Is the Left Right and the Right Wrong?

Gavin Drew


Does adherence to the Gospel suggest a particular political leaning?

Gavin Drew believes it must.

Outlining reasons for thinking that leftist political understandings and concerns are implied by the thoughtful consideration of Christian faith may be a simple task. But, while such reasons might satisfy those already persuaded by that understanding, they would cause little pause for thought in the many Christians who mistakenly think that 'Christian' means 'conservative' - and that, in politics, 'conservative' means 'right-wing' - or those who simply think that the right is right.

 

A large part of the problem is that we don't take time to reflect on the fundamentals of right-wing and left-wing thought: we simple buy into some of the surface packaging politicians give to their policies. This is unwise, since politicians, of both the right and left, are more Machiavellian than committed.

In politics ideals are for the birds. Political positions aren't so much believed as they are used to gain and maintain power.

Nor do we think deeply about the socio-political dynamics of the biblical story. A reflection on the fundamentals of left and right throws up some key reasons for contending that leftist understandings and concerns are implied by the Christian faith and that rightist views are incompatible with that faith.

Certainly, to talk about right and left in the context of biblical thought is anachronistic. But since Christian thought is grounded in the actions and thought of Jesus and because his significance is grounded in the record and context of the Scriptures,1 Christians are obliged to think biblically about contemporary matters.

Self and society

While I find it difficult to contend that the left is completely right, I am convinced that the right is wrong. Put simply - doubtless far too simply for some - rightist economics and social policy are expressions of selfishness.

In the end, talk of rightist 'social' policy is an oxymoron. For the right, society is an abstraction, a construct, which our fears, limitations and needs demand that we enter into, and use, in order to 'get on'.

For the right, the autonomous individual is the fundamental human reality. Society is pragmatically necessary, yet ultimately alien to being human. Society is simply a powerful creature, a leviathan, constructed through our practical need to regulate human interaction.

But at the same time, the right would say, that creature should be restricted, lest it turn on and consume the individuals who are the cells of its corporate 'existence', as a body consumes its fat. Paradoxically, 'lean and mean' is the rule of rightist government lest, in its regulatory role, it fails to maximise individual freedom.

For the right, the economy is a self-regulating complex of exchange systems in which a few 'players', by their investment of capital, 'create' wealth as a bi-product of their self-interested profit-making. Without the profit motive there would be no capitalist economy.

The creation of wealth is supposed to have a flow-on or 'trickle-down' influence on the wages and conditions of the workers and so benefit all society. However, without profit there is no social benefit, so the right of capital to make that profit must not be questioned.

Rightists think of freedom as being the result of minimising restrictions on the individual pursuit of power and wealth. For the right, freedom is essentially freedom 'from'.

Human dignity boils down to the amount of freedom this or that individual can appear to have carved out for him or herself. Dignity isn't given, it is earned.

Rightists pride themselves on being 'realistic' about human nature and motivation. At bottom, ought is what is. Human beings are fundamentally selfish, therefore 'workable' economic and social policy takes selfishness and the desire for power as given. To legislate on the basis that things ought to be different isn't just wishful thinking, it's highly dangerous.

Alienation and liberation

In contrast, leftists hold that the fundamental human reality involves social reality. Society isn't an abstract construction, pragmatically necessary yet ultimately alien to being human. Rather, society is a positive, concrete reality. Society is the context for, and the expression of, human existence.

Human beings have, and develop, their personal identities as a consequence of real, legitimate, evolving relationships between persons. It isn't that society should have primacy over individuals. Rather, that both society and the persons who constitute it mutually condition the existence and growth of each other.

Human dignity isn't worked for, it is given in the web of social and interpersonal relationships that result in our birth, and nurture our developing identities. Whereas rightists think of society as an abstraction and the individual as the fundamental human reality, leftists understand that it is the idea of the 'autonomous individual' which is the abstract construct.

Leftists see that the idea of the autonomous individual is given apparent substance only illegitimately. Only through the alienation of social resources by some, at the expense of many, is the illusion of the autonomous individual maintained - the resources being used by those who appropriate and control them to give themselves the appearance of being self-sufficient, free individuals.

