Left and Right, Part I: Introduction to Contemporary Ideological Conflict

16 September 2017

Saturday


The French Revolutionary Assembly provided the template for later ideological conflict, with conservative and reactionary elements on the right side and radical and revolutionary elements on the left side.

Introduction to Left/Right Ideological Conflict

It was the thesis of Samuel Huntington that ideologically-based conflict would be displaced by civilization-based conflicts. This is the “clash of civilizations” thesis, which remains controversial still after Huntington’s passing, and will likely remain controversial for some time yet. While there are signs one can point to that suggest the emergence of conflict between civilizations, ideologically-based conflict continues to animate human beings and their political formations. If Huntington’s thesis is true, one would of course expect to see a transitional period, and this transitional period could endure over civilizational scales of time, i.e., for hundreds of years. But one would expect to see over this transitional period the gradual decline of ideologically-based conflict in parallel with the gradual expansion of civilizational conflict. However, the distinction between these two forms of conflict is by no means clear, or clearly defined, so that this movement of history could be occurring even while it was obscured by the complexity of the human terrain.

I have also suggested the decline of ideologically-based conflict, though I would hesitate to go so far as to assert that ideologically-based conflict is giving way to civilization-based conflict. In a blog post titled Ideas That Will Shape the Future from October 2013 I wrote about the decline of left/right politics. This is what I said four years ago:

“The political landscape as we know it today continues to be shaped by the left/right dialectic that emerged in the wake of the French Revolution, as some sought to continue the revolution, others to reverse it, and others yet to expand and extend it. But the traditional governing coalitions based on left/right politics have been increasingly confronted with new political problems that cannot be easily analyzed along a left/right axis. As the most advanced industrialized nation-states converge on political gridlock, innovative solutions are increasingly likely to emerge from non-traditional political sources, marginalizing the left/right dichotomy and possibly giving life to new political movements that cannot be reduced to a left/right division. Moreover, structural changes within society such as increasing urbanization (q.v.), globalization (q.v.), technological unemployment (q.v.), exponentialism (q.v.) albeit selective, bitter conflicts over the life sciences (q.v.) that divide people across previously established coalitions expose mass populations to new forces that shape these populations and their opinions in new ways.”

While I can still endorse the idea behind this, I have been having second thoughts about what it implies: the inevitability and perhaps also the near-term end of left/right politics. The left/right dichotomy has been with us at least since the French revolution, and I would argue that it taps into a deep tendency to bifurcation in human nature (rooted in evolutionary psychology). But even if this is not true, even if human beings were not primed by their nature to split down a left/right division, the two hundred years or so of the left/right dichotomy has not been a sufficient period of time to exhaust the distinction. Political ideas can endure for hundreds of years, or even thousands of years. When the master history of humanity is recorded some day (after the end of the human era), the era of the left/right dichotomy may be seen as enduring for five hundred years, or for a thousand years, so that we are still entirely in the midst of this dialectic and can no more escape it than we can escape the times into which we are born.

In our own time, in recent history, we have seen both left and right repeatedly transform under selection pressures. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the counter-culture left opposed the establishment right; in the 1980s and 1990s, the winding down of the Cold War gave us a left and right no longer represented by great geopolitical blocs with the world split between them; more recently yet, both left and right took a populist turn with the Occupy protests and the Tea Party movement; now, today, we have movements even further afield from establishment left and right, with social justice ideologues and “anti-fascist” (antifa) splitting away from establishment liberalism and the Alt-Right splitting off from establishment conservatism. These mutations of the left and right are not merely quantitative changes in the relative extremism or moderation of the political platform espoused, but also involve qualitative changes in the movements. These qualitative changes result in mutual misunderstandings, because each side tends to reduce the contemporary representative to its historical antecedents, rather than seeing them as a qualitatively novel expressions of a perennial human tendency.

Given that the left/right dichotomy may have several hundred years to run, and that in the coming centuries of its ongoing development this dichotomy may be pushed to new and unprecedented extremes (as well as passing through periods of relative quietude when the extremes are at an ebb), it is natural to ask what kinds of left/right ideological conflict we have yet to see. Was the Cold War the peak of institutionalized left/right confrontation, or may we yet witness forms of left/right confrontation that surpass (perhaps not in all respects, but in some respects) Cold War confrontation? I doubt that we will again see entire nation-states embodying left or right political orientations engaged in global peer-to-peer conflict, or armed with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, but we could still see violet and even vicious conflict, societies torn apart by this conflict, and old political regimes ended while new political regimes are born.

With left and right once again battling in the streets of the US, this is a timely inquiry. It was my plan to write one long blog post attempting to lay out one global catastrophic risk scenario based on ideological conflict, but I have assembled a lot of material — too much for one post — so I will attempt to write a series of posts on the contemporary left/right dichotomy and its prospects for the near- to mid-term future. I also want to examine possible responses and reactions to left/right ideological conflict. I think it is insufficiently appreciated today the extent to which contemporary political culture is a response to and a reaction against some central Cold War themes. Further left/right ideological confrontation will, in the next stage of history, involve a further backlash against this confrontation, which represents an even larger social dialectic playing out over an even longer period of time.

