. are all embraced and championed by a lot of people we tend to think of as the “right” in America.

We have lefties moving to organic farming communes and canning food, and righties defending automobile-centered suburban sprawl and arguing for nuclear power. Leftists seem to want to be the Amish, while the Right wants to be the Jetsons.

What’s going on here?

A partial answer may be from this important essay by Cory Robin. In it, he makes several points. He contends that what separates left from right is not an adherence to the past or future, but rather obedience to a hierarchical model of society. I would agree with this. What I would consider the defining characteristic of the Right is authoritarianism and defense of the status quo (whatever it happens to be) against all alternatives. The left is suspicious of hierarchical authority, and willing to consider alternatives to the current status quo. I’ve argued before that just-worldism is a critical component of the right-wing worldview and links their political and religious views together (i.e. the system works such the good are rewarded and the bad are punished, even if it’s not obvious on face, and all information is filtered to maintain that view).

As the status quo changes, this is what rightists defend, even if the status quo is fairly novel. For example “conventional” agriculture is now defined as the high energy-input, genetically engineered monocrops dependent upon massive applications of natural-gas derived fertilizer and toxic pesticides, a very recent development. Meanwhile “organic” agriculture is considered as an “alternative” method, despite the fact that its methods were essentially those followed by humans for thousands of years prior up until about fifty years ago. Same thing with suburbia. Conservatives today tend to defend “traditional” suburban living, despite the fact that hardly anyone lived in a suburb one hundred years ago – suburbs were a creation of the post-war period with its government-funded interstate highway system, subsidized gasoline prices, federally-backed home loans, and automobiles. Yet “free market” Republicans defend this way of life despite the fact that it is a Ponzi scheme only viable with generous government subsidies.

In Robin’s estimation, the reason people were more resistant to capitalist domination in the past was because they remembered a time before capitalism. As we know, the “free market” economy was entirely a creation of government on behalf of powerful interests. This extends from the Enclosure movement kicking people off the land and eliminating the commons, to the military putting bullets into the unemployed workers created by new technology, to the building of the infrastructure used by capitalists to accumulate wealth (canals, ports, roads, transmission lines, etc.), to centralized banking, to colonialism and extermination of natives, to requiring mass schooling to produce obedient soldiers and factory workers, to erecting legal structures for the wealthy to hide behind, to more recent efforts to create the “nuclear” family and encouraging suburban sprawl to keep consumption levels high. There is nothing at all “natural” about the “free market.” Laissez-faire was planned from the start.

In contrast, the people who underwent this transition were well aware of this fact. In fact, the “slow growth” world people lived in was remembered with fondness:
In “Age of Acquiescence,” [Steve] Fraser pursues a comparison often noted between our time and what Mark Twain called “The Gilded Age,” those decades of the last turn of the century when wealth and power were gathered at the top and powerlessness and poverty collected at the bottom. Why, Fraser asks, do workers and citizens today accede to the inequalities and injustices of capitalism that they refused to accept 100 to 150 years ago? After the Civil War, farmers and workers responded to the explosion of corporate power and financial wealth with desperate acts of violence and audacious feats of political creativity. The reason they could see a utopia beyond industrial capitalism, says Fraser, is that they remembered a reality before industrial capitalism. Their vision of the future was fueled by a memory of the past.

In 1820, 80% of Americans were self-employed; by 1940, 80% worked for someone—or something—else. “The individual has gone,” declared John D. Rockefeller, “never to return.” Driven into the mills and the mines or onto the rails, these refugees from the shop and the farm were injured, maimed, or killed (35,000 per year) by industrial capitalism. They were the lucky ones. Many Americans couldn’t get work at all. In the 1870s, unemployment became a census category for the first time. So desperate were jobless New Yorkers that they got themselves arrested just to enjoy a night off the streets, in jail. They also struck, marched, organized, bombed and killed, launching decades of class warfare, literal and metaphoric, that would haunt the country’s elites for years to come.

