Michel Bauwens on the Repositioning of Left and Right after Woke Hegemony

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Left and Right, and the Commons, After Woke: What’s Next. By Michel Bauwens

Are we due for some kind of political realignment ?

Written in Chiang Mai, June 3, 2021


Before I tackle this question, I would like to say a few words about any potential current political meaning of left and right, since a lot of people will claim, with certainly some justification, that these very categories are toxic and past their due time. While I understand this type of positioning and wish, I also believe it is to a degree a form of wishful thinking, since political and sociological polarities will always continue to exist. The important thing though is that these polarities evolve and change, and so does their ‘naming’. Left and right, and other polarities, will continue to exist, taking on new meanings.

So what is the potential meaning of these polarities today?

Most people will be cognizant that the left was born during the French Revolution, related to the seating in the Assembly, with the radical Jacobins, the anti-monarchical Republicans, seated on the left. After 1848 though, the left-right distinctions became more associated with the class tensions of industrial society, and even more so after the 1917 Revolution in Russia. To be on the left meant to be for more equality in society, to be for more redistribution of wealth. While on the right meant to be more for market liberty, and generally favouring the interests of the oligarchies in power. Left means progressive and right means conservative. But these were of course always fraught and contradictory self-identifications since it would not be difficult to argue that ecologists want to conserve nature, social-democrats wanted to conserve the family structures of the working class, while conservatives mostly support the most revolutionary disintegrating aspects of capitalism.

1989 again changed the dynamic. The Soviet system ceased to be a feared or desired alternative system; and this meant that the moderate left started not just to become managers of the increasingly neoliberal capitalist system, but also electorally were abandoned by the working classes. Sociologically, the ‘left’ became the party of the urban cognitive populations, while the working class moved eventually to voting rather systematically for right-populist parties, which often adopted solidaristic (socialism for the national community) policies. The classic right moved ever more to the ‘right’ in terms of being pro-market and pro-oligarchy in its economic policies, followed by the left parties, while the left started radicalizing most exclusively on cultural issues, with the conservatives following them.

It has been said, correctly I believe, that in terms of social measures, Obama ruled to the right of Bush, while the Republicans had moved even more to the right on economic issues; and while centrists and conservatives started accepting a lot of the premises of the 1960s left, i.e. full agreement with all civil rights achievements, the left started abandoning them. The right radicalized on economic matters, but followed the left on cultural evolutions. The left radicalized on cultural issues, and followed the right on its acceptance of neoliberal logics.

2015-2016 saw a new qualitative change, which some analysts see as a reversal of polarities, a position with which I largely agree. The left has become to an important degree, a coalition of minorities focusing on ‘culture war’ issues, but 2015-2016 saw the rapid rise to hegemony of the most radical forms of identity politics, i.e. the woke ideology, which combines racial scapegoating (‘all whites are racist regardless of behavior and intent’, di Angelo’), to a call for eternal allocation of goods and services according to group identity (Kendi, page 19), and all kinds of forms of re-segregation of society according to race and other markers. Many on the left have become increasingly hostile to free speech, pressure Big Tech to adopt more censorious measures to control public discourse, and are very active in the virtual lynch mobs calling for deplatforming and cancellations, continuously engaged in rituals of degradation, the destruction of livelihoods of heretics, and active measures for the totalitarian control of our cultural commons. As they have come to believe that language creates reality, they have decided they want to control everyone’s language, and impose mono-logical interpretations of history. Decolonizing used to mean integrating multiple perspectives in previously mono-logical dominant western interpretations, it now means the total control of narratives to install woke understandings as the sole permitted hegemonic discourse, designed to impede any autonomous critical thinking and recognition of historical complexity. Amongst those not directly engaged in the support of these most active regressive measures, many are in denial or minimization of these realities, showing little or no solidarity with its victims, sometimes actively supporting the attempted destruction of individuals.

The inability of the left to deliver on social measures that benefit all citizens, and their increased focus on minority rather than majority rule ('minoritarism' ?), has increasingly alienated the traditional working class, and has led generally to electoral weakening, and to the degree that they increasingly align with woke ideology, it would seem that it condemning itself to a process of self-dissolution. The alliance of the 1% with the 20% elite of the cognitive classes does not seem to be a positive electoral recipe. The current massive support from woke capitalism and philanthro-capitalist funders has led to a rapid hegemony of the woke ideology in the anglo-saxon institutions. In fact, there may be no single ideology which has so rapidly taken over so many institutions in such a short time, likely largely related to the new social media hegemony. Big Tech has largely designed algorithms that are in favour of positively selecting for woke ideology, while actively repressing its critics. My own take is that, following Earl Thompson’s’ analysis, is that the era of redistribution is over for the West, and that the impoverishment of the working class is now followed by that of the middle class, a process that has been accelerated by the economic effects of the Corona crisis, which is harshly impacting SMEs. Western workers and citizens are living on borrowed time, since the current generation is living largely off the inheritance of their parents, and when that patrimonial heritage is being souped up, a question of just a few generations (the process started in 1975), we are back to a situation of mass poverty. In this context, the new woke dispensation, which is to guarantee elite jobs to minority elites, may seem to make a lot of sense for the ruling classes that support these trends. But it will increase the tension within each of these minorities, as only a minority of these minorities will profit from a caste-ization of our western society.

