“Influential left-wing ideas” (or issues, or initiatives)

Bob From Brockley asked about what I (among others) thought were the most influential left-wing ideas, as a follow-on from what I thought was a dispiriting discussion about influential left-wing individuals.

People report they are finding this difficult. Without a doubt it’s harder to examine the influence of ideas on populations of individuals than the influence of prominant (or perhaps more often, dominant) individuals on populations. But ‘vector’, the metaphor for infection or pollination which is now widely used to talk about the spread of ideas, is a good metaphor because a vector isn’t a single organism with intent, but a phenomenon in a context.

The good influences mentioned so far include (Bob’s) social justice; internationalism; the one-state solution; open source; strangers into citizens and (Sarah’s) statism; LGCT rights; minimum wage; secularism; the blogosphere.

Mine follow. They’re scant I’m afraid. There’s some overlap with Bob, but at least one interesting point of departure.

Good influences

Internationalism. The kind of coordination of effort and redistribution of resources and know-how which holds that tackling climate change is important because some people, whose lives are as important as ours, reside in low-lying Bangladesh. This depends on a sense that “that could be me”, and empathy, which I think of as an essentially left-wing disposition. The kind of coordination which sends international peace-keeping forces to underwrite Ivory Coast democracy and peace in the Balkans. And at the grass-roots, organisations like Fairtrade, Labour Behind the Label and the rainforest preservation initiatives whose idea of sustainability includes the wellbeing of local human communities.

Equality. It’s good that talk of social mobility, which implies decline as well as gain, has been replaced to some extent by a commitment to arrest and reverse the gap between the middle and the poor. Wilkinson and Pickett’s ‘The Spirit Level’ has changed the political right and recalibrated the left by claiming that inequality harms the wealthy as well as the poor. On the other hand, the Equality Act (now threatened by the Coalition on the pretext of removing burdens on business) was conceived to support equality of opportunity by outlawing discrimination.

Openness. Open government: the Freedom of Information Act. Open source: Moodle not BlackBoard; OpenOffice not Microsoft Office; Ubuntu not Mac OS; Audacity not GarageBand. The open web: Twitter not Facebook; Gutenberg and CreativeCommons, not Amazon.

The following two are on a different scale from the three above. Better to think of them as initiatives rather than ideas.

Mutualism and cooperatives. Workers’ stake in decision-making about the businesses which employ them. N.b. I (and I think Bob too) mean for the commercial sector, rather than this weird New Labour and latterly Conservative mutualisation of what were formerly state-run public services.

The nanny state. I know that the smoking ban passed through the legistature on an employment law technicality, but for many, smokers and non-smokers alike, it’s a good thing if we are supported to overcome the parts of us which a) hurt us, and b)  draw heavily on a shared NHS pot. The nanny state also belongs in the ‘not influential enough’ section below. I hope for more nannying over our diets and physical activity. I also hope for a better name for this, and feel ambivalent about its alternative, libertarian paternalism.

Not influential enough

Conservation. Conservation is the un-self-interested investment in unknown future others. It stands against consumption, against individualism and for kindness. It cares, preserves, doesn’t take for granted, doesn’t squander, and hands over in good order. It treats the world as an inheritance. Sound left-wing to you? Me neither – even though it should be a principal tenet of the left. This is why I remain, despite their many and troubling failings, more Green than Labour.

Opposing the consumption of animal. In recent decades, the desire for cheap animal protein in a capitalist system has precipitated a race to the bottom in terms of animal welfare. As a general rule, animals are bred to maximise feed conversion at the expense of their health, pumped with pharmaceuticals at the expense of our health. Their deaths are never good, often not achieved quickly, and the sick ones are rarely euthanased because it’s too expensive. The animals’ shit makes us ill. Animal farming is for the most part environmentally degrading and takes up an enormous amount of land at the expense of other food crops – i.e. we do not need to eat animal to thrive. The most acute and prevalent suffering in the world is that of farmed animals. There can be no left-wing position that supports this disgusting, self-harming state of affairs.

