Dismantling our right-wing world

Originally published at Media Roots. An adaptation of “Rethinking the left-right spectrum“.

It’s been an eventful few weeks for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), also known as the Zapatistas, midway through their 20th anniversary year. First, Jose Luis Solís López, also known as “Compañero Galeano”, was murdered by a paramilitary group with ties to the Mexican government, which also injured fifteen other Zapatistas and destroyed a school, clinic and water system in the same attack. The attack then prompted the Zapatistas to change strategies, with well-known spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos stepping down.

These developments serve to remind us of the EZLN’s status as, in the words of Chris Hedges, “the most important resistance movement of the last two decades” – important enough to warrant the rather violent attention of the Mexican government and its paramilitary associates. The EZLN, a group based in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, launched an armed rebellion against the Mexican government on January 1, 1994 as an act of protest against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which entered into effect on the same day. Instead of attacking the Mexican state and society and causing endless bloodshed, however, the Zapatistas set up a system of self-governance in the territory it controlled, creating autonomous communities each with its own health clinic and schools to fill the void that the Mexican government had actively sought to widen in the interests of US and Canadian multinational corporations.

What the Zapatistas demonstrate is a vision of the notion well articulated in the motto of the World Social Forum: another world is possible. They provide evidence that contradicts the belief that the status quo under neoliberal capitalism, in which the haves have it all and the have-nots are left to fend for themselves, is not only the best system but indeed the only viable system. The Zapatistas certainly represent a victory for the oppressed peoples of the world over the powerful political and economic interests that rule over them. But more importantly, they represent a victory for the valuesof egalitarianism, compassion and solidarity – what I call the left-wing ethos. A victory over theidea that those who rule have the divine right to further their own interests, regardless of the consequences for the rest of humanity – an attitude that epitomizes what it means to be “right-wing”.

Marko Attila Hoare boils down the left-right spectrum to a simple distinction: that “the left supports the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor while the right opposes it”. But we can remove the entire spectrum from politics entirely to expose the values that underlie them: lefties value social equality, whereas righties value social hierarchy. Why, though? The answer lies in our individual worldview. As a self-identified lefty, I consider it more than possible for all of us to peacefully coexist in the world and have all of our common needs met, if (and only if) that’s the goal that we all work together to try to achieve. In a 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. Without claiming complete objectivity, a right-wing worldview 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.

Human history has been almost entirely dominated by the right-wing worldview. It’s 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 the Zapatistas and 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. The hierarchical, conflict-ridden relationship today between those who rule the world and those who are ruled, between corporate bosses and workers, between autocrats and their citizens, between the rich and the poor, is a continuation of this cycle of domination.

The right-wingers among us will assert that history simply reflects human nature, that it is in our nature to be maliciously selfish rather than compassionate, that this is the best we can do, or even that there’s nothing wrong with the world we’ve created. But their argument fails to acknowledge that the dominant worldview of the past has createdthe world we know today. As an example, the domination of the indigenous populations of the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania by European invaders and colonizers was not an inevitable result of human nature, but rather a product of widespread extreme right-wing beliefs such as Manifest Destinyand the white man’s burden. Similarly, the dominant worldview of the present will determine the world of tomorrow. A child raised in a society that values getting ahead at all costs is encouraged is far more likely to act accordingly than one raised in a society that values empathy and compassion. The dominant worldview in a society is therefore not inherent in human nature but in fact reinforces itself.

Right-wing theorists have a crucial role to play in promoting their worldview, too. “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 goodand that we all collectively benefit from constantly undermining each other, as ludicrous as that may sound. Yet, for the most part, even despite their contempt for those below them in the social hierarchy, even right-wingers behave in an incredibly left-wing manner towards those closest to them. And that’s because humans organized themselves into what we nowadays call “societies” precisely so that we could allbenefit from being interdependent. That interdependence required us to develop compassion to allow us to survive in a society. 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 our everyday actions in today’s world 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 turn the right-wing world that we live in into 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. As the economic crisis in Greece goes to show, humans are capable of compassion even in the most desperate of situations: rather than stealing from each other, many Greeks are stepping into provide the services that their government has failed to deliver and those that some of their compatriots can no longer afford, from food to medical services to street lighting – all for free. Similar systems have been devised in Serbia as well as in Macedonia, where numerous bakeries have introduced “solidarity basketsto allow customers to buy an extra bun or piece of bread to leave to those who can’t afford to eat. And many customers indeed comply.