The leftist's strong concern for social justice begins by recognising that inequality and injustice are not fundamental consequences of human interaction per se; rather that they are the consequences of illegitimate, manipulative, exploitative human interactions.

Inequalities arise and are perpetuated by the stories the privileged and powerful tell. Because they have power over others, their stories become the controlling myths of society. Because society has been so shaped by those stories, they seem the most plausible. They certainly are the stories you must tell if you want to 'get on' and maximise your individual freedom.

But, for the left, freedom isn't primarily individual freedom from restriction, but freedom for the growth, health and wealth of all. Because both society and the persons who constitute it mutually condition the existence and growth of each other, inequalities ultimately weaken both society, as a whole, and the well being of each of the people who constitute it.

Therefore, the liberation from inequality and oppression - a strong leftist theme - aims at the restoration of resources and 'rights' which have been alienated so that society (and individual people) may be healed by the restoration of justice and peace.

But it is not just the oppressed who need liberation. The oppressor needs liberation from his need to alienate and oppress. Both the oppressed and oppressor are dehumanised by the process of alienation.

Liberation, for both, comes about by the creation of conditions wherein there is no need felt to 'look out for number one'. And so the maxim of leftist government, isn't 'lean and mean', but 'look out for each other'.

In its regulatory role, leftist government aims at maximising collective wealth, health and the inter-personal freedoms needed for mutual growth. Leftists see freedom as the power to create a just society in which everyone can realise their potential. Often what is, is not what ought to be - but we can and should do something about it.

For the left, the economy isn't an end in itself; the economy is a tool for bringing about a just society. The economy isn't self-regulating if justice for all people is the goal.

Leftist economics doesn't see the value of people in terms of their economic significance - eg productivity versus liability, capacity to consume, ability to invest, etc. Rather, people are valued as people and the economy is made to serve people as a whole. The economy exists for people, rather than people existing for the economy.

Wealth is not a by-product of profit-making. Wealth is produced by the value created through the application of human labour and skill to resources. Concrete human creative action - not the 'investment' of abstract capital - is the real means by which wealth is created.

Under capitalism, profit represents the difference between the value of workers' labour and what workers are paid for it. This amounts to theft, since the capitalist puts none of his own efforts into the creation of value.

Profits do not 'flow on' or 'trickle down' to the rest of society. Under unregulated capitalism, the flow-on of wealth is only, and no more than, what is essential for enterprises to continue with maximum profit. Therefore, the economy must be regulated so that wealth is redistributed for all and the welfare of all is promoted.

There is no such thing as the 'free market'. The market, left to its own devices, makes slaves of many by maintaining a semblance of freedom for the few.

If it be argued that under capitalism the middle class has grown, freedoms have spread and that this gives the lie to the idea that capitalism is repressive, it needs to be asked what exactly are the freedoms the middle class has been 'given'.

The felt, and often real, need for two incomes for one family, the real decline in the standard of living, the deregulation of industry, the constriction of the welfare state, etc, all mean that although capital has needed to create and include the middle class in its wage-web for capital's own continuance, increasingly the middle class is experiencing aspects of the employment situation similar to the wage slavery experienced by low-income workers. Where is the freedom and dignity in the middle class struggle to make ends meet?

Human beings have fundamental dignity because they are human beings - people becoming persons. Therefore, just economic and social policy takes the dignity of human persons as given, and takes the maximal support of all members of society - so that they can fulfil their potential - as its goal. To legislate on any other basis is dehumanising and antisocial.

The image of God

Several biblical and theological themes indicate that leftist understandings and concerns are implied by the thoughtful consideration of Christian faith. Thoughtful Christians will have recognised:-

· the core contention of the right - that the fundamental human reality is the self-sufficient, autonomous individual - is idolatrous;

· the core contention of the left - that human reality is fundamentally and irreducibly social - is an essential aspect of the biblical revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

It is idolatrous to believe that the fundamental human reality is the self-sufficient, autonomous individual. Although idolatry is the construction of false beliefs about God, a false belief about the nature of humanity is idolatrous because the personal nature of God is revealed in humanity - we are made in the image of God.

