Open vs Closed: The rise and fall of Left and Right
The Commons Chamber inside the Houses of Parliament. Credit: Justin Tallis - WPA Pool/Getty   

North and south, up and down, left and right. We all need directions in life. In fact, we’d be lost without them.

They simplify and summarise, stripping out the detail – but that’s what makes them so valuable. They provide us with a common frame of reference, a way of gauging where we stand in relation to one another. 

Democracy, too, needs directions. For all the details of policy making, all the nuances of ideology, we, as voters, need a straightforward way of lining up the options and making our choices. By reducing the complexities to a single dimension, that’s exactly what the Left-Right spectrum does for us.

It may be crude, it may be simplistic – but in the democratic era, it has untangled the mess, sorting politicians into parties, and parties into coalitions. 

It also puts the focus on the issues that matter most. The central proposition of modern politics is the state. How big should it be? How much should it spend, tax, redistribute, regulate? The details are complex, but the fundamental choice is not: do you want a bigger state or a smaller one? Go left for the former; right for the latter. 

But what if that’s not how it works anymore? What if politics has become about something else? 

From Brexit to Trump to the populist triumph in Italy, the established order is under attack. There is talk of political realignment. But realignment along what axis? If it’s no longer Left-versus-Right, then what are the defining directions of the new spectrum?

This deep dive is an attempt to find answers. It comes in three parts:

For more on these new directions, read on. 

 

The origin of left and right

Let’s begin at the beginning. Or what is supposed to be the beginning.

In the English language, the first reference to Left and Right as political categories is in Thomas Carlyle’s 1837 history of the French Revolution. It comes from his description of the National Constituent Assembly – the first ‘parliament’ of revolutionary France, where supporters of the king and supporters of the revolution sat on opposite sides of the chamber:1

“…if we glance into that Assembly Hall of theirs, it will be found, as is natural, ‘most irregular.’ As many as ‘a hundred members are on their feet at once;’ no rule in making motions, or only commencements of a rule; Spectators’ Gallery allowed to applaud, and even to hiss… Nevertheless, as in all human Assemblages, like does begin arranging itself to like… Rudiments of Methods disclose themselves; rudiments of Parties. There is a Right Side (Cote Droit), a Left Side (Cote Gauche); sitting on M. le President’s right hand, or on his left: the Cote Droit conservative; the Cote Gauche destructive.”

The Assembly, formed in 1789, was soon for the chop (as indeed were many of its members). However, the symbolism of its seating arrangement would persist in the various bodies that succeeded it – those most attached to the established order on the right, those keenest on radical change on the left, and those between the extremes in the centre. 

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Over the next two hundred years, these labels would attach themselves to the politics of other nations – whether or not their legislative bodies followed the same physical layout.

So, is that all there is to it – just an accident of history? The legacy of a seating arrangement that might just as easily have gone the other way? Absolutely not. The symbolic meaning of left and right is much older the French Revolution. In fact, it pre-dates history itself.

Most human beings are right-handed. Our right hands are typically stronger and more dextrous than the left. It is a physical bias strong enough to shape language. For instance, the English word ‘dexterity’ is derived from the Latin for right-handed; whereas the word ‘left‘ has Germanic origins meaning weak or foolish.

The word ‘right‘ goes all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European root word *reg from which we also get words like ‘regular’, ‘straight’, ‘correct’, ‘adroit’, ‘royal’ and ‘rule’.

Both literally and symbolically, ‘right’ embodies normality, ability and thus the natural order of things. The left embodies the opposite.

In fact, from a leftie perspective it gets worse. Because most people use their right hand to eat with, many cultures have made a point of using the left hand to perform tasks that include contact with dirt and excrement.2 Across the Middle East, and many other parts of the world, touching food with the left hand is a cultural taboo.

The unsavoury associations of the left hand are perhaps compounded by an element of fear. In contests of physical prowess, whether on the battlefield or the sporting arena, the left-hander presents the right-hander with an unfamiliar opponent – one capable of delivering blows from an unaccustomed direction.

This left-handedness isn’t just unusual, it’s also subversive – if not downright sinister.

We see the symbolism of left and right in religion too. In the New Testament, Christ, as the Good Shepherd, separates the sheep (i.e. the righteous) from the goats (i.e. the fallen), placing the former on his right side and the latter on his left.3 Comparable metaphors can be found in non-Abrahamic faiths too. For intance, Hindu traditions distinguish between the concepts of daksinachara (the ‘right-hand path’ of orthodox, virtuous spiritual practice) and vamacara (the ‘left-hand path’ of heterodox, transgressive spiritual practice).

