Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What Is Left?

I have always described myself as 'left' and I have been described as everything from a Marxist to a 'moderate socialist and radical democrat'. I have run politically from the left side of the spectrum, and when asked to describe my politics, will either choose 'very liberal' or 'socialist', depending on what the choices are. So I am in a position to offer a response.

But a response to what? "What is left?" That is, in the first instance, an empirical question. What do the people who collectively lable themselves 'left' believe, in the aggregate? But the result is not likely to be anything I believe, nor is it very likely to be anything a majority of left-leaning people believe, unless it is defined at such a level of vagueness as to be uninformative. Moreover, the answers from such a survey will vary with the questions asked, as Burmeister's post shows. Is 'left' the party of change? Looked at from one perspective, perhaps. Looked at from another, perhaps not.

In any case, we are in such a state of flux that it probably makes more sense to speak, not of what the left is, but what it ought to be. Not so much from the perspective of political advocacy - as in, 'we ought to save the environment' and 'we ought to support labour' - but as in what ought to be thought of as the foundational views of the left. Because it's very easy to get this wrong, and misleadingly wrong, by glossing what is the fundamental distinction.

To take an example, we hear that that the left is the party of the poor, the 'working class', while the right is the party of the rich. Such a definition automatically disenfranchises any person of means from leaning left. But more importantly, and more significantly, it separates people from their aspirations. Mostly people do not want to be poor, do not want to be a part of the working class, and insofar as the left represents such people, it is because being poor or being a worker is associated with bad things, like poverty and death. The left needs to be able to speak to a person's aspirations as well and as clearly as it does to their status or to their class, and identifying supporters of the left as 'the working class' fails to do this.

Or another example, a commonly made distinction between right and left, specifically, that the right is about 'individuals' while the left is about the 'collective'. It is very tempting to take this definition, and the term 'socialism' suggests that the left concerns itself mostly with society, mostly with the affairs of groups, or more, in advocating the rights of groups over those of the individual. But to simply state the distinction thus is to miss some important differences between the right and the left. Because the right will advocate for the rights of the group when it suits them - when promoting nationalism and patriotism, for example, or when appealing to people's religious convictions. And it leaves the left open to a straw man attack, that it is not concerned with the rights of the individual, which is simply false.

Another common way of distinguishing between left and right is to characterize the left as the party of 'equality' while thinking of the right as the party of 'privilege'. This certainly has historical origins. But it again allows for misinterpretation. We are familiar with the misuse of 'equality' as a means of preserving privilege, for example. Opponents of affirmative action argue against the practice on the grounds that it results in 'unequal' treatment. The simple doctrine of 'equality' needs to be refined, to become something like 'equality of opportunity' or 'proportionality'. With each refinement the basic justice of the position is obscured, as the practice seems to allow more and more unequal treatment. And then there is the clincher, that to any simple observation, people in fact are unequal, and that no amount of 'social engineering' is going to change that.

And yet, if we reject all three principles, we get a rich individualist who believes his position is the result of innate ability rather than social injustice. Exactly, it seems, the opposite of what we would call a representative of the left. And therefore, while these principles cannot stand as definitive of the left, it certainly seems that there is something captured by these principles that we would call characteristically left.

If I had to characterize what it is about right-wing political philosophy that bothers people from the left, I would characterize this aspect as the inherent 'atomism' of the right. This is the atomism that informs classic liberalism, the idea of each individual agent striving for his or her own personal advantage. This atomism is what informs social darwinism, the 'survival of the fittest' mantra we so frequently hear from the right (which is why they also declare that collective action is 'unfair', since it distorts this mano-a-mano competition). This is the individualism of Ayn Rand and the libertarians, the elevation of 'genius' as a natural category, the exaltation of CEOs and political leaders, the suggestion that people - even the children - are in their station in life because of choices they have made. "Take responsibility" and "don't be a victim."

Atomism is an important doctrine and is at the heart of most of our contemporary structures and institutions, which is why parties of the right are today characterized as 'conservatives'. Atomism is, at heart, the doctrine that the qualities of the whole are are not the consequence of properties of the whole, but rather, are a consequence of the properties of the individuals that make up the whole. Just as, say, the nature of the bar of lead is not the 'leadness' that the bar as a whole somehow possesses, but rather, is the result of the nature of the individual lead atoms that make up the bar. In the same way, if a society is, say, 'just', it is not because of some obscure property of being a 'just society', but rather, is made up of the 'justice' in each individual member of society.