The fact of unemployment, Fraser writes, struck these men and women “as shocking, unnatural, and traumatic,” as did the astronomic new wealth of the nation’s plutocrats. That’s because they remembered a life before wage labor and their pervasive dependence on—and the compulsion of—the market....

What Fraser shows, with vivid set pieces drawn from the nation’s most violent battlefields, is that far from presenting itself as the enemy, the past was viewed by workers and farmers as a resource and an ally. In part because the capitalist right so heartily embraced the rhetoric of progress and the future (no one, it seems, was content with the present). But more than that, historical memory enabled workers and farmers to see beyond the horizon of the capitalist present, to know, in their bones, what Marx was constantly struggling to imprint upon the mind of the left: that capitalism was but one mode of economic life, that its existence was contingent and historical rather than natural and eternal, and that because there was a past in which it did not exist there might be a future when it would cease to exist. Like the nation, capitalism rests upon repeated acts of forgetting; a robust anti-capitalism asks us to remember.
We have the left and right all wrong: The real story of the politics of nostalgia and tradition (Salon)

Given the fact that we’ve been talking about alternatives to capitalism, this seems like an important point. Given the growth of our technology, does it make sense to cling to outmoded capitalist ideas like the 8-hour day, the 40-hour work week, commuting long-distance to an office, etc. Modern work Patterns Make No Sense makes exactly that point – we’re clinging to a Fordist model in a post-Fordist world.

Robin talks about a new history of the Paris Commune. He talks about how hard opponents worked to erase even the memory of its existence, to the point of removing references to it from people’s tombstones! Instead the only “alternative” to capitalism is portrayed as the sociopathic rule of Stalin or Mao, and ignorant Americans repeat it like trained parrots.

Robin talks about  critics of capitalism who looked to the past and the rural experience of life such as William Morris and Peter Kropotkin:
We must “not be frightened of the word ‘archaic,’” Marx writes Vera Zasulich in a letter that Ross cites as a clue to Marx’s post-Commune writings about Russian agrarianism. What’s most significant about these and Kropotkin’s writings, Ross shows, is how much they eschew nostalgia and romanticism. Neither writer looks for or finds an arcadian past in the countryside. Both seek instead a source of information about the capitalist present and insight into a possible communist future: it was the isolation of the Paris workers from the peasants in the countryside, Marx was convinced, that had allowed the French state to crush the Commune so easily.
This reinforces what I’ve often said –the elites know that it’s critical that we forget the past in order to control the future. We must live in an eternal present where our current arrangements are the only ones possible so that we dare not consider viable alternatives. And it’s critical that even internationally, in multiple “laboratories” that alternatives be choked off, lest we get ideas. That’s a critical component of financially weaponized neoliberalism. We may scoff at Paul Mason’s invocation of experiments in Greece and open-source software to go beyond the Market as harbingers of an entirely new economy, but they are experiments that might be informative, and so the authorities are hostile and seek to crush them wherever they spring up.

The fact that our social arrangements are not eternal or set in stone is one I’ve tried to hammer home repeatedly here. It’s also why I write frequently about the past and how the version of it we are sold is highly skewed to serve the powers-that-be. I do so not because I’m a Neoreactionary, but for the reasons stated above.

I’ve often been struck by how much the nineteenth century was full of alternatives, and people were willing to think of them. These did not break down into just Capitalist/Communist dichotomies, it was letting a hundred flowers blossom. In addition to Marxism we had thinkers like William Morris and John Ruskin looking to the past. We had industrialists like Robert Owen attempting to build utopian communal industrial communities. We had thinkers like Joseph Fourier and Henri Saint-Simon. We had anarchist thinkers like Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin and Proudhon. We had alternatives put forward by Silvio Gessell, Henry George and C.H. Douglas. We had syndicalists like Daniel de Leon and Eugene V. Debs. We had alternative economists like Thorstein Veblen. We had populists like Huey Long, William Jennings Bryan and Socialist Mayors in Milwaukee. Many of their experiments failed, some had mixed results, but at least there *were* experiments, unlike today where we seem to have acquiesced to There Is No Alternative. Even the reforms undertaken by Franklin Roosevelt a generation ago would be unthinkable today anywhere in the world.

