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Left behind, again? February 6, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, The Left, US Politics.

There’s an interesting piece in the Guardian Review section at the weekend which some may have missed. It’s an interview with George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science at the University of California at Berkeley and in it he lays waste to much of the left. It’s also a curious interview because, no doubt in part due to the nature of his research discipline Lakoff tends to divide matters up as follows:

There’s a difference between progressive morality, which is great, and the progressive mindset, which is half OK and half awful.

And this latter he blames for a host of issues:

The progressive mindset is guaranteeing no progress on global warming. The progressive mindset is saying, ‘Yes, fracking is fine.’ The progressive mindset is saying, ‘Yes, genetically modified organisms are OK’, when, in fact, they’re horrible, and the progressive mindset doesn’t know how to describe how horrible they are.

He continues:

Lakoff is affable and generous. In public meetings he greets every question with: “That is an extremely good question.” But he cannot keep the frustration out of his voice: the left, he argues, is losing the political argument – every year, it cedes more ground to the right, under the mistaken impression that this will bring everything closer to the centre. In fact, there is no centre: the more progressives capitulate, the more boldly the conservatives express their vision, and the further to the right the mainstream moves.

I don’t want to do Lakoff a disservice. I’ve never read any of his books and it is very possible that the interview is mangling his thesis in part or whole. But while I find that analysis outlined above very compelling, I’m less convinced by the rationale that Lakoff offers as to why this is.

The reason is that conservatives speak from an authentic moral position, and appeal to voters’ values. Liberals try to argue against them using evidence; they are embarrassed by emotionality. They think that if you can just demonstrate to voters how their self-interest is served by a socially egalitarian position, that will work, and everyone will vote for them and the debate will be over. In fact, Lakoff asserts, voters don’t vote for bald self-interest; self-interest fails to ignite, it inspires nothing – progressives, of all people, ought to understand this.

I wonder though is that getting the dynamic entirely right? In a way – to my mind – it is the specifics aren’t sufficiently addressed. There’s perhaps too much ‘wait until we achieve x or y and then problems a and b will be automatically solved’. Whereas there seems to me to be a strong counter-argument that in fact the left is very very bad at constructing a clear outline of how we should push left today to point w, then tomorrow we should push left to x and subsequently to y and so on to z – and why we should do that. Not so much stages as an imperative to move leftwards at all times. In other words linking clear issues in the present, immediate issues of a type we are all familiar with from policy, campaigns and so on, to that area in between and then on to more transformative processes further down the line.

And then there’s the point about self-interest. I’m not entirely convinced either that voters don’t vote to some degree for perceived self-interest. Not necessarily in the totality, but sufficiently so to cause significant problems for left projects. The lower taxation trope is propped up by theoretical justifications by the right, but it is also sustained by a large dose of (often understandable) self-interest on the part of those who support it, and look at the property tax and the manner in which it has functioned for proof of same – albeit championed by sections of the left.

None of which is to deny that conservatives do assume a moral position that can appear authentic (and is regarded as such by many conservatives).

It’s interesting too to read the following:

Lakoff predicted all this in Moral Politics, first published in 1996. In it, he warned that “if liberals do not concern themselves very seriously and very quickly with the unity of their own philosophy and with morality and the family, they will not merely continue to lose elections but will as well bear responsibility for the success of conservatives in turning back the clock of progress in America.” Since then, the left has cleaved moderately well to established principles around the politics of the individual – women are equal, racism is wrong, homophobia is wrong. But everything else: a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, the essential dignity of all humans, even if they’re foreign people or young people, education as a public good, the natural world as a treasure rather than an instrument of our convenience, the existence of motives besides profit, the pointlessness and poison of privatisation, the profundity, worth and purpose of pooling resources … this stuff is an embarrassment to centre-left parties, even when they’re in government, let alone when they’re in opposition. When unions reference these ideas, they are dismissed as dinosaurs.

And then compare and contrast it with this:

Yet equivalent rightwing positions – that efficiency is all, that big government is inefficient and therefore inherently bad, that nothing must come between a business and its pursuit of profit, that poverty is a lifestyle choice of the weak, that social breakdown can be ascribed to single mothers and immigrants – have been subject to no abatement, no modification, no “modernising”.

But it is obvious – even accepting that these are broad brush strokes – what the distinction is. The right has hegemony in relation to economics, the left has some partial success – and in some instances blinding success – in relation to social issues. Whether the ‘left’ can take credit for the latter is an open question since these are issues which cross-class alliances can more easily engage with and coalesce around than economics.

Again, a caveat, we live in a world where the left shaped the discourse sufficiently to permit welfare states and safety nets to become an accepted, albeit unloved, part of the dispensation. Now granted this is of utility to capitalism, but it suggests at least some degree of agency on the part of the left. But… problematically consider how partial the welfare state is, how contingent, how it is in effect permitted by capitalism (though perpetually under threat of whittling away), and used, but how little effort was made to push further by the left at the height of social democracy (as was).

