Skipping ‘Left’ and ‘Right’

Guest post from Prof Donncha Kavanagh (UCD)

Much media commentary on the general election has been framed around the notion that the Irish parliamentary system should finally rid itself of its Civil War legacy and embrace the Left-Right system of political discourse that befits a modern democracy.  However, there are profound weaknesses in this argument.   Irish politics has sensibly avoided the Left-Right structure up to now, and hopefully it will continue to do so into the future.

Traditionally, the Left has been identified as the party of movement and change, while the Right has been associated with order, the status quo and conservativism.  However, as Anthony Giddens argued in his book, Beyond Left and Right, published in 1994, the Left had become conservative, in so far as its focus has centred on retaining the status quo of the welfare state, while the Right had become associated with change, in that the market, which it celebrates, necessarily upsets the current order.  

In Britain, it makes much sense to see the Right as supporting the owners of capital, the privileged and the powerful, and the Left as aligned with workers and the less advantaged.  However, this has never worked particularly well in Ireland, which never experienced an industrial revolution, out of which the capital-labour distinction emerged.  For instance, the Land Acts of the early twentieth century—which applied to Ireland but not to the rest of the United Kingdom—made the capital-labour distinction meaningless in the context of Irish agriculture, as farmers became the owners of capital (their farm) while they were also the main workers on these farms. And the type of factory that flourished in nineteenth-century Britain, with identifiable owners and large numbers of workers, never really materialised in Ireland, even when agriculture lost its dominant position in the economy.  As Fintan O’Toole once quipped, Ireland moved from the pre-modern to the postmodern without ever really stopping at the modern.

Ireland may never have been modern, but other countries are also finding that the old division between Left and Right is becoming an increasingly less credible way of framing political discourse, given the complexity of global business and finance, where workers contribute to pension funds that then own corporations, where transnational corporations are often more powerful than sovereign states, and where states feel compelled to enter into Faustian pacts with corporations.  Citizens and politicians alike are finding that the Left-Right distinction doesn’t provide sufficient traction in terms of determining the appropriate actions to take in particular situations and that other framing devices have more to offer.  The February general election provides a good illustration, in that the result could reasonably be seen as reflecting differences between the East and West of the country (or North and South), or differences between urban and rural, or differences based on gender, race, religion or age.  Moreover, parties on the Irish ‘Left’ are vehemently arguing against taxes—specifically the local property tax and water charges—that, across Europe, would be seen as consistent with a Left ideology.  For their part, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would resist being pigeon-holed as parties of the Right.  For instance, notwithstanding Fianna Fáil’s popular association with big business, its close links with the labour movement were instrumental in framing the social partnership agreements that were hugely important between 1987 to 2008.  Going further back in history, that party used to pride itself as the party of the “man of no property”, while Fine Gael can point to its long-standing advocacy for social justice, most especially when Garret Fitzgerald was leader.  Certainly, it is clear that the Left-Right continuum is neither the only, nor the most helpful, way of sorting political positions or of aggregating contentious issues.

We should resist simple arguments that the 32nd Dáil should be structured around a Left-Right continuum.  Rather, it would be best to see the Dáil as 158 representatives of the citizens of the state who must figure out a way of doing its business.  That will take time.

With Leinster House in need of substantial renovation, the Dáil might usefully start by decamping to Croke Park, partly because a new environment might inspire new ways of thinking about how parliament should do its business, but partly because the GAA provides a ready example of an organisation that gets things done without recourse to the adversarial, parliamentary system that is institutionalised in the Dáil.  Once ensconced in Croke Park, the members might invite contributions from Kieran Mulvey and others from the Workplace Relations Commission who have specialised in fostering harmony in workplaces (the Dáil is a workplace, after all). It would also make much sense to bring in some Quakers who are experts in conflict resolution and have thought deeply about how meetings and assemblies should be organised effectively without unnecessary adversity.  Their use of silence and their belief in the principle of saying little —“let your words be few”, as they say—would also provide a timely and important counter-position to the excessive amount of talk, much of it in predictable clichés, that pervades parliamentary debate.  What we need is a parliamentary model that has less adversarial debate and more discussion and collective decision-making.  Others who might help design such a model include thinkers like Edward de Bono (or others versed in his ideas) who have thought deeply about how to structure thinking and dialogue without recourse to adversary, aggression and argumentation.  Almost certainly, a less macho parliament should be a warmer place for women.

