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Ideology Debate

Good or bad not right or left

What does “left” mean today now that socialism is no longer on offer?

By Desmond Fennell

My exasperation with the use of language in current political commentary has culminated with a word that is now much-favoured by the commentators, namely, “populist”. The Oxford English Dictionary says that populist means: 1. “A member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people. 2. A person who supports or seeks to appeal to the interests of ordinary people. Origin Latin populus ‘people’”.

Political commentary (call it PC) always couples populism with “far right” as in “a populist far-right party”. “Right”, as we all know, means in PC language wrong; “farright” very wrong; an illegitimate intrusion into the democratic process no matter how many citizens it comprises. Clearly this view that politics “representing the interests of ordinary people” is by that very fact wrong is an elitist, anti-democratic view But it does raise the question: why is there is no mention of a left or far-left populism? Is it that simply there is no such thing?

True, the Irish Labour Party could not qualify. When Eamon Gilmore, Ruairi Quinn and Pat Rabbitte were ministers they pursued in their respective spheres neo-liberal policies calculated to appeal to Dublin 4. But what of the water politics of Paul Murphy and associated Independents which drew many thousands of “ordinary people” onto the streets? Whatever the explanation, the fact is that – outside perhaps of Village Magazine – PC makes no mention of left-wing populism.

The division is between good and bad
The division is between good and bad

I said at the start that my exasperation with PC has culminated with its use of “populist”. That means that other things about it had been building up to that exasperation. Basically, why doesn’t current PC use ordinary contemporary language, with its dictionary meanings, to express what the writer believes about individual politicians or groups or parties: words like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ with explanations of why good or bad, rather than a jargon which does not express in plain words what the writer means to say?

Surely such hoary members of the political cast as “left”, “right”, “progressive” and “conservative” have more than had their day? At least in the French National Assembly of more than 200 years ago from which “left” and “right” derive, one knew that they referred to the Assembly’s seating arrangements and to those who sat accordingly. But what does “left” mean today now that socialism is no longer on offer? As for “right” the PC jargon equates it with “authoritarian”; but what is more authoritarian than Communist Russia which PC gave out to be “left”, or Communist China and North Korea today similarly?

And take “progressive” meaning “moving forward”, but forward towards what? Is a state moving forward towards war “progressive” and if not why not?As for “conservative”, that is, “preserving something existing”, must such preservation always be objectionable as current PC implies?

In short, I look forward to the day when some political commentator takes the present mess of the profession in hand and writes about politics in language that plainly and unmistakably means what it says.

Left – egalitarian

Good and bad won’t predict how politicians exercise the mandate voters give them

By Michael Smith

Desmond Fennell is exasperated. In a typically erudite piece (left) it is nevertheless not clear just what his analysis and vision are.

The suspicion is that the piece is grounded in an unarticulated conservative right-wing populism, ill at ease with the reality that that is the prevailing international ideology.

To start with the beginning of his piece, political commentary doesn’t always – or even predominantly – couple populism with “farright”. It really doesn’t. Venezuela, Brazil, Cuba and much of South America historically represent far-left populism writ large and have been defined as such. Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece have dominated political commentary for the last few years and are far-left populists. People Before Profit and the Anti Austerity Alliance in Ireland are far-left populists, pursuing that agenda through “issues-based” campaigns especially on charges for water and waste and the property tax – campaigns that are chosen for their popularity, not their leftistness. Sinn Féin also pursues the same campaigns from an apparently left base.

Right doesn’t mean wrong for political commentators. Right is right for most of the US and British Press, for the emanations of IMN and Denis O’Brien, for the Sunday Business Post, the Sunday Times and, in incarnations like Stephen Collins and Cliff Taylor, for much of the Irish Times.

The division is between left and right
The division is between left and right


PC – and there’s sleight of hand here because PC has a very well-established voguish meaning of political correctness even though that’s being glossed over here – uses little but ordinary language with its dictionary meanings.

Left, right, progressive and conservative will never have had their terminological day because they describe the basic stances that drive particular politicians in ways that enable voters to predict what stance they’ll take on issues that haven’t arisen yet but on which their vote is delegating the politician to take stances. Most analysts consider politics can be expeditiously considered on lef t-to-right, equality-to-freedom, progressive-toregressive, liberal-to-authoritarian, conservative- to-radical spectra.

Wanting commentators to break everything down into what is good and what is bad – as Wilde claimed books are written only well or badly – would be a terrible bind for political scientists and politicians. You need to have pointers.

The lesson from Fianna Fáil, from Fine Gael, from the entire history of post-Independence Irish politics, is that without ideology Irish parties fall back on parochialism, on nepotism, on short-termism, on confusion. You need to know what you’re voting for. If you’re seeking votes there is a moral obligation to indicate how you intend to ventilate your mandate. You can’t just say, like De Valera, you’ll simply look into your heart. Because people won’t trust you to.

The seating positions afforded left and right in the French National Assembly, like Latin and all its emanations, are of historical but no practical relevance, especially in an article that purports to be about contemporary reality.

It is not the case that socialism is no longer on offer. It really is out of touch to suggest it. What of Corbyn’s British Labour Party, Bernie Sanders, Podemos, Syriza, the Italian and French Communist parties, the Socialist People’s Party in Denmark, the Workers’ Party in Brazil? The avowedly Trotskyite left, well represented in Ireland’s Dáil? Socialism is on offer over most of the globe.

There are new emanations of socialism on offer. Green-left, communalism, Occupy, social democracy, democratic socialism, and, which Village favours, egalitarianism. There are indeed multifarious varieties of egalitarianism, none of which has Desmond Fennell, in all of his eminent wide-ranging academic and polemical lives ever chosen to analyse or even recognise. Village tends to promote equality of outcome or equality of condition. There’s a hugely interesting debate as to what these incarnations import.

The ‘PC’ jargon does not associate right with authoritarian. The Tory Party in Britain and Fine Gael are happy to be seen to be centre right. The Republican Party in the US, even pre-Trump, has always been right. Political commentators have famously long favoured these parties. Think Sunday Independent.

Communist Russia and North Korea are Straw Men. Nobody presentable actually suppor ts these regimes so why dig them out for debate?

Progredior, Progredi, Progressus Sum. Yes we know. Progressive doesn’t mean moving forward, except for dictionary fetishists. It has a precise economic meaning – tending to favour the less well-off. It is a perfectly desirable and clear goal for anyone in politics.

The principal problem is not that commentators do not say what they mean. We live in an era where it has never been easier to register a view, an era where the need for ‘sound bites’ and ‘click bait’ keeps views simple, where any old rubbish finds an outlet. The problem is not evasiveness it is lack of substance, of depth.

By Desmond Fennell and Michael Smith