By Cath Sutherland, a member of the Future of Humanism Group.
Is 'the left' synonymous with 'the good'? The answer to this very tricky question depends, of course, on how you define 'the good'. The left (meaning socialists or those on the political left) would define the good as things like the alleviation of suffering, the provision of opportunity for all to thrive, and a society that is organised to achieve these things. Those on the right of the political spectrum might define the good as freedom for all to fulfil their maximum potential, plus the dignity and self-worth that comes from having to support oneself and ‘stand on one’s own feet’, which brings out the best in people. Their definition would be more in terms of the rights of the individual. Those rights and freedoms include the right to make money.
The right (as in Conservatives or Tories, in the case of the UK Conservative Party) also believes in kindness and charity, and in helping others, but with this coming more from the community and less from the state. Many people on the right believe in the welfare state, the NHS, housing for all, state education, even comprehensives. In other words, a ‘mixed economy’. Only those on the extreme right believe in leaving nearly everything to the market.
There are individuals who are principled, kind, fair and giving on both the left and right, as well as people who are selfish, manipulative, and exploitative. And on a global level, countries with left-wing communist governments have been as cruel and as murderous as the right-wing dictators we can easily think of. Socialists claim that the Soviet Union and Communist China are not true examples of socialist societies. By the same token, moderate Tories would say that fascist countries are not good examples of free market mixed economies. Moderate conservatives believe in democracy as much as those on the left.
"Being able to enjoy the good things in life is a luxury to be aspired to once suffering has been removed."
However, I would not have joined the Green Party, or been a life-long left-winger, if I didn’t believe that good is on the side of left-wing movements and solutions. What attracts people to get involved in left-wing campaigns and groups? It is overwhelmingly to try to combat the suffering of other human beings. Suffering of ourselves, or other people, or animals, is something that is tangibly horrible and terrible and I, like many millions of other people, believe that our first duty is to try to prevent suffering. Being able to enjoy the good things in life is a luxury to be aspired to once suffering has been removed. Left-wing movements are built out of people who want to make society fairer, kinder, and more just, to alleviate poverty and discrimination, and to give everyone a chance to make the most of their life, not just a lucky few. What attracts many people to join right-wing groups is the belief in rights and freedoms, and in stopping the state from getting in their way; they are not necessarily concerned with whether everyone in society has the standard of living or opportunity to make use of those rights.
Furthermore, right-wing philosophies are a good justification for the cruel, ruthless and destructive practices of many commercial companies. And whatever the intentions or ideals of ordinary people on the left or right, these are not necessarily the same as what the movements and political parties stand for in practice. I would argue that, at present, right-wing parties and movements in the Western world protect the supremacy of big business and multinational companies. They protect the rights of the rich to make profits even if they are doing profound damage to the environment, to our children’s futures, to workers in other countries who are producing the things that they are selling, and to animals. In practice, the profit motive incentivises a completely selfish and reckless set of values and practices in the majority of those who make the decisions. Big business and very rich individuals realise that right-wing ideologies will protect their freedoms to exploit people and resources in very damaging ways, in the name of competition.
The right also believes strongly in the benefits of competition. They believe that competitiveness is a strong motivator to bring out people’s abilities and creativity. However, it can lead to a view of life in which other people are just seen as people that you have to defeat - 'it's us or them' or 'dog eat dog'. This fits very well with a view of life in which certain groups of people are seen as competitors to the group to which we belong, as people who can take things away from us or diminish us. This view of life easily accommodates racism, or even violence and war. Right-wing leaders can be adept at exploiting divisions.
"The democratic left has more integrity and more genuine care for our fellow human-beings, and it puts the alleviation of suffering first. That is why I believe that good is on the side of the left."
Within many companies, the same competitive and ‘everyone for themselves’ philosophy leads to the people with power at the top squeezing the standards of living and working conditions of their employees as hard as they can, whilst taking enormous wealth for themselves. This is seen as necessary and ‘healthy’ because lowering costs is felt to be an admirable achievement, and the consequent profit is seen as being good for society. This is a very powerful ideology.
The environmental crisis is a good example. Many people on the right are passionate about nature and they respect science. There is no reason why they shouldn’t be fervent supporters of campaigns to stop climate change, and the disastrous loss of biodiversity around the world. But over the last fifty years the environmental movement has slowly become the preserve of the left. Why? Because businesses that stand to lose massively from the phasing out of oil, coal, gas and the high level of travel, car ownership etc., have attached themselves to the right where they find many allies. The environmental crisis cannot possibly be dealt with by ‘leaving everything to the free market’. Big governmental intervention and international co-operation are essential to save our way of life, but the right is often opposed to big government and more regulation. Many people on the right, therefore, desperately want climate change to be untrue and to go away. Big business has created this attitude and shaped the right in its own interests. The left wants to face the reality and tackle the crisis.
The left may be a ragbag of different organisations and beliefs but, in democratic societies at least, it has not been a Trojan horse for greedy and exploitative organisations. The democratic left has more integrity and more genuine care for our fellow human-beings than the right, and it puts the alleviation of suffering first. That is why I believe that good is on the side of the left.
To complete the picture, it must be said that some left-wing movements have been hijacked by cruel and ruthless forces too. The Soviet Union and Communist China are giant examples of regimes that started out with idealistic left-wing philosophies, but they were taken over quite rapidly by small elites who were corrupted by power and the opportunity to make money. People living in autocratic and repressive communist regimes probably view right-wing principles of the freedom of the individual and the need to push back against the state as ‘good’, in the same way that we in the West may see caring, left-wing ideals as ‘good’. Maybe the true ‘good’ is a combination of the best characteristics of each side.