The defeat of reason

Left and Right
November 15, 1996

An old political saw says that the difference between left and right is questioned only by the right. This implies that those who query the significance of the distinction between left and right must be - objectively, if not consciously - supporters of the right. Rejecting the traditional distinction between left and right looks like a move in the right's strategy for hegemony. Its practical result can only be to weaken the left. Yet the values which were expressed in the left position - the Enlightenment values of equality and universal rights - seem far from obsolescent. Arbitrary power and inequalities in wealth and opportunity persist as major impediments to human well-being. To question the distinction between left and right appears to deny these manifest facts. Anyone who does so must surely be an enemy of the left - or else, perhaps, someone who believes that in a period of right-wing hegemony the goals of the left can only be achieved by concealing their origins and content. Either way, to deny the significance of this distinction is effectively to affirm it, since its political effect can only be to strengthen the right.

It is a striking feature of the contemporary intellectual and political scene that this common and, at first sight, compelling view has lacked an exponent who has a real command of the theoretical and historical issues it poses. Now, in Norberto Bobbio's newly translated book, we have the most ingenious and forceful defence of the traditional categories of left and right for many years, and one that will set the standard of argument on the subject for the foreseeable future. As Bobbio himself notes here in an illuminating response to critics of the book's first Italian edition, the history of his book illustrates some of the paradoxes of recent political discourse. It was published in Italy, selling over 200,000 copies in a year, just before the 1994 elections. As well as bringing to power the short-lived right wing coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi, the elections of 1994 testified to an increasing political polarisation in Italy. Assisted by reforms of the electoral system which ended proportional representation, the two great alliances of Italian politics had organised themselves as alternative governments embodying the incompatible political outlooks of the left and right.

Yet, at the time when Italian political life was organised on bipolar lines framed by the traditional categories of left and right to a degree unprecedented in the postwar period, it was a commonplace for Italian intellectuals to reject these same categories as obsolete and outmoded. They invoked absurd American theories of "the end of history" and "the end of politics" to suggest that there were no longer any real options in political life. The limits of public debate and political possibility were fixed for all time by "democratic capitalism".

It was against this political background that Bobbio's simple, lucid, but finally profoundly misleading book was published. The core of Bobbio's argument is the thesis that political life - at least since the French National Assembly of 1789, from which what he candidly calls "the extremely banal spatial metaphor" of left and right derives - is inherently and inescapably dyadic. According to Bobbio, no doctrine, movement or thinker can be at the same time of the right and the left. These are antithetical terms denoting a dichotomy, a pair of mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive alternatives.

In Bobbio's dualistic view of politics, what distinguishes left and right most essentially is their stance regarding equality. The left in all its varieties promotes equality, whereas the right resists it. Bobbio supplements this basic distinction with another, which is in his view different but no less fundamental - that between extremism and moderation. He asserts that both the right and the left become extremist when they oppose democracy; but he denies that, as many liberals and some postmodernists have held, the far right and the far left converge in any deep way. For Bobbio, communism and fascism remain polar opposites, their essential enmity arising from the incompatible values - values of equality and of inequality - which animate and define them. As he puts it: "An alliance between communists and fascists would be an historical absurdity." In the course of his scrupulous and rigorous analysis, Bobbio is careful to distinguish equality from the concern with inclusion that marks much recent political thought that considers itself to be left of centre; but he insists that it is their conflicting attitudes to equality that have always distinguished left from right. In Bobbio's account, equality remains the central dividing line in politics today.

Throughout the book Bobbio's historical perspective is European and Italian. This is vastly preferable to the Americocentric parochialism of much that passes for political thought nowadays; but it is still a narrow view, with slight leverage on large areas of the late modern world. It has no clear relevance to those parts of the nonoccidental world, such as Singapore, Malaysia and China, which decline to order their lives according to the dated dichotomies of European Enlightenment ideologies. It has doubtful application to postcommunist Russia, where alliances of communists and fascists sharing a traditional Russian hostility to further westernisation are a reality.

