A new book of essays, Left Turn, has given managing editor David Donovan an opportunity to reflect on the inherent shortcomings of all political ideologies.
A little while ago, IA was sent a recently published book called ‘Left Turn: Political Essays for the New Left’ for review. Edited by sometime IA contributor, freelance journalist Antony Loewenstein, along with Overland editor Jeff Sparrow, it was a worthwhile read — full of often insightful and well-meaning summations of the problems in our unbalanced society: discrimination, racism, sexism, homophobia, propaganda, lack of democracy, unrestrained free market capitalism, political injustice — that sort of thing.
It featured contributions by people I rather admire, journalism professor Wendy Bacon, who strangely seems to have never heard of Independent Australia; fellow Australian republican Larissa Behrendt, whose excellent piece on avoiding symbolism in Indigenous Affairs was, however, curiously lacking in passion; and psychiatrist Dr Tad Tietze, whose (with Elizabeth Humphrys) complete dismissal of the worth of market based solutions to climate change was, I felt, a tad naive. Other, also highly admirable, contributors included Greens leader Lee Rhiannon, Crikey‘s Guy Rundle, Walkley Award winning Tracker editor Chris Graham and novelist Christos Tsiolkas.
Much of the book I agreed with and I would recommend it for people who would like to better understand our society and are looking for solutions to some of its systemic problems. Every writer in this book had an interesting viewpoint and worthy – sometimes even highly innovative – ideas for bettering our society.
Of course, there is a fatal flaw in this book, as indeed there is in all books of this type — ideology. It comes out in the title: “Left turn”, “New Left”. Whenever I see people describing themselves as “left” or “right”, I get a bit puzzled. What is “left”? What is “right”? Is left right? Is right wrong? What is “new left”? Was there something wrong with the old left? Do these arbitrary distinctions really mean anything?
People who read IA regularly know that IA’s mantra is “neither left nor right, we believe in just doing what is right”. Still, we are put in the left category and Tess Lawrence was even invited to speak at a Socialist Alliance function recently, which I’m sure she did brilliantly, but the truth is, although IA is a socially progressive publication, but we aren’t “lefties” or “pinkos” or any of those other terms that the LNP social media volunteers rather misguidedly believe are fiercely derogatory. They aren’t insulting to us, they are just inaccurate.
IA rejects ideology, for the simple reason that all ideologies are unable to cope with the innate complexity of society, and therefore will always end up being oppressive in practice. We saw this with Communism in the USSR and we are seeing this with the rise (and current fall) of free market fundamentalist capitalism in the western world.
To the extent that “Left” or “Right” mean anything, it is based on economics, not social progressivism. In effect, “Left” means socialism, and “Right” means capitalism. To get down to the fundamentals, the basic premise of socialism would seem to be that capitalism is bad, markets unfair and that the best course for society is to create a collectivist society without needless competition or accumulation.
But IA doesn’t believe in a creating a socialist society. Or a capitalist society, for that matter. I explained why in a recent article, which probably bears repeating here:
The truth is, human beings want to trade and barter; that instinct was built into our psyche from the time we came down from the trees — “I’ll give you this banana for that pretty rock”, for example. This trait means pure socialist collectivism, no matter how admirable, is always destined to fail in practice. Most people want the chance to work harder or smarter and do just a bit better than others. However, also destined to fail is total market sovereignty. Like in ancient times, if one clan dweller had all the bananas and the rest of the people had nothing but pretty rocks, than the person with all the bananas will have them taken off him — often along with his head.
To ensure ordinary people don’t rise up against the people who have all the bananas, the only sensible, and indeed proper, course of action is what we have at the moment — targeted, sensible, regulation to control the excesses of the market, a system of taxation to redistribute wealth and provide for common utilities and services, and a welfare system such that our weakest and least able are protected to the best of our ability. Free market groups would happily destroy our society by stripping this away — but by doing so, they sow the seeds of their own ultimate destruction, as markets always need stability to prosper.
So, total competitive economic Darwinism is abhorrent and self-defeating, but then again total collectivism is also doomed to failure, since people need to have incentive to achieve. Having everything provided for you without any struggle will inevitably lead to a failed society. People like to look around and see that by working hard, we can do a little bit better than, say, lazy Joe Bloggs down the road. A lot of cooperation and a bit of healthy competition — it makes sense to me.
That means I am an advocate, essentially, of what we have now — effectively a hybrid of socialism and capitalism. Before the rise of the free market fundamentalist, advocating that would have put me dead in the middle — neither left nor right. These days, it seems that these ideas are seen as “left wing”. They aren’t. We have social problems, but they are all solvable without tearing down our society. The problem is those on the so-called “left” and “right” will keep on battling each other in books like ‘Left Turn’ or Ayn Rand‘s pyschopathic free market treatises, and other forums, until one or the other prevails. And, heaven help us if one or the other ever do — because it won’t be long after that before society becomes oppressive for all but the ruling elites. This constant battle is really getting us nowhere, except that it provides ideological balance and doesn’t allow either extreme to dominate.
In a better world, of course, we wouldn’t have diametrically opposed groups angrily battling each other for ideological and societal dominance, but we would all try to cooperate to progressively create a better, fairer, freer, more equal and happier society. I hope that this may happen one day, in the distant future, when we are a little more evolved. For now, we have publications like IA to help us along the way.
(Left Turn is published by Melbourne University Press, RRP $32.99. Apart from those mentioned, it also features contributions from Nazeem Hussain, Pamela Curr, Tom Bramble, Rick Kuhn, Emily Howie, Kim Bullimore, Rodney Croome and Jacinda Woodhead.)
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