Jonathan Brun

What unites the left and right?

Artwork by Pawel Kuczynski

Artwork by Pawel Kuczynski

The media portrays the left and right as two indissociable social blocks that only speak to each other through talking heads shows. Yet on many issues I have found consensus between apparently left and right wing folks. The question therefore arises: what ties them together when they disagree on so many things?

Reading Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book The Divided Mind or watching his TED Talk explain well what makes the left and the right different. According to Haidt, the left operates on two molar pillars when they evaluate issues: Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity, whereas right wing people tend to evaluate decisions on all five pillars including the first two and adding  Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect and Purity/Sanctity. Both his book and talk are convincing, but they leave out the key element of what binds the two groups together.

On many social issues I manage to find agreement with right wing people – especially on moral questions such as the abolition of prostitution, organ sales, pollution and responsible financial management. In a great article by Fréderic Lordon in Le Monde Diplomatique (# 726) I finally found a convincing answer. Lordon summarizes what it is to be ‘left wing’, he states that to be a leftist is to refuse the sovereignty of capital, and to refuse to let capital rule our society. I would go further and add that this principle is not a leftist mantra, but one that defines progress.

To let capital rule is not to be right wing per se, but it is a form of apathy towards the forces of the powerful. To let the powerful, both individuals and corporate, dictate the rules of the game is to leave an open field for their control of society by the mathematical dictates of money. For most of history this was the case, capital in the form of land and resources dictated the norms of society and its structure. Born a peasant, always a peasant. Historically the poor could never accumulate enough capital to free themselves from servitude and the landed aristocracy were thus secure in their place. Only with the American and French revolutions did we see an evolution towards a different power structure that was less centered on capital accumulation. This was further reinforced in the 20th century after the two world wars, which destroyed a significant portion of our accumulated capital, helping reset the parameters of power.

Perhaps the most important book of this young century is Thomas Picketty’s tome on Capital, Capital in the 21st Century. His remarkable work outlines how capital interacts with society and how in our capitalist system, capital inevitably tends to accumulate at the top of the pyramid. Seven hundred pages might be simplified as “the rich get richer because they start richer and the masses can never hope to catch up”. Picketty traces capital movements in France, England and the United States since the late 18th century and clearly demonstrates the interactions of capital and social power structures. His book is worth every page and though it is long it will change the way you see our modern day society. For an even longer perspective on the role of capital, or rather debt – which is just negative capital – the book and long article by the same name, 5,000 years of debt, outlines how debt and money set the path for slavery, war and control of power.

What I have found in my discussions at conferences, events and with politicians is that the only path of progress is through the prism of a refusal to let capital rule society. It is tempting to use currency to try and quantify everything, we see this even in the environmental mouvement, which is too often negatively labelled as left wing or “tree hugging”. Numerous environmentalists want a cap and trade mechanisms for carbon emissions or wish to quantify the ‘value’ of nature, such as the Amazon Rainforest, and then issue bonds on the financial markets for the forest’s consumption of CO2. But, to place all of human society and the natural world we live in in the frame work of capital is to cede to the desires of the powerful. It is a trap. If we frame all of our decisions in financial terms, we are voluntarily giving in to a world view that will place us under a ruling elite who control the vast majority of the capital in the world.

The path of a progressive society is not through revolution or through higher taxes, but through a shared understanding that capital is not our master. There are certain things that should not be capitalized or even quantified; a Sequoia tree is beautiful as it is, not as a financial bond and a clean river is holy in and of itself and is not simply a sum of its value when bottled and sold. Capital has its function and its place, but that place must be tightly controlled and boxed off by democratic institutions that truly represent the people and their priorities for a society which prioritizes health, equal opportunity and quality of life for all. On that goal, I believe both the right and the left share a common desire.

Published on October 18, 2014