Our own worst enemy
It’s often said of the political Left that we are our own worst enemy – quicker to fight among ourselves than to focus on our sociopathic adversaries on the Right.
History appears to support this accusation. We’ve got Marxists, Trotskyists, Bakuninists, communists, democratic socialists, revolutionary socialists, cooperativists, anarchists, syndicalists and many more factions and schisms – and they’re all quick to disagree. It continues today, with factionalism and in-fighting seeming as commonplace as ever.
Stupidity vs intelligence
The explanation I’ll put forward in this article rests on a very straightforward assertion: that the Left are disadvantaged by being cleverer than the Right.
Now, it’s important to emphasise that cleverness is not in and of itself a good thing, despite its positive connotations in contemporary society. Clever people can be wicked and cruel, and meanness, selfishness and narcissism are scattered throughout ‘the intelligent’ just as they are among the rest of the population.
The claim that left-wing beliefs act as an intelligence magnet is, however, empirical – and it’s a fact which creates a major problem for the Left which we’ll consider in a moment. But, before doing so, it’s important to consider an inescapable feature of the human and biological world.
We all live in a complex, multi-faceted physical and biological environment. Tens of thousands of species and billions of individual entities co-exist in habitats formed by millennia of geological change. Break open a rock and you find a fossil. Microbes in their millions inhabit every square centimetre of soil in your garden. The solid ground beneath your feet floats on a sea of lava.
We ourselves are also complex, both physically and psychologically. Thirty-seven trillion cells cooperate to form a single human body. Neurons send messages to our brains at speeds equivalent to those of a bullet – and neuroscientists discover new complexities in our brains on an almost daily basis.
Add to this our incredible creative energy – generating level upon level of further social and cultural complexity – and we find ourselves in a staggeringly diverse and unpredictable world.
This is what is called a complex system. It consists of innumerable interacting sub-systems, positive and negative feedback loops, triggers, thresholds, pockets of stability and areas or periods of chaos.
The stupidity magnet
Against this highly complex background, the Left and the Right offer opposing political solutions to the same question: How should society be organised to our best advantage?
The Right are attracted to simplistic answers for a number of reasons. These include:
- Controlling and authoritarian attitudes towards the world and others
- A resulting desire for uncomplicated and even brutal boundaries and rules
- A resulting willingness to manipulate others through the adoption of simplistic slogans, explanations and promises
- An inclination toward hierarchicalism, and a deference to authority, with the constraint on independent thinking that this entails
- Insecurity in the face of difference and complexity, impeding the application of whatever intelligence the individual may have
- A conservative unwillingness to reach beyond the superficial and engage with our complex reality
- Plain stupidity, whether elective or inadvertent
And, of course, any combination of the above.
Why is simplicity stupid?
Simplicity can be elegant and beautiful – and it can also be deceptive. Einstein’s formula e=mc2 appears simple, but genius was required to generate the complex proof leading to this conclusion.
In the context of any serious social or ethical question (i.e. How should society be organised to our best advantage?) simplicity is a clear negative: it’s like trying to mend software with a spanner. It simply doesn’t engage with the complex nature of the challenge.
That’s not to say that narrowly delimited problems can’t sometimes be solved using simple solutions, but even here, because of the interdependence of the countless elements comprising our complex world, apparently simple fixes will often have unforeseen and sometimes disastrous consequences.
This attraction to the simple, despite our living in an incredibly complex world, creates a reality dysfunction for the Right. This is particularly apparent when stupid, simple slogans meet with complex reality and catastrophically fail. We see this dysfunction expressed in wars, in the failure of populists when dealing with public health or environmental crises, in disastrous social policies such as forced industrialisation, partition, economic austerity and the fire sale of public assets, and in pogroms and purges.
The ‘simple’ solutions favoured by the Nazis, on encountering reality, turned out to have unspeakably inhumane and far from simple consequences. These were heinous for their victims, but also caused great harm to the German population as a whole.
