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  Number 232 | Noviembre 2000
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International

Defining Left and Right

Nicaragua’s elections were laced with talk of Left and Right. But what exactly do the world’s Left and Right stand for today? This is one interesting reflection. More are needed.

Daniel Innerarity

The current climate of ideological uncertainty is largely due to the fact that the Right is employing a progressive discourse and the Left a conservative one. The Right presents itself—often correctly—as the advocate of innovation, the promoter of modernization or the defender of more advanced positions, while the Left is now concerned with matters as unrevolutionary as security, cohesion or preserving the welfare state.

The Right, which has traditionally legitimized social realities as natural and unmodifiable, now envisages a society more open to possibilities, more flexible and shapeable. The Left, which has tended to think in revolutionary terms, would now be happy to preserve what there is. They have reversed roles: the Right has become utopian and the Left realistic.

This situation appears to suggest the need for a new definition of the difference between Right and Left if one wants some kind of orientation so as not to lose one’s bearings in the changing political scene. This scene has become particularly ambiguous since the disappearance of certain reference points that ordered the world up until the end of the Cold War, and did, after all, provide a certain comfort.

The Right is simplifying;
the Left needs more complexity

In short, the current dilemma consists of how to continue modernizing. Terms such as development, growth, acceleration, progress and expansion refer to a process that some limit themselves to celebrating and others prefer to halt in view of their not inconsiderable negative consequences. The most recent sociological trends have coined the expression reflective modernity to indicate the possibility of promoting development in its various forms—technological, economic, social—without ignoring its negative effects on the environment or social integration, for example, and introducing the corresponding corrections.

This would involve de-fatalizing social processes and understanding them as possibilities open to discussion, a scheme that could be used to understand the new distribution of roles. The Right would be inclined to underscore the inevitable nature of social processes and the Left would tend to assert their moldable dimension. The Right would prefer simplification, modernization and nothing more, while the Left would be inclined toward the complexity of a reflective modernization.

If this differentiation is indeed accurate, one of the first things it obliges us to abandon is the linear conception of history, the great myth of progress and the course of time that liberates us from the burden of the past and leads us toward some emancipated future. Times have changed so much that even the kind of change has itself changed. The notion of progress just does not work any more if what is meant by it is a future that is less complex, less ambivalent than the past.

Only the Right still believes the tale that progress will necessarily bring us a less regulated future, with fewer limitations and greater freedom of choice than the past. On the contrary, what awaits us is a radically more complex future development.

The course of time continues to exist and advance, of course, but it no longer implies the road from servitude to freedom so much as the road from complexity to greater complexity. Something essential has changed in the way time passes and political matters are no longer presented in terms of modernization, in other words who gets there first or is moving with greater urgency, but rather in terms of who is articulating the tensions generated by social process better, more reflectively along the trip.

The Left’s dilemma is not
revolution vs. reform anymore

The Left’s traditional dilemma has been whether to opt for revolution or reform, the latter involving acceptance of a coherent and recognizable course of events as opposed to one in which only the speed involved in the course of changing events was up for debate. When the fall of the Berlin wall triggered talk of "the end of history," obviously nobody was referring to the end of historical events, which would be quite simply absurd, but rather the exhaustion of the interpretation of history as an irreversible sequence of processes and eras that leave no trace of their passage.

We no longer live in a time that could be simplified by a revolution or by progressive interpreters of history, such as those of the old Left or the new Right. It could be said that we have abandoned that linearity and now find ourselves in an era involving a coexistence of processes, tensions and movements that cannot be reduced to a dominant axis that runs through or makes sense of them all.

The main problem facing us is not how to bring about a revolution or replace it with partial reforms, but rather how to procure the coexistence of completely heterogeneous kinds of human beings, cultures, times and institutions.

Science and technique intensify the debates

The Left has to take the side of complexity against simplification, the Right’s great temptation as demonstrated by the simplicity—and popularity—of its discourse. Not so long ago, in the era of modernization, simplification was the dominant solution. It was possible to produce objects (laws, institutions, industries, communications, techniques, markets, etc.) that could completely replace others and not entail unexpected consequences. Everything was based on the idea that the more science and technology were applied, the less discussion would be necessary. There was a best procedure, an economic optimum, a most efficient solution and a means for a determined end.

Nowadays we are moving in a very different camp. The variety of consequences caused by the means we use modifies the definition of the ends. Science and technique do not eliminate controversies, but rather intensify them. It is no longer enough to appeal to the evidence of certain data or indisputable scientific principles because it is precisely those that have become problematic. Economic indicators do not eliminate the need to discuss what we consider to be a good society, and neither does the advance of science and technology free us from the need to establish what natural environment we want to preserve or which are the unmanipulable conditions of our corporality beyond which life is turned into an undignified artifice.

The Left must make life
difficult for the simplifiers

In other times it was the Left that argued the existence of certain historical or social laws. Today it is the Right that believes it has certain unquestionable scientific laws and an economic discipline at its disposal that allow it to skip democratic procedures. In this new context in which the sciences can no longer be used to simplify social problems or avoid politics, the Left should advocate discussion. It should make life difficult for the simplifiers who present the sciences—particularly economics—as providers of indisputable data and thus try to extract themselves from the requirement of public discussion.

Economics is one of the sciences that most influences the lives of people and societies. Despite this, the traditional Left did not reflect enough on the flexibility of economic matters and has had a more determinist conception of the science of economics than the Right. The critics of economics have aspired to replace the dominant economic doctrines with a truly scientific economics. The criticism of political economy generally took place in the name of science and with the secret aspiration of legitimizing economic decisions while dodging democratic procedures. The Right is unquestionably better at this. The traditional Left has been obsessed with "appropriating the means of production," unaware of the existence of a much more relevant task: democratically organizing the process of making optimum use of the economic resources for individual and social well-being. The imperative of calculation has to be replaced with the imperative of debate.

Articulating different expressions

Deep down, capitalism is inefficient at weighing up the external effects of economic activity. It functions as a complexity-reducer that accustoms people to think in simplistic terms and ignore the wealth of meanings, implications and consequences of their activity. Deep down it has a simplistic vision of how society functions and of the common good. It is not up to the Left to fight it as a means of production but rather to establish social dialogue between the economic interests and the dimensions and voices that tend not to be taken into consideration.

The Left and Right are not distinguished by being for or against state intervention, because at bottom this is no longer the question. Political affairs are no longer settled by a simple formula or by alternative proposals, as if a choice had to be made between the state and the market. The future will belong to whoever adequately comprehends the mixed and complex nature of things and the articulation of heterogeneous elements.

I am aware that this proposed differentiation between Left and Right does not coincide with the dominant characterization and is really an issue of the demarcation that each individual prefers. Being a question of political matters, it is illegitimate to hide the fact that descriptions are not neutral and disinterested. If some feel that there is no longer any sense in talking about Left and Right, then let’s distinguish between dexter and sinister, if they want; let’s relativize or even emphasize the difference. There will always be someone who comes down on the side of a barely malleable objectivity and someone else who prefers the complexity involved in understanding social reality as a network of possibilities, scant perhaps, but sufficient to make politics an adventure that is almost as difficult as making an orchestra sound acceptably good.

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