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 ournecks. That involves critically examining and rethinking the false ideologies and pseudo-theories invoked by the powerful for the sole purposes of justifying their own dominating behaviour. 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 left-wing 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 cite the dogma of limited government to justify enriching big businesses at the cost of everyone else, or when rich countries proclaim free trade to justify infiltrating the economies of developing countries. We’ve been raised to regard Soviet-style communism as tyranny and Western capitalism as freedom, but we need to recognize both for what they are: systems of oppression backed up by pseudo-theories that have no empirical basis and only serve those who preach them.

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 the autonomist ethos of the Zapatistas to build the society we want. We need to form cooperatives and make use of cryptocurrencies, local currencies, 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.

Modern society is diseased and needs treatment. 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 pseudo-theory and other 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, and as the Zapatistas have shown, another world is certainly possible. It’s time to recognize that, for the purposes of redeeming ourselves from perpetual oligarchy, left is right.

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.

Reader-owned media? Lessons from football

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ takeover of the Washington Post in October set off alarm bells in the minds of media critics and readers of independent media alike, myself included. This was the fate of one of the world’s most reputed political newspapers thrown into corporate hands – the same hands that controlled the world’s largest internet company by revenue. All this in an age of what appears to be terminal decline as far as newspapers are concerned: circulation has fallen by 13% in North America and around twice that in Europe in the last five years. Bezos’ takeover is symptomatic of an increasing reliance of the mainstream media on handouts from either corporations or governments – those who can afford to subsidize their losses. As Le Monde diplomatique‘s Serge Halimi succinctly puts it: “Publications aligned with the dominant worldview or the decrees of advertisers rake in the money, everything else struggles.” Amazon’s recent $600 million deal with the CIA ought to set a few more alarm bells off.

All of this is perfectly familiar to football fans, who have seen wealthy benefactors with seemingly bottomless pockets propel once humble clubs such as Manchester City, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain to the top of their respective leagues through funnelling an endless stream of subsidies into their coffers. What is really worrying is that the benefactor model has become the norm: of the 20 clubs that competed in the 2011-12 English Premier League season, only Norwich City, Swansea City and Wolverhampton Wanderers finished the season without incurring debt. Clubs run on the principles of strict financial responsibility can no longer compete with the billions flowing into the accounts of their subsidized rivals, and this fact largely accounts for the contagiousness of the benefactor model.

The benefactor model has an Achilles heel, however. What happens when the benefactor decides he or she has poured enough money down the drain and pulls out? Or if the benefactor goes bankrupt? No fewer than 38 English clubs have entered administration (essentially bankruptcy) since the turn of the millennium, four of which went out of business altogether. An alternative business model for football on the rise today is that of fan ownership – a model that not only prevents this type of financial instability but also ensures that decisions are made according to those whom it ultimately serves: the fans.

My club, AFC Wimbledon, is one example. Founded in 2002 by former fans of Wimbledon FC when its owners decided to relocate the club to Milton Keynes, where it remains today under the “MK Dons” moniker, the club is fully owned by The Dons Trust, a supporters’ group that pledges to retain at least 75% ownership of the club to ensure nothing of the sort of the fate that befell its predecessor ever occurs again. Members join the trust for an annual fee of £25, an amount that supplements gate receipts and season tickets, which make up most of the club’s turnover. Last season, fans established the We Are Wimbledon Fund, a crowdfunding initiative to boost the playing budget that ultimately provided the finances for the estimated £25,000 transfer fee of Harry Pell from Hereford United (not a trivial sum for a fourth-division team). Fan ownership isn’t limited to clubs starting from scratch, either. Former Premier League club Portsmouth FC, now playing in the fourth tier, became the largest fan-owned club in England when its fans bought it out of administration in April.

What lessons can the likes of the Washington Post pick up from the likes of Wimbledon and Portsmouth? If fan ownership of a football club is not only conceivable but also doable in a league system dominated by subsidized clubs, who’s to say the same couldn’t be done in the media? After all, both football and the news are, in today’s world, inherently unprofitable sectors that rely, if not on corporate or taxpayer dollars (or pounds), on trust membership fees and crowdfunding for revenue to keep them afloat. I propose that the next time the owners of a major newspaper or news magazine offer it up for sale, its readers should pool together a sum of money to make a bid for it. Then, once in ownership of it, they can decide on coverage on a democratic basis and keep it running financially on an annual subscription fee. After all, plenty of media sources are charging subscription fees without giving readers a share or even a voice. $20 or $30 a year to have a say in what stories your newspaper covers and to ensure that it stays well away from corporate and government interference. Not a bad deal, is it?

Finally… it’s already been done before.