To use the language of Braudel, left/right confrontations play out on the level of the conjuncture, while ideological extremism vs. a backlash again extremism plays out on the level of the longue durée. Indeed, we can easily see that the era of left/right conflict may someday constitute a longue durée periodization for planetary civilization. Examining the particular developments within this longue durée is an exercise in the synchronic study of this period as a whole.

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6 Responses to “Left and Right, Part I: Introduction to Contemporary Ideological Conflict”

  1. James Groenewald said

    Thank you.
    In my view, Carl Jung’s statement “thinking is hard, that’s why most people judge” forms the underlying structure of most human organizational conflicts. I often wonder if these two attributes aren’t the basis of many opposing formations found in human societies.
    Haridimus Tjoukas in his book Complex Knowledge wrote an interesting chapter on the difference between the “logico-scientific and narrative” thinking.
    I tend to Elliott Jacques understandings in his books “Creativity and Work” and “Levels Of Abstraction In Logic And Human Action,” but have found myself newly challenged by Hannah Holmes’ book “Quirk: Brain Science makes sense of your perculiar personality.”
    As a white South African, I believe that, while we may be perceived as being behind the times in certain respects, we are at the vanguard of the “clash of civilizations.” What has been largely sold to the world as a racial conflict, has in reality been a clash of civilizations where the fault line has been along race lines. Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow nation was hailed as a “miracle” ~ 23 years ago, but it is not ending well. Base instincts rule and the majority don’t understand the difference between liberty and license. He as a person is slowly but surely being undermined and discredited.
    Have you read any of Vivek Chibber’s books?
    I look forward to your series.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I haven’t read Vivek Chibber but I will look him up. Thanks for the reference. Haridimus Tjoukas is also new to me. The distinction between narrative and logico-scientific thinking has been thematized (perhaps differently) by Walter Fisher in Human Communication as a Narration: Toward a philosophy of reason, value, and action in which he writes about the narrative paradigm and the rational world paradigm (I wrote about this in The Totemic Paradigm).

      I have not traveled to Africa, but my impression from a distance is that South Africa is (structurally) similar to South America. What I mean by this is in South America you have an indigenous culture that still remains strong, and on top of that you have an overlay of European culture. In South Africa you also have an indigenous culture with an overlay of European culture. We could say that this results in a clash of civilizations with civilizations one on top of another rather than confronting each other laterally.

      In terms of the left/right clash, this is imported into regions along with European traditions, so that there are tensions within the European tradition between left and right, but there are also tensions within the indigenous tradition and tensions between indigenous and European traditions.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

      • James Groenewald said

        Thank you for your reply.
        I concur with the prognosis of “one on top of the other” in the rest of Africa.
        However, in present-day South Africa, the indigenous culture is attempting to reverse the European one by undermining its institutions using modern methods. The demise of Bell Pottinger in the UK is a compelling case study of what’s at play.
        South Africa is a very interesting country at the moment.
        A distinction between “colonists” and “settlers” has been drawn with the “settlers” categorized as a “problem.” Colonists are not as they can go back to where they came from.
        There have also been calls to scrap western science and start all over. (https://youtu.be/C9SiRNibD14)
        Fascinating.

        • geopolicraticus said

          I haven’t previously heard this distinction between “colonists” and “settlers” but I can easily see how it could be politicized. I have heard about some of the anti-western trends in South African education. While this may sound a bit harsh, this situation seems to me to be self-correcting (albeit at a high cost to many who would rather not go down this path). Any nation-state (or similarly large political formation) that turns against science will eventually find its ability to compete in a world in which success is defined by technological and engineering expertise degraded, and it will remove itself as an effective agent in relation to other political entities.

          If enough of the world turned against science, a sufficiently large mass of an uneducated and anti-science populace could bring an end to industrialized civilization, but I don’t find this to be a likely scenario. There are too many robust players who will compete on scientific, technological, and engineering prowess in order to render those outside this competition effectively powerless. If an individual unfortunately finds themselves in a society that turns against the scientific project, and they do not themselves appreciate this direction of history, they have the option of moving (if they have the resources) or attempting to keep the light of knowledge burning throughout the dark times. It is a melancholy image, but I don’t see many other realistic options.

          Best wishes,

          Nick

  2. drloss said

    It would be a good idea, I think, to define the meanings of “left” and “right” as you are using them in this series, as the terms seem to have demonstrably different meanings in the US and in Europe. I won’t post my understanding of these differences as it isn’t my series, but I would welcome some clarification of the terms as you use them.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Yes, I should clarify the difference, especially in relation to the different meanings in the different parts of the western world. That’s not next, but I’ll think about folding that in.

      Thanks,

      Nick

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