Clinic essay-header

Beyond Left and Right

by Jay Kinney

In the election year 2000, Peter Warshall at Whole Earth magazine invited me to guest edit a sizable portion of the Summer 2000 issue. I chose the theme of "Beyond Left and Right" and solicited articles from a variety of hard-to-categorize thinkers from across the political spectrum. This piece was my Intro to the issue, hence its references to contributors whose work appeared in it. As often happens with my essays from decades past, some of it will seem dated and some of it may seem curiously relevant to the present. Note: this piece used to be available online at a Whole Earth website that now appears to be abandoned and full of broken links and archival dead ends. So, I've reposted it here.

I'll admit right off the bat that pulling together this special section for Whole Earth has been a bit of a gamble. I’m not much of a gambling man, actually — in fact my Scottish blood dictates that on those rare occasions when I find myself in a Casino, the extent of my gambling is to splurge on two rolls of nickels for the 5¢ slots.

Nevertheless, when it comes to editing, I like to take bigger chances and the 48 pages that follow are the editorial equivalent of a bracing game of strip poker. My wager is that you’ll find the material by turns touching, intriguing, infuriating, and hopefully inspiring. If you don’t, then the joke’s on me.

A few words of explanation are probably in order. Like many readers of Whole Earth whose worldviews first took shape in the ‘60s and ‘70s, my broad sympathies lay with the left for many years. I evolved from anti-war liberal to socialist to anarchist until some time in the ‘80s when I got fed up with the whole radical left milieu, which seemed doomed to spin its wheels endlessly.

However, I remained interested in politics — especially the energies unleashed by Glasnost and Perestroika, which ultimately led to the breakup of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. All bets were off, it seemed, and I increased my investigation of outlooks that ran counter to left orthodoxy: libertarianism, neoconservatism, paleoconservatism, the radical right, you name it.

My modus operandi was fairly simple: I’d explore one group’s convictions, granting them the benefit of the doubt, and see how it felt to see the world through their eyes. In due course, I’d do the same with the next, and the next. The result of this exercise — apart from a maddening resistance to being pinned down to one solid viewpoint during political arguments — was a kind of self-deprogramming wherein terms like “left” or “right” simply lost their negative or positive charge. Granted, some perspectives felt better than others and some felt decidedly worse. But I reached a point where I saw that one’s assumptions largely shape the conclusions that one draws and that reality is so richly complex that it can sustain and reinforce all manner of contradictory viewpoints simultaneously.

Whether this was a kind of political epiphany or merely a crystallization of my inherent ambivalence is not for me to say, but the next logical step was an interest in perspectives that transcended left and right altogether. There had been elements of this tendency in both anarchism and libertarianism, but both groups’ followers seemed overly certain that they had found the-one-and-only Truth. What interested me was not finding the perfect ideology to believe in, but rather discovering ways in which people could sidestep ideologies altogether while still making sense of their lives politically and socially.

If this were only my own eccentric pursuit, I doubt that I would have found much out there that dovetailed with this goal. However, there does seem to be something in the air (besides particulate pollution, that is), and relevant material kept arising as this issue came together. The rest of this short essay is my effort to summarize my findings.

Two Sides to Every Story

Left and Right, like Night and Day, are such familiar and oft-used concepts that they offer the illusion of having always been with us. Yet their use, as political markers, only dates back to 1789 and the French Revolution. At that time, as Roger Eatwell has described it, “a seating pattern emerged in the new National Assembly in which most of the nobility and clergy could be seen to take up positions on the right, whereas the Third Estate, which demanded a constitution and limitation of the King’s power, occupied the left.”

Thus, from the start, the right has been popularly associated with a conservative, cautionary stance, a certain defense of custom and tradition, and a resistance to idealistic innovation. Conversely, the left, broadly speaking, has been associated with the modern quest to change and improve things, to perfect the social order, and to stoke the coals of the mighty engine of “progress.”

Counterposed in this way, the left and right sound more like personal dispositions than ideological camps. Indeed, the conservative thinker, Michael Oakshott, memorably summed up just such a disposition when he noted:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

However, as attractive as the proposition may be, politics is not solely reducible to psychology — as if all ideological skirmishes could be attributed to optimists versus pessimists, or perhaps manics versus depressives. Rather, over the course of the last two centuries, very real differences in political and economic theory and practice have attached themselves to the poles of left and right.