However the question remains whether such a dispensation is realistic for the longer term, against the vast majority of the working population? There are signs that the left is losing its historical support from the migrant workers as well, as these layers are even more culturally conservative. It would seem that the left is already losing migrant support in Scandinavia, and we know that Trump doubled its support amongst minorities. Woke political measures, such as defunding the police, or abolishing meritocratic requirements in hiring and education (what Dubois called the ‘racism of low expectations), are not necessarily popular with working and middle class minority populations, and most of these policy measures to active harm to the poorest. In general, the social racism of the left as a representation of educated urban elites is by itself alienating the dignity of the people who live from their physical work. Against this vision of political fragmentation, it remains to be seen whether more unifying mass revolts (see the first wave of Yellow Vest social unrest in France) might be eventually successful later in this decade, as the impoverished middle classes join them. For all practical purposes, we are entering an era of political violence, as more pacified civil discourse, and respect for the rule of law, makes place for polarisation and instability. Trust in the existing institutions has reached an all-time low.

To bring the discussion back on cultural issues. It is easy to prefer the left when they stood for universal human rights and more equitable redistribution of value, but what is the sociological basis for a left that abandons both ? The traditional weakness of the ‘liberal’ right was that it stood for legal rights, but it had little concern on how these rights would have concrete effects, as it ignored the inequality of opportunity, while the conservative right defended privileges as long as they possibly could. But with legal rights achieved, the right is now defending legal equality, opposes racialized allocations, and generally defends free speech and academic pluralism, in opposition to a regressive left which aims to abolish many of these safeguards.

However, this traditional right is still ignoring the detrimental effects of socio-economic dislocation and ecological dislocation, i.e. climate change, biodiversity loss, resource overuse etc .. Nevertheless, in the context of woke racialization and segregation efforts, it is important to recognize that these ‘liberal’ values do need defending (they were in fact achieved through social struggles with massive support of the working classes), and that the ‘right’ is now doing a better job of defending our democratic cultural commons than the woke neo-left, which is actively bent on its destruction.

Just to be sure you do not misunderstand this analysis. I am well aware that there are still important left-populist forces, such as say Sanders and Varoufakis, defending a more traditional radical social-democratic heritage, but they are very susceptible to contamination by woke ideology which strategically weakens them. They do not seem to be on the ascendance and are affected by the general weakening of the left. They are between a rock and a hard place, as the Brexit defeat of Corbyn has shown. Identity politics have become their Achilles Heel. Corbyn was de-legitimated by branding him as an anti-semite, while Sanders’ candidacy was derailed in Georgia, branding him with white privilege. Politically, in terms of social reform, I am largely situated in this quadrant myself, but would find any compromise with woke racialism inacceptable. Regarding this issue, I am in solidarity with all those that combat it in the name of human equality, universality, and autonomous personhood augmented by chosen free associations in collective projects. This is were some kind of realignment with centrists and conservative social forces is in order, in terms of creating anti-woke coalitions that can defend human and civic rights against woke assaults. My hope here is that at some point, there is enough lucidity left in the progressive camp, to realize that egalitarianism and universalism, and the attending civil rights, are worth defending against the neo-racialist and neo-segregationist forces. Any left that compromises on this score will sign the death warrant of their emancipatory tradition. In the meantime, anyone who has experienced cancellations knows that their very survival is dependent on this re-alignment as many in the compromised left will not come to the rescue.

Right now, in the WEIRD countries at least, it seems that the radical-populist right has the historical winds in its favour for the moment. They often combine a nationalist positioning with solidaristic measures, and are openly opposed to the woke ideology, whose existence is their best ally. This will make them increasingly attractive for the majority voting population in the coming decennia. They could even succeed in binding the migrant middle classes to their side. The left often sees these forces as mere racists, while they in fact are very open to coalitions with the conservative sections of the migrant populations. This strategy might eventually be undermined by their blindness to the very real ecological dislocations which may hamper their ability to deliver.

For the progressive ‘commons’ approach which I have defended, this represents a serious strategic conundrum. My own analysis, dating before the hegemony of woke, was that red-green coalitions were the most commons-friendly political alliance, but what if this trend is now strategically very unlikely ?

Let me reiterate quickly for new readers why this commons approach is crucial in the current conjuncture. The basis argument is the following: markets and states are historically extractive institutions based on growth and the eventual over-use of local resources. Societies in crisis have always reacted to such crises by re-centering on commons-institutions that rebalance these societies with the ecological and social realities in which they operate. As we have reached a global crisis of human overuse, this means that the current societal form, the political economy of global capitalism, requires a recentering towards local AND global commons. Material commons radically reduce the human footprint, are more socially inclusive because of their lower cost, and are schools of democracy through their self-organized dynamics. Knowledge commons have led to a quantum leap of efficiency for commons-centric productive alliances that are inherently cosmo-local (global knowledge, more local production) in nature and can in certain conditions, trans-locally bypass geographically-based institutions.

