Quotation 2: the Antinomies of the Left and the Right ‘Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology’ by André Gorz

“Increasingly, the real frontier between Left and Right does not run between these apparatuses but, rather, between the parties which occupy the institutional centre stage, on the one hand, and the movements rising up on their margins and contesting them, on the other. The established political organizations are falling into discredit, except where they succeed in incorporating, in a process of renovation, the themes with which the new social actors are now outflanking them.

The discredit into which the established political organizations are falling is clearly visible in all the developed countries, and the conservative parties find themselves in a crisis more difficult in some respects to overcome than the one facing those who claim to be of the Left. The classical Right has, in effect, always been obliged to defend the power of the dominant class in the name of a conception of the general interest and social order which transcends that class. In modern capitalist societies, it has to embody both the demands of capital–for maximum profitability and competitiveness, technical and economic modernization, domination of the process of reproduction and the orientation of development–and traditional values–family, work, fatherland, order and authority–which are constantly undermined by the logic of the commodity, expertocracy, and the invasion of the life-milieu by megatechnologies.

Particularly in periods of radical change and accelerated technical innovation, capitalism breaks down the social order, shatters cohesion and “identities”, sweeps away traditional norms and values, and dissolves those communities, allegiances and exchanges that were formerly felt to be entirely natural by bringing them under a system of technical constraints and legal normalisation. This is what Habermas calls the “colonisation of the lifeworld” by the “economic and administrative subsystems”.

Besides prompting opposition from the Left (to which we shall return), this colonization of the lifeworld, this destruction of the intuitive patterns of interpretation and traditional ethical codes, gives rise to a conformist revolt, which the Right has at all costs to represent and channel, on pain of losing its social base. In a society undergoing complexification and radical change, the Right is thus faced with the difficult task of having to represent both aspirations for order, stability, security and the preservation of traditional cultural norms and conceptions and the modernizing and expansionist demands which are causing capital, in order to satisfy its need for profit, to reshape spheres of activity and life formerly spared by commodity logic.

In consequence, the right is constantly threatened with break-up. If it identifies too openly with the modernizing dynamic of capital, it will provoke the emergence on its Right of a traditionalist, populist conservative force. If, on the other hand, it identifies with the conservative resistance to modernization, it will give rise, in the best of cases, to a decadent, corporatist and immobilist state such as the Salazar or Franco regimes, or the Greece of the colonels.

In the past, the Right could resolve this dilemma by supporting the modernizing strategy of capital in the name of an aggressive and conquering nationalism which to some extent compensated, by patriotically extolling the national community, for the dislocation o traditional systems of allegiance and life. We know that this solution has become impossible today. Far from being able to provide a cover for capitalist modernization (except, perhaps, in an imperial nation that was economically and militarily dominant on a planetary scale, an ambition which is becoming impracticable) and to compensate for it, the extolling of national grandeur, traditions and identity is today a form of resistance and reaction against that modernization, against the globalization of markets, capital and the division of labour. Chauvinism, racism, fundamentalism and xenophobia – which, in the past, could provide support for the imperial expansionism of a conquering national-capitalism – are today regressive reactions to an essentially technocratic and stateless capitalism. That capitalism cares nothing for traditional nationalism and military power. The weapons of its imperialism are technical advance, conquest of markets and information control. The Right is obliged to find themes which provide an outlet for conservative revolt while serving the cause of capitalist modernization. It found them first in Scandinavia, then in the USA, and then in the rest of Europe. They are fiscal revolt, anti-bureaucratic sentiment and the rejection of state interventionism.

These themes are interesting on account of their ambivalence. On the one hand, they quite clearly all have a neo-liberal dimension of rehabilitating free competition in a free market between free individuals and free enterprises. They restore a positive role to an economic liberalism which, for more than a century and a half, has progressively been held in check by the labour movement and the social state. It was in that struggle to impose restrictive rules on the free workings of the market – which both permit and demand the maximization of efficiency and profit – and to define areas from which the market was excluded that the Left took shape and developed. Gradually, the Left has come to circumscribe more and more the space within which free competition and the pursuit of maximum productivity are given free rein. In other words, it has withdrawn from the rule of economic rationality larger and larger fields (such as health, education, housing, the family, old age provision, etc.) to which the priorities and criteria of the pursuit of maximum returns were not applicable.

