Double Standards and the Left


Double Standards and the Left

The mindset of the Left and progressively inclined people (social democrats, liberals) derives from the Enlightenment tradition of critique and self-critique. This is where this text is also coming from.

An im- or explicitly moral critique of the double standards and hypocrisy of the Right is central to the progressive critique of the current social and economic system. We know that the Right’s (or at least the democratic Right’s) espoused values and theories are constantly contradicted by their own interest and practice of maintaining class power, wealth and privilege.

We know the Right’s purported core value of ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’, the ‘free world’, ‘democracy’ is actually embodied in an oligarchic system run by corporate and political elites which engages in wars of aggression and resource control, torture and kidnapping, total surveillance, executive murder and secret state activity outside the rule of law, support for ‘our’ thugs and dictators.

We know that the system of ‘free enterprise’ so dear to the Right means resource imperialism and exploitation of workers in poor countries, capital concentration and cartellisation, financial speculation, corruption and tax havens, the control of media and government, steeply rising inequalities, alienation and consumerism, the ongoing destruction of families, communities and the ecological wealth of the planet.

Because we know all this, we are not surprised when members of the democratic Right may at times let slip the mask of ‘freedom and democracy’ and tell it like it is. Margaret Thatcher expressing strong support for the murderous dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright saying that 500,000 Iraqi dead children due to US sanctions were a price worth paying for keeping ex-ally Saddam Hussein under pressure, New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman writing that the markets’ famed ‘invisible hand’ actually needed the iron fist of US military aggression to maintain it, Truman advisor George Kennan’s famous remark in 1948:

We have 50 per cent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 per cent of its population. In this situation, our real job in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which permit us to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we have to dispense with all sentimentality […] we should cease thinking about human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization.

All this is par for the course from a Leftist perspective. At least it’s honest, it says what the Right is really about, namely the securing of class power, privilege and wealth no matter what. It evinces no double standards. Free of cognitive dissonance, it reveals the authoritarian continuities on the right wing spectrum between the democratic Right and the openly undemocratic Right that culminates in outright fascism.

An interesting aspect of the above list of truth-speakers of the Right is that only one of them, Thatcher, is conventionally considered of the Right in mainstream public discourse. Albright, Friedman and Kennan are all ‘centre-left’ liberals, social democrats, ‘progressives’. And this is where the problem of double standards also arises on the Left side of the political spectrum, both in the mainstream social democratic ‘centre-left’ and further to the left among leftists in general.

It could be argued that Democrats Truman and Kennedy killed many more than Republican Eisenhower, Clinton (via Iraq sanctions) many more than Bush Senior, Obama than Bush Jr. That the Left-Green coalition under Schröder-Fischer in Germany ordered the first German military intervention in Europe since Hitler (previously a bipartisan taboo) and trashed the welfare state more rigorously than any conservative government in Germany had dared to do.

How do progressives react when ‘centre-left’ governments do the same things as right wing governments, or worse? When they kill more people? When they continue to extend the police state and create more terrorist blowback by waging undeclared wars and launching drone attacks? When they continue to actively support the capitalist trashing of the planet? When they push through capitalist ‘economic reforms’ that gut the welfare state and make the rich even richer.

In general, they are silent, they don’t hit the streets in protest as they might against a right wing government doing the same, or at least not to the same extent. They give the centre-left ‘lesser evil’ they voted for the benefit of the doubt. If the ‘lesser evil’ who is killing more is also young and ‘cool’ (Kennedy, Clinton, Obama), a boozy ‘larrikin’ (Hawke, Schröder), black (Obama) or a woman (Madelaine Albright, Gillard), so much the better. (The preferred leader for the ruling elites from this PR and progressive-passivizing perspective would be a cool, black or Asian, Jewish, dwarf lesbian in a wheelchair.) Why is this? I’d argue because of double standards and moral confusion on the Left.

These go back a long way. Like the Right, the mainstream, authoritarian and non-libertarian Left has always had a problem with double standards. One of the reasons for the old socialist left’s demise was its willingness to look the other way, its unwillingness to radically criticize nascent ruling classes in ‘national liberation fronts’ or totalitarian systems like the former Soviet empire, Maoist China, Khmer Rouge Cambodia and the untold suffering and death they caused to numberless millions of people. Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot are after all some of the worst mass murderers in history, on a par with the genocides of western colonialism and imperialism and killing many more than even fascism managed. Instead of confusion or even depression among progressives, there should have been dancing in the streets when the ‘communism’ (‘red fascism’ perhaps more accurate a term) of the Soviet empire fell almost bloodlessly due to non-violent, mass non-cooperation and uprisings. It could have been an opportunity to recover the notion of social liberation and free socialism from the seventy year authoritarian rubble and crimes against humanity of Leninism and totalitarian Soviet state socialism/state capitalism. Today, apart from among the libertarian minority, there is still an unwillingness among progressives in general to really look at authoritarian states like Cuba and, to a large extent, Chavez’ Venezuela, or at new ‘leftist’ ruling classes like Mugabe in Zimbabwe or the ANC in South Africa with all the force of their otherwise radical critique of class domination and oppression. There is still a willingness to give these oppressive features the benefit of the doubt. My hunch is that this is a result of three interdependent core failings.

