LEFT RIGHT MIX-UP
The ink had hardly dried from Narendra Modi’s signature as the country’s 15th prime minister when news poured in from Europe that it had voted for the Right.
Reportedly, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right Front National (FN), too, cried with joy after her triumph in the recent European Parliament elections that have propelled to power an angry but motley crowd of radicals, from xenophobes and racists to neo-Nazis.
There is a surge of support for the Right in Austria, Britain, Denmark and France. Both in India and in Europe, the electoral success of the far-Right is mainly due to frustration with the economy and disillusionment with governments voted out of power. At the moment, the socialist movement and Left-leaning politicians seem to have run out of steam. The Left around the world seems confused at its own unpopularity today.
But what is this Right and Left?
The terms Right and Left were first used in politics after the 1789 French Revolution that gunned down the minority group of monarchists and brought into focus the power of the majority of people. The supporters of the king and religion sat on the right side of the presidential chair, while the pro-revolutionary atheists who wanted to change society sat on the left. Over time, many other out-of-the box thinkers joined the group on the left. The ultra royalists, moderates and traditionalists sided with the right.
In the mid 19th century, the main opposition was the democrat socialists.
In times closer to our own, Right implies politics that nurse privileges, power and interest of the already rich elite while the Left is concerned with care for citizens belonging to low economic groups.
Today, socialists and Left-wing politicians have forgotten how to heal the world. In the meanwhile, Right-wing politicians have stepped down from the armchair to drum up grassroots support amongst the suffering masses, making themselves look like the much-awaited messiah needed so desperately to fix modern society.
The socks of the Left slip lower around the ankles while angry groups gain popularity on street after street in many countries. However, this is exactly the time when Left politics is most needed, simply because it claims to have the need of the majority of the people in mind while the Right cares only for that small minority of money bags.
The development mantra of Modi is a contrast to Karl Polanyi, who had objected to making economy the only solution to all problems faced by human beings, in the Vienna of the 1930s. Polanyi was a critic of the Austrian School of free-market economics. An economist-journalist, Polanyi traced the ills of Europe to the continent’s concentration on the economy. This singlemindedness led to the industrial revolution but also to the world war.
The catastrophe of the interwar period, the Great Depression, fascism, and World War II are all logical culminations of laissez-faire taken to an extreme in an economic environment deliberately created for individuals and private groups to make money as they liked without any restriction from the government.
Polanyi called the concentration only on markets, the unembedding of the economy from the people. He came to this conclusion through a careful study of human communities where historically the economy was subservient to society and embedded to the need of human beings.
The fear is of the eventual reaction of people in the long term who are made slaves of the market today. The need is for more cooperatives and even more democratic ways than offered by crass capitalism to make life beautiful.
The scare is of untempered market capital and a lack of protection by social institutions against high risk-taking and other negative forces of the market.
Today, Modi is spoken of in the same breath as Margaret Thatcher of the UK and Ronald Reagan of the US, both pioneers of market fundamentalism. This is the exact moment for some lessons in history as well. The origins of modern neo-liberalism go back much earlier to the Vienna of the 1920s. The champions of this school of thought were none other than Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. It must not be forgotten that Thatcher and Reagan’s business-friendly policies liberalized finance but also made governments impotent to check the dire consequences of unbridled risk-taking with tax payers’ money, which has led to a global financial crisis.
It may be the economy, stupid, but less stupid might be a tip or two taken from histories and cultures of the world as well.