Related to openness, the free flow of ideas embodied in the open access movement, enabled by CreativeCommons which fractured the binary all or nothing approach to authors’ rights, and allowed them to decide how they wanted to make their work available.  There is a growing number of reputable non-commercial publication channels such as the Open Humanities Press (another major vector of left-wing thinking and amplifying some of the individuals I know Bob feels have too much influence on the left – but, those individuals aside, a model of how academic publishing should be). Now there is nothing to stop the world’s scholars publishing gratis and libre open access, and offering their ideas to a hungry world. However most continue to publish commercially for readers of means, often without self-archiving.

I’m beginning to become resentful (I think it may be partly due to a bout of inter-festive dejection) so let us proceed to:

Initiatives I appreciate when I’m feeling realist in a right-wing world

  • Micro-credit
  • Regulation of the money markets
  • Philanthropy

All for now – thanks Bob. Like him I doubt I can rouse anybody to this, but I’d be very interested to hear from Stroppy, Papanomicron, Barkingside21 and let’s bother Mod some more. And, remembering that Marko did this last year in a fashion, I read his again.

Update: here’s Weggis – think observation rather than aspiration.


17 thoughts on ““Influential left-wing ideas” (or issues, or initiatives)

  1. Thanks Flesh – I will read this properly when I get back to regular internet access (currently using all my internet time to hang out with the two statists at ZWord) but first perusal I’m impressed.

  2. I strongly agree with a lot of what you say, am undecided about aspects of the ‘opennness’ point, and must confess to rather carnivorous tastes. ‘Nanny state’ is interesting – I feel simultaneously in sympathy with your own take on this and also with those who are more libertarian. I picked ‘statism’ (which I suppose combines some aspects of nanny state and equality from your list) myself partly in reaction to reading the right wing libertarian Jonah Goldberg.

    • Hi Sarah, I liked your points about statism, but given the rise of state capitalism (seems – though I need to investigate – as different from mutualised and cooperative business as standard PLC practices are), and the growing knowledge that when it’s business v. states, states win every time, I think I might cede a little bit to Goldberg and call it something else – sadly (‘state prudence’?) there is no term I can use with a straight face.

      On carnivorous tastes – that’s no crime, I do too, although I try to follow a vegan diet (and mostly succeed). I recommend reading Jonathan Safran Foer for a non-accusatory, reluctantly sensational, and not hyper-rational, account of the lives and deaths of farmed animals (as well as the public health and environmental implications).

      Going to read your more recent post on bad influences now.

  3. Bob, thanks. On one-state I understand your motives for talking about it: “Norm’s point about needing “influential ideas for different possible states of affairs” is a very valid one. I think it would be a healthier world if more different possibilities were circulating in the world of ideas.”

    But on a list of key positively influential ideas on the left? What can this mean?

  4. I think it must mean that you are acknowledging that Israel is a big, largely misunderstood, idea on the left, and you are introducing a different idea, as a tactic (a provocation perhaps), in a notably – as one z-word commenter puts it – “less acidic and apocalyptic” way than usual.

    But if you believe that the one-state idea genuinely has a place among the great ideas on the left, relegating as this does the consideration of other peoples in other places, then I can’t see this in any other way than a signal of the unique exposure of Jews in the world – an ominous exposure which makes a compelling case for state Zionism (self-determination for Jews) as far as I can reason it.

  5. Eek! “Left wing”?!?

    Left wing, and it’s sibling right wing, are terms that should be confined to football. They have no place in politics.

    Did you know that when on a boat at night the light to your left [port] is red and the light to your right [starboard] is green?

    But I will have a Ponder during this evenings Package of Pampered Premiership Pantomime Pansies while Pontificating on their Parentage with Pique and Posturing in a Presumptious manner.

    • Fair enough. I know B21 shuns the wings, and maybe I should have linked to your more personal blog – but would you accept that the wings exert an influence? The right can’t espouse the idea of equality, can it? And I don’t think the left can espouse freedom to the degree it’s cherished on the right. Glad you are going to have a crack at it, let me know when the pondering bears fruit. If the kids leave you alone, that is.

      P.S. I know Marko isn’t satisfied with wings either (and I should also add that his was not a list of influential ideas on the left, but things he’d like to see more of in the coming year).

      • Having writ I think you’re rite. Personal blog it is. Not suitable for the family entertainment that is B21.

        “but would you accept that the wings exert an influence?”

        Of course, when they cut inside and shoot with their wrong foot!

