Just as a number of interesting new left-wing magazines have sprung up, and new books are appearing to revalidate the left and Marxist heritage for the present period, Arena Magazine has decided to drop the description ‘left’ from its masthead.
We have long argued that the left/right division has in many respects crumbled. Certainly this is the case in respect of parliamentary politics. Neoliberalism has seen both sides of mainstream politics take up its fundamental structures and aspirations as givens: extended markets and free-trade pacts, global culture, unimpeded growth. Even where labour parties take a softer position on social issues than their conservative counterparts, the social-policy stance is entirely within a base understanding of the neoliberal state, and constrained practically by its financial and administrative practices. In Australia the much-celebrated NDIS as a Labor initiative will proceed emphatically along neoliberal lines, as did much of Julia Gillard’s ‘education revolution’. At a less obvious level, neoliberalism on both sides of parliament simply takes as given a whole raft of social, cultural and technological developments that make possible its present practical and ideological triumph.
More importantly, it has been argued by Arena that the left/right distinction misses key underlying factors in the reconstruction of our economies, life-worlds and subjectivities today. A much deeper set of transformations has taken place over the past fifty years than merely a ‘slide to the Right’, or capture of the political field, as some would see it—yet it is deeper too than a reorganisation of capitalism, even if we might all agree that capitalism is today exhibiting tendencies to extreme forms of exclusion at home and perpetual war abroad. While Occupy’s idea of the 99 per cent pushes towards a return of a militant leftism, while Western supremacism in international relations and refugee flows and closed borders stir many to a criticism of ‘Empire’, for Arena these disturbing features of the present are related to a wholesale shift in the social form—not simply a ramping up of capitalist economy. That commodity relations now penetrate culture and life-world in ways unheard of before cannot be reduced to capitalism per se. Profit, greed and naked power are notions certainly not adequate to explain the lure of the commodity or the structure of commodity fetishism. Neither are the nineteenth-century-inspired critical social concepts of class, state, domination or hegemony adequate pointers to understanding the quality of human relationships and the emergence of new subjectivities, not to mention existential crises, that contemporary techno-culture produces.
For Arena the meeting of capitalism and techno-science has always pointed to a disjuncture, a shift into ways of being that both break with and overlay what was actual and possible within the modern social form, but they also break with much that has been the ground of human being as such. The Anthropocene and the changes wrought to the very physical conditions that have made human culture and society possible is one example; the literal lived cyborgs that we become in an era of techno-engineered choice is another; nuclear power and nuclear war, with their historically unique capacity to destroy our blue planet and rich diversity of peoples and cultures, is yet another.
It cannot be surprising that received political philosophy and understandings of society find it difficult to recompose their systems to adequately represent these changes, or to refigure a possible future in their wake. Nor that the old political philosophies in varieties of liberalism, conservatism and leftism continue to be felt as ethical frameworks by individuals who have internalised their values and who see in practical life today features they take to be deformations of those values.
For example, those shaped by liberal values readily pick up on what appears to be an undermining of rights, or a simple expansion of rights, so that, for example, same-sex marriage is for many an extension of modern rationalism and social fairness. The needs of transgender children, so called, may also fall within this kind of apparent extension of an existing ethical framework, although it was constructed in and against very different expressions of (political) domination and (social) unfairness two centuries ago, not around a child’s ‘right’ or capacity to ‘choose’ their gender. Similar, if reversed, examples can be found for conservatism. When the shrill commentators at The Australian call for blood in relation to an LGTBI bias in the Safe Schools program, or in relation to same-sex marriage, they want to call it leftism, as if that category, intended to illuminate the key contradiction of the classical period of capitalism in class and property terms, can possibly encapsulate these distinctly new developments at the level of subjectivity and culture.
Of course, part of the issue here is that the parliamentary ‘Left’ has taken on much of the agenda of identity politics, a miserable distillation of an earlier social-movement ferment, so that ‘left’ means a superficial accrual of a whole variety of demands the consistency of which is not clear, and which are not understood. Where the Whitlamite transition to a kind of social democracy broadened the party’s old labour base to embrace the new political actors, women and gays especially, today a desire for ‘recognition’ has merged with a more general outlook that reduces politics to the satisfaction of identity needs. Politics is seen as an extension of self, identity as self-selected, as if social process has nothing to do with this general preoccupation of the insecure subjects of techno-capitalist culture. This is a problem for all sorts of reasons, not least that much of the political ‘Right’ also recognises and panders to this form of politics, if to a different gathering of ‘identities’.