So, even if a fix is truly simple, in conception and implementation, it still needs to be approached intelligently (and, of course, with morality and compassion).
We need to ask:
– What is it exactly that we are trying to fix?
– Is it a fix we should be undertaking?
– Is this the best route to take to achieve our objectives?
– What might be the wider impacts of our actions?
The Left engage with this challenge. They acknowledge the complexity of the world. They look for answers to our pressing social and ethical questions in the context of this complexity. But it is precisely this which creates their Achilles’ Heel.
Three Laws of Social Discord
Let’s begin by articulating three reasonably self-evident laws of social discord.
First Law of Social Discord
Intelligence plus Complexity equals Diversity
( I + C = D )
In other words: The harder a social or ethical problem is to solve, and the greater the numbers and intelligence of those attempting to solve it, the greater will be the number of solutions proposed.
Second Law of Social Discord
Complex answers invariably outnumber Simple answers
( Ca > Sa )
In other words: There are only a limited number of simple solutions that can be rationally proposed for any specific social or ethical question, but an innumerable number of complex ones.
Third Law of Social Discord
There will always be Discord between any two answers to social or ethical questions, no matter how marginal the difference
( If a1 # a2 then Dis )
In other words: The creators of any solution or theory understandably favour their own conclusions; adherents are attracted to solutions which match their temperaments and which they then defend; belief systems calcify.
The discordant Left
These laws provide a useful framework within which to consider the discord of the Left as opposed to that of the Right.
Because of the right-wing attraction to simplicity (sometimes so simple it’s stupid), the Right coalesce around a limited number of discrete, simplistic answers, regardless of whether these are suitable for application to our complex social and biological world.
Meanwhile, the Left are not truly a single entity, but rather a spectrum of differing, complex answers (1st Law), which tend to be greater in number than their simple kin (2nd Law), and between any two of which there is likely to be as much discord as between a coalesced right-wing position and any other stance (3rd Law).
As a result, the totality of discord between the more complex answers offered by left-wing thinkers will invariably be greater than the totality of discord between the fewer and simpler answers of the Right.
A double-edged sword
The ‘in-fighting’ critique of the Left has quite naturally been weaponised by the Right for the purposes of propaganda. What else would you expect? But this critique is double-edged. The Left use their intelligence to put forward solutions which engage with the complexity of the world, some of which may be incorrect, but many of which, because they fit more realistically within a complex-systems approach, could potentially deliver great benefit to our society and species.
However, as a result of the range, depth and complexity of these solutions (or, in other words, their intelligence), the Left’s internal conflict is proportionately increased.
Meanwhile the Right argue less… but this is only on account of a stupid simplicity which is likely to harm us all.
Therefore the question we need to ask is, How can the Left cohere and tackle the Third Law of Social Discord (‘There will always be discord between any two answers to social or ethical questions, no matter how marginal the difference’) while retaining their intelligence and without becoming as dangerously simplistic and stupid as the Right?
Unless we can answer this question, our ability to resist the continuing rise of neoliberal fascism remains fatally flawed.
In my next article, Can The Left Unite?, I’ll take a look at how it may be possible to address this important challenge.
Luke Andreski is a founding member of the @EthicalRenewal and Ethical Intelligence collectives. His books include Intelligent Ethics (2019), Ethical Intelligence (2019), Short Conversations: During The Plague (2020) and Short Conversations: During the Storm (2021).
His free eBook Our society is sick, but here’s the cure is out now.
You can connect with Luke on LinkedIn, https://uk.linkedin.com/in/luke-andreski-ethics, or via @EthicalRenewal on Twitter https://twitter.com/EthicalRenewal
Luke is a founding member of the @EthicalRenewal collective and author of Short Conversations: During the Plague (2020), Intelligent Ethics (2019) and Ethical Intelligence (2019).