While those differences have hardly been static, and the 19th Century eruptions of Marxism and Nationalism shifted definitions around considerably, the following might serve as a brief summary of the respective camps as they stand at present:

• Politically, the left has advocated as broad an implementation of democracy as possible, although in practice this has often meant an expansion of “public” (i.e. government) ownership or oversight of previously private realms of social life. The right, by comparison has often been skeptical of democracy and the general population’s (much less the government’s) ability to guide society intelligently — the underlying sentiment behind the old Bircher bumper-sticker, “This is a Republic Not a Democracy!”

• Economically, the left has generally favored government intervention to regulate corporations and redistribute wealth more evenly among the population. At its most sweeping, the left has supported socializing industry and agriculture and, in some cases, eliminating private enterprise altogether. The right, on the other hand, has only favored government intervention to assist economic growth and has usually favored minimal interference in the market (viz. Deregulation, etc.)

• Socially, the left has rallied behind a program of minority rights, pushed for broadening the safety net, and championed new social arrangements (single parenthood, gay marriage, etc.) The right, by contrast, has emphasized individual responsibilities, encouraged self-reliance, and defended traditional social arrangements.

Dissatisfaction Guaranteed

There is no denying that there are concrete differences here in approach and values. Yet increasing numbers of people have become dissatisfied with the solutions offered by both the left and right. Marx’s critique of Capitalism and his vision of a Communist utopia captured the imagination of the left over a century ago and most proposals from that camp ever since have been variations on the Marxist theme. Unfortunately, as brilliant as Marx’s critique of Capitalism may have been, Socialism and Communism as they were implemented in the real world since Marx’s time resulted in economic stagnation, labyrinthine bureaucracies, gulags, authoritarian regimes, and cults of personality. Even the softer liberalism that has characterized the Left in America has ended up devising an ad hoc patchwork of legalistic and bureaucratic “reforms” that have too often failed in their stated goals of reducing poverty, crafting racial harmony, and making our lives more secure.

The right, for better or worse, largely threw its lot in with the Capitalist expansion of private enterprise (often euphemized as Free Enterprise or the Free Market). However, an increasingly unfettered Capitalism has been accompanied by a growing income gap between rich and poor, the consolidation of businesses into mega-corporations, the devastation of the environment, and a formal democracy where electoral campaigns are dominated by millionaires and PACs.

In short, neither side has an exactly sterling track record, but efforts to devise alternatives have been plagued with failures of their own. The most prominent (and scary) attempts in the early 20th Century were Fascism and Nazism. Both movements (which were not identical, although they’ve since become conflated in popular political rhetoric) combined a strong state apparatus working in close coordination with privately held corporations. This, in and of itself, wasn’t terribly different from trends at work in the rest of the world, but when combined with a bellicose nationalism, authoritarian rule, and notions of racial purity, proved a recipe for genocide and aggression. Not surprisingly, few people at this point — other than would-be storm troopers and the permanently bent — wish to advocate that particular alternative. However that hasn’t kept both the conventional left and right from brandishing “fascist” and “nazi” as swear words with which to tar anyone who is not in their own camp.

This cuts to the heart of the dilemma present in attempting to imagine new possibilities beyond the current impasse. Liberals and conservatives, and their more radical cousins, have fenced themselves in with reflexes and taboos which forbid considering any solutions or critiques other than their own — even if their own have manifestly failed.

This has led to what Carl Boggs, in his cautionary book, The End of Politics (Guilford Press, 2000), calls “the disintegration of politics in the modern world” which “reflects the profound failure of major ideologies to continue to furnish visions and guideposts for the future, to address people’s needs and aspirations — indeed to offer the kind of political language required to confront new situations, conditions, and challenges.”

Unwrapping the packages

No small part of the problem is that the left and right, as they have evolved, have become “package deals” encompassing a set of positions that all good followers are expected to embrace. And woe be to the leftist or rightist who doesn’t buy the whole package. This dilemma is especially noticeable on the left.

For instance, while the Old Left of the early 20th century was largely concerned with economic issues and considered itself the representative of the vast majority of the population (i.e. the working class), the left of the last few decades, influenced by the polarization of the 1960s, has drifted from its original identification with labor unions and middle Americans, who have often been written off as “hard hats,” Archie Bunkers, and religious fundamentalists. In their place, the left has absorbed several distinct ideologies — the primary ones being Feminism, Civil Rights, and Gay Liberation — each of which has defined itself as representing a different oppressed minority whose oppressors are, in most cases, the rest of society.

This is not the place to argue the merits or demerits of “identity politics” as this amalgam has come to be known. The point is that the left’s present package deal is a rather tough sell to a general population, the majority of whom the left has implicitly defined as racist, sexist, and homophobic. Even among those demographic segments it speaks for, the left’s strategy leaves little room for individual variations, such as a church-going black woman who opposes abortion or a gay man who thinks affirmative action is wrong-headed.