Peter Pogany offers a clear vision of how such a transition can be conceived. For him, societies proceed from one stable equilibrium to another, via chaotic transition times. So we went from a ‘stable’ mercantilist capitalism (GS0), interrupted by the Napoleonic wars, to a Smithian industrial capitalism (GS1) based on the hegemony of capital, interrupted by the 2 world wars of the early 20th cy, to welfare capitalism (GS2), based on a compact between capital and western labor, which gave way to neoliberal dominance in 1989, and entered in a meta-crisis since 2008. We are now beyond any doubt in such a chaotic transition time."

The current Global System 2 (in Pogany’s terminology), which is dying, was based on a social compact between capital and labor, undermined by neoliberalism, but at the cost of unfair terms of trade with the Global South, and accompanied by global ecological devastation. Its weak multilateral system did prevent wars, created middle classes, but also ended up impoverishing vast swaths of the global South, while nearly eliminating the western industrial proletariat. It shows no sign of being able to solve the ecological crisis in its current format.

So what is objectively needed is a combination of a new global social compact, to create social stability, as well as a new compact between humanity and extra-human nature. But who is going to do this? Historically, these then local commons-based re-orientations were carried out by spiritual reformers, the sages of the axial age, which became the basis for new social contracts that lasted for centuries. But who will be the agent of this change today?

My basic take is to focus on the emergence of a new social actor, the cosmo-local commoners and peer producers, i.e. these fractions of the populations that are exiting the existing political economy to a substantial degree, by co-creating and co-constructing commons that can better guarantee their vital needs in an era of transitions. Think of the network of makerspaces and multifactories as a particular instance of such new institutionalization This revolution is well under way, and commoners are objectively carriers of a new human consciousness, the one needed for instituting GS3. Commons are also better insulated against the poison of racialisation and wokeness, since their cooperation and success is based on contributions, and contributory identities, rather than on allocation claims based on group identity. Institutions with surplus can give in to such claims, but commons cannot survive on the basis of such privileges, they remain universalist, egalitarian and meritocratic islands, as the very condition of their success (which does not mean that commons based on ethnic and other preferences are not possible as well, but it is hard to imagine them instituting hierarchical arrangements based on mere group identity).

However, as Ostrom showed, commons cannot exist without arrangements with other institutions such as markets and governments, which provide income and regulatory framings for their existence and possibilities of maintenance, growth and expansion. Which means that a spiritual AND political expression remains vital.

To solve the current impasse, with a ‘right’ that leads to the material destruction of the planet and a ‘woke left’ that leads to its spiritual destruction, we may look to an integral approach.

Integral means the capacity to embrace different seemingly different paradigms in a higher unity, transcending and including’ the best of each.

For the moment, integral approaches have themselves been slanted ‘left’ or ‘right’. In fact, the creation of the P2P Foundation was explicitly formulated in my mind, as a left integral project. It is important to know what this means.

A progressive integral approach cannot merely be a transcending of existing progressive approaches. It must explicitly be able to integrate the relative truth presented by conservative and centrist approaches to life and society. Especially today, with the ascendency of the woke left, it is vital to institute such transpartisan dialogues and to defend the vital ingredients of civilized co-existence. What I am suggesting is that we need to talk with and respect the vital defensive work of defending free speech and academic pluralism, recognize the partial validity and truth level of the insistence of individual responsibility and choices, of rooted communities, and even meritocratic achievement through effort (even if it is largely mythical in the current context, it matters as a value). At the same time, we need to still focus on the realization that no society is possible on the basis of exaggerated extraction needed to impoverishment and misery, and that no society is possible without ecological balance.

This means to a certain extent, we need a new higher synthesis of the existing forms of left and right sensibilities. But let’s have no illusions, as we achieve this, the new higher unity will also know its own polarities, new forms of left and right, adapted to the new contradictions of post-capitalist and commons-centric civilizations.

The commons is the best way to achieve this; as we are united in common love and passion of the social objects that unify us (the mutualized institutions that guarantee our survival and well-being, but in which we remain free individuals following our chosen lines of development); in this context, values and their resulting preferences are filtered through our commonality, the need for our vital commons to succeed.

I want to stress here that the commons by itself is neither ‘left’ or ‘right’, they are an objective human institution with its own social logic (it largely transcends the ‘left labor’ ideology of industrial capitalism; is friendly to generative entrepreneurship) ; they were primary in tribal times, secondary but powerful in pre-capitalist class societies, and largely destroyed by western capitalism. But in the coming years and decades, they will simply be ‘needed’, and it is not impossible that the solidaristic elements of ‘right-wing’ rules countries might eventually integrate some forms of commons ideology in their own policy-making, or at least tolerated, as Mondragon was under the fascist regime of Franco. The woke left, which does not recognize the basic condition for commoning, i.e. the free association of autonomous individuals, i.e. ‘post-conventional’ persons, will not be able to stop the necessary pulsation of the commons; and the same is likely true for authoritarian populist regimes. Commons can exist in different societal contexts.

The current left-right polarity will evolve to new left-right polarities in the context of a commons-centric civilization which is able to live within its planetary boundaries; and they may well provide the context in which such commons will exist.