5 thought on “Why the Left fight”
I don’t think you need to look further back than 2015. If the proposed policies are liked by the electorate, e.g. Labour’s 2017 manifesto, they have a chance of being implemented. The left coalesced round Corbyn and it scared the shit out of the establishment. He came within a whisker of power despite the whole of the Western Establishments efforts.
Yes, agreed – having convincing policies which we can unite behind is crucial…. Sadly, there’s not much in the way of popular or believable policy coming from Labour at the moment. Even their attempts at populist polices are misplaced and badly timed….
….and, of course, unbelievable, after all those so-called ‘pledges’.
There is much truth in this. However, surely there are many other factors at play. Take the opposing analysis and positions taken on the war in Syria: there are totally conflicting positions here (eg on the White Helmets) taken by people who otherwise agree on many other issues (eg Palestine,capitalism). Those who side with the grayzone and those with bellingcat, for example. There is certainly complexity here, but is this really the cause of the differences (we could include others, eg role of NATO)? There seems to those who side with whoever the US opposes (eg so-called “tankies), including authoritarian regimes, and those who are more critical of the authoritarian regimes (sometimes labelled “the liberal left” by the others). We know the people and media organisations on either side (personally, I am confused, both sides seem to have merit, though I lean towards the more anti-authoritarian – eg George Monbiot rather than Jonathan Cooke et al). Is it really just different views resulting from the complexity of the issues (and of course it is very difficult to judge the evidence presented by both sides)? Of course, each accuses the other of bad faith, of being paid by those in power, on either side. I don’t have an answer, but feel that something deeper is going on (psychological?).
Thank you for your thoughtful response to my article – which I think very cleverly challenges an important characteristic of the article, namely, that while I critique simplification, describing the solutions of the Right as ‘so simple they’re stupid’, I nevertheless make use of simplification in developing my argument.
As you suggest, it is very unlikely that the disunity of the Left, or between progressives, centrists and liberals, can be easily put down to one cause.
I would suggest that the complexity and diversity of answers that intelligent people come up with are a powerful causative factor in generating factional conflict, and your examples seem to me to support rather than conflict with this claim. Intelligent and complex people, in approaching our complex world, are quite capable of reaching conclusions which, for example, support the Palestinian struggle but take opposing views on Syria, or which mutually dislike US geopolitical machinations, but disagree about NATO.
These are paradigm cases of how, in the face of complexity, intelligent people come up with complex answers which may disagree at any of an immense number of decision points. No wonder conflict and friction come into play!
But you are absolutely right that people adopt positions not solely for intellectual reasons but for emotional, psychological and social reasons too. We all like to think we are rational beings, but tribalism, temperament and our broader social backgrounds make certain kinds of arguments or positions more attractive to us than others. And then, having adopted a position, no matter how rationally, we all tend to hunker down, resisting and disputing all alternative viewpoints (often with greater bitterness against those who ‘almost agree with us’, because ‘surely they should know better!’).
So I’d agree that the picture is rather more complex than my article immediately suggests – but I hope that through this act of simplification I’ve been able to highlight a compelling source of discord which moves us a little way forward in understanding the critique of left-wing ‘infighting’.
One last point (which perhaps only serves to support my overall drift): I’m afraid I have to disagree with your suggestion that Jonathan Cook is authoritarian in contrast to Monbiot being liberal. I suspect that critics of US interference across the globe are equally critical of Russian or Chinese interference, and that the contrast is more one of pacifism vs interventionism than of authoritarianism vs liberalism. Cook appears to me to be against wars of intervention by any nation, whether it be the US, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Israel or the UK, whereas Monbiot has always been broadly supportive of military interventions by the West, and appears very willing to adopt a warlike approach to the West’s defined ‘enemies’. Like Cook, my own position is one of pacifism. I loathe Russian aggression, but I am also alert to the hypocrisy of the UK and the US and believe there are always better solutions than initiating or perpetuating war.