Monday, October 12, 2015

Monday Forum - are we seeing the return of the old left and right?

This first Monday Forum since my return addresses two issues.

In my pre-departure post Saturday Morning Musings - Naledi Man, continued troubles in the Abbey, ministerial offices, I said in part:
The by-election next Saturday for the Western Australian seat of Canning was being seen a litmus test on Mr Abbott's leadership. Now I don't think that it matters. Even if the Liberal Party holds the seat without the expected swing, the present Australian government is probably just too accident prone for Mr Abbott to survive.
Even as I  was flying out, the moves against Mr Abbott began. I hadn't expected such a quick response! 

Given that I have been out of the country, I haven't yet formed a view on Mr Turnbull's performance to date, although I have noted the public opinion polls. I wonder what you think? What do you see from the early signs about his political style? It seems to me that this piece by the ABC's Barrie Cassidy captures some key elements. 

More broadly, it seems to me that we are presently witnessing the return of the old left and right in many countries. I need to define my terms here.

The old left stretched through marxism to doctrinaire socialism to Fabian socialism. While there were many threads in the old left, there was a common belief in state action as a means of remedying poverty and inequality and in the importance of collective action. In time, it was overtaken by the new left, itself a sometimes uneasy amalgam of left political theorists with popular social causes and then by social democrats as exemplified by the rise of the Blairites in the UK.

The old right was still more mixed. It included conservative parties that placed more weight on individual as opposed to collective responsibilities, contrasting equality of opportunity with equality, but extended to a variety of more extreme groups that merged into fascism. Like the old left, the more extreme right placed weight on state action but for different purposes. To the left, the state existed to serve the people, to the extreme right, the people existed to serve the state.

The political and economic shocks of the 1970s were associated with shifts in beliefs that affected both left and right, beliefs that focused on the limitations of state action.and the importance of market forces, This led to policy convergence among main stream parties of left and right, in effect breaking the old social contract that had existed in may countries, including Australia.  While the rhetoric differed to some degree, policy convergence was clear. Difference lay in the weighting placed on objectives and in the setting of priorities. Convergence was further reinforced by the rise of managerialism, a process that affected parties of left and right with weighting placed on activities and process.

Two further threads linked left and right. One was populism, the second cooperative action. Both left and right used populist jargon, while cooperative action could appeal to left and right depending on the exact situation and on the formulation.

The political convergence that joined parties of the centre left and right over recent decades appears to have broken. The perceived failures of ideas that evolved with Friedman and others has led to growing rejection of those ideas. Exactly the same thing happened in the seventies: the then dominant ideologies were replaced because they seem to have failed. One side effect of the perceived failure has been growing political fragmentation associated with disillusionment in the political process. New political forces have emerged on left and right. At the same time, the rhetoric and policy positions adopted have also begun to carry messages that are hauntingly similar to those of the old left and right, including the restatement of some of the old delusions.

Policy and political positions always reflect the times..The past never repeats itself in exactly the same way.And, yet, some of the popular arguments that have emerged are very familiar. The obvious cases are the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the popularity of Bernie Sanders in the United States.Both use rhetoric and propose actions that are clearly old left.

The responses of the right and centre right are also familiar. Perhaps most classically, in the UK the recent Conservative Party Conference was a mix of populism with an attempt to co-opt key Labour messages while also retaining elements of the recently dominant orthodoxy. We are, Conservative leaders proclaimed, the real guardians of the National Health Service! Here we can see convergence at work once again. The political centre has shifted to the left, and the centre/centre right parties have, to a degree, moved with that shift.    

With the US as an out-rider, the Tea Party is a very strange beast with its mix of socially conservative rhetoric, populism and somewhat distorted libertariansim, the new right parties that have gained dominance in Europe are all expressing views that combine social conservatism, populism and statist action (a key differentiatior from the Tea Party stream) The mix is a very familiar re-assertion of a significant stream in the old right.

 So am I right in thinking that we are experiencing something of a return to the past? Does Mr Abbott and the first period of his Government represent the last gasp of a previously dominant orthodoxy, with Mr Turnbull moving towards the new apparent consensus? Has "progressive" become the new left code? What do you think the new political landscape will look like?

As always, feel free to go in any direction you want, posing your own questions.        .



Evan said...

I can see a return to the old left. I think it is still the neo-con's on the right.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Evan. As a matter of related interest, here is a summary of the policy differences between the three main Canadian parties leading into next Saturday's election -

I agree that neo-con views are still influential, but there seems to be a pretty big shift underway. The new right parties that have sprouted in Europe are hardly neo-con!

Evan said...

Very true!

Anonymous said...

Foot tappin'


Evan, I hope you are well, if still hopelessly deluded :)

Jim Belshaw said...

Good evening, kvd. I do remember that song.

Anonymous said...

Go in any direction? Then here's a link I'm sure your author-daughter would appreciate:

- all seem happy people, but I really love the penguin!


Jim Belshaw said...

Very entertaining, kvd. My thanks. Will pass the link on to Clare.

Rod said...

I tend to think that a lot of what is called the "left" or "right" is neither. For instance the most popular party in Denmark (by votes won) is the Danish Peoples Party. They advocate for better public health services and government hospitals, they want to ensure that pensions for the aged and disabled are preserved. They don't mind small business and recognise that there will always be a need for government to provide services that the private sector doesn't. This all sounds very centre (or moderate "left") to me.

HOWEVER, they oppose large scale immigration into Denmark. They even think the Danish monarchy should be preserved. Therefore they MUST be of the political "right".

Oh well... just my 2 cents... if it is worth that much.

Jim Belshaw said...

Your point is well taken, Rod. The Danish Peoples Party is one example I had in mind.
In opposing large scale immigration they also emphasise the importance of Danish
social homogeneity and appear socially conservative. Overall, their platform would appear clearly consistent with one group of parties classified as right under the old terminology and yet...

All parties or political groups have multi-spectrum views. The simple right/left classification does not properly reflect this.