The Left, the Pseudoleft, and the State

Most of us have probably been in the situation of hearing some young or not so young student of politics, trying to tie together what they understand of politics in the following formula:

“being more left-wing means wanting the state to intervene more in society”

Conversely, being more right-wing means wanting a ‘small state’, and a society of people left to themselves.

Now, this formula is wrong, for various reasons which I’ll assume my readers are already aware of, but I think there’s an important element of truth to it. There is a systematic connection between the state and a certain sort of ‘left’.

In yesterday’s post I called this the ‘pseudoleft’, and described it as an attempt to compensate for the impotence that comes from the divide between the various holders of radical views and opinions, and the social forces capable of making them a reality, most obviously socialists and proletarians, between the do-gooders and well-wishers dreaming of a classless, co-operative society, and the classes of non-owners with the economic position that allows them to re-arrange society from the bottom up.

Now, we might suppose then that this would produce a lot of people who can see what’s wrong, who can see the problems and the unhappiness in class society, but who don’t know what to do about it. They may be confident of its eventual self-defeat in a century or so, but not patient or callous enough to just sit and wait. So what they’d really like would be an easy way to ‘paper over’ the cracks, to take problems as they appear and either solve them or conceal them or a mixture of both.

And guess what! That’s just what states do! That’s what ‘politics’ is: the place where conflicts appear and get resolved. And the state justifies itself, and makes itself functional, by being the mechanism that can enforce such ‘solutions’. If religion is ‘the heart of a heartless world’, the state is ‘the unity of a divided society’.

The result is that under normal (i.e. non-revolutionary conditions), people who notice that society is grossly unfair and a lot of people are being made very unhappy, naturally gravitate around the state. They write letters, they present petitions, they announce initiatives. They struggle and then eventually a politician of their camp gets into the position to deliver a rousing speech about how they will mend the world and help all the poor needy X’s, and they feel themselves to have scored a great victory. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the problems never seem to dry up.

Now I’m not saying this is all entirely useless: I’d rather live in a class society that’s been adjusted to make it less obviously nasty, than in one that hasn’t. And it’s also not to suggest that this happens all separately from the ‘real action’, of people really fighting for themselves, solving their own problems, resisting their own oppression. Indeed, precisely what makes things confusing is that there isn’t a clear line between the two, because the pseudoleft is endlessly and insistently chasing after this ‘real left’ to line up beside them (until the end of term).

What I am trying to say is that under normal, non-revolutionary conditions, there’s no such thing as ‘the left’. There’s some pissed off people trying to stand up for themselves, but they’re often quite marginal to ‘politics’. There’s various people with good ideas, who are even more marginal. And then there’s ‘the left-wing’ of politics, that 40-45% of columnists and politicians and bureaucrats and lobbyists whose living comes from turning the state, an organ composed essentially of subjugation, into an instrumental of illusory emancipation.

‘Real leftism’ (which I say tongue-in-cheek) is anti-state (e.g. Marxism). Because of course the state isn’t a great thing: it’s not nice to have people running around who are allowed to hit you but who you’re not allowed to hit back, it’s not nice to have people enforcing laws onto what you and your friends are trying to do privately. It’s certainly not nice being surveilled, bombed, locked up or sent to war.

This is something that ‘the right’ is quite happy to affirm, and a key part of their ideological strength. But the idea that the right-wing supports freedom or choice is rather undermined by the fact that pretty much every single other organ of repression in society gets their enthusiastic support (family authority, religious authority, educational authority, traditional authority, racial hierarchies, sexual discrimination, prejudice against the deviant, etc. etc.) So what’s going on there? What is ‘the right-wing’?

I won’t be quite as confident or detailed on this subject, because the various flavours of leftarianism are more familiar to me. But I’d suggest that just as there is a marginal left that’s anti-state, because the state works to support and maintain class society, and a mainstream left that’s pro-state, because the state works to paper over and mitigate the problems of class society, so analogously there are two ‘rights’. Just as what unites the two ‘lefts’ is wanting to end oppression, what unites the two ‘rights’ is being quite happy with oppression, not seeing it as oppression or glorying in it.

