Has the Left Lost?
Unless something drastic happens, Britain will soon be out of Europe, Donald Trump will be in the White House, and many right wing parties will take the reins all over Europe. It has been said, more than once, that the left has lost. For some, this means that “Hate has won”, for others it means that freedom of speech and expression have been saved.
This sentiment assumes that left and right are sides of a societal spectrum, that is to say that left and right exist primarily at the level of society. But I would argue that this is not the case. I would argue that leftward and rightward political leanings are expressions of a psychological spectrum that is fundamental to the human mind. They are expressions of an evolutionary survival mechanism that has developed in us over hundreds of thousands of years at least, and it is this psychological survival mechanism that has allowed us to thrive in such a wide range of conditions. Indeed, it is one of the foundations of culture itself.
The imperative to survive and reproduce is beyond ethics, happiness or ideals. One might go as far as to argue that it’s ultimately the source of these realities. It is the Darwinian pruning of our evolutionary tree and the shape this has lent to our biological and psychological development that has bestowed upon us our uniquely human condition. This condition describes the totality of our being, and the shape of our social, political and emotional landscape is a function of the evolutionary path that shaped us. The human condition, the psychological makeup that is the foundation of our incredible adaptability, as awell as the stage upon which our political lives are played out, contains all of the elements of thought and action that we connect with left and right wing politics. These elements are at the core of all our beings.
As expressions of this human adaptability, the sociopolitical elements of our psyches express themselves according to the social, environmental and perceptual landscape in which we find ourselves. The ethnographic record provides many examples of economic variables leading idealistic monopolies of what might be considered stereotypical representations of left and right political behaviour. In The Mountain People, Colin Turnbull tells of the dystopian life of the Ik in the mountains of Northern Uganda, where constant, abject scarcity and hopelessness has led to an utterly selfish, uncooperative and uncaring mode of life. In contrast, the Anuta live on a small island in the south pacific and experience plenty under normal circumstances but are also subject to occasional severe shortage that could strike this family or that at any time. They insure themselves against such misfortune with highly collectivist economic and social organization.
In smaller, simpler societies like those of the Ik and the Anuta, all members are likely to perceive, if not experience, the highs and lows of life in a similar way and therefore will tend to fall more uniformly on one side of the political spectrum or the other. In complex societies like the west’s, there is an enormous amount of heterogeneity in the experiences of different individuals. Conditions of life vary a huge amount within a society, rewards and challenges are more unevenly distributed, making a wider range of political expressions more likely. And our perceptions of the world around us can have as profound an effect as our actual lived experience. The complexity of our societies precludes individuals from understanding or experiencing anything but a fraction of the whole, and the range of the political spectrum is a manifestation of the interaction of our psychology and and our realities distributed among the population.
So the left or the right cannot ‘win’ or lose – the political spectrum and the ideas it generates are manifestations of our very psyches. The political landscape might change over time but history shows that changes are most often simple variations of old motifs. The left may need to rethink the viability of its focus on PC culture and identity politics, at least for the time being, but these ideas are not ones that can be banished or left behind – they are woven into the very fabric of our existence. And this is fine; the answer is not for one idea to win out over all others, because there is no one correct answer to how we should live in such complex societies. Constant negotiation is necessary and full participation must be encouraged.