Where there is no adequate critique of the social form at base, where else can politics work electorally except in terms of better or worse technocratic expertise via the neoliberal consensus, and in promises to a fragile population whose experience of the life-world is what guides their sense of grievance and political demand? If Western workers and Australian battlers are fragile, so too are the kids who grow up in a culture that promises identity and security through choice and autonomy, as if they know who they are and what choices might suit them ab nihilo. The social process that lands them in these very different but possibly structurally similar positions is a mystery to these apparently competing groupings and their political representatives.
If identity politics is one problem, revealing one set of issues for ‘left’ politics, so we should also look to another extension of social-movement consciousness for amplifications and underminings of what has gone by the notion of the ‘Left’. For poststructuralist assertions of a radical fluidity in identity construction are another, if more complex, feeder into identity issues as a cultural preoccupation and touchstone of contemporary politics. What was ‘left’ classically referred to a set of philosophical underpinnings more or less common across left perspectives: a materialist outlook (ideas emerge from social practice, not the other way round); a collectivist rather than individualist understanding of how society is constituted (society comes first, individuals later); an ethical identification with the poor and powerless (with roots well beyond modernity and capitalism); and a belief in the possibility of social change (with roots in rationalism, and science). What many consider today’s broad ‘Left’, however, cannot be assumed to share these premises. Even identification with the powerless is in question, as who is powerless in today’s society is part of the contest. Indeed all manner of non-social explanations and individualistic and idealist positions are advanced as radical, while the broad influence of Michel Foucault suggests even that social change is illusory, and that all we can hope for is an existential agonism. In this dynamic, power per se is an enemy; any normative categorising is placed in question; yet little attention is given to the sources of transgression, non-fixity and the emphasis on subjective life within the social form itself of techno-capitalism.
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That the old terms just don’t add up is everywhere in the present examples of political upheaval and dysfunction. They are surely found in what The Australian’s Paul Kelly calls the US election’s ‘freak show’ today, the crisis of conservatism in Australian politics, and in England’s Brexit, but also wherever one finds voters and populations who no longer express confidence in the political process. Certainly, as noted above, while the myth of Left and Right is retained in our essentially binary electoral systems, a common commitment to neoliberalism binds opposing parties and restricts their vision. One problem, then, is that what people expect from the terminology of Left and Right can no longer be trusted: it doesn’t deliver what they once expected. On the other hand, as the limits of the allegiance to neoliberalism, and by extension to the deep social processes in techno-scientific capitalism, are more strongly felt, politicians and parties cast around for new combinations and identifications for projecting electoral difference, or for making themselves ‘more relevant’ to new constituencies.
But at base, the old distinctions between Left and Right are no longer adequate for describing the new social reality. While some of the new theories influencing radical politics may tap into that reality, it is a question as to whether they really examine or interpret it. Neither the constructions and projections of the power of techno-capitalism nor the pressures and forms of alienation it generates for individuals and communities are taken on board. On the one hand, there is the old story of a potential fascism arising out of social stress and casting about for solutions that bind odd bedfellows together via xenophobic exclusion and fear: Trump, Hanson, Farage. On the other, as Guy Rundle sees it in an article in this issue of Arena Magazine, liberal progressives like the American Democrats, and who knows, Australian Labor, may turn to ‘diversity’ as a unifying force—where force is hardly a metaphor but rather the material projection of the power of an emerging social form and its agents, which, in the American example, intends to project that force across the globe. Although Guy presents Hillary Clinton as almost falling upon this solution to electoral differentiation by accident, he sees it as a powerful fit, a true reflection of the social reality that is as yet so confusing for politics. This is by no means to endorse it. Rather it is to indicate that ‘diversity’ is an ideological construction that fits perfectly well with neoliberalism and techno-scientific subjectivity—that it represents the real conditions of contemporary life, but that it also conceals a very disturbing underside. In Guy’s example, ‘diversity’ at home is a rationalisation for war-making abroad. As a shallow kind of difference we might point out that, at home, adherence to ‘diversity’ and forms of identity politics may undermine and underestimate the need for deeper forms of community and identity than techno-culture can supply. This certainly leaves an opening for another kind of political agent who will trace such rationalisations and the exclusions and diversions they promote in a world already dying under the physical and existential crises of techno-capitalist abstraction.