Rethinking the left-right spectrum

Centrist, centre-left, centre-right, far-left, far-right. These are all political terms that get constantly thrown around and that bear different definitions depending on the national context in which they’re used. They get thrown around so often that it’s easy to forget what they even fundamentally mean, and so it was refreshing to have Marko Attila Hoare remind us last October that, simply put, “the left supports the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor while the right opposes it”. Hoare is quite right, but I’d argue that we can simplify it even further by removing the left-right spectrum from the realm of politics and taking a closer look at the values behind them. After all, you don’t simply support or oppose the redistribution of wealth for arbitrary reasons – you do so on the basis of the values that you hold.


We know that lefties value social equality, whereas righties value social hierarchy. But why? Our values can ultimately be traced to our worldview. We care about certain things more than others because the way we see the world around us causes us to view them as important, whether ethically or practically. As a self-identified lefty, I see a world in which it’s more than possible for all of us to peacefully coexist and have all of our common needs met, if (and that’s a big if) that’s the goal that we all work together to try to achieve. In my left-wing worldview, it’s therefore neither necessary nor ethical for us to undermine others in order to benefit ourselves. In other words: compassion, not competition. Obviously, I can’t claim complete impartiality here, but my understanding of a right-wing worldview is that it generally revolves around the idea that we live in a dog-eat-dog world in which the best we can do is fend for ourselves and get our share before someone else takes it. The reasons why people adopt a left-wing or right-wing worldview, or something in between – family influence, cultural values, socioeconomic status, and so on – are too numerous to list. But there we are.


Why does the left-right worldview spectrum matter? Our worldview and the values we derive from it serve as the moral compass (or, arguably in many cases, lack thereof) that guide our actions and therefore produce the reality that we see. That reality then feeds straight back into our worldview. We behave in a way that we consider appropriate to the world we live in, and we react to the actions of others that affect us. Compassion breeds more compassion, whereas one-upmanship breeds more one-upmanship. Both are contagious. Collectively, we make or break our own reality.


That’s exactly why human society has always struck me as extremely right-wing. Human history has been an endless cycle in which privileged groups have taken turns dominating each other in a seemingly eternal battle between the powerful and the powerless, between the rich and the poor, and, of course, between those fighting each other for a share of the spoils. From the imperial conquests of the ancient world through European colonialism, the two World Wars and Soviet communism to modern neoliberal capitalism, it’s always been the same story repeated over and over again, flowing through different chapters but reaching the same inevitable conclusion. The story of oligarchy. It’s a story familiar to many in the Middle East, the United States, Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, Brazil, China, the Canadian First Nations and countless other sites of confrontation between the haves and the have-nots in recent years. As a species, we’ve produced a right-wing world by adopting a right-wing worldview and reinforcing it through our actions. Some will argue that this is the best we can do or even assert that there’s nothing wrong with the world we’ve created. I disagree.

Right-wing theorists, be they “realist” international relations scholars, capitalist economists, or simply those at the top of the social hierarchy, love to tell us how it’s in our nature to always act in self-interest. They tell us that “greed is good” and that we all benefit from constantly undermining each other, as ludicrous as that may sound. Even Marxists are convinced that class conflict is inevitable and that the liberation of the masses has to come at the cost of the elites. Yet, for the most part, even the right-wingers among us behave in an incredibly left-wing manner towards those closest to us. And that’s because humans organized themselves into what we nowadays call “societies” precisely so that we could all benefit from being interdependent. The “savage” who undermines and betrays everyone he or she comes into contact with doesn’t survive for very long and, sociopaths aside, doesn’t find much happiness either. Surely we as a species are capable of applying that same logic to all of our everyday actions so that we can all thrive at the same time instead of striving to be the “last man standing”?


Roman Krznaric couldn’t have put it any better: we need an empathy revolution. We need to replace the right-wing world that we live in with a left-wing one in which we recognize our fellow human beings as worthy of a livelihood and worthy of happiness and, in return, receive the same recognition. But showing empathy on our part only does half the job. While it spares those around us from our own potential malice, what it doesn’t do is liberate ourselves from those who have their hands around our necks. That involves critically examining the ideologies invoked by the powerful for the sole purposes of justifying their own dominating behaviour and rethinking a lot of the theories contained in them. After all, ideologies are all too often used as pretenses to mask the hidden agendas of those who assert them rather than a reflection of the values that they truly believe – in other words, purposeful bullshit. We mustn’t forget how the idea of communism was employed by self-described revolutionaries to justify right-wing oligarchic tyranny. Similarly, we can’t afford to look away when libertarians invoke the principles of limited government to justify enriching big businesses at the cost of everyone else, or when rich countries invoke free trade to justify infiltrating the economies of developing countries.


The empathy revolution needs a theoretical and social component. Neither pacifism nor confrontation can do the job alone. We need to channel our discontent into action by adopting a DIY ethic to build the society we want. We need to form cooperatives and make use of cryptocurrencies, open source, open knowledge, peer-to-peer practices, the sharing economy and countless other methods of grassroots social and economic organization that the oligarchs haven’t given a chance and that the mainstream media doesn’t want us to hear a word about. What these methods all have in common is that they’re all built on the basis of cooperation and collaboration rather than malice and treachery – exactly what society needs and what the oligarchs don’t want.


It’s only when we renounce one-upmanship in favour of cooperation and collaboration that we’ll be able to construct a society not for the few at the top, but for all of us. After all, isn’t fulfilling our mutual needs the whole point of even living in a society? It’ll require a good deal of empathy and creativity, as well as plenty of critical thinking to distinguish truth from purposeful bullshit. Left-wing and right-wing are no longer a question of politics, but a question of social values and social justice. The right-wing worldview has failed us. It’s time to recognize that, for the purposes of redeeming ourselves from perpetual oligarchy, left is right.


3 thoughts on “Rethinking the left-right spectrum

  1. Pingback: Dismantling our right-wing world | Clearing the Rubble

  2. Just came upon this blog, which I have to admire for the clarity of its writing. This post on re-thinking the left-right spectrum has helped me sort out a very disheartening feature of being left-wing, viz., that it seems to lose in competition for seeming in tune with reality with the right most of the time. The right-wing worldview seems to get repeatedly reaffirmed, whereas the left-wing worldview seems to peek out momentarily – like a moon hidden by storm clouds – through the mayhem and destruction wrought by right-wing worldviews after the damage is done. In the long run, however, a society based on RW values is unsustainable – as should be obvious to any observer of neoliberal capitalism by now. To acknowledge this, yet struggle on up the moral inclined plane, in the hope that a critical mass will be reached that will overcome the RWWV tendency, is what makes being LW much more difficult. But I continue to look for examples of societies based on LW values strongly enough to overcome the moral entropy forcing it towards RW directions.

    • Thanks. It is most definitely like entropy, unfortunately. There aren’t many based on left-wing values, but some of the indigenous societies in the Americas come to mind.

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