Right or Left? Figuring out the politics of 21st century

I am sparred into writing this post by a rather awkward exchange in a recent business meeting. I was there to discuss a project, but my client asked - before we discussed anything else - which side of the political divide I belong. The trigger was the emails that he regularly receives from a diaspora think-tank, where I serve as a trustee and which occasionally sends out emails in my name. Desperate to move on, I mumbled that in politics, I sit on the fence, though the fence is getting increasingly narrower. But I knew it was an inadequate answer: Fence-sitting is a poor excuse at a time of all-out war of ideologies!

With reflection, however, I realise that this is indeed the right description of my political persuasion, though fence was a poor metaphor. This is because 'sitting on the fence' implies a lack of commitment, an opportunistic pandering of both sides. But that's not what I do: I am very much committed to my politics, though I may not buy into the labels of right or left for very specific reasons. What I say, in most cases, upset both my friends on the right and on the left: That no 'ideology' owns my soul.

But let's also make a distinction here. There are those who would say that they are not 'political' and consider being 'political' a bad thing. I don't think so and I am indeed very political: I do think that politics is an important part of our social life and understanding it is the key to understand how power works. Being anti-politics is irresponsible - that makes one a stooge of status quo.

Also, my political stance is not about being selfish and individualistic, saying only the opportune things that would serve my purpose. That I spend some time in this think-tank and do not mind mails going out in my name, despite knowing that this may upset some powerful people in this very fraught time, should be proof enough for the same; that is also the precise point I am trying to make in this post. I remain a firm believer of collective action; what I reject is the nineteenth-century labels of right and left and that our response to any given issue needs to start from our beliefs rather than facts.

Of course, where I stand is also a very nineteenth-century idea, pragmatism: As Dewey would put it, I don't let my ideas become ideologies. We can debate the notion of 'facts' and it's almost impossible to know every issue in detail - and therefore, deciding on the basis of 'facts' may indeed be a tall order. But just because everything is always seen through some narrative prism, always interpreted through belief systems of the narrators and narratees, is no excuse to embrace false certainties and commit one way or another. This is rather the reason to be constantly questioning the motive and keep searching for the facts, rather than settling for received wisdom. I grew up in a Communist-ruled state listening to statements like 'Marxism is truth, because it's a science' and I know when we get the logic backwards.

In fact, we should know enough by now to be stuck in the Left-vs-Right debate. We know individual incentives work, in some cultures more than others; but taking wholesale the neo-liberal ideas, which, despite its mathematical gloss, remain at heart the ideas of a slave-holding agricultural society which is United States, and trying to impose that on a modern technological state and to export it as some kind of universal formula surely must appear absurd to anyone bothered to think. That this is not confronted shows the impotency of the Left, which has been left without a constituency with the near disappearance of the working class and its own failures to provide an alternative vision of the future beyond the equally absurd attempts to build models of benevolence around an all-powerful state. And, besides, both the Left and the Right have lost the appetite to imagine a way forward: The Left has settled for a search of injustice, mining out causes of marginalised identities at the cost of its own fragmentation, whereas the Right has settled in the comfort of a financialised make-believe universe. 

Pragmatism, in context, is a real alternative to imagine a future which is neither fraught by endless identity wars nor complacent about the corrosive effects of financial capitalism. This is not the classical 'liberal' position, built around selfish individualism, which makes 'politics' unpalatable and concerns atomised. The pragmatic position, instead, is about identifying issues without being angry about it and building coalitions to bring about change. Of course, there could indeed be a counter-argument that change isn't easy and powers-that-be are no pushover, but there is enough historical evidence to suggest change happens once we can start visualising change that may come beyond our own lifetimes and feel motivated enough to work for it. There are enough things we know now - about the universe, about ourselves and our societies - and hopefully all this tells us that the really grounded change is a slow process that needs more than the revolutionary impatience. 

And, in this a final point: Both the Left and the Right are driven by revolutionary impulses, intention to shape history dramatically and quickly. In this, little has been learnt from history, which is replete with tales of misery such changes from without bring. In fact, we have adapted the telling of history into a convenient narrative of dramatic change, privileging revolutions that didn't last (French or Russian revolutions) or were not any event (Industrial Revolution, for example). And, yet, true change, the sort of progress our societies stand on are usually invisible sediments of time, unsung but undeniable, which kind of builds over lifetimes. Indeed, human agency is unmistakeable in the tales of many, though not all, such changes, but humans were not always leading revolutions when they took those steps to change things around them. They questioned, they envisioned, they built coalitions - the activities that make things better!

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