Left-Right ideological divide no longer makes sense of today’s world

For those who grew up and came of intellectual age during the Cold War, the left-right binary was fairly simple to comprehend. There was the United States and liberal democracy, which seemed to stand for a market derived system of economic decision making and organisation, and a gamut of civil liberties for the citizen. On the other hand, there was the Soviet Union and the East bloc, which gave the state a much larger role not just in ordering the economy but also allowing it to intrude in the private lives and choices of people.

When the Cold War ended in 1989-90, the first model seemed to have triumphed. Indeed, it was difficult to argue against it as the global economy boomed in the 1990s, and a series of emerging markets – including China and India – made a success of engagement with global trade well into the first decade of the 21st century. All of this continued to be seen in the context of the long march of the market and of western ideals after the Cold War.

A quarter century after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it is worth asking if that prism of analysis is any longer valid. At the very least, is it adequate to explain and rationalise contemporary reality?

The argument is being made not because of some philosophical distrust of the market or – heaven forbid – of liberal democracy; not at all. It is only to suggest that the neat binaries of the early 1990s have perhaps overstayed their welcome in our consciousness and analytical frameworks. They cannot explain the civic urgings, politics and diplomacy of today.

Part of the reason for this is the financial crisis of 2008, exacerbated by the end of the commodities super-cycle and the hard landing in China in 2014. What was once hoped to be a temporary blip is becoming a longer and extremely unpredictable journey. There is no clarity as to the global system. One default by a big emerging economy could set off another negative chain. Europe’s slowdown and America’s less-than-required recovery have not helped.

These are economic imperatives, of course. Yet, if they stay true long enough, they are bound to have sociological and political implications. It is important to recognise this, rather than hark back to black-and-white assessments of the 1990s and early 2000s. If that period of plenty returns, so could those postulates. For the moment, we are in a fundamentally different world. Standard definitions of right and left don’t quite apply in the manner they used to.

Put another way, that right-left binary was a product of the postwar age, the epoch after World War II that saw perhaps the greatest expansion of wealth and well-being in known history. It is a fair bet that the first half of the 21st century will be less transformational – in relative rather than absolute terms. Given this, can tools invented for making sense of the second half of the 20th century necessarily work in the first half of the 21st?

Europe and America are seeing a resurgence in nativism and national identity. In part this is a response to concerns about terrorism, but the bigger reason is economic uncertainty. The rise of nationalist parties in France, Spain, Greece, Italy, even Germany and eastern European countries – champions of openness in the years following their liberation from the Soviet system – is telling.

For 20 years the newer, eastern members of the European Union were the most vocal on human rights and using universal benchmarks as instruments of foreign policy. Today, it is these countries that best represent a Fortress Europe mindset. A failing economy has sucked the idealism out of them.

The Donald Trump phenomenon in the US has similar impulses. It is irrelevant whether Trump becomes president or whether Marine Le Pen and the National Front eventually govern in Paris. Their constituencies are that much more salient and difficult to brush aside.

Such nativism is both a backlash against exaggerated notions of global citizenship and cosmopolitanism, and a security blanket against job and income anxieties. It has made free trade and globalisation less fashionable mantras – propelling sentiments for protectionism and for the government to step in as some sort of economic stabiliser, without being an overwhelming factor in the domestic economy. The American turning away from the World Trade Organisation and promotion of plurilateralist trade agreements is one manifestation of this; of course, there are others.

Is this a relapse to socialism? Not quite. Democratic instincts have sharpened in the past 25 years, strengthened by technology. As such, while it is expected to intervene as a pillar of economic reassurance, there is a trenchant reaction to any government attempt to tailor cultural choices, undermine privacy or intrude into the home of the citizen.

This duality, where the state is acknowledged to have an economic role – and the stomach for “Thatcherite” or “Reaganesque” reforms is just not what it was say 15 years ago – but where the state is expected to be almost libertarian when it comes to social freedoms has no parallel. It has no 20th century templates.

If you consider it carefully, this duality is becoming evident in India as well. Unfortunately, neither politicians nor right-left ideological warriors are caring to understand it. They are making yesterday’s arguments. We need a new grammar of politics.

This article originally appeared in The Times of India.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Ashok Malik

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