10 thoughts on “Skipping ‘Left’ and ‘Right’

  1. There is a clear right/left split in the Dáil and it has been revealed on a number of occasions already. We have a variety of left-wing and pseudo-left-wing factions, groupuscules and individuals totalling 39 TDs – 23 SF, 6 AAA-PBP, 3 SD, 4 Independents4Change and 3 assorted left-wing leaning TDs (Connolly, Pringle and Healy). Motions on water charges have revealed an issue on which they appear to agree, but they seem to have dressed water charges up (disingenuously, but conveniently) as an element of something to which they all appear to be vehemently opposed. And that is “neo-liberalism” – even if they struggle to define it in any meaningful or useful sense or, more pertinently, to define it meaningfully and usefully in the Irish context (mainly because it isn’t possible).

    We then have a largely centrist and centre-right blob formed of FG, FF, most of the Independent Alliance and two additional independent TDs – with FF trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds so as to deprive SF of the lead opposition role. The rump Labour party, the Green party groupuscule and the remaining independents float between theses blobby blocs.

    That’s the composition of the Dáil that those voting have settled on – and were an election to be called in the near future it appears unlikely that this composition would change much. A majority of voters have decided to deprive both FF and FG of their traditional ability to form governments on their own or in association with smaller parties and individuals and to dominate and abuse the Oireachtas. This largely centrist and centre-right blob that has emerged as a result seems to reflect the preferences of the majority of voters. It will take some time for the parties so used to taking turns dominating and abusing the Oireachtas to develop a process that might provide some sensible governance – and it’s difficult to see FF’s particular take on providing confidence and supply being sustainable. But it appears that some sort of an arrangement of this nature is what a majority of voters want.

    While possibly exercising some limited restraint and ensuring some re-distribution of the proceeds, this configuration will continue to protect the powerful, embedded special interests in the sheltered private, public and semi-state sectors and to provide statutory authorisation of the collusive corruption (as distinct from extortive corruption) that allows them to capture economic rents on a sustained basis.

    To varying extents this collusive corruption characterises – and is a blight on – most advanced economies. But in Ireland it is endemic and pervasive. The result is that the distribution of market incomes (before taxes and transfers) in Ireland as measured by the Gini coefficient is the most unequal in the OECD. However, the tax and welfare system is applied very inefficiently to reduce this inequality.

    It is a quintessentially Irish solution to an Irish problem. There is little point advocating change; it is simply part of what we are. But it is amusing to observe academics seeking to apply theories and practices developed and applied in various disciplines to the quaint Irish polity while ignoring the extent of the collusive corruption that exists.

    • ‘In weakness we create distinctions, then
      Believe that all our puny boundaries are things
      Which we perceive and not which we have made.’
      William Wordsworth, 1799

      • I realise that crafting a substantive response to my contention might prove difficult – after all most academics are rent-seekers – but relying on gnomic utterings of a dead white poet from the romantic era probably takes the biscuit..

  2. Why do we need less adversarial debate? High on the list of persistent problems in Irish politics since independence must be the lack of critical analysis and a tendency to herd around incorrect policies. You don’t solve these with consensus, you worsen them.

    • I wouldn’t conflate adversarial debate and critical analysis. We get lots of the former and little of the latter before MMA fights. And just because people agree on something doesn’t mean they are all wrong.

  3. @Donncha,

    Ireland is frequently represented as an outlier in European democracy. International political scientists paid little attention to Ireland throughout much of the 20th century (a) because of its strategic insignificance as a ‘small country’ within the broader arena of international relations, and (b) because of its remarkable stability as a democratic state. In our domestic analysis, the view has become common place that the standard ‘left/right’ model of representative democracy didn’t apply within our political sphere and that we are somehow exceptional to the European norm.