The first is cognitive, a lack of clear definition of what the leftist general concept of ‘socialism’ or a post-capitalist society should be. To even consider hierarchical, authoritarian, class-ridden systems or national liberation movements as ‘progressive’, ‘non-capitalist’ or ‘socialist’, or even potentially so, is a telling comment on the utter poverty of such concepts among much of the conventional left.

The second failing is one of naïve or amoral strategy, an adherence to the Machiavellian notion of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. During the Cold War period, many leftists felt that to radically criticise the Soviet system and its rulers would be to ‘provide ammunition to the Right’. They thus chose not to identify and declare themselves in solidarity with the oppressed and exploited in these systems but, however weakly, with their rulers. Instead of adherence to truth (Gandhi’s satyagraha), regardless of who may be using such truth for what ends, many ‘fellow-travellers’ and leftists played deceitful political games enmeshed in the prevailing phony paradigm of ‘communism versus anti-communism’. We’ll rail about the CIA and remain silent about the KGB. No truth, no credibility. Versions of this deadly binary game of Machiavellian ‘strategy and tactics’ can still be found today wherever resistance to the US or global elites is to be found.

The third failing is an explicitly moral one, a perhaps strange one for progressives. It is a lack of absolute commitment to the universal ethics of human rights; another way of saying this is: a lack of identification with the poor, the suffering, the workers, the oppressed, the dissenters wherever they may be. If this identification were really present, progressive judgments about government policies and actions, whatever the political label of the government and whatever the government said it was doing, would become much simpler.

Instead of staring at declared intentions, geopolitical armchair-warrior strategizing or the apparent personal character/charisma and ‘brand’ of leaders, progressives would simply have to ask whether these policies and actions in any way violated human rights, i.e. increased oppression, suffering and death, or not, regardless of the nature of the victims. While more radical leftists may still harbour a soft spot for authoritarian caudillos like dictator Castro or populist Chavez, the social democratic ‘Cruise Missile Left’ (Edward Herman) and neoliberal/Green ‘bellicists’ like Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Joshka Fischer, Christopher Hitchens, Tony Blair and Jürgen Habermas loudly supported US or NATO ‘humanitarian intervention’ in wars like the Gulf War, Serbia, Afghanistan. Their progressive identification within the geopolitical debates of the ruling elites did not extend to the people upon whom the humanitarian bombs fell, the children maimed, the thousands of people traumatised and displaced from their homes.

Could it be that it is also the tendency of most people engaged in this kind of ‘politics’, whether of the right or left, to engage in moral double standards that is one of the many reasons for politics per se being a ‘turn off’ for the majority of the population?

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on February 12, 2014.

7 Responses to “Double Standards and the Left”

  1. Reblogged this on nickweechblog's Blog.

  2. never seen this summed up better….

  3. I’m going to quibble on one minor point- Chavista Venezuela being lumped in with Cuba. From my own personal travels and investigation, I think you will find Venezuela has far less political repression. The powerful caudillo as an authority figure is a more difficult, cultural problem infecting much of Latin America and maybe that is what you meant by “authoritarian”. I might prefer the scale from totalitarian (here I include many western so-called democracies) to Participatory?

    Richard Seymour wrote a good book called The Liberal Defense of Murder, taking on many of those same intellectuals and their defense of “humanitarian intervention”. The problem arises when it is not class (materialist) struggle but identity struggle over ethnicity, race, nationalism, religion etc, where you have poor fighting the poor . Global elites are content to “manage” the conflicts and then swoop in for booty.

  4. In my travels I did get the opportunity to hear criticism from Venezuelan communists and others from the left, much of it concerning populism. It is certainly valid and it is useful to have left critique. But the anarchists should carefully consider their references to Mao and Stalin. People can dissent and leave and organize around elections.

    While I have libertarian tendencies, I think abolishing the state, as these anarchists desire, means the end of democracy. So while I think the term “infantile leftism” is a bit facile, it is something to pay attention to.

    A right wing Venezuelan acquaintance of my wife just posted on Facebook that there is a coup in progress, which she supports.(?)

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