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‘Left’ now used for ‘liberal’ not pro-worker

Populism, nationalism, globalisation, left/right wing and other slippery terms

I don’t like ‘-isms’,” War of Independence veteran George Gilmore once said to me.  “Heaven save me from the Marxists!”, an exasperated Karl Marx is reputed to have exclaimed. “All the ‘-isms’ are ‘-wasms’ ”, was a witticism following the collapse of East European communism in 1991.

Nonetheless ‘-isms’, ideologies of one kind or another, show no sign of vanishing.  We all subscribe to some ideology or other once we have developed political views and think or say that our Government or the powers-that-be ought to do this or that, even if we do not know it or fail to give it a name.

They are slippery things, “-isms”, shifting in meaning from place to place and accreting different connotations over time. One person’s praiseworthy “-ism” is likely to be regarded as reactionary by at least some others, depending on their politics. That is why sensible people who engage in political or polemical debate and want to avoid fruitless argument will seek first to define their ideological terms if they use them.

“Populism” is a new “-ism” that has come into fashion only this past year.  It refers to electoral or referendum outcomes that the elite who control mainstream public narratives do not approve of – e.g. Brexit, Donald Trump’s election or the growth of EU-critical movements like UKIP, Marine Le Pen’s National Front and the Alternative for Germany party.

‘Nationalism’ is one of the oldest ideologies, from Latin ‘natus’, referring to where people were born.  In Ireland the word has traditionally had positive connotations as referring to the aspiration or movement for an independent State, which most Irish supported. Thus Pearse and Connolly were nationalists, as were De Valera, Collins, Cosgrave, Lemass etc.

In modern Germany by contrast ‘nationalism’ is seen as a bad thing. ‘Nationalist’ is a term of abuse. The Nazis were nationalists. Hitler’s nationalism brought a catastrophe on Germany, as Mussolini’s did on Italy. The words are redolent of reactionary and anti-human doings.

Clearly the same word, ‘nationalism’, can refer to quite different, even diametrically opposite, things in different contexts – to movements for national self-determination and independence on the one hand, with connotations of patriotism and love of country, and to imperialism on the other, the aspiration to conquer or dominate others, and associated chauvinism, racism and xenophobia.

It is interesting how negative associations have come to attach to the words ‘nationalism’ and ‘nationalist’ in Irish public discourse since 1970.  The decades since have spawned a whole school of ‘anti-national’ revisionist history-writing which tended to disparage past movements for Irish independence. The IRA’s campaign of violence from 1970 to 1994 was one reason for this. The commitment of the Republic’s Great and Good to European economic integration since we joined the EEC in 1973 was another.  After all if one thinks that history is moving towards a supranational United States of Europe, talk of national independence for individual States is out-of-date and Europe’s national histories need to be drastically revised.

‘Internationalism’ is probably the most helpful ‘-ism’ to fall back on when one is dealing with national questions. Internationalists desire the emancipation of mankind. The human race is divided into nations. Therefore internationalism stands for the right to self-determination of nations. That was first advanced as one of the Rights of Man in the French Revolution. It is now a basic principle of international law, enshrined in the UN Charter, and is a fundamental of modern democracy.

Internationalism does not mean that one is called on to urge every national community to seek a State of its own. Some nationalities are quite happy within multinational States as long as their rights as a minority are respected.   But if enough ‘nationals’ want to have a State of their own, that is their right, and internationalism calls for democrats everywhere to show solidarity with them if they seek it.

In France’s recent presidential election the basic conflict, we were told, was between ‘globalisers’ and nationalists.  Nearly half the voters in the first round of the French election backed candidates who were critical of either the EU or the EU-currency. They were anti-globalisation.  By contrast, the victory of Emmanuel Macron, the most europhile of the candidates, was seen as a win for globalisation’s supporters.  Macron’s walk to the podium for his victory speech was to the tune of the EU anthem, not the French one. He plans to save the euro-currency by pushing for more integration in the Eurozone. The carrot he is likely to hold out to a reluctant Germany is the prospect of France’s nuclear weapon being ‘Europeanised’. That way Germany will get its finger on a collective nuclear trigger. The Deutschemark for the Euro-bomb, monetary union for political union, has been an objective of the Franco-German duo since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

‘Globalisation’ is at once a description of fact and an ideology, a mixture of ‘is’ and ‘ought’. It refers to important trends in the contemporary world: ease of travel, free trade, free movement of capital, the internet. The effect of these on the sovereignty of States is often exaggerated. States have always been interdependent to some extent. There was relatively more globalisation, in the sense of freer movement of labour, capital and trade, in the late 19th century than today, although the volumes involved were much smaller. At that time too most States were on the gold standard, a form of international money.

In contrast to the 19th century modern States do more for their citizens, are expected by them to do more, and impinge more intimately on people’s lives than at any time in history, most obviously in providing public services and redistributing national incomes.  Globalisation imposes new constraints on States, but constraints there always have been. Nation States adapt to such changes, but they do not cause States to disappear or become less important.

Globalisation as another newly fashionable ideology refers to the interests of transnational Big Business and High Finance that seek to roam the world looking for profitable investment opportunities and want to be free of State control on capital movement.  Transnational capital has an ambiguous attitude to Nation States.  On the one hand it seeks to erode the sovereignty of States generally in order to weaken their ability to impose constraints on capital movement and restrain ‘the furies of private interest’.   On the other hand it looks to its own State, where its corporate HQ and the bulk of its share ownership is usually concentrated, to defend its political and economic interests internationally when these are threatened.

And what of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’, left-wing and right-wing? Those slippery categories have come a long way since they referred to the chairs taken by Jacobins and Girondins on either side of the French Revolution’s National Assembly hall.  In the 20th century Left and Right referred to the mainstream concerns of the classical Labour movement, its political parties whether pink, red or scarlet, and its trade union and co-operative components. Those concerns related mainly to what should be the boundaries between State provision and private market provision and to issues of income and wealth distribution.

And today? Nowadays the mainstream Left has embraced globalisation and the ‘free’ market. It no longer argues for the socialisation of industry or the defence of national independence. Imperialism it regards as an outdated category.  Most left-wing parties these days concentrate on championing what are essentially liberal causes, what one might call ‘life-style politics’, couching their demands in a rhetoric of human rights.

Thus in Ireland today to be ‘on the Left’ one must support the liberal agenda of divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia etc. And support the EU and further integration.  To be critical of or opposed to some or all of these trends is to be ‘rightwing’. The meaning of Left and Right is clearly different from what it used to be.

Nowadays, unlike so many media people who are happy to push every new ideological fashion, we must, to make any sense of what we are saying, define our terms in plain language and hope that by doing so we bring a bit of light into the ever more confusing public discourse. 

Anthony Coughlan is Associate Professor Emeritus in Social Policy, Trinity College Dublin