Since the right — especially American conservatism — is less programmatic than the left, in that most of its stands tend to be responses to left/liberal initiatives, it has easily taken up the mantle that the Left has dropped: purporting to be the real voice of most people (e.g. Nixon’s “Silent Majority” or Falwell’s “Moral Majority”). Yet it too has had its own package deal of positions such as support for school prayer and capital punishment, unquestioning faith in free enterprise, and opposition to abortion, that conservatives are expected to salute, but which the general population is disinclined to accept unquestioningly.

Political realignments come about when such packages are unwrapped and their contents are shuffled or discarded altogether. Let’s look at some recent attempts to envision how that might look.

The Macro and the Micro

The most common entry point into fashioning a worldview beyond the familiar left/right opposition has been through raising concerns that encompass everyone regardless of their political stance or their gender, race or sexual orientation. Spiritual perspectives that view all people, regardless of their material or political status, as interrelated souls, are one example. Environmental concerns which see the preservation of the planet’s bio-diversity and ecological health as crucial to our survival are another. And political perspectives that champion ostensibly universal principles, such as freedom, peace, or human rights, are still another. Each of these meta-perspectives are represented in this issue.

Julius Lester and Dorothy Day are present as political activists whose spiritual values led them to chart paths beyond familiar territory. Julius Lester (pg. 30) recounts his journey through the ‘60s new left and black power movements — movements which began as impulses towards human liberation and ended up choking on their own divisions and will-to-power. Bill Kauffman examines Dorothy Day’s work with the Catholic Worker movement (pg. 38) and discovers ways in which this champion of the dispossessed shared common ground with the right as well as the left.

As Charlene Spretnak notes in her symposium contribution on pg. 47, the Green movement early on championed the slogan of “beyond left and right” in its efforts to include threats to the earth’s survival in political considerations. Similarly, the bioregional movement, advocated by Stephanie Mills’ in the symposium on pg. 49, cuts across ideological boundaries in viewing watersheds and ecological systems as more natural boundaries for political action and awareness than those we employ at present. Nature recognizes neither left nor right, and in bringing nature into greater prominence in our reckonings, the political applecart is upset.

Alexander Cockburn and Justin Raimondo, whose speeches at the recent conference sponsored by can be found in this issue (p. 62 and 67), envision an alliance of left and right — despite their other differences — in opposing war and defending individual freedom.

However there is a route opposite to the embrace of universal values that can also lead to the refashioning of political categories and that is the defense of the particular. Much of the growing dissatisfaction with globalization derives from the dawning realization that human communities and cultures in all their uniqueness are increasingly under threat from a creeping global monoculture.

Until recently, Americans were less attuned to this than most global inhabitants, since it was usually our culture that was doing the creeping. Given our domestic mobility and our immersion in a mass culture whose hallmark is the penetration of identical chain-stores and franchises everywhere possible, we’ve successfully destablized our own sense of community over the course of the last century. If we laud the particular it is often in the guise of celebrating ethnicities whose quaint preferences for a specific cuisine or dress provide a greater selection of choices for us to consume.

Unfortunately, the “virtual” communities, both online and defined by lifestyle, that have been celebrated as replacements for older forms of community, fall far short of both the demands and rewards of real social eco-systems defined by place, cultural inheritance, and concrete interactions.

Neverthless, online networking has played a role in enabling diverse groups of local activists to coordinate and organize anti-globalist demonstrations like those in Seattle and Washington D.C. over the past year. And the publicity generated by the protests has helped spread the realization that the nations and tribes at the receiving end of the West’s economic and political expansionism may have a legitimate beef with being shoehorned into our reigning paradigms.

Richard K. Moore’s essay (p. 50) examines these tensions between the global and the local that are presently being exacerbated and spotlights the role that powerful economic interests — themselves beyond left and right — are playing in reshaping our lives.

Ironically, as Peter Warshall notes in his account of his stint as an elected town official (p. 60), ideological categories also don’t apply to much of the decision-making involved at the local level in issues such as sewage systems or school locations. In this sense, at the extremes of macro and micro, left and right may be beside the point, a perspective echoed by Joseph Stromberg (pg. 45), who suggest "liberty-and- localism" vs. "statism-and-empire" as more relevant polarities.

Charles Siegel, who heads the Preservationist Institute, suggests that “preservationist vs. modernist” is a more accurate designation for many political struggles. Defending the particular and the local brings one up against the ideology of growth and modernization that has so much of the world in its sway.

