Power Systems and the Left-Right Dichotomy

People are not powerless, but it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the power of state and corporate authorities and institutions. Systems of any kind are in the business of rational self-interest, at least in theory. Bureaucracies, whether of the “public” or “private” flavor, are operationally sentient, meaning that their actions are somehow motivated toward self-preservation or growth. No system is going to undermine itself.

Unlike individuals of living, breathing humans, state/corporate wealth and power is based on a kind of legal fiction that found its best expression from the G.O.P. challenger last year: “Corporations are people, my friend.” Perhaps forty-seven percent of the voting public agreed.* Or, alternatively, about half of the electorate jibed with this sentiment: “Trickle-down government has never worked here, has never worked anywhere.”

The game of right-wing rhetoric was revealed to be boiled down to a principle of inversion: engage with what is real, for the sake of expediency, and then dutifully flip it over, only to end up accusing “the other side” of distortion. What passes for a left wing in public discussion of issues too often succumbs to the false equivalency of Two Sides Battling It Out (On TV!), each endowed with an equal dose of legitimacy.

(*The figure of 47% retains significance due to the irony of this proportion supporting a candidate who condemned nearly half the populace for being moochers.)

The division between Left and Right was explained well by Gidon Sa’ar, the Israeli education minister, who said, as reported in Ha’aretz by Eva Illouz,

The right is strong because we can forget our differences and get together around a single vision. The left is fragmented, because everyone there is fighting for his own self-interest.

The original dichotomy between left-wing and right-wing derives from the seating arrangements of the French national assembly of the old regime, in which those to the right side of the Monarch defended the aristocracy, the clergy, in short all of the status quo institutions that maintained social order. And those on the left side were the representatives of the rest of the population and their myriad visions, goals, and interests.

The right, using this model, speaks for the National Interest, as refracted through the lens of royal, religious, and military prerogatives, while the irrelevant public becomes a circular firing squad at worst and, at best, a hindrance to state and corporate interests. What is called the left, theoretically those critical of the Powers That Be, seems to have a preternatural fear of organizing. The right knows how to organize and defend itself, but its counterpart oftentimes does not.

Without challenge from below, institutions and policies in the public and private sectors — namely the preferences of corporate elites and their public servants — will act in their own amoral universe. Note that I do not say immoral: only human societies can have moral agency. States and corporations are not moral entities. The attitude that essentially says “corporations are evil” is asinine and short-sighted, as is the posture among self-described anarchists that dismantling “the state,” whatever that means, is desirable, realistic, or not guaranteed to mean suffering and misery for millions of people.

Oppression has to be overcome, which is fine enough to say, but the question of what that means and to what end overcoming it would be for society must be addressed or else it is not serious to spout slogans that sound salutary and simple.


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