The social state has, none the less, left intact the mode of operation of the economic system and the hegemonic dynamic of its type of rationality. The restriction of the sphere in which that rationality is allowed free rein is entirely dependent on strengthening the state’s powers of intervention. Strengthening those powers has not given rise to a different public space, to other forms of sociality, other forms of life and work governed by an autonomous rationality and values. Thus the redistribute action and the regulatory interventions of the state have been regarded by their beneficiaries as representing “social gains”, as a bureaucratic guardianship, and as the despoiling of the more “high powered” for the benefit of the less able.

Habermas has described, on several occasions, how “an ever denser net of legal norms, of governmental and para-governmental bureaucracies is spread over the daily lie of its potential and actual clients”; how “the lifeworld is regimented, dissected, controlled, and watched over” by “the professionalization and scientization of social services” and by “normalization and surveillance . . . down to its very finest capillary ramifications in everyday communication”; he concludes: “the establishment of forms of life that . . . open up arenas for individual self-realization and spontaneity . . . cannot be reached via the direct route of putting political programs into legal and administrative form”.

In so far as it is based on the consolidated domination of daily life by normalizing and formalistic administrative bodies, the welfare state is as far as it could possibly be from the libertarian aspirations for individual and collective liberation which are one of the founding dimensions of the Let. Instead of expanding the power social individuals have over their lives, over the modes and outcomes of their social co-operation, the welfare state, running parallel in this with capital, subjects them to its own power and deprives them of their space of autonomy in exchange for the forms of security that they are guaranteed. That is why “Today the [social-statist] legitimists are the true conservatives, who want to stabilize what has been achieved” by attempting to find “a point of equilibrium between the development of a welfare state and modernization based on a market economy . . .”. This type of programme “fails to recognize, however, the potentials for resistance accumulating in . . . communicatively structured lifeworlds”, made conscious of their fragility and autonomy by their “progressive bureaucratic erosion”.

It is easy to see how the Right can exploit this situation. With the established Left bogged down in a social-statism whose fiscal limits – and bureaucratic burdensomeness – are becoming evident, the Right can claim the inheritance of the Left’s libertarian aspirations for a politics which dismantles the welfare state, lightens the fiscal burden, “de-regulates” and abandons the development of a complex society to market forces reputed to be “neutral” and “free” because they lie beyond the scope and conscious determination of human beings. To the Right’s traditional social base this politics promises enhanced possibilities of social promotion and individual success (“effort” and “merit” will be better rewarded thanks to the reformed tax system); to the new salaried strata and to a not inconsiderable fraction of the skilled workers and technicians it offers the rehabilitation of success through work, within an alliance of “winners” – an alliance of “workers” and “entrepreneurs” against the “idlers” and “incompetents” who are seeking to live off the work of others by way of social benefits. The laws of the market demand efficiency and optimum performance; the competitiveness of the economy depends on that of each enterprise: “we are at war”, and everyone has to be fired with “the will to win”. A nation of winners cannot grieve

In a context in which there can no longer be stable full-time jobs for all, this extolling of maximum effort and glorification of employment as a source of social identity and national wealth and greatness will succeed in clouding the political waters by disconcertingly overturning the previous system of allegiances: as a result, the class of skilled wage-earners with stable jobs will be induced to behave as jealous proprietors of that rare commodity, employment, and to ally with the traditional middle classes and the modern employers to defend their jobs and wages against the pressure from a growing mass of unemployed workers, both native and non-native, and from competing enterprises.

The ideology of effort and individual merit, the defence of jobs and identification with work, have thus become right-wing themes, enabling blocs of the working class to be won over to a new national-productivist alliance in favour of liberal-capitalist modernization. The old Left has seen a crucial part of its ideology and social base stolen by the Right. The terrains it occupied in the past are no longer rightly its own; they are no longer terrains of the Left. Hence the perplexity and scepticism regarding the pertinence of the Right-Left divide. Hence also the obvious fact that if there is a Left it has to be sought on other terrains than those of national-productivism, the ideology of work, of wage-earning society, of social-statism and a “collective utilitarianism”, as Allain Caillé would put it, for whom collective well-being is to be achieved only by renouncing the autonomy of the subject.”

* * *

By André Gorz from Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology (1991).

2 thoughts on “Quotation 2: the Antinomies of the Left and the Right ‘Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology’ by André Gorz

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