We shouldn't make false images of God, not just because they are inadequate, but more importantly because God, in making us in God's image, is in charge of ensuring that God's 'nature' is adequately revealed in creation. So to construct an inadequate conception of human being, and to act upon that false construct, is to dishonour the image of God. And that is idolatry.

It is little wonder that rightist individualism, being a false construction of human identity, displays all the selfishness the Bible associates with idolatry. "Love the Lord your God and your neighbour as yourself" is 180 degrees away from "do unto others before they do you".

Not only is it God's intention to make humankind in God's image, the result is that we evidence God's image in the most fundamental and intimate of our interpersonal relationships, that of gender difference and sexual interaction.

God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion . . . " So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them be fruitful and multiply.2

The multiplication of humanity that is society is, at its core, fundamentally interpersonal, relational, social. Human life is celebrated and recreated by human persons as they give themselves to each other and receive each other.

Certainly there is rape, sexual exploitation and the taking of what isn't given. There is dehumanising treatment of people as things to use for one's own ends, rather than loving the other as oneself. There is bondage and subjugation. But in the gender/sexual area of life these are perversions which we recognise as evil.

It is strange that there isn't a similar widespread recognition that the same sick dynamics are also evil when they are put forward in the social and 'political' aspect of our lives. Rightist, capitalist economics and social policy, at their core, are no less exploitative and dehumanising than rape.

Of course, to say that human life is celebrated and recreated by human persons as they give themselves to each other and receive each other, isn't just to speak about sex. Rather, it is to express the shape of all legitimate human intercourse. Human activity, including activity in that sphere of life we call 'politics', must be characterised by such non-exploitative giving and receiving, or it is sin.

Such a failure is sin because it contravenes the will of God for human society; because it abuses the character of God by abusing people who are being made in God's image.

Clearly, left-leaning thought and action - which emphasises our mutual inter-dependence and collective responsibility for each other, seeking to promote non-exploitative, just ways of growing together - lines up more closely with the biblical vision of humanity than does the self-centred orientation of the right. Left-leaning thought and action more closely expresses the will of God in human society.

But . . .

All this doesn't mean that Christians must go out and join New Labour, or any other party, left or right. Politics is about power, worldly power gained and maintained by Machiavellian 'wisdom'. But the gospel is foolishness to the world.6

Jesus said to Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world".7 We are to be in the world - even the world of politics - but not of it. We are to work to make concrete in society values that reflect the kingdom of God, but we do that by intentionally being a counter-cultural community which lives out Jesus' values in ways that overflow into wider transformative and prophetic action.

The left is not exempt from needing the biblical revelation of God - the left needs the gospel. Humanism is a wholly inadequate basis for the pursuit of social justice and egalitarianism. The humanistic left has no satisfactory answer to ultimate questions such as: In the end why does justice matter? What is so special about human beings that the wellbeing of all should matter to any?

In the end, humanism can only refer to human beings as the final authority. But if we simply look at ourselves, capitalism and/or fascism seem to be the natural political outworkings of what we are. Apart from the instruction 'love your enemies' is there any lasting hope in the left (or the right) that will transform both the oppressed and the oppressor?

Only through the biblical vision of what we are becoming in the image of God through Jesus Christ - only through the hope of the coming kingdom of God - can we gain miraculous motivation to seek social justice and a transformation that doesn't have in it the seeds of its own corruption.

 

Jesus announced 'good news', but good news for whom? For me? Well, of course - but not for me as an autonomous individual apart from others, apart from my social situation and interpersonal relationships.

Our 'What's-in-it-for-me' attitude to faith, our 'pie-in-the-sky-when-I-die' use of the God-idea, is merely the religious reflection of the same drive for self which motivates individualistic rightist social theory and capitalism. Only when we realise that our 'blessing-for-me' attitude has its roots in 18th Century Enlightenment ideas and has nothing much to do with the relational personalism of biblical revelation will we be liberated for right action and thought.

 

NOTES

1 Jn 5.39

2 Gen 1.26-27

3 1Jn 4.8

4 1Jn 4.7

5 1Jn 3.10-23ff

6 1 Cor 1.18-25ff.

7 Jn 18. 36

Gavin is a consultant, working with Scripture. He is a member of Karori Baptist Church and a member of the Stimulus Trust. Currently, he is not a member of any political party.


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