What happened? Here are some good comments from last weeks Archdruid Report:
Yes, the left was smashed by the Palmer raids, then resurrected in the Great Depression, then smashed again in the ongoing inquisition and purges from 1945-1960, commonly called the ''McCarthy years", although those were but a small part.

Why no resurrection? I think that the invention of TV, and the suburban sprawl, both after WW2, plays a big role. How does a left party reach the masses? No one goes out to parks, so soapbox speeches are out. Going door to door is difficult, when the doors are so far apart. TV not only supplies endless entertainment and propaganda, but makes lectures and organizing unappealing. Why go out and listen to someone drone on about a better society, when you can watch explosions on TV? And TV is the easiest way for ruling class propaganda, nicely sugar coated, to be spread.

Years ago, I read a Reader's Digest funny about two neighbor dogs, who spent their days running up and down their dividing fence, barking at each other. One day, there was a hole in the fence. The dogs ran up to it and stopped, looked at each other, and then resumed their running and barking. 
I ran for Congress as a Green. I was at a debate, and most of the audience were Democrats and Republicans, divided in the auditorium, and loudly cheering their own candidate and booing the other. One of the dividing points was Obamacare, mentioned a couple of times on this blog as a good thing.

I stood there, staring at the sections, thinking about pointing out the obvious, but then thinking that I would lose votes from both sides if I did. Then I thought, screw it! And I pointed out that the ACA was originally a Republican idea, and that the Democrats were against it. And now the Democrats were cheering the Republican idea and the Republicans were booing it, just because the labels had changed.

For a minute, there was silence. Everyone stared at me.

Then, they went right back to barking, excuse me, cheering and booing at each other.
I think the Suicide of the American Left is further exacerbated by the lack of leisure time for wage earners. Cobbling together a living from various part time jobs, always looking for jobs, always worrying about right now does not leave time to read, reflect, to get a big picture of the world. I run into people all the time who are very aware of what's happening to them but cannot connect the dots to the trajectory we are on and keep thinking if they just work a little harder everything will be OK. They cannot see the futility of working harder in a purely exploitative economy. Being crushed by the system does not always spawn revolt, in this case it makes people politicaly stupid. The lack of outrage by people who work for a living, or at least muted outrage, to the TPP, a plan for the removal of every last obstacle to exploiting everything and everyone, is an example.
Today, with all the electronic distractions, once people have become economically disenfranchised the process seems to perpetuate itself.  
The very concept of "middle class" is amorphous. It used to mean working one job, 40 hours a week, and living well, not with endless extravagance but with essential needs secure. Now "middle class" includes households where everyone permanently works multiple jobs and live on the edge of financial disaster. In the same way the concept of "left" and "right" have both shifted to promote corporate hegemony, the concept of middle class has shifted to include what we used to consider poor. Of course, there is a certain embarrassment to being poor in a country where the mythology says anyone can make it, so it makes sense for people to think of themselves as middle class. 
I've been reading "Savage Continent," about the chaos in Europe in the years immediately after WW 2. I was struck by the terrible, calculated way that the Germans and Soviets each treated their POWs. Of course, hatred and retribution were involved, but it was also very practical. Starved, exhausted, dehydrated and sick prisoners were too beaten down to be much trouble to anyone. I know it would be extreme hyperbole to compare this horror to the plight of our working class, but the principle is the same: beat them down into numb obedience and they won't be any trouble to the ruling class.


  1. This is also why us veterans were given enough money to live AND go to college, something equivalent to as much as $100k a year these days. You don't want millions of skilled fighters who probably lost a family member or friend to starvation in the great depression to be at loose ends.