This way of viewing the right wing allows us to understand some of its most perplexing attributes. We hear, repeated over and over, for example, the doctrine of individuality. The right criticizes the left because of the left's advocacy of 'central government' - and then turns out to be the party encouraging nationalism and patriotism and conformance to a central doctrine, whether it be religious truth or hatred of a common enemy or instilling the values of good citizenship. The right also criticizes the left for favoring rules and regulations - for 'fettering the marketplace' - for example, and yet at the same time, characterizes itself as the 'law and order' party, insisting that criminals do maximum time. How do we make sense of this?

As follows: the right, on the one hand, celebrates the individualism of each atom, but at the same time, depends on the purity of each atom. If the 'leadness' of a lead bar is mad up of the 'leadness' of each of its atoms, then atoms that are not lead make the bar less lead-like. The nature of a lead bar comes from its individual atoms, but the value of a lead bar is derived from each of its atoms being the same. This is why it is essential, from the perspective of the right, to preach the apparently contradictory doctrines of individualism and conformity.

Again, I want to stress that this theory is what informs our social and political structures. Essentially, our institutions are made up of 'atoms' of similar types. Hence, in a democracy, each person receives a vote, but the government is formed by people who all vote the same way. Similarly, religious faith is a personal decision - this is enshrined in various constitutions - but religious faiths are characterized as people who have all reach the same religious point of view. And nations, being composed of people who have the same race, the same language, the same culture, are typically depicted as people who have the same religion as well. Which is where we get not only the idea that the United states (say) is a 'Christian country', but also, the idea that it would be stronger if it were more Christian.

We can see here how the depiction of the left, or of left-leaning causes, as a 'mass movement' simply plays right into this picture. By accepting the idea of 'mass movement', we are either accepting that political movements are made up of masses of same-thinking individuals, or we are presenting some sort of (fictional) 'general will' that will be ascribed to, or imposed in some way, on the individuals comprising the mass. And there then comes to be little to choose from between a fiction imposed by the left and some set of principles, whatever they happen to be, articulated by the self-designated representatives from the right. Moreover, since the representatives from the right have generally some advantage of wealth or position, it appears that there must be something to what they are saying, because they have achieved this position and wealth.

Historically, the left has achieved success by emulating the strategies and tactics of the right. The difference has been in the determination of the beneficiaries of those strategies and tactics. Thus, when the industrialists made themselves wealthy by owning the means of production, members of the left sought to seize the means of production. When the right wing resorted to military means to assert its dominance, the left resorted to military means in kind. When the right adopted the mechanism of the democratic vote (supplanted by influence-generating systems to sway voters) the left also adopted the mechanisms of political parties and propaganda. But what is important, is that none of these strategies - not unionism, not communism, not social democracy - defines the left.

So what does? My own view is that, philosophically, we could see leftism as a blend between the ideas of Immanual Kant and John Stuart Mill. And, specifically, the following: from Mill, the idea that the greatest social good is achieved when each person is able to pursue his or her own good in his or her own way; and from Kant, the idea that each person is, and ought to be treated as, an end, and not a means. These are, I think, principles with which proponents would agree - and more, principles with which, when pressed, proponents of the right would disagree. Because, while at first glance these principles appear to be atomist principles, they are not, and they are not in the way that signifies what (to people on the left) constitutes the fundamental flaw of conservative philosophy.

We need to look at Rousseau to understand this. "Man is born free, and yet everywhere he is in chains." Why is this? Where does our imprisonment, our enslavement, come from? From the requirement to be the same. From the requirement that we constitute, in our atomism, one of the whole. When proponents of the right argue for, say, the freedom to pursue the good, they do not mean a person's 'his or her own good', but rather, some sort of absolutist declaration of what constitutes 'the good', whether it be derived from religion or from misguided sense of national purity. And when proponents of the right consider the 'value' of a person, they see this value as conditional, based on a person's natural abilities, based on whether they 'contribute to society', based on whether they are of the right faith or the right nationality. People are means to make a company great, to make a nation great.

The fundamental principle of the left is that each individual person is of value in and of him or her self, that this value is unconditional, and that derived from this value ought to be certain (socially constructed) rights and privileges. This is the origin of the doctrine of equality, this idea that each person ought to have an equitable share of the pie, a fair shot at the brass ring, or a right to a say at the meeting. This is the origin of the idea that social systems that leave people in poverty, in starvation, dispossessed and enslaved, is fundamentally wrong - not because of some higher principle, about the nature of the world or of society, but because of the simple truth, that each person, including the indigent, has a basic and fundamental standing in society.