So the mainstream right, reflecting the mainstream left, is ‘anti-state’ in the sense of wanting the state to calm down, back off, and do as little as possible (but still wanting it to perform it’s core functions, of violently maintaining injustice, as vigorously and efficiently as possible). To their perception, everything is fine (because they don’t see or don’t mind the various dimensions of oppression that permeate class society), and so these ‘lefties’ who are introducing endless new government initiatives are doing so gratuitously.

And here’s the rub – sometimes (not all that often, but sometimes), these right-wingers see more clearly than their counterparts that state action is dangerous and corrosive. Their impression of this is usually distorted, and sometimes hilariously so (Nationalised healthcare? It’s like the gulags, only worse! Locking migrants in prisons because their life-plans conflict with government ‘plans’? Necessary and sensible). But the more acute among them sometimes have good points to make about bureaucracy and legal control.

The marginal right, on the other hand – the ‘far right’ or ‘extreme right’ – goes further: from seeing the state’s measures to counteract oppression as oppressive (in which there’s a grain of truth), they see the very process of counter-acting oppression, in any form, social, cultural, personal, as a threat. And against this they enthusiastically embrace the state. This is quite natural and even, in a way, logical: the state’s raison d’etre is to maintain and defend oppression, and so its natural vocation is to smash any resistance to oppression with massive violence.

So the overall result is what? We have an oppressive system, and we have an organ of force that functions to maintain it. We have a basic division between those who have twigged that there’s some oppressin’ goin’ on (‘the left’ in the broadest sense), and would like it to stop now, please, and those who don’t mind too much, actually, it makes things more interesting (‘the right’). Now, it would seem intuitively that the former should dislike and distrust the state, and the latter should be quite keen on it.

But no! Instead, there’s a hilarious reversal. Under non-revolutionary conditions (which is the great majority of the time), the great majority of the ‘lefties’ find themselves cosying up to the state, asking it to grant their wishes of freedom and equality, and having to forget or say only quietly that the state is the central organ of class society. And in reaction, the great majority of the ‘rightists’ occupy themselves by clamouring against the state and its octopus-like reach, demanding and defending an ‘individual freedom’ rendered largely meaningless through their support for every other form of hierarchy and control.

Only at the fringes, watching this comic inversion and muttering sullenly about ‘the coming revolution’ or ‘the coming race war’, are there people with the attitudes we predicted: lefties who want to get rid of the state and righties who want it to absorb everything and destroy everything else.

This situation isn’t simply about ‘betrayals’ or about how bad anyone is, and isn’t something that should prompt anyone to rage against those damned ‘leftists’ who aren’t really. It’s just how things go, how society works.

Now, a question that may have occurred to readers is where in all of this I find room for left-wing totalitarianism – my scheme features pro-state reformists and anti-state revolutionaries, but what about the revolutionary state? I’ll try to talk a bit about that tomorrow.

4 Responses to “The Left, the Pseudoleft, and the State”

  1. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    I think there’s something missing here which relates to the discussion of middle class lefties. The middle classes, by virtue of the fact that they are economically comfortable (wealth and income typically much higher than median values) fear revolutionary change. They want to keep and protect the state for precisely the same reasons that the right does – the state maintains and enforces property relations. So when you talk about the middle class pseudoleft wanting to paper over the cracks, it’s important to realise the function this plays in terms of the enforcement of property relations.

    This fits in very nicely with everything you’ve said in your post but I think it’s worth making the emphasis about the middle class left’s fear of revolution, especially as the professional left (journalists, lobbyists, etc.) are almost entirely middle class.

  2. What’s a Revolutionary? What is the Left? « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] The Left, the Pseudoleft, and the State […]

  3. apostate Says:

    Really great explication! THanks.

  4. Linkage du jour | Says:

    […] Identity Politics, Class Struggle, and Power, Intersectionality is a tragedy, not a solution, The Left, the Pseudoleft, and the State, What is the pseudo-left?, Is there a new left reformist strategy today?, and Uruguay’s José […]

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