Left and right

Has anyone noticed how the political terms “left” and “right” seem to have changed places lately? When I was growing up, back in the mid-20th century, the words had a clearly defined meaning. Left wing politicians, thinkers and journalists were those who defended the interests of the working class and the poor. They campaigned for higher wages for factory workers, better safety in mines, a well-funded National Health Service, and a grammar-school education for poor but bright kids. Right wing politicians supported the rich and powerful, arguing either that these people deserved the position they held, or else that any attempt at a fairer distribution of wealth and influence would be counter-productive and would simply impoverish society as a whole.

Nowadays, those who identify themselves as “left wing” are precisely the rich and the powerful: those who run the media and the universities, occupy the top jobs, and live in expensive city districts. Like the old Right, they believe that they deserve their good fortune because they are manifestly good people, and they never tire of demonstrating their virtue. Being “woke” is the nearest thing such people have to a religion. They treat anyone whom they consider racist or transphobic or islamophobic as dangerous heretics who need to be silenced before they destroy everything that is sacred. In the UK, these people usually vote Labour and often admire Jeremy Corbyn. In the USA, they vote Democrat and admire Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris (not so much Joe Biden, who is too pale, male and stale to really appeal to them but might prove a useful stepping stone to a Harris presidency).

By contrast, politicians who appeal to the poor and the left-behind, or who champion the causes that ordinary working people care about, are increasingly often described as right wing if not downright fascist! The working class itself (or the white working class at any rate) is regarded with contempt and disgust by the modern “Left”, just as it once was by the old Right. Think of Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”. It has been shown that white, working-class boys are the group that consistently does worst in UK schools, but every attempt to help them selectively is quashed as racist.

This may also explain why antisemitism appears to have moved to the left. In my young day, it was definitely a right wing phenomenon. In fact, the more antisemitic a politian was, the further right he would usually be in other matters. But today antisemitism (usually rebranded as anti-zionism) is mainstream in the British Labour Party, and Keir Starmer’s attempts to get rid of it have not been very successful so far. When he expelled Corbyn for rejecting the report of the Equality and Human Rights Committee on antisemitism in the Labour Party, the party’s disciplinary panel reinstated him over Starmer’s head within the week. The whole business seems utterly weird until you realise that the modern left is the embattled defender of a new ruling class, and therefore actually the party of the Right in “old money”.

Lenin once said that the only important question in politics is “Who does it to whom?” In other words, who has the power and who is a victim of that power? When power depended on owning land, hereditary aristocrats were the ruling class, and they claimed to deserve their position because they could trace their lineage practically back to the ark. That’s why they were called the aristocracy. It means literally the rule of the best people. But during the 18th and 19th centuries, money gradually replaced land as the source of power, which led to the bourgeoisie displacing the aristocracy as the ruling class.

The right-left division in politics dates from this transitional era; in fact it is based on the seating arrangements in the National Assembly that was created by the French Revolution. The leaders of that revolution were bourgeois intellectuals (doctors,lawyers and journalists) who championed the new order against the old blue-blooded landed aristocracy. And their shock troops, the sans-culottes, were not bare-legged paupers but wage-earners and shopkeepers, who refused to waste their money on silk stockings and therefore wore long trousers instead of knee-breeches (culottes). These good bourgeois sat on the left side of the chamber while the aristocrats and royalists sat on the right.

Bourgeois power was rooted in the ownership of mines, factories and other means of production, so when the bourgeoisie became the new ruling class, workers replaced peasants as the main oppressed class. The new rulers (like the old ones) claimed to be the best people and to deserve their power, not because of their ancestry but because they were hardworking, thrifty, pious and sexually prudish (unlike most of the people who worked in their dark, satanic mills). Those who accepted and defended their claim became the new Right and those who challenged it the new Left. This was the world that I grew up in.

But in the twenty first century, you don’t make money any more by owning mines or factories. The modern rulers are those who own and control information. The modern citadels of power are IT multinationals like Facebook and Amazon, together with the more prestigious universities, media empires (including the BBC), major charities and think tanks,and all those conglomerates of fin-tech middlemen who make our global economy work. Our new rulers therefore are people who have a particular kind of education, which qualifies them to run this new kind of society. Like the landed gentry of an earlier era, they make sure that they alone have access to the right kind of schools — not public schools in their case but certain very good comprehensives like Holland Park in Kensington, which are actually more selective than grammar schools ever were.

I remember that the grammar school I went to in the 1950’s, Camden School for Girls, had a wide range of pupils. We didn’t actually have any aristocrats in my form but there were a couple of girls who were definitely upper-middle class. There were also quite a few who spoke with a working-class London accent similar to what is now called Estuary English. We had only one black girl, but that was not bad going in an age when the Windrush immigrants were just beginning to settle in and immigration from the Indian subcontinent had not yet started. And then there was me, the child of impoverished Jewish refugees, who had grown up in a poky little flat above a garage without even a bathroom!

Most Labour politicians of the time were also grammar school alumni. The working classes and the old Left loved grammar schools because they could function as ladders out of poverty for bright children who would otherwise have had no future. Those ladders have been taken away now, and replaced by a form of education that can no longer be gatecrashed by people like me. Comprehensive schools select by postcode, not by intelligence. A good comprehensive makes all the houses and flats around it so expensive that only the new ruling class can afford to live there. Only their children have any hope of the sort of education that will qualify them to rule in their turn. Needless to say, the new Left extol comprehensives and hate grammar schools. I doubt if they will ever be reintroduced.

Plus ca change! The upper classes, however defined, have always made sure that they keep their position and that they alone can claim to be the best and most deserving people in the country. The only difference today is that the political nomenclature of Left and Right has not changed to reflect the transfer of power, because our new rulers (unlike all the previous ones) draw their power from controlling the sources of information and hence our political vocabulary.