And what of class? Not mentioned at all by the interviewer or in this piece by Lakoff. That’s a telling omission.

Could it be more fundamental than Lakoff proposes, that the collapse of the Soviets (whatever position one adopts in relation to them and their role – for better and worse) and the seeming failure (at least in the terms it is painted by the right) of traditional social democracy, has led to a situation where the economic needle has been pushed rightwards by the right and in a situation where there has been if not an abandonment then an aversion to significant thinking, let alone innovation, in political economy on the part of most of the left? That would account for why the left is able to in part make some running on social issues but little or none on economic issues (and where it does engage with the latter it tends to be defensive and reactive). And if that’s the case then it’s not just about framing arguments but about something much much more fundamental.

But that more fundamental aspect may just be a bundle of dynamics… the inability of social democracy to support and sustain its own partial creation of welfare states and extension of the state sector, a similar inability to theorise that, an almost credulous openness to the ‘market’, a disunity on the left(s) and the sheer momentum behind capitalism, in all its various manifestations.

Of course, perhaps Lakoff is saying the left is inauthentic in its messages, which is a view, but then how to gain authenticity, indeed what is authenticity? And in that regard how is the right authentic? Is that simply a function of socio-economic structures determining outcomes in certain ways, so that the lived experience of most is such that alternative structures, or even mildly reformist ones, appear next to impossible?

Morality though. I think that takes one only part of the way on the journey.

There’s no question that much of what Lakoff says is correct, for example, the following:

If the two systems are poised in pure opposition, if they are each as moral, as metaphorical, as anciently rooted, as solidly grounded as the other, then why is one winning? “Progressives want to follow the polls … Conservatives don’t follow the polls; they want to change them. Political ground is gained not when you successfully inhabit the middle ground, but when you successfully impose your framing as the ‘common-sense’ position.”

But what that suggests is that conservatives adopt pragmatic approaches, whereby they grab what they can get and have strategies mapped out for what they can’t. Of course, it is actually easier for them in many respects. However ‘liberal’ a society the sheer momentum of conservative projects is something to behold. That appeal to ‘common-sense’, sometimes dressed up as ‘moderation’ or ‘pragmatism’ is much more easily made. I’ve noted previously that the left often underestimates, drastically so in some instances, the sheer lack of appetite for change and the tendency to cleave to the status quo, even as that status quo itself changes for the worse. Many will have seen that dynamic more broadly in the society or, as I’ve seen it at first-hand, in workplaces where appalling working conditions were tolerated because they appeared stable. It’s an appeal that we’ve seen have considerable traction in this state since the beginning of the crisis.

But it’s difficult to quite get to grasp in the interview with what Lakoff is suggesting and it could be that that is simply the function of the interview itself. That said one would hope that in any overview of body of thought some basic principles would be apparent, and I’m not certain that they are. Indeed some of it treads close to presentation. For example:

One of Lakoff’s engagements in London was at the TUC, where they proudly showed him a video they had made about welfare, and it fell into all these Wisconsin pitfalls – restating Cameron’s case in order to dispute it, but in reality falling into the trap of trying to dispel welfare “myths”, instead of talking about a social security system of which we should be proud. He took it apart at the seams.

Presentation is essential (though one could also argue that in fairness to the TUC, when the ground on which one is fighting has shifted towards the right so much firefighting along the lines of dispelling myths is also essential). But again it comes back to fundamentals. What is the left attempting to do? How is it doing that? How is it presenting that to those whose support it requires to achieve that end? How is it changing minds? Is it making any progress?


1. sonofstan - February 6, 2014

Lost me at ‘moral’……

Seriously, I think the diagnosis, if accurately reported is entirely wrong; the right wins because they are expert at identifying enemies – immigrants, scroungers, big government, Europe – at least here in England – and giving the voter the irresistible invitation to pick a side. The left, instead, attempts to explain things in universalising language, a discourse that attempts to include both you and the people making your life a misery in one complicated picture. Which is neither emotionally satisfying or politically motivating.


2. CL - February 6, 2014

When it comes to economic ideology there is little difference between ‘liberal’ Democratic and ‘conservative’ Republican. Clinton was the true successor to Reagan. As was Blair to Thatcher.-as was the Irish Labour party to Fianna Fail.


3. Liberius - February 6, 2014

the leaders of the Golden Dawn in Greece have only just been arrested, having been flirting with fascism since the collapse of the eurozone.

tsk tsk, the last time I checked Golden Dawn have been flirting with fascism for longer than the eurozone has even been around; and the eurozone surely is still in a state of crisis rather than collapse, isn’t it? I’d imagine though that those errors are Zoe Williams’ fault rather than our verbose university chum.


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