Even with regard to western democracies, Bobbio's at times almost Manichean account is confounded by the ideological metamorphoses of the past two decades. Consider New Zealand, where the Labour party was captured in the mid-1980s by new right ideologues. In less than a decade New Zealand's market fundamentalists transformed that country from one of the world's most egalitarian social democracies into a free market economy more austere than any in the world (save, perhaps, that constructed in Pinochet's Chile). They were able to execute this remarkable coup, partly because Labour during this period embraced a foreign and defence policy of neoneutralism and nuclear pacifism that deflected left-wing critics from its domestic policies, and partly because the right could credibly represent itself as a movement of the left. Neoliberal ideologues invoked the universal interest of the consumer against the particularistic interests of producers. They were able to identify policies which freed up markets with the progress of the entire human species, and policies which sought to protect the interests of workers with dark and reactionary nationalism. The new right was able to destroy the political power of the old left because it successfully appropriated Enlightenment values - of modernity, rationality, individual liberty and equality - in the service of market reform. In New Zealand, more clearly than elsewhere, the new right revealed itself to be the old left of presocialist times, a late 20th-century rebirth of the party of paleoliberals - Cobden, Bright, Herbert Spencer and others - that in the mid-19th century routed the Tory protectionists.

In Britain, the Thatcherite project of legitimating market-generated economic inequalities advanced politically by pressing the claims of another kind of equality - equal opportunity. It attacked the corporatist economic practices underpinning the failing postwar settlement of the late 1970s as networks of privilege. At the same time, it has defended the great disparities of income and wealth that have opened up in Britain over the past 20 years as resulting from differences of ability and merit among individuals. These latter claims are implausible. Yet what enabled the Thatcherites to set the political agenda in Britain for a decade and a half was in part their deployment of a meritocratic understanding of equality against the levelling conception then endorsed by Labour. It is mistaken to suppose, as Bobbio does, that political competition in late modern democracies turns on whether equality is promoted or resisted. The conflict is instead between rival views of equality and markets. While the paleoliberal new right continues to hold that unrestrained free markets are sufficient to assure equal opportunity, latter-day new liberals - communitarians, modernising social democrats, ethical socialists and others - maintain that an active state is necessary to combine inclusion with meritocracy. This is a significant difference, but it is not one that can be fully captured in the traditional categories of right and left.

The emerging conflicts that seem set to dominate political life in the coming century are even less amenable to Bobbio's backward-looking analysis. The new social movements of the 1980s, which aimed to politicise personal life, are paralleled in the 1990s by fundamentalist movements which promote a reactionary politics of lifestyle around issues of abortion and family values. The Enlightenment expectation that modernity, liberal institutions and secular politics go together is being overturned. Political entrepreneurs such as Pat Buchanan are mobilising the insecurities produced by unregulated markets to develop a novel kind of antiliberal politics.

As the effects of globalisation bite deeply into ordinary life and increase personal economic insecurity for the great majority of voters, the current political consensus on lean government and free trade is likely to be unsustainable. The hostility to government which all political tendencies have inherited from the period of new right supremacy is decreasingly tenable in a post-totalitarian world of weak democracies and weak tyrannies. In such a world, anarchy is a greater threat to human well-being than government overstretch. What is the leverage of categories of left and right on the choices that such a world will compel?

Contrary to Bobbio, the distinction between left and right lost most of its utility some time ago, when the fall of the Soviet system occurred. In this regard, the significance of the events of 1989-91 is virtually the opposite of that which Bobbio, along with the majority of western opinion, supposes. Those world-historical events did not signify the defeat of one westernising Enlightenment ideology - the Marxian utopia of central economic planning - by another, the neoliberal utopia of market rationalism. They were instead a defeat for the Enlightenment itself, as Russia returned to the historic ambiguities of its relationships with Europe, Asia and modernity.

The distinctions between left and right that we inherit from the French revolution will not help us to understand the world which flows from the revolutions of 1989. It is a world in which the Enlightenment is in retreat, fundamentalism a growing power nearly everywhere and the simple dichotomies of the cold war a fading memory.

It is to be hoped that Bobbio's book does not encourage those who think of themselves as being on the left to imagine that we are now returning to a world which resembles that which the old categories mapped. For the lapidary clarity of Bobbio's analysis is a very poor guide to the dissolving ideologies and paradoxical alignments with which any late modern political programme cannot avoid engaging.

John Gray is professor of politics, University of Oxford.

Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction

Author - Norberto Bobbio
ISBN - 0 7456 1560 0 and 15619
Publisher - Polity
Price - £35.00 and £9.95
Pages - 160

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