    But such claims to exceptionalism, in politics as in other areas of our national development, should be subject to closer interrogation. It seems just too convenient altogether to sweep aside much of our twentieth century experience as rooted in ‘civil war politics’, within which a genuine ‘left’ never emerged.

    In this so-called Centenary Year, much blather about the motivations and ambitions of the leaders of the Rising to establish an Irish Republic has been couched in overblown rhetoric of how things might have worked out differently had the ‘principles’ of the 1916 revolutionaries not been discarded by, eh, who was it exactly? Their erstwhile comrades who, in their national party divisions, subsequently went on to govern the established Independent State for the remainder of the century and beyond? Along a different plane, is it really valid to suggest that the Irish electorate ‘sensibly’ avoided a Left/Right political dichotomy? Are we to accept that, to their own detriment, the broad mass of Irish people deliberately and voluntarily opted for a centrist mediocrity whose signature achievement was that the Republic which they governed failed to thrive, economically and socially, for the next half century?

    Centrism, or ‘third ways’, or ‘progressive’ versus ‘conservative’ platforms, and their concomitant ideologies, have little practical meaning outside a broader left/right context whose functional purpose within liberal representative democracy is to achieve a balance between factions (1) motivated to seek greater equality in society through state-led redistributive actions or (2) those who prefer to rely on the operation of market forces and individual incentivisation to the same end. The meanings and attributes ascribed to ‘right’ or ‘left’ inevitably change over time and in different historical circumstances. But while this is irrelevant in totalitarian regimes, where no political argument or dissension is permitted, the left/right distinction is fundamental to the functioning of representative democracy. Without it, no plausible motivation could exist for individual parliamentary representatives of the people to aggregate into political parties, which then compete with one another for executive power to implement pre-defined policy preferences.

    The evolution of the Irish State was shaped by a wide range of historical, economic and geographical variables. At its core was the requirement common to all newly independent states to carve out a distinctive national identity to which the majority of its citizens could subscribe. This was achieved by harnessing the strong Catholic culture of the majority population to a nationalist ideology and then conferring an aura of moral superiority on the merger. Think De Valera/McQuaid relationship and key articles of the 1937 Constitution for example.

    As you point out, the land question in Ireland had already been settled decisively in the tenants’ favour some time previously. Hence, what might have become one of the key planks of a contentious politics around land redistribution in the new Free State was off the table. Indeed, by the time Irish Independence was negotiated most of the civil infrastructure of the new Free State was already long in situ e.g. local government (1898), universities (1908), primary education system (since 1831)and health, such as it was. The new Free State adapted the existing civil service structure, and judiciary, to its own purposes. The adoption of PR STV and a multi-seat constituency electoral system facilitated the regular election of a disproportionately high number of independent candidates, largely representative of local populist concerns. But none of this explains the failure of Labour as the obvious carrier of the banner for the ‘left’ to develop into a political force capable of contesting for power in its own right.

    This failure is commonly attributed to manifestly poor organisational capability outside pre-existing electoral strongholds, internal indiscipline and propensity towards internecine squabbling and splits, and longterm mismanagement of the party-trade union relationship. As its parliamentary record shows, for much of its twentieth century history Labour was also persistently as nationalist and conservative in it social and economic policy orientation as its mainstream political competitors.

    Historically, the emerging Fianna Fail movement of the late 1920s is also regarded as having stolen Labour’s social democratic clothes, or at least of making regular raids on its ideological wardrobe. Fianna Fail’s electoral advantage was that it developed and ably articulated a strong nationalist ideology that combined economic nationalism with paternalistic state interventionism and social conservatism within a heady political brew of the catch-all variety. Like its main political rival for power, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail from its inception abandoned the precepts of ‘civil war politics’ in favour of a pragmatic embrace of representative parliamentary democracy. In the process, it frequently usurped the role which Labour might otherwise have occupied as the primary representative of the ‘left’ in Irish politics.

