The ideological landscape is changing as fast as the geopolitical one, though there is no evidence that both developments are interconnected.
‘The concepts of ‘right’ and ‘left’ have become irrelevant’. You hear it from people that formerly were clearly on the right as well as from some who formerly were on the left. It started more than twenty years ago when social-democratic forces were slowly adopting new neoliberal policies.
For the left, the best example is the French party LFI (La France Insoumise), founded by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. It does not talk about right and left anymore, but only about ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’. Class conflicts are left behind.
As for the conservative right, it claims to defend ‘the left behind’. It is against open trade and against immigration. A good example is ex-US President Trump. In general, these right-wing forces act against everything that promotes ‘ESG’ (Environment, Social and Governance).
In between remain the neoliberals, in favour of open trade, in favour of immigration, against all forms of discrimination and in favour of equal opportunities. The best example here can be the World Bank. While the difference between conservatives and neoliberals is certainly relevant and too often ignored by left-wing forces, the developments on the left are more difficult to grasp. It is certainly true that their electorate has been changing. Part of the working classes, in favour of order, security and stability, now votes for far right parties, while the left itself, whether it is social democratic or more radical, attracts higher educated middle classes.
This certainly has to do with the cultural values now defended by the left, from gender equality to LGBT, from anti-racism to the fight against climate change and, obviously, ‘ESG’.
Whether these developments really imply the end of left-wing and right-wing ideologies remains to be seen, but it is a fact that the ideological sky is somewhat more clouded than the binary opposition of two forces tended to believe.
Is there an ‘anti-capitalist’ right?
To-day, the re-emergence of what was called ‘conservative revolutionaries’, in France, or ‘anti-capitalist conservatives’, in the United States, helps to explain the blurred lines between left and right. As long as this political orientation was hidden behind the opposition between liberalism and neoliberalism, on the one hand, and socialism and communism, on the other hand, we were allowed to think it did not exist anymore. But ‘real existing’ socialism failed, and neoliberalism is failing. People are looking for alternatives, but these are not easy to find. What we do see, in various countries all over the world, is the growing success of far-right parties that certainly do not share one single ideology but in many cases do share some common characteristics that should alert all forces working for ‘another world’ in the sense of the alter-globalist movement.
The ’conservative anti-capitalists’ in the U.S. are excellently described by Peter Kolozi. They were very active in the first half of the 19th century, defending slavery against capitalism, said to provoke more exploitation, poverty and decadence. They were convinced that slavery was a superior system, able to maintain order, while capitalism was said to undermine morality and unavoidably would lead to social collapse. Their critique however was mainly cultural, not economic, they were afraid of materialism and monetary values. Their attitude towards the ‘weaker classes’ was very paternalist.
This fear of ‘materialism’ – and Marxism – was shared by the French conservative revolutionaries, from the 19th century onwards and more particularly between the two world wars. Fascism in France was neither left nor right, according to the analysis of Zeev Sternhell, in fact many non Marxist left-wing people were attracted to it. They defended national solidarity, moral regeneration and aimed for a new civilisation. Fascist ideology – less its practice – wanted to do away with capitalist structures of the economy and of society. For them, exploitation was less an economic problem than an ethical and spiritual one. According to Sternhell, the right only becomes fascist when it is threatened by left-wing and Marxist values, when it feels it might lose its dominance of social forces.
This might be what is slowly starting to happen today. There certainly is no threat of any leftwing revolution, alter-globalist activists have withdrawn within national borders, though there is a huge potential for disruptive action, at the social and at the environmental level. Right-wing neoliberals know their system is failing, societies and structural solidarities have been destroyed. Their only alternative is indeed to become more conservative and seek rapprochement with forces who have always existed and defended social hierarchies, said to be ‘natural’, moral values, in favour of families and against women and LGBT. Again, their criticism is more cultural than economic and aims to curtail all kinds of liberties.
Hijacking left-wing values
This is where, once again, the ideological fog is being created. In order to make itself acceptable, these same conservative forces are hijacking left-wing moral and material values. To give just two examples: the French far right party led by Marine Le Pen, Rassemblement National, will focus its campaign for the European elections of 2024 on … ecology. Not the ‘punitive’ ecology, but an ecology of ‘common sense’. In this way, they will speak indeed to the left behind working classes who cannot afford to buy a new car needed to enter ‘low emission zones’. British Conservatives might follow that same road, surprisingly having won a seat where Labour just introduced such a LEZ. One can be sure that the ‘conservative ecology’ will not be about telling people they should not fly low-cost, but more about seeking for scapegoats and avoiding all difficult choices. It is a fact that left-green forces have been insisting a lot these past years on all necessary and urgent ecological policies, but more often than not forgot the social compensatory measures. A very disruptive movement such as the yellow jackets in France were the consequence. Or think of the very disruptive actions of farmers protesting against new nitrogen measures. When the far right starts to talk about an ‘acceptable’ ecology, many people will think this is indeed what they need, falling into a very dangerous trap.
The second example is just as tricky. Too many people on the left believe that the far right cannot have social policies, but they do have them. The major difference is the values on which these policies are based. Their aim will not be ‘social justice’, for them an irrelevant concept, but higher moral values for the poor. Poverty, according to the right, is the consequence of poor people themselves, they do not work hard enough, they are addicted to alcohol and drugs, they do not value what all decent people value, family life, stability, a good job and saving money.
Therefore, a right-wing ‘welfare state’ will be about promoting traditional family values, against abortion and LGBT, in favour of discipline. It will not be redistributing and inequality will only be countered by pushing the poor towards higher incomes. Never ‘look up’ to ask taxes and contributions from the rich. They now even talk about a ‘new social contract’ which will not be based on equity and solidarity, but on rights and most of all duties. They will silently re-introduce the ideas of ‘deserving’ and ‘non-deserving’ poor, with benefits for the former and sanctions for the latter.
‘Poverty’ always has been a consensus topic, all political forces have always agreed on the need to fight it, but the values behind their policies have always been very different for Marxists, (neo-)liberals and right-wing forces. Ignoring this can lead to very sad results, as we have seen after the World Bank made ‘poverty reduction’ its priority. This discourse – and reality – was used as a strategic tool to re-enforce its austerity policies with conditions of deregulation and privatisation.
The same can now happen with a right-wing approach to poverty, focusing e.g. on mothers which should be helped to raise their children ‘decently’. So-called ‘cultural’ values will once again win from material values, rejecting the idea that poverty is most of all a lack of income and public services such as housing, health care and education.
Left-wing forces should be aware of these risks and reconfirm that an emancipatory welfare state requires other principles and standards, aiming at preventing poverty more than just ‘reducing’ it, tackling inequality with taxes and providing incomes and services to all so that all can survive independent of market forces. Left-wing social justice policies are about promoting social citizenship.
All these ideas deserve to be further developed, since we are at a point in history where the lessons of the past can easily be forgotten, where left-wing forces, neglecting their most basic values, consent to policies of empathy and compassion. Green activists, most of all, should be aware of the risk of falling into some kind of eco-fascism, sticking to everything ‘natural’, forgetting the perfectibility of man and nature.
Even if some discourses may sound similar, it is clear that ‘left’ and ‘right’ remain relevant concepts, pointing to very divergent values and hence divergent policies. Poor people deserve help while social policies will necessarily go hand in hand with environmental policies. Defining the values one wants to defend and promote is the most important and urgent task for all political forces. Democracy means people can make choices. These choices, then, should be made very clear in order to preserve democracy.