Finally, Mark Dowie (pg. 46) argues that a kind of neo-socialism is being birthed that finds a place for both capital and the market, but emphasizes greater democracy as well. Should such an approach succeed, the familiar left-right spectrum will "dissolve into air."

Third Ways

There have been other efforts at thinking about new political perspectives in addition to those represented here that should be mentioned.

One phrase that has been bandied about a great deal over the past few years has been that of a “Third Way.” The most publicized formulation of this supposedly new approach has come from the Democratic Leadership Council and its affiliated think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, which were responsible for brainstorming Bill Clinton’s center-left strategy throughout the ‘90s. This was mirrored in the U.K. in 1997 when Tony Blair and his “New” Labour Party took power on a platform of similar principles. Indeed, in April 1999, President Clinton and the DLC played host to an international roundtable discussion called “The Third Way: Progressive Governance for the 21st Century,” whose participants included Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the Prime Ministers of Holland and Italy.

Positioning itself as a “progressive alternative to worn-out dogmas of traditional liberalism and conservatism,” the Third Way philosophy claims to rest on three cornerstones: “the idea that government should promote equal opportunity for all while granting special privilege for none; an ethic of mutual responsibility that equally rejects the politics of entitlement and the politics of social abandonment; and a new approach to governing that empowers citizens to act for themselves.” Whether such rhetoric has actually amounted to anything in practice can best be judged by reflecting on Clinton’s eight years in power. However, as it turns out, the Clinton/Blair Third Way is not the only Third Way around. If one goes to on the Web, one discovers the Third Way Party, the “voice of the radical centre,” a small but feisty British group whose use of the term actually predates Clinton’s and Blair’s.

This Third Way successfully eludes the stock left/right labels with a set of positions (including support for ecology, decentralization, regionalism, co-ops, a guaranteed basic income, and opposition to the European Union, etc.) that defy easy categorization. Perhaps because Third Way Party executive board member Patrick Harrington was formerly a leader in the National Front in the 1980’s, the watchdogs of the British left have seen the Third Way as some kind of extreme right trick to co-opt the left’s pet issues. It would seem more likely, however, that when Harrington admits, “I have revised some of my former views as unsound,” he means what he says, and that the Third Way Party represents a genuine attempt to break out of old ideological traps. Whether a small alternative political party — especially one whose name is now associated with Clinton and Blair — can really make a difference, remains to be seen.

The New Class

Another interesting attempt to see beyond the old categories has been the critique of the “New Class,” an analysis which can be traced back to several sources including the Frankfurt School (which included intellectuals such as Max Horkimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse); James Burnham’s work, such as his book The Managerial Revolution; Milovan Djilas’ book, The New Class, about the Yugoslavian nomenklatura; and others.

At the risk of oversimplification, this critique identifies the rise in the 20th century of a new class of professionals, managers, and administrators who have come to hold the reins of cultural, corporate, and state power. As might be expected, their solutions to the social problems which they identify entail programs and bureaucracies administered by themselves. As a class, their interests transcend both left and right, and no matter what party may occupy the White House or Congress, the new class remains entrenched.

The triumph of the new class has been implicitly celebrated in recent decades in paeans to the burgeoning Information Economy, in which information and its manipulation have allegedly become the new determiners of power and wealth. While this has been heralded as leading to the breakup of previous concentrations of power based on the ownership of property and capital, recent experience — such as the rise of Bill Gates to richest man in the world — suggests that spectacular wealth is only shifting laterally from one set of hands to another.

Social critics coming from the left, such as Christopher Lasch in The Revolt of the Elites (Norton, 1995) and Paul Piccone, editor of Telos: A Quarterly Journal of Critical Thought, in tandem with critics coming from the right, such as paleo-conservatives Samuel Francis and Paul Gottfried, have sought to counter the new class dominance by encouraging decentralized populist struggles against liberal social engineering.

Populism is, of course, a loaded term which usually refers to “the common people” rising up against an oligarchic elite that has usurped their control over their own lives. The traditional left and right, while employing the rhetoric of populism from time to time, have generally shied away from actually stirring it up, for fear of sparking a brush-fire that might prove impossible to contain. In fact, despite all the talk about spreading democracy that both liberals and conservatives engage in (for liberals domestically, for conservatives internationally), it is an open question whether our leaders really still believe in it.

William Ophuls, whose recent book, Requiem for Modern Politics (Westview Press, 1997), is a profoundly sobering look at the breakdown of Western liberalism, probably speaks for many of those in power when he observes that “our physical and social milieu is now so grandiose in scale, complex in structure, and isolating in character that confusion and anomie are rife. To be blunt, the putative citizen can no longer comprehend his world well enough to cast an intelligent ballot. The major political issues of our time have become so esoteric that only full-time specialists can hope to understand them.”