    In the second decade of the 21st century challenges to the system of representative democracy are experienced in Ireland as much as any other country in Europe. The treatise by the late Peter Mair, ‘Ruling the Void – The Hollowing-out of Western Democracy’ was prescient in its analysis of the causes and effects of the decline of party politics at national levels. Despite the seemingly meteoric rise of extremism of left and right, replete with their coteries of authoritarian cheerleaders, it is well to bear in mind that the populist borne meteor can crash to earth just as spectacularly as it rose in the first place. Each nation-state must find its own way through, as must supra-national organisations like the EU also direly in need of institutional reform and democratisation of its policy-making processes. In our own case, the current experiment with ‘new politics’, in particular the demise of excessive executive domination of parliament and its processes, is a welcome development.

    As such I find myself in disagreement with your suggestion that we should view our TDs as 158 ‘independents’, decamp them all to Croke Park and subject them to psychobabble sessions on how to do the business of politics, as if they were a bunch of junior infants in the game. For sure, the current model of representative democracy requires systemic reform or it will ultimately fall apart, in Ireland, and throughout the EU. But for all its flaws, it wrong turnings, its mistakes and its vanities, it’s still a heckuva lot better than the alternative of ochlocracy, whether emanating from right or left.

    • My point is that we shouldn’t feel we have to distill the complexity of political decision-making, legislation and resource allocation into a simple choice between state-led redistribution and the market, when both feature in all contemporary economies, and when most political issues don’t easily or solely map on to a choice between these two options.

      If one believes that a “left/right distinction is fundamental to the functioning of representative democracy” then that will frame all analysis, whether it is helpful or not. For instance, such a framing provides little purchase in analysing Brexit. But once the left/right axis is seen as fundamental it has to be put to work on the Irish case, which you label as ‘centrist’ and dismiss as having ‘little practical meaning outside of a broader left/right context’. This is a circular argument; though one almost inevitably makes circular arguments once one holds fundamental beliefs, which axiomatically attain an almost religious status and are well nigh impossible to dislodge. And when fundamentalism is aligned with the status quo we get a deep conservativism, masked by token appeals for ‘systemic reform’. Hence, it is not surprising, but still disappointing, that you depict the suggestion that politicians might discuss alternatives to the left/right frame as an exercise in ‘psychobabble,’ and that you present the only alternative to the status quo as ochlocracy, or mob rule.

      • What I set out to probe was the conventional ‘civil war politics’ label assigned to our political culture and the call for some sort of advance to a ‘left/right’ European-style political norm which was prevalent in the recent post-election debate. For sure, there’s an element of truth in a path-dependent characterisation of Irish political culture as reflecting various forms of residual tribal loyalties emanating from the split within Sinn Fein over the Treaty in 1921. But how long did that last?

        I think it’s reasonable to interrogate a political cliché that is paraded, for political agenda purposes by some of its most forthright advocates, and forcefully articulated as signifying requirement to escape from an embedded culture of ‘civil war’ politics to a left/right normality. Embraced by the media and commentators as somehow representative of our contemporary reality – I think it’s fair to say that as a narrative the civil war politics cliché went largely unchallenged in the recent debate – it risks obviating a wider perspective of our political development and prohibits examination of what kind of state we set out to create for ourselves in the first place and its subsequent evolution.

        The left/right concept provides a useful tool for an attempt at an alternative analysis. The left/right spectrum is particularly helpful, I think, for describing how representative democracy operates in practice in a European context; particularly how parties emerge or fail, policy positions are defined and framed, and then accepted or rejected by the general electorate. The strength of the liberal representative democratic model in its various incarnations throughout Europe and elsewhere is that it facilitates the expression of plurality of opinion about how best to solve problems in society. It’s complex, messy, compromising , frequently inefficient and falling far short of political ideals such as the triumph within the political sphere of the ‘forceless force of the better argument’, as Jurgen Habermas put it. And it can result in some very bad policy decisions and false directions for society, and the economy, that once made, subsequently prove very difficult to unpick.

