What does being left-wing really mean?

Wellington based academic political commentator Bryce Edwards is an asset for good political discourse in Aotearoa New Zealand. This is largely through his Democracy Project hosted by Victoria University.

His NZ Politics Today providing links to published items, including but beyond the mainstream media, is an invaluable resource for all those interested in politics, regardless of their political persuasions.

But it is his weekly (or thereabouts) Political Roundup posts that are particularly thought-provoking. Recently Radio New Zealand featured an excellent series by Guyon Espiner on the role of lobbyists in Aotearoa’s politics.

But it was Edwards’ earlier posts that raised the flag on this issue and may have helped incentivise Espiner’s work.

Bryce Edwards: thought-provoking political commentator even when one might disagree

In the society in which we presently live the more thought-provoking you can be, the more you hit raw nerves, and consequently the more you run the risk of intimidation attempts. Edwards, in context, has certainly earned what I would call this accolade.

Thought-provoking but!

Edwards’ most recent post (27 April) on whether New Zealand’s tax system is likely to be changed in response to the Department of Inland’s meticulous research into untaxed income of the ‘mega rich’ continues his thought-provoking practice: Why New Zealand’s regressive tax system is unlikely to change.

I agree with his analysis and recommend it as a good, insightful read. However, it is not the subject of this blog. Instead it is his use of the term the ‘political left’ which is where I disagree with him.

Edwards correctly observes that debates on taxation are let down by politicians and political parties. Then he adds: this  “…is especially the case for politicians and parties of the left.” By the left he means Labour and the Greens. He then goes on to argue that:

The best example of this was the 2018-19 capital gains tax debate sparked by the Labour Government’s consideration of implementing a new scheme. The debate back then was remarkably superficial, partly because the Labour Government deliberately stayed out of it. And then, of course, Jacinda Ardern simply announced that a CGT was off the agenda while she was Prime Minister. This was one of Ardern’s biggest failings as a leader – she claimed to believe strongly in a CGT, but wasn’t willing to make the case for it and convince the public.

Ardern epitomised the political left’s orientation to taxation reform. Whereas in the past, parties of the left would run major campaigns to convince the public and create a consensus in favour of reform, now when it comes to taxation, the contemporary left capitulate, and instead rely on focus groups and polls to tell them what they should do. [emphasis added]

Edwards is on the mark with this critical observation except that I disagree with his description of Labour and its former prime minister as being of the ‘political left’.

But nevertheless his use of this descriptor was thought-provoking and got me thinking about what it means to be left-wing. If it is nebulous the word serves no useful purpose.

From bland to absurd through meaningless

Most of the commentary around left-wing and right-wing is along the lines that one is what the other isn’t; one ends where the other starts and vice versa. This becomes at best bland or meaningless and at worse absurd.

In the United States the Democrats are considered by some to be on the political left and the Republicans on the political right. The reality is that both parties depend on big business backing and are equally loyal to it.

The Democrats only appear left-wing because, since the 1980s, the Republicans have moved to the far-right (including an influential neo-fascist element).

And yet in the 19th century, while the Democrats were either pro-slavery or badly compromised by slavery, the Republicans were anti-slavery.

To express it bluntly, there is a party duopoly in American politics comprising one party of the political right and the other of the political far-right.

Enter Paula Bennett

Former National Party Deputy Prime Minister, and cabinet minister for nine years, Paula Bennett gave her view on what distinguishes the political left from the political right in a video published by The Common Room (24 August 2022): Paula Bennett on political left and right.

It is an eloquently delivered but politically loaded analysis. In her view, the political left focusses on seeing people as victims who have been dealt a bad hand. There should, therefore, be an expectation the state should take care of them and that the economic pie should be cut up differently.

Paula Bennett on distinguishing the political left from the political left

On the other hand, according to Bennett, the political right see potential in people, believe what is required is hard work and effort, and it is fear that holds people back. There should be state support but only for the least amount of time that is needed. The pie should be grown, not redistributed.

Putting aside her highly loaded descriptions of left and right (which is not easy to do), defining the terms comes down to simplistic attitudinal characteristics based on contrasting negative and positive stereotypes masquerading as values.

Differentiating left and right

From my perspective, and putting Bennett’s bias to one side, being left-wing has to be much more substantive than this if it is to meaningful. If it isn’t more substantive then the term has no utility.

One way of looking at differentiating between the political left and right is a continuum between collective responsibility and individual responsibility.

This leads into the role of the state and to questions over whether healthcare access and educational opportunities, for example, are a right or privilege to one degree or another.

This is a big advance on Bennett’s analysis which is based on absolutist abstractions. It isn’t a bad way of looking at what is left-wing and what isn’t. However, it is not enough. We can to better than this.

Being left-wing has to  be seen in the context of the material system that governs our daily lives. Today in New Zealand, and for the overwhelming majority of the planet, it is capitalism.

Societies based on wealth accumulation dynamic

What drives capitalism more than anything else? Karl Marx nailed it for me as far back as 1857-58 in the Grundrisse (part of his preparation for the subsequently published Capital) when he described capital as a “limitless drive” to accumulate.

Karl Marx nailed it in 1857-58

This accumulation drive accepts no boundaries outside capital itself. Every boundary for capital has to seen as barrier for it to breach in the pursuit of accumulation.

Capital is a creation of the system we know as capitalism. Capitalism’s primary driver is wealth accumulation. This is more than being profitable. It is the constant dynamic of maximising profitability at every opportunity.

Inevitably this driver leads to conflict where wealth accumulation runs up against the rights of labour (workers) and the protection of nature (such as from the effects of climate change and land exploitation).

Being left-wing is about wanting to end, or even significantly curtail, the dynamic of wealth accumulation as a driver of societies. This might be through evolutionary or revolutionary means. But what it does require is transformational change.

Transformational is what the current Labour Party in government is not. It is a political party not of the left but instead of social liberal technocrats with some collectivist impulses.

Social liberal values are good and the political left benefits from sharing them. In fact, many people on the political right also share these same values (or at least some of them).

Beyond social liberalism

But social liberalism of itself does not transform a society which, more than anything else, has wealth accumulation as its dynamic.

Bryce Edwards highlights this well with his above observation about former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ruling out any capital gains tax while she held that office.

The political left needs to expressly differentiate itself from social liberalism in order to overtly focus on economic (as well as social) justice and protecting nature from the ravages of wealth accumulation.

If the term ‘left-wing’ is to mean anything other than not being right-wing or just having some collectivist impulses, then this needs to happen.

3 thoughts on “What does being left-wing really mean?

  1. Well said, Ian. ‘Left’ and ‘right’ tend to be the stones that get hurled at ‘the other lot’ as National and Labour battle to occupy the Overton window of centrism. I think we would be better off ditching the labels ‘left’ and ‘right’ altogether, along with that weasel word ‘progressive’, and focus, label-free, on striving for economic and social justice, and protecting nature from the ravages of wealth accumulation.


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