But why? You may ask. The answer is two-fold. First, in atomism, the whole may never be more than the sum of the parts. Atomism is a quantitative philosophy. We don't ask what, where or why, we ask, "how much?" And second, because atomism is a philosophy based on sameness, the whole may never be better than the best of its parts. The best a bar of lead can get is to be as good (as pure) as the best lead atom in the bar. The point of atomism is not merely individualism, but that some individuals in society set a standard, to which the rest ought to aspire. But also, it is the idea that the decisions made by such a society, will be the decisions made by individuals, with which the rest will concur. The best decision, the best ideas, a society can have, are the ideas articulated by an individual, to which the rest will adhere.

But we know the weaknesses of each of those two parts. First, we know that (to use the popular slogan) the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That a population - or even a mass of metal - has properties that are over and above the properties of its individual atoms. And second (and crucially), we know that these properties are better than the properties of any individual in society. 'Better' not so much in the sense of 'ethically good' (though a strong case could be made for this) but, more concretely, 'better' in the sense of 'more accurate'. If the ship of state is governed by one person, the captain, then it has a greater probability of hitting an iceberg than if it is governed by the whole.

What the left has lacked for many years (what it has always lacked, in my view) is an articulation of why the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, of how that whole comes to be expressed, and in the context where the fundamental principles, just articulated, are essential elements of that articulation, and not accidental correlates that could, in a contingency, be ignored. In other words, it needs an articulation of why the whole is greater than some of the parts in such a way that the essential liberty and standing of the individual is never threatened.

And that is accomplished by defining the whole as the result in autonomous, thinking, communicating, rational autonomous agents, rather than merely passive elemental atoms. Where the whole is created, not by what we are, but by what we do, such that where the actions of each person are seeing always as contributing to the whole, not merely 'adding to' it or 'subtracting from' it. By viewing, in other words, society, not as a mass, not as a machine, but as an ecology, a network.

In an ecology and in a network, the properties of the whole are not created from the sameness of the components, but rather, as a result of the interactions of the components. Consequently, the properties of the network are not contained in any one individual in the network. The network is not some big copy of an individual of the network. Nor does it operate under the guidance and direction of one entity in the network. If we think of a forest, for example. It is made up of a mixture of trees and shrubs and birds and bears. There is no one part of the forest that the rest copies. There is no 'sameness' in a forest, except at very superficial levels. And the forest isn't governed in any sense by any of its members, or by anything. The forest becomes what it is as a result of the interactions of its members, such that every entity in the forest contributes to what the forest becomes.

From this perspective, we can now begin to articulate a political position, based on the premises describing what makes for an effective network - or, say, what makes for a healthy forest. These are principles that govern the effectiveness of networks in general, of which a society is only one example, and hence can be described, and studied, empirically, Hence, what I offer here is only my first estimation, based on an understanding of mathematical, computational and physical structures of networks. These are properties of the individuals in a network - and I think, we can see, that the combination of these four properties, adds up not only to a formula for successful networks, but also as a formula describing the basic dignity of each member in society.

First, diversity. A successful network fosters difference, not sameness. There is no presumption of a 'pure' prototype, a creed or a faith, a doctrine or fundamental sent of principles to which all members of a society must adhere. One of the fundamental principles of Marxism is indeed a principle of diversity, not equality: "from each according to his means, to each according to his needs." Intuitively, we understand this. We know that a forest needs to be composed of a variety of trees and animals; when it is composed of a single type of tree, and few animals, it cannot survive, and must be tended, and even then is more likely to be wiped out by a virus or disease. Diversity is what Richard Florida writes about when he talks about the 'Creative Class', the most productive element of society.

Diversity is what propels some of the major planks of leftist thought: the idea that we live in a multicultural society, the idea that we ought to encourage and endorse people of minority faiths, values and statuses. The encourage of diversity is part of what propels a leftists' celebration of gay-lesbian causes, aboriginal rights, minority rights, and more, while at the same time encouraging people in the expression of their religious beliefs, not to mention expressions of culture and identity in art, music and drama.

Second, and related, autonomy. Where the individual knowers contributing of their own accord, according to their own knowledge, values and decisions, rather than at the behest of some external agency seeking to magnify a certain point of view through quantity rather than reason and reflection. Without autonomy, diversity is impossible and sameness becomes the predominate value of society. Autonomy is fundamental to human dignity, for without it, a person is unable to contribute in any meaningful way to the social fabric.

Autonomy underlies the left's interest in social justice and equality. People who live in conditions of poverty and dependence cannot express their will. The right wing often depicts the free market merely as the (best possible) means to distribute resources, howver, the market, as it now exists, has become the means through which we employ scarcity in order to create relationships of power, where one person, the one with the resources, is able to deprive the second person of his or her autonomy. Wage-labour isn't simply about the inequality of resources, it is about the capacity of one party to impose its will on the other. Leftists believe that market exchanges are and ought to be exchanges of multual value, not conditions of servitude imposed by one against the other, and hence seek the redistribution of resources in order to maximize autonomy.