  6. Forgive me if I am less than lucid, I feel like I have a sack on my head.

    Influential ideas?

    Feminism, the critiques of power and hierarchy, not only how influential they have been on improving basic human rights, or the very least highlighting things that should be done much better.

    Self-education, years back there was the tradition of the self educated working-class (as much by necessity as want) I hope that makes a resurgence.

    More later, if mind permits

    • Either that or the dreaded flu. Whichever it is, hope you’re fighting fit again soon, Mod.

      I’m wondering to what extent the critiques of power and hierarchy intersect with Bob’s class analysis. In my experience there is plenty of emphasis on critique, to the extent that you get a political class of people who consider it sufficient to simply find fault, and clearly consider it somebody else’s job to set out how things could be done better. And they address themselves upwards to authority, rather than to their peers in the hierarchies. These people are incredibly demotivating. So I think that critique is important, but not as an end in itself.

      Self-learning is a habit of mind – it depends on curiosity and the ability to frame questions. In that respect some would argue that all education is self-education in the end, whether or not there is a teacher in a formal setting. I’m not sure this is left wing Mod (though you could say the same for some of my list). To be a bit tangential, the important thing to me as somebody working in the HE sector is how a teacher and a formal setting help a learner to move further than they could get on their own, or with similarly-experienced peers.

  7. [Just too much travelling, age and lack of sleep, better now]

    I should clarify, what I meant was that in many ways feminism (or so it seemed to me) was distrustful of top-down hierarchies and the concentration of power.

    This is a perennial problem on the Left from Leninism to the control freaks in new Labour, but rarely does the Left take any time and trouble to analyse (that’s what I mean by critique) its own failures and how the concentration of power in the hands of a few of its own leaders (and structures) have led to these failures.

    2. There was from the mid to late 1900s a concerted working-class educational network, not just individuals choosing to pick up a book, that’s what I meant.

    It resulted in the workers educational association and many other things, but these were taken over by the middle classes and became utterly detached from the real working-class existence.

    There is a book around this topic, which I have meant to read, Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes.

  8. Modernity – I wonder whether the kind of person who would have been self-educated and working class in the past (like my grandfather who was born to a very poor family in North Wales but ended up doing a science degree by correspondence and also getting involved in the WEA) now simply does A levels and goes to university?

  9. ahh Sarah, would that it were so simple.

    To do your A-levels, you’ve really got to do the O-levels and to do them you got to prepare, to engage with education at an early age and in all probability (as with middle-class families) have wider support to succeed.

    Then when you’ve got your A-levels, you have to resist the temptation not to go to work and earn money, a perennial working-class problem.

    And after you’ve managed to convince the middle-class lecturers that you and not Tarquin should get that slot on a popular course you’ve got the financial self for three years, that excluding the fees. That’s just the basics, which probably amount to £30-40,000.

    So at each step, the system is tilted against working-class kids, bright working-class kids, if they decide late, decide at all, resist the temptation to work instead of years of slog in front of books.

    It’s not as easy as it seems, for the working classes, overall 🙂

  10. Pingback: 2011, A Slow Round Up. | ModernityBlog

  11. I don’t disagree with any of that – but I think interesting questions are raised as to how to map different ages’ class categories onto today’s social classes. George Eliot’s Adam Bede is self educated, and takes evening classes etc, but then I would think he would be seen as several steps from the bottom of society so might correspond to the kind of people today who, although they might not go to university almost as a matter of course, would certainly go if they were as intelligent and motivated as Adam. Hardy’s Jude might fall into a similar category. I came across a site suggesting that the upper and middle classes only accounted for 15% of the population in Victorian times, suggesting that Adam Bede for example might be in the top half in wealth/class terms, even though his position seems quite modest. The skilled working classes (info from a book about Victorian childhoods by Ginger Frost) only made up about 15% of the working class majority – and I assume it’s from that skilled group that most of the self-educated came from.

  12. When I hear the mention of left wing or right wing political views, I think of extreme views and even with left wing to the point of use of violence. I am not saying that every single left wing or right wing groups are violent or wrong, because no matter how unpleasant their opinion is, they are entitle to voice their view. What happens with individuals or extreme thinking is when they began to violate others peoples rights or freedom in which they break the laws.

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