If this is really true, then democracy is clearly threatened, if it isn’t already gone in everything but name. The populist response to this dilemma is to pare back the scale of governance, as much as possible, to the local and regional; to insist that schemes for improving our lives require the approval of those affected; and to rethink the roles that economic entities, such as corporations, play in impacting our society.

On this latter point, some new ideas are emerging.

The Market vs. Capitalism

Jeff Gates and David C. Korten are two activist thinkers who have tried to envision ways in which democracy can be reconstituted and the economy made more humane.

In Democracy at Risk (Perseus, 2000), Gates proposes a domestic Share Our Wealth program inspired by 1930s populist Huey Long’s program of the same name. This includes a cap on personal wealth (topping out at a 100 to 1 ratio) and a democratic distribution of stock ownership, thereby creating more “up-close capitalists” and breaking up concentrated control of corporations. He also highlights suggestions from Paul Hawken and others for revising accounting practices and tax laws to encourage the preservation of resources and a more realistic assessing of costs, two steps towards a more sustainable society.

David C. Korten, whose recent books include When Corporations Rule the World and The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism, (Kumarian & Berrett-Koehler, 1995, 1999) makes the significant point that capitalism as it has developed is not necessarily synonymous with a healthy market economy. As he puts it:

Beginning with Adam Smith, market theory has been quite explicit that market efficiency is a consequence of small, local owned enterprises competing in local markets on the basis of price and quality for consumer favor. By contrast, what we know as the global capitalist economy is dominated by a handful of gigantic corporations and financial speculators with billions of dollars at their disposal to reshape markets and manipulate prices. . . . In the United States 77 percent of shareholder wealth is owned by a mere 5 percent of households. Globally the share of the world’s population that has a consequential participation in corporate ownership is most certainly less than 1 percent. This concentration of power denies the most basic principles of both market economics and democratic governance.

Both Gates and Korten, wish to reform corporations — which under the present laws are treated like individuals, but without the legal responsibility and accountability that individuals are subject to. Korten envisions a “properly regulated and locally rooted market economy” that would “favor smaller local enterprises over global corporations, encourage local ownership, penalize financial speculation, and give priority to meeting the basic needs of the many over providing luxuries and diversions for the wealthy few.”

The work of Gates and Korten, and of Paul Hawken and Amory and L. Hunter Lovins in their recent book, Natural Capitalism (Little Brown, 1999), constitute some of the most serious attempts to push beyond conventional left/right thinking, and their proposals deserve far more attention that can be provided here. In their defense of democracy and interest in reconfiguring economics, they express the populist impulse, at least in theory. The actual work of effecting change in practice remains to be done.

Dream on

Which brings us to the fundamental question raised by all such alternatives: Do we really want a more democratic world? This is not just a rhetorical question but a deeply practical one.

When my second jury duty notice in two years arrived in the mail the other day, I audibly groaned and briefly considered not voting for awhile in order to take my name off the registrar’s rolls. Of course I realize that serving on juries is a civic duty, as is voting — even though my anarchist leanings still make me sympathize with the slogan, “Don’t vote . . . it only encourages them.”

Nevertheless, my impulse to opt out of both voting and jury duty is hardly atypical. Most of us are inclined to cut back on as many demands on our spare time as possible, in order to salvage some breathing room. Visions of greater democracy, including calls for more community involvement, economic accountability, and political activity all carry the unspoken assumption that people want to be more involved. But is that really so?

If much of the growing dissatisfaction with left and right stems from a sense that we are increasingly in the grips of forces beyond our control — the only practical remedy involves taking responsibility back from those who have usurped it by default. And who has the time for that?

Rebuilding our communities, restoring the environment, and all the other good fights that need fighting, all take an expenditure of time and attention — precisely the things in greatest scarcity in our lives. If we can’t solve this dilemma to begin with, all the rest is just talk.

William Ophuls cautions: “’Solutions’ that simply rearrange the contents within the old structure will produce no effective change: exactly the same conditions will recreate themselves. Hence no ‘new political gadget’ can have the slightest effect, because we need a new vision of the good life, and a new philosophy of politics, not yet another social, economic, or technological fix.”

New visions are a nebulous thing. They are rarely created whole cloth and on demand. Instead they coalesce strand by strand, idea by idea, dream by dream. It’s my bet that the time spent in reading what follows will spark some insights into our present impasse and provide some images to dream with.

Your turn’s next.

© 2001 by Jay Kinney

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