        Using the left/right dichotomy as an analytical tool, what I was trying to do, in a limited blog response to your own piece, was to tease out whether the traditional positioning of Ireland in political science literature as an ‘outlier’ in terms of the norms of European democracy is justified in terms of our actual political experience. It was not about constructing any sort of circular argument. In association with other concepts, such as small state theory or the mediatisation of contemporary politics for example, there’s a possibility of achieving a more informed insight into the challenges that universally beset representative democracy as a political model and why it appears that, here as elsewhere, authoritarian populists, whether from right or left, are presently in the ascendant.

        By definition, the centre is always relative to one extreme or another. But I did not ‘label’ the Irish state as ‘centrist’ at any point in my discussion. I think the evidence is overwhelming as to the extraordinary stability of Irish democracy throughout the twentieth century. It’s also apparenent that at various junctures the main parties have adopted policy positions that might appear to be quite contradictory to their core ideological predispositions.

        Incidentally, I think my family, friends and acquaintances would be vastly amused that I might be accused of being a ‘fundamentalist’. Except in one respect, I fundamentally dislike fundamentalists of any stripe. Anyway, I’m just too old now to entertain fundamental beliefs about anything.

        As for Brexit, you’re right that the left/right concept has little or no application since the EU is a supranational organisation and, as commonly observed, a democratic deficit was woven into its institutional fabric from its foundation. The organisational impact of losing one of its largest member-states, never mind the implications for our own economy and medium-term political future, are unknown and unknowable right now. Personally, I just feel very sad, and more than a little bit scared, about what’s happening in British politics and some of the negative forces that have been unleashed in its wider society. But life goes on and that will stop.It must stop.

        Finally, my sincere apologies if I gave offence in seeming dismissive of your Croke Park suggestion. That was not my intention. It may be out of step with current public opinion, but I have a lot of respect for politicians as a professional class, and for their expertise which is all about public service, persuasion and related arts of listening to people you’d prefer to have never met, and doing the business with them. I admire those skills, and appreciate the hard work that goes into acquiring them. Politics is hardly the ideal career choice – unsocial hours, loss of personal privacy, drudgery, issue fatigue, and always having to have the smile-box near to hand for the sake of public appearances. As Alan Kelly observed, power may be a ‘drug’; but in truth most politicians can have little expectation of ever having any.

        On reflection, maybe you’re right about something needing to happen to improve the way we do our politics? Perhaps unwisely, I retain confidence in the capability of our politicians to adapt and change, which is why the route of incremental reform is appealing. A reintroduction to the arts of listening, as you suggest, might be no bad thing, for some of our politicians anyway. Meanwhile, if I hear another politician talking about ‘what the focus groups are telling us’, my blood pressure will go into the stratosphere….

  4. Thanks for that clarification.

    The target of my post was not the notion of ‘civil war politics’ —which I find anachronistic, unhelpful, vague, and a distraction at best—but rather the idea that the left/right frame is foundational to political discourse. ‘Left/right’, or ‘far left/far right’ is an easy way to structure analysis and label individuals and groups, but it’s far too simple. The challenge is to formulate an analytical scheme that reflects the complexity of issues, and yet provides a ready basis for taking positions and actions on these issues.

    • Many thanks indeed for your response.

      At least we agree, I think, that the ‘civil war politics’ discourse is both intellectually lazy and mainly used to serve vested political interests. I would also completely agree with you that the ‘left/right’ model on its own is way too simplistic, while still contending that it is a useful analytical tool. The resurrection of the shibboleth of ‘civil war politics’ in the recent post-election debate, however, assumes that our 20th century political experience was somehow entirely abstracted from the development of any wider European political norms. Worse, in the second decade of the 21st century we’re not supposed to even question ‘civl war politics’ once it becomes the media and local political default position.

      As you formulate it, the challenge which we face is indeed formidable. Well, there’s ‘small state’ theory, mediatization (and unfortunate professionalisation) of politics and the alternative of a move towards more deliberative forms of democracy as a way of saving/shoring up the liberal representative model, and then arriving at some coherent definition of ‘culture’, all of which might help…

      Right now, there’s Wales and ‘footie’, which is of more immediate concern…

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