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Back to Izquierda y derecha: un intento de clarificación

Alejandro Navas García, Professor of Sociology, University of Navarra, Spain

Left and right: an attempt at clarification

Man and society require each other, they cannot be thought of separately. But there are different emphases: the left gives priority to society, to which the individual must submit; the right puts the individual first, at whose service society must be.

Sun, 24 Nov 2013 10:54:00 +0000 Posted in Today from Extremadura

The PSOE, badly hit in the elections and in the polls, held its Political lecture in the first days of November. The aim was to find a solution to the various crises affecting the party. Rubalcaba has managed to put aside the conflictive issues -Cataluña, the primaries- and to gain some time. With relief and voluntarism he could summarize: "The PSOE is back". Programmatically, there remains a turn to the left, a redder PSOE, which reaffirms its identity by attacking the "heartless right wing, which does disgusting things" and the Church.

What exactly do left and right mean politically? Social scientists recognize that these are ambiguous concepts, but citizens continue to use them to orient themselves in the political spectrum. Hence, it makes sense to attempt a clarification, albeit schematic.

The left sees society as a mechanism, which can be assembled and disassembled at will. This plasticity makes it possible to elaborate ideal social designs. For the right, society is more like an organism. Therefore, it is not possible to break it down into its elements without killing it. This condition imposes narrow limits on social projectability.

Man and society require each other, they cannot be thought of separately. But there are different accents: the left gives priority to society, to which the individual must submit; the right puts people in first place, at whose service society must be. From the left it would be enough to adequately manipulate the social Structures to illuminate a new humanity; hence the importance of the Education. The right thinks, on the other hand, that the individual must assume the management of his own life, in an exercise of personal freedom and responsibility.

The supreme political value for the left is equality or, closely related to it, solidarity. Hence its main enemy, its real bête noire, is elitism. For the right, freedom is the highest value. Equality is understood here as equality of opportunity. It is assumed that from these homogeneous starting conditions, the various actors will reach different final positions, depending on the diversity of abilities, the effort made and luck in life. The left would want final equality, as result and not as budget.

At Economics, the left relies on state planning and regulation. It emphasizes distribution. The principle of distribution would be necessity. The right is committed to the market and private initiative and prioritizes production, the creation of wealth. The distribution criterion would be merit. It is typical that the left in government spends more than it takes in, increasing the debt and bankrupting public finances. Then comes the right, to clean up the accounts and, once the corresponding adjustments have been applied, stimulate economic growth. As soon as there is a surplus, citizens get tired of discipline and vote for the left to increase the public expense and social benefits. When the treasury is exhausted, the right will be called again... and this explains to a large extent the alternation between left and right at the head of the Government, at least in core topic economic.

From the moral point of view, we could point out two characteristic vices of the two positions: the envy of the left and the selfishness of the right.

Left and right are tributaries of antagonistic positions in relation to original sin. The left does not believe it exists and thinks that humanity's problems can be solved by social engineering. Structural reforms will suffice to establish justice final, paradise on Earth (Marx). The right, on the contrary, is pessimistic. It believes in the sin of origin and thinks that, deep down, man is incorrigible. Hence the need for extreme vigilance: law and order.

One may have the impression that we are faced with two perfectly delimited fronts, which will allow a clean taxonomy. This is not so, and life is always richer than the classifications sketched on paper. For example, there is also room for right-wing statism. The left points to a utopian future, a heavenly paradise brought down to Earth, while the right looks nostalgically to the past, when the world was in order. Both want to use state power to go forward or to go back; they share a rejection of the present and enmity towards those responsible for the current status : liberal democracy, capitalism, Jews. It is not surprising that Hitler and Stalin could team up to fight them.

On final, the labels 'left' and 'right' seem to convince the sovereign people, who continue to use them to talk about politics, but they are often not sufficiently clear. Their meaning must be clarified in each case.