 

Left and right in politics

The political association of the right with the established order and the left with challenges to that order is therefore no accident. It is deeply encoded within culture, language and religion – and thus applying the same symbols to politics came naturally. But why did it take so long for politics to acquire its ‘wings’?

It wasn’t until the Enlightenment period that internal division along ideological lines came to be seen as anything other than a mortal threat to the integrity of the realm. Before that the only alternative to a unified, if hierarchical, society was assumed to be bloody chaos – which is why the established order (and the shared religious assumptions that underpinned it) was ferociously defended.

The Reformation would, of course, shatter the religious unity of western Christendom, but within each state it was generally expected that the people would follow the same religion as their rulers: the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (whose realm, his religion).

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In the Enlightenment period, the old certainties and structures would be loosened. In some states, such as England, the process was evolutionary; in others, like France, it was revolutionary. The English approach allowed for the gradual accommodation of a widening range of religious and economic interests within a continuing, though not immutable, constitutional framework. However, in France, where the ancien régime was unaccommodating, change could only come about through the repudiation of established sources of authority. What was once regarded as right was right no longer.

In one form or another, the struggle to break with the pre-modern past would go on to define the politics of the West in the 19th century. However, the bourgeois revolt against the aristocratic order was just the beginning.

As a different kind of revolution – the Industrial Revolution – gathered pace, it created the conditions for the rise (and, in many places, the revolt) of an urban working class. Moreover, the Industrial Age was also a ‘Bureaucratic Age‘, with transport and communication technologies enabling the centralisation of political and economic power. For the first time, state ownership of the means of production, the wholesale redistribution of wealth and the creation of a modern welfare state – i.e. socialism – became a viable proposition with a powerful political constituency.

As a result, the bourgeois revolutionaries found themselves outflanked on the left by socialist revolutionaries. Indeed, left and right were redefined. Instead of corresponding to the enemies and the defenders of the aristocratic order, the labels became attached to the enemies and defenders of the capitalist order. 4

Further reading

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Parties that had been thought of as being on the left, but opposed socialism, found themselves moving to the right. One of the best examples of this realignment comes from Denmark, where the main party of the centre-right is called Venstre. This confuses outsiders because venstre is the Danish word for ‘left’. There is, however, a logical explanation: In the 19th century, Venstre really was a party of the left – as the term was then understood; but when socialism emerged as an electoral force, the political spectrum was redefined and Venstre along with it.

We can therefore think in terms of a ’19th-century Left’ and a ’20th-century Left’. To this day, support for, or opposition to, the ideas of the latter defines the Left-Right political spectrum.

That said, it’s worth noting that while the ’19th-century Left’ triumphed over the aristocratic order; there was, in the West, no clear victory for the ’20th-century Left’ over its enemy – the capitalist order. At best, it forced a compromise: the so-called ‘mixed economy’ of publicly and privately-owned industries. By the final decades of the 20th century not even that could be maintained. The mixed economy gave way to the weaker compromise of ‘neoliberalism‘ – i.e. in which the welfare state continued, but nationalised industry was privatised. Furthermore, the fall of the Soviet Bloc and the transmutation of communism in China cleared the way for the globalisation of the capitalist order.

The global financial crisis of 2007-08, followed by the Great Recession, could have marked another turning point – this time in favour of the Left. But while the flaws of neoliberalism were painfully exposed, and are yet to be adequately reformed, the contemporary Left has failed to provide a coherent economic alternative. And that’s not even the Left’s biggest problem.

Though the dominance of neoliberalism can be seen as a success for the Right, the Left still had a powerful role to play as the most enthusiastic redistributor of the proceeds of growth. 5 But in the decade of austerity since the crash, neoliberalism has not provided much in the way of proceeds for the Left to redistribute from; and, as mentioned, the Left has not provided a replacement for neoliberalism. This leaves the Left without a purpose and, increasingly, without power.

Further reading

The centre-left will never defeat European populism if it fails to first understand it

By Henry Olsen

Across Europe, social democrats are in crisis. Once dominant parties of government are haemorrhaging votes and in many cases (e.g. France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Greece) dwindling away to minor party status. In part, this is due to the electoral rise of the radical and alternative Left. However, parties of protest are a poor substitute for parties of government. To date, the only one of the left-wing populist parties to gain power is SYRIZA in Greece – and its fate has been to implement a savage programme of cuts on behalf of the Eurozone authorities.

