Social Inclusion versus Reactionaryism: The New Divide
During the French Revolution of 1789, when the National Assembly was created, a decision was taken to place monarchists to the right and revolutionaries to the left of the president. Hence the terminology “right-wing”, meaning – originally – pro-monarchy and “left-wing”, meaning anti-monarchy.
Needless to say, in today’s post-modern, interconnected and globalised world, the terms “right” and “left” are much broader than pro- or anti-monarchy. To try and categorise political opinions into left and right is very difficult because such a spectrum needs to be cast over at least three different themes: the economy, cultural integration, and equal opportunity. We then need to problematise the constructs of prejudice and intersectionality.
The Economic Spectrum
In economic terms, “right” means capitalist, “left” means socialist. A moderate right position, in the vein of Adam Smith and David Ricardo’s classical economic theory, would advocate for a free economy whereas the far-right, inspired by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics, would stand for a deregulated, neoliberal marketplace. To be on the moderate left would mean to believe in a welfare state and state-regulated economy, somewhat in the thinking of John Maynard Keynes; far left would promote the nationalisation of all services and, in extreme cases, the banning of private property, in the world view of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Ludwig Feuerbach.
To put it bluntly, the economic right-wing is about designing a society where people can become and stay rich and the state is non-interventionist, the economic left wing is about designing a society that will protect the poor and curtail extreme wealth through centralised state control.
On the cultural spectrum, “right” means in defence of an Enlightenment-to-present day cultural canon, controlled immigration to Western countries and a conservative categorisation of identity; “left” means wishing to deconstruct and rethink canons of knowledge, less restriction on immigration and a more pluralistic recognition of human rights. Moderately right cultural conservatives, in the vein of the late Harold Bloom and Roger Scruton would argue that modern society is based on healthy universal themes such as the rights of the individual, free speech, and a primarily Western canon. There is, they say, nothing overtly wrong with this and we should be grateful for the Western model of freedom and rights which is universally felicitous. Shakespeare and Cervantes should be studied at school because they are of high quality.
Far-right cultural conservatives, such as the polemical French journalist, Eric Zemmour, call for restrictions on immigration, insisting that immigrants should comply to Western cultural norms (for example, veils should be banned) and essentially argue that Western culture is superior to others.
The left of this spectrum argues that most cultural canons are hegemonic designs of bourgeois, patriarchal, Western and white power structures; that historically discriminated identities should be respected at all costs and that immigrants should be treated more fairly and recognised as contributing to and building Western culture. Moderate left-leaning figures standing for this viewpoint would include the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, whereas more radical, far left proponents of this position would include Angela Davis and bell hooks.
Concerning social organisation and opportunities to progress socially, the position on the right is based on the “just world hypothesis”, meaning that it is only normal and natural that some should progress beyond others and that in a healthy, meritocratic culture, this is exactly what will happen. There should be equal opportunity for all but not equal outcomes, this is seen as unfair positive discrimination. Quota systems do not work and what should be rewarded is talent, hard work, and technical qualifications. A major proponent of this position is the mediatised author and academic, Jordan Peterson, who argues that hierarchy is unavoidable, runs deep through the animal kingdom and should be accepted as natural. Far-right positions on this tend to be against any attempts at equity. On the left of this theme are those that argue for positive discrimination or affirmative action, strong inclusivity measures including a quota system. It was in the wake of civil rights that many American institutions, such as universities, began to deploy affirmative actions and strategies in order to level the playing field and ensure a more diverse work environment.
We need to problematise these three themes (the economy, culture and fair opportunity) with two constructs: prejudice and intersectionality.
Different forms of prejudice (racism, misogyny, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, colourism, religious bigotry, snobbery, xenophobia) all hold within them spectra from what we could call right-wing, meaning insular, to left-wing, meaning open or tolerant.
On the right side, moderate claims are heteronormative, universalist, and colour blind, they relativise and undermine the experience of victims, arguing that all lives matter and gender boundaries are natural and good. Extreme right positions are discriminatory, which in some countries, can become a penal offence.
On the left are calls for recognition of different identities, affirmation of historical victimhood and a call for social justice. Moderate positions call for more institutionalised measures towards inclusivity, radical left positions call for a strenuous restructuring of symbols, education and institutional leadership, such as the position of the Rhodes Must Fall movement
There is a lexical field that cuts through these new types of right and left. The right will criticise what they call “political correctness”, “identity politics”, “cancel culture”, “wokeness” and victimisation in what they view as a cultural war. On the left, activists will call out those on the right for “microaggressions”, ‘deadnaming”, “gaslighting”, “whataboutism”, disingenuous “performative allyship” and “virtue signaling”. The construct of racism in particular has opened up some of this new terminology recently: “white fragility” and “white privilege” for example.
Social justice activists argue that this is not a culture war, it is a very real battle for freedom, and they are suffering from battle fatigue, constantly forced to justify their exhortations, never fully heard or recognised.
These are essentially a confluence of multiple identities, but they run not only through people in terms of their identities but also their political and social positions. For each sectionality, there is a spectrum. So, a feminist could be transphobic (what is called a TERF), a gay rights activist might be racist, an anti-racism activist might be antisemitic and someone who believes in open borders might be ageist. And none of these positions will necessarily predict someone’s adherence to more socialist or capitalist economic programmes. In the 1950s, some theorists such as Gordon Allport (1954) argued that there was a central operating system of prejudice that would play itself out in various expressions: a type of generally prejudiced person who would be racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic whereas a generalised leftist would-be Marxist, anti-racist, tolerant and inclusive. However, this is not at all the case.
So essentially, it has become impossible to talk about a left/right divide in sweeping terms. And yet, on each of these different ontological spectra, there is division and polarity.
Is there any way of bringing together these different intersectionalities in one vast spectrum? If there is, it would go from social inclusion to reactionaryism: those that wish to transform society, and those that do not. How to bridge this divide? That is the question.
I would venture that one sure way of decreasing several of these divisions is what happens at school, whether there is a culture of kindness, compassion, active listening and respect; or a culture of competition, in-grouping, shame and blame. School leaders have to look at social inclusion as a central trope in the way that the curriculum and the life of the school is organised, and at the centre should be, as the philosopher Matthew Lipman once said, critical thinking, but also caring thinking.