Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"Beyond Left and Right"

It is one of the occupational hazards of seeking to clarify one's views online in particular that one is constantly confronting befuddling cut-and-pasted worldviews articulating what amount to rather straightforward left or right political propositions in fact, but tangled up in a thicket of superfluous neologisms, undigested notions, conventions, terms, and frames deployed without much sense of their discursive, figurative, generic, or etymological entailments, or sometimes even their basic definitions.

I can't tell you how many times I've been caught up in arguments with right-wing corporate-militarists who deny that their political viewpoint is authoritarian or conservative at all, all evidence to the contrary, but constitutes some newfangled perspective "off the traditional political map," "Beyond Left and Right."

And once one has followed one of these dot-eyed reactionaries off the cliff-face of that traditional left-right map one is inevitably inducted into a bewildering labyrinth in which the often dime-thin differences that distinguish libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, crypto-anarchists, Randians, minarchists, agorists, dynamists, extropians, upwingers, classical liberals, neoliberals, neoconservatives and so on get invested with epic significance demanding endless hair-splitting analysis and inspiring endless claims of unsubstantiated confidence and originality.

Meanwhile, all this endless slogging through the swamp of reactionary right-wing bullshit, this swamp of proliferating neologisms and public relations spinning to keep thought off-kilter and profit on-target, has always obscured or altogether obliterated our devoting any attention at all to or attributing any significance at all to the crucial difference that makes a difference distinguishing all this right wing crapola from basic democratic left attitudes that represent the real living alternative to the whole dumb debased range of these right wing "ideas."

My whole adult life since high school I have been constantly sermonized that "all the new ideas are on the right," that all "the excitement and revolutionary fervor has shifted away from the left to the right," and so on. Usually it seemed to me upon actually listening to all these "new ideas" and "excited revolutionaries" that this was mostly a bunch of stupid white assholes saying fairly obviously trite and idiotic things, not to mention rather ugly usually racist things, and in general confusing theory with something like used car salesmanship. And while it is true that there often was a real excitement on display among the Movement Conservatives, the Ayn Randians, the libertarians (you know, people who vote Republican but who are personally cool with pot and hookers and, sometimes, atheists), the extropian libertopian techno-utopians, and so on, this excitement always seemed more to do with pulling off a heist or a scam or otherwise getting away with something naughty than the excitement of being undone and remade in the confrontation with new ideas or engaging in anything like real revolutionary struggle.

Cutting through all the bogus novelty, empty neologisms, and faux innovation, it seems to me that there remains in force a basic distinction between the left and the right, between conservative politics organized by incumbent interests and progressive politics organized by the diverse dynamic demands of the plurality of actual stakeholders to historical change in the world. And, no, it doesn't matter, hot shot, that these designations derive superficially from the placement in the congressional chamber of partisans of conservative against progressive politics during the French Revolution, any more than it matters that Red and Blue have acquired a comparably accidental association with conservatism and democracy through the mass broadcast mediation of election coverage in the United States, the underlying and in my view abiding countervailing political orientations captured in these various accidental formalisms are what matters here.

I know that many of my colleagues (especially those who share my own focus on the politics of disruptive technoscientific change) find this to be a real blind spot in my thinking, but I honestly think all the overheated re-mappings of the political terrain one stumbles onto in popular political prognostication (especially online) tend to be faddish distractions from the enduring analytic utility of distinguishing elitist from democratic political ends.

I don't deny that disruptive technodevelopments, for example, can scramble and befuddle customary left-right constituencies, formations, and so on. But it seems to me that a clear grasp of the traditional distinction of left from right, democratic from elitist politics, provides indispensable guidance in such moments of befuddlement, reminds us that traditional allies -- whatever our basic political orientation -- may not yet have found their way to a politically consistent accommodation of novelty (as neither yet might we ourselves), and so it is a useful thing to provisionally reorient ourselves by way of our basic principles.

If nothing else, in moments like those, especially democratically minded folks of the left know to set aside their comfortable allegiances and formulations and remember to actually pay attention to just who is profiting and who is bearing the costs of some novel development, who is doing all the talking and who is getting ignored, who is holding the guns and where are they pointed, and so on.

I have yet to confront a situation, however otherwise unprecedented, that ultimately seemed to me "Beyond Left and Right" in any significant sense, once I had devoted time to understanding it properly in those terms. Neither do I know of any progressive or democratic outcome that has been facilitated by an analysis that flattered itself that it was "Beyond Left and Right" in this way.

Given the special predilection of market libertarians (most of whom are, face it, perfectly intelligible as right wing reactionaries in most of their desired outcomes and many of their deepest assumptions) for the claim that they are "Beyond Left and Right," and given indispensability of the "Beyond Left and Right" formulations to the neoliberal corporate-militarist hijackings of the Democratic Party in the USA by the DLC in the Clinton Administration and of Labor in the UK in the Blairite era of the so-called "Third Way," one would expect especially democratically minded people to be leery by now of expressions of the desire to get "Beyond Left and Right." Too often that desire seems upon close scrutiny to amount to a rather facile, however effective, effort to get the people of the democratic left to take their eyes off the ball and so abet the Right in their ugly awful Business As Usual.


Anonymous said...

My point of view might be authoritarian -- I just don't know. It is not conservative (I agree with most of what you say, actually).

Anne Corwin said...

I used to think of myself as "apolitical" or "unclassifiable" (per the usual left-right designations), but I'm beginning to realize that I am at least philosophically sympathetic primarily to what you'd describe as "Left".

Socially, I'm close to 100% sure of this, however, as far as economic matters go, I just feel so horribly ignorant of how money and resources do (or don't) move between people, nations, other groups, etc., to the point where I don't see myself as qualified to argue for a particular economic system.

I mean, I know that I don't think taxation is "theft" (I can't see how we'd be able to have roads and public sanitation and such without some level of taxation), but I do think individual property rights are important to some extent -- e.g., I wouldn't like to live in a world where I couldn't rely on anything ever being where I left it.

I also think everyone should have a right to basic health care and that a person's life should not be dependent upon how much money they do or don't have, but I don't know exactly how such a system would be implemented on a large scale -- of course I am not saying I don't think it can be done, just that I personally don't know how it would be done.

I'm just not very good at Very Big Picture planning, and whenever people start arguing about which economic strategies are likely to yield maximum benefits, I find that I honestly can't even take part in those discussions from a strategic standpoint, since all I know is what I would like to see happen -- not whether what I want to see happen is realistic, or what means to achieve it might work best. It seems like everyone and their uncle has some argument as to why their preferred economic strategy has some historical precedent of working (and why the other guy's preferred system will likely bring ruin, etc.), and honestly it gets very difficult to parse all this at times.

I have to wonder sometimes if this is a cognitive weakness on my part, or whether many of those who seem utterly convinced that they know the One True System (not you -- even if I don't understand all the principles and theories behind your comments on taxation, I don't get a sense of shrill zealotry from what you say there) are in fact basing their convictions on something very like religious faith (this seems particularly common in "market"-oriented people).