 

An end to Left and Right?

The decline of the mainstream Left isn’t just an issue for one side of the political divide. A Left incapable of making a difference to economic policy calls into question the relevance of the entire Left-Right spectrum.

A clear sign that old distinctions are collapsing is the growing ease with which parties of the mainstream Left and Right now find themselves in government together. For instance, three of the last four German governments have been ‘grand coalitions’ between the centre-right Christian Democrats and the centre-left Social Democrats. Since 2010, Left-Right coalitions have been formed in a number of other European countries including Italy, the Netherlands and Austria. One could argue that Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! movement is also a Left-Right coalition – albeit in the form of a new party designed for the purpose.

The old model of centre-left and centre-right alternating in government and opposition can no longer be taken for granted. Parties and politicians that were once rivals for power are increasingly likely to find themselves as partners.

There is a parallel here with the political realignment that took place at the beginning of the 20th century. A clear sign that the liberal parties of the ’19th-century Left’ had ceased to be the actual left was when they joined forces with their old enemies on the Right – against the rising influence of socialism.

But how exact is the parallel between what happened to ’19th-century Left’ and what might be happening now to the ‘20th-century Left’?  

Is there, for instance, an emerging ‘21st-century Left’, capable of (a) redefining Left and Right as completely as the socialists did a hundred years ago; and (b) displacing the previous incarnation of the Left at the ballot box ?

Further reading

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There is, but only up to a point.

Ideologically, left-wing populist movements are good at saying what they are against (neoliberalism, etc), but not so good at articulating what they are for. There is no new ‘big idea’ whose impact is even remotely comparable to that of socialism in the 20th century. 

The closest it gets are the ‘post-work’ ideas6 of the accelerationists and others. However, ‘post-workism’ is a response to economic conditions that don’t exist yet i.e. a super-productive economy in which human workers are largely replaced by robots. The socialism of the late 19th was able to flourish in the 20th because it was a response to economic conditions that most people experienced in their daily lives. Furthermore, the socialist parties of the era – whether communist, democratic socialist or social democrat – offered not just a protest against those conditions, but also a means of changing them.

Further reading

Accelerationism, Blue Labour and the future of work

By Peter Franklin

Protest can still make an impact at the ballot box, of course. In countries across Europe, there’s no doubt that the populist Left has taken votes away from the mainstream left.

And yet the radical Left is not the only, or even the biggest, threat to the mainstream Left. In many countries, the most shattering blow to the latter’s voter base has come from populists who don’t belong to any kind of Left: a far from exhaustive list includes UKIP in the UK, the National Front in France, the AfD in Germany, the Five Star Movement and the League in Italy, the Sweden Democrats in Sweden, the Danish People’s Party in Denmark, the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands, the Freedom Party in Austria and, of course, the ‘alt-right’ and the wider Trump phenomenon in America.

With the exception of Five Star, these movements are usually classified as ‘right-wing populists’. 

They are certainly populist in the sense of being anti-establishment, but in what what sense are they right-wing? In terms of the economic issues that are most definitive of the conventional left-right political spectrum, parties of the ‘populist Right’ are generally to the Left of the mainstream Right and often to the left of the mainstream Left too.

Most of these movements don’t define themselves by conventional categories of Left and Right anyway. The degree of state involvement in the economy is, for them, a secondary issue. Indeed, their mission is to polarise politics along an entirely different axis. As their support increases, they are succeeding – sometimes pushing the mainstream left and right into unholy alliance, sometimes pushing one or both out of power altogether.

The Left-Right spectrum is falling to bits; what might replace it is the subject of part two of this series.

FOOTNOTES
  1. Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution: A History, 1837, Book VI, Chapter 2
  2. For instance, the Chinese character for right-handed is composed of the symbols for hand and mouth, while the character for left-handed is features symbols for hand and work
  3. Matthew 25: 31-46
  4. In Russia, where a bourgeois revolution (or evolution) hadn’t happened, revolution, when it did occur, brought down the aristocracy and capitalism at the same time
  5. The era of ‘high neoliberalism’ – from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of Lehman Brothers – was defined by centre-left leaders like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder.
  6. See, for instance, Andy Beckett, ‘Post-work: the radical idea of a world without jobs’, Guardian, 19 January 2018