    1. Commonly known by the ruling elite since the days of Ancient Rome. Always make sure you pay off/placate the soldiers

  2. Excellent. If you liked this, you gtta check out the latest Archdruid Report, the War Against Change, which makes some equally interesting comparisons

    1. Yeah, I actually wrote this before I read that, and was amused to see some of the same things covered. Coincidence, I guess, or something in the air.

  3. Everything is going to be amplified that much more by the horror trinity of AGW, ocean acidifaction and 6th mass extinction effects. I live in BC and many thought it would be one of the safer places to live, but right now we have "drought like" conditions and water restrictions, earlier, longer and more intense wildfire season - in part from an ever growing pine beetle infestation. Almost every single one of our glaciers is melting (70% by 2070 all by 2100) and that provides 75% of our electricity from hydro power. They also provide water for residential, industry and agriculture for Alberta, Saskatchewan and even Manitoba (Breadbasket for Canada and much of the world). Alberta beef has gone up again because of drought. We are also seeing fish die offs in rivers and of course there is an algae bloom from California to Alaska that is hammering an already weakened fisheries. What has the main response been? Shaming careless smokers and stealth lawn watering cheaters on social media. I have no doubt that we are going to go full authoritarian when it gets really bad and there is going to major blame and vengeance. I'm just not certain who it's going to be directed at since the guilt, in my country at least, only differs by degree.

    I wonder if this BBC Doc is based on the book you mentioned.

    1945: The Savage Peace

    When the Second World War ended, the people of liberated Europe celebrated their freedom from Nazi tyranny. Their years of suffering had ended, but for millions of Germans, the end of the conflict opened a new and terrible chapter.
    The Savage Peace reveals the appalling violence meted out to the defeated, especially to those ethnic Germans who had lived peacefully for centuries in neighbouring countries. Using rare and unseen archive film, the documentary tells a harrowing story of vengeance against German civilians, which mirrored some of the worst cruelty of the Nazi occupiers during the years of war. The Savage Peace includes the unique testimony of eyewitnesses and victims, who recall the horrors with searing clarity, their memories undimmed 70 years after the events took place. This a story that has, until now, been untold amidst the justified celebration of an end to an unspeakable tyranny. But as the writer George Orwell said, the treatment of the defeated Germans was a terrible crime that has gone unpunished.

  4. To confuse ideology and blur the boundaries of left and right even further consider what I prefer to call "right-wing anarchists." They are everywhere on campuses and especially on the internet although they don't always seem to recognize each other. They are opposed to large scale social organizations, not the least of which are governments, are opposed to voting and party politics and view the world through a lens of overarching conspiracies that have traditional leftists like unions and communists secretly working with industrialists and the trilateral commission. At first blush they appear to be left of center but their focus on individual liberty, suspicion of collective anything, love of technological fixes, and acceptance of market solutions highlights their right ward trajectory. A good example, fun to listen to, is the Corbett Report ( which is a fairly polished example of this ideology; vaguely libertarian, pro-market, progressive (in the sense the Arch Druid might use the word) everything would be fine if just left to its own course without the great cabal of leftists and rightists who are really running everything.

  5. Discussing partisan politics these days is like kicking an ant-bed since both parties, which are more divided than ever, have been bought out by corporate interests even though Sanders and Paul talk about issues which mostly get ignored. This is why I think people on the margins of each party are where any true change could happen even though presidents act like figureheads now if they're not supported after each election by genuine grassroots initiatives. I also don't personally anything against transhumanism as a subculture and genetic engineering if the latter gets done safely then doesn't destroy ecosystems by monoculturalizing everything and the former remains open sourced so it doesn't get forced onto people by the military industrial complex.

    Cryptocurrency technologies will likely get embraced by both parties in the long run since these currencies incentivize another type of internet which will help people experiment with different ways of organizing themselves while making decisions since blockchains resemble blank slates at this point in time. Overall though, I think the best these technologies can do is delay most of our problems, or predicaments, rather than stop them completely since I agree with you that they're all mostly just useless toys unless they get developed within a proper social context.

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