As idealist teenager I always wanted to side with the notional left on everything. The left represented progress towards a better tomorrow freed of human suffering, prejudice, inequality and exploitation, a panacea in which all human beings could enjoy life to the full in a giant communal garden of Eden. The right, on the other hand, represented the forces of reactionary conservatism emotionally tied to the establishment and traditions that prevented progress to a fairer world. I could summarise my naive adolescent appraisal of the left versus right dichotomy as a simple battle between good and bad. The left stood for altruistic goodness and the right for selfish evil. If only life were so simple? However, this simplistic characterisation of left and right still holds true for many youthful political pundits. If you want to discredit a political stance, it often suffices to call it rightwing, end of debate.
The real distinction between left and right transcends broader political questions such as the balance between state control and private enterprise or the relative merits of equality and healthy competition. A left-winger, at heart is just a wishful thinking idealist who believes social and technological progress will enable us all to enjoy a very high standard of living, if only the greedy rich could share more of their wealth. Right-wingers on the other hand are simply pragmatists. They do not necessarily mean to harm anyone else, just they believe we can only really take care of ourselves and our family and should owe greater allegiance to our national community than our species as a whole. While left-wingers view humanity as an organic network that will converge on a new progressive agenda, right-wingers view people as a complex web of competing individuals and in-groups with different interests and indeed different strengths and weaknesses.
Fifty years ago in the midst of the Cold War, it may well have seemed that the notional left, at least in Western Europe and North America, challenged a notionally right-wing establishment. Conservative parties would tend to favour private enterprise, family values and civic pride, while the left called for greater state control, more social welfare and international solidarity. In reality most Western governments, whether nominally left or right of centre, pursued business-friendly social interventionism, often confusingly called social democracy, to engineer high living standards, a growing consumer economy and relative social cohesion. National debates would be framed in terms of progress versus traditionalism, personal freedom versus social intervention or democracy versus tyranny. However, both the left and right had plenty of skeletons in their proverbial cupboards. While the libertarian right could point to godless dictatorships behind the Iron Curtain, the radical left could expose national capitalism's complicity in supporting not only Mussolini and Hitler, but also dictatorships in Spain (1937-75), Portugal (1933 to 1974), Greece (1967 to 1974) or Chile (1973 to 1990). Whichever way, authoritarian regimes of the notional left and right, had the blood of tens of millions on their hands. Moreover, these regimes often enjoyed the full support and collaboration of governments in supposedly democratic countries. Meanwhile much of the European radical left sought either to distance themselves from the Stalinist Soviet Union and Maoist China or downplay their authoritarian excesses. Yet repressive regimes of all hues tended to favour collectivist rights and responsibilities over personal freedoms.
For much of the 19th and 20th centuries the notional left would champion the self-determination of subjugated peoples, whether in Ireland, India or the African colonies. Imperialism remained largely associated with the right, except when dealing with regions and peoples attempting to free themselves from a rival imperialist power. As the Spanish and Portuguese empires waned, the British, French and later American could spread their more technologically advanced liberal mercantilist culture, often supporting local forces of national liberation. As the Ottoman Empire declined, the French, British and Italians filled the vacuum as progressive purveyors of Western civilisation, a concept which would later morph into freedom and democracy. The left's view on self-determination began to change with the birth of the Soviet Union. While previously the left had always favoured the self-determination of all peoples in the age of expansionist empires, socialists became more interested in international solidarity and in defending what many saw as a workers' state, whether deformed or not. Yet many of the struggles, from which quasi-socialist regimes emerged, started as wars of national liberation from foreign oppressors.
Nothing epitomises the modern left more than its oxymoronic obsession with equality and diversity. Surely, the more diverse we are, the less equal we are too, except in the loose sense of equality of opportunities, rights and responsibilities. A hunter-gatherer community will never be equal to a globally integrated complex society reliant on advanced technology and an extreme division of labour. That doesn't mean hunter-gatherers are in any way intellectually inferior, just they use their intelligence in a different way. Hunter-gatherers conceive wealth in terms of their ability to enjoy the bounties of nature, not as their ability to use abstract financial funds to allocate strategic resources for their personal benefit. Yet traditional ways of life that evolved over thousands of years are rapidly giving way to a globally integrated high-tech mono-culture. The more we talk of diversity, the less we have. As fewer and fewer people survive as subsistence farmers or hunter-gatherers (the latter being an endangered way of life), most of humanity now depends on the financial economy. Globalisation has unmasked a massive, and indeed growing, disparity between the financially rich and poor, concealed only by generous welfare in wealthier countries and lower costs of living in some low-wage regions. Equality and diversity initiatives really have little to do with either equality or diversity, but merely managing global convergence as people from different social and cultural backgrounds come into contact with each other.
The heirs to the great European and American working classes, who in large part made today's world possible through skill and dedication, have either had to adapt to a volatile service economy or have been made redundant through automation and/or outsourcing. By keeping large swathes of the population dependent on welfare, the social democratic left has mainly succeeded in keeping the consumer economy alive while slowly but surely thwarting the willpower and self-motivation of millions in the growing underclass trapped on benefits. How could the heirs of the once-proud labour movement defend a system that not only demotivates the lower classes, but wrecks family life and requires a massive social surveillance apparatus to maintain some degree of social order. Fatherlessness alone costs taxpayers hundreds of millions through additional welfare support needs and lack of ambition in teenage boys. Yet the trendy left sees the demise of the traditional two-parent family as a sign of progress, because it allegedly empowers women and homosexuals to break free from heterosexual patriarchy. Yet in promoting this brave new world, the lifestyle left have broken with thousands of years of cultural evolution across many diverse societies. Rather than adapting the traditional roles of men and women in line with technological and social change, the doctrinaire left seeks to eradicate all functional differences. As a result in many Western countries, young men have become great demotivated underachievers, while women have an advantage in a plethora of non-productive people-oriented roles, such as social workers, project managers or recruiters. While female emancipation has been enabled by technology developed mainly by men, it has effectively turned most women into wage slaves and undervalued their traditional role as mothers.
All too often many of the forces that pose on the left advocate policies that suit the needs of power-hungry transnational corporations much more than those of ordinary women or men. Meanwhile the globalist left pretends to oppose the excesses of global capitalism, such as environmental depredation, grotesque overindulgence or mind-bending hyper-consumerism. Yet these are mere side effects of a system that creates insatiable demand for elusive opulence.