Third, interactivity. Knowledge is the product of an interaction between the members, not a mere aggregation of the members' perspectives. A different type of knowledge is produced one way as opposed to the other. Just as the human mind does not determine what is seen in front of it by merely counting pixels, nor either does a process intended to create public knowledge. Without getting too far from the topic of this discussion, knowledge is not merely the accumulation of facts and data, nor even the derivation of laws and principles, but rather, is the recognition of states of affairs. Recognition is not possible without interactivity, because recognition entails an understanding of the relations between points, which requires several perspectives on those points.

Interactivity lies behind the leftists insistence on matters of process. It is not simply the case that 'the results matter', because without process, getting the right results is a matter of luck, not policy. An interactive process values and respects the rights of each of its members to speak and be heard. It is therefore a statement of the fundamental freedoms of society - of expression, of the press, of assembly. It is also the value that fosters respect for the principles and structures of society, the laws and institutions. It's why we have trials - where the matter can be discussed and brought out into the open - rather than mere rulings, and why things like arbitrary detentions and sentencing are contrary to the principles of a just society.

Fourth, and again related, openness. The is, in effect, the statement that all members of society constitute the governance of society. From a network perspective, the principle of openness entails a mechanism that allows a given perspective to be entered into the system, to be heard and interacted with by others. It is not simply a principle of connectivity between the members - though it is in part that - but also the principle that there is no single channel or proprietary mechanism through which that connection is established. It is, at its base level, at once the principle that there ought to be a language in which to communicate, but also, that no person should own that language, and that there ought not be any particular language.

In computer science openness means open standards and open source software; in political discourse it means open processes and accessible rule of law. It means that the mechanisms of governance ought to be accessible to each person in society, which results in policy running the gamut from electoral spending limits to voting reform to citizen consultancy and open government, and ultimately, direct governance by the people of their own affairs, self-governance, in the truest sense.

These may not be the only principles, and they may not be the most fundamental, but I offer them as a statement of what it means, at the most elemental level, to be left. These principles offers us some sort of hope in society, a hope that we as a whole can be better than the best of us, but also with the understanding that this is made possible, not through repression and control, but only through raising each and every one of us to the highest level possible, to participate most fully and most wholeheartedly, in society.


  1. hi stephen,

    I think you need to evaluate marx and the philosophy of dialectical and historical materialism - before you pronounce on "what is left"

    Some modern interpretations are very good IMO, eg. Marshall Berman's "All that is solid melts into air"

  2. >I think you need to evaluate marx and the philosophy of dialectical and historical materialism - before you pronounce on "what is left"

    Why would you suppose I haven't? Sheesh. I did study philosophy for ten years you know.

  3. Stephen, thanks for this post - it helps someone like me who hasn't examined the why of my political leanings in depth to understand my political sympathies a little better. You explain things very well - part of this explains why being a public educator is a source of pride for me and why morally, I couldn't work at a private school. But that's not the point here....

  4. I am a historian, so certainly my view leans a particular way, and I'm a community college teacher, so I tend to overgeneralize!

    I start with definitions of radical, liberal and conservative. The issues are equality, liberty and stability. A radical values equality over liberty and stability. A liberal values liberty over equality and stability. A conservative values stability over the other two.

    Draw these on a scale with the radicals on the left, the conservatives on the right, and the liberals in the middle. You can put people and issues on the line. Napoleon is fun, because his methods were conservative but his values liberal.

    Both American political parties are near each other in the center. If you put European parties on the line, they are more widely divided.

    Yeah, it's simplistic, but it still has value. Or maybe that's why it has value.

  5. I really enjoyed your paper and thought it was comprehensive enough for my limited understanding. It also helped me to reconsider openness in online networking.

    I think that when I am now speak about openness, in networking terms, I well exclude open source software and include open standards (interoperability), open networks (neutral access) and open services (sharing and remixing).

    My purpose in doing that is to take forward the ideas that you, George Siemens and others have put forward about the open creation and construction of knowledge.

    It seems to me that open knowledge creation is at the core of social equity and the social good. Social equity and social good stress the importance of education in achieving the goals of creating and constructing knowledge.

    However, in itself maybe knowledge creation is neither left nor right but how we advance civilisation, er openly.


I welcome your comments - I'm really sorry about the moderation, but Google's filters are basically ineffective.