One can look at the New Democratic Party (NDP) in Canada – and its precursor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) – to highlight the differences between the so-called Old Left, and the new left-liberal consensus.
In the May 2, 2011, federal election in Canada, the New Democratic Party – Canada’s social democratic party – had won 103 seats, thus displacing the Liberal Party, and becoming the Official Opposition. However, in the Oct. 19, 2015 election, they were swept away by the Justin Trudeau tide, falling to 44 seats. Some blamed Tom Mulcair’s centrist-tending campaign (especially the promise to keep the federal budget balanced) for this loss.
Tommy Douglas, revered today by many in Canada as the founder of the Canadian medicare system, was a longtime leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. Like much of the so-called Old Left, Tommy Douglas was surprisingly socially conservative. For example, medicare was initially adopted in the province of Saskatchewan largely as part of a pro-natalist, pro-family policy. Douglas also argued for what later became called “workfare” – being appalled by the idea that able-bodied men should receive government money without rendering some kind of constructive labor. He also hated deficits, arguing that fiscal prudence was necessary “to keep the bankers off the government’s back.”
While ferociously fighting for equality for the working majority, much of the Old Left considered traditional religion, family, and nation as simply a part of “pre-political” existence, which it had no desire to challenge. They were thus social-democratic in economics, and socially conservative. Much of the Old Left would have probably found the main concerns of the post-60s’ Left as highly questionable, if not repugnant.
One could ask the question – do the genuine left and the genuine right converge today as an “anti-system opposition”?
A number of social critics across the spectrum, such as U.S. paleoconservative theorist Paul Edward Gottfried, and Frankfurt School-inspired Paul Piccone, the late editor of the eclectic, New York-based, independent scholarly journal, Telos, have perceived the ruling structures of current-day society in terms of a “managerial Right” and a “therapeutic Left.” Piccone’s interpretation of the Frankfurt School was rather unusual as he saw those figures as some of the most profound critics of the managerial-therapeutic regime – as opposed to a far more common view that they had in fact significantly aided in the institution of the system.
According to Gottfried and Piccone, there currently exists a pseudo-opposition between the officially-approved “Right” and “Left” which — although riven in apparent conflict — in fact represent little more than a debate between managerial styles. The “managerial Right,” typified by soulless multinational or transnational corporations (including the big banks and financial firms that have a few years ago received over a trillion dollars of U.S. taxpayers’ money) represents the consumerist, business, economic side of the system. The “therapeutic Left,” typified by arrogant social engineers, represents redistribution of resources along politically-correct lines, and “sensitivity-training” for recalcitrants. Traditionalists and some eclectic left-wingers oppose both the “managerial Right” and the “therapeutic Left,” as together constituting today’s “new Establishment,” or “New Class.”
The Left is also identified today, by some traditionalist and eclectic critics, such as Michael Medved (author of Hollywood vs. America) and Daniel Bell (author of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism), with the rougher edges of the pop-culture, which similarly seeks to negate traditional social norms. While ferociously struggling for its vision of social justice and equality, much of the Left before the 1960s felt that many such norms were simply a natural, pre-political part of social existence, which it had no desire to challenge. The profit motive of the corporations, and the rebelliousness of the cultural Left and of late modern culture in general, feed off of each other. The pop-culture in America and Canada (including very reckless and irresponsible academic and art trends), and the consumer culture, are tightly intertwined. But the sense of an integrated self and society, where people can hold a meaningful identity, and in which real public and political discourse can take place, is fundamentally in atrophy.
It could be argued that the real division in both the U.S. and Canada is between supporters and critics of the managerial-therapeutic regime. The critics include genuine traditionalists — people who believe in traditional religion and concrete, rooted locality, and are able to perceive the assaults of both capitalists and therapeutic experts against it — as well as much of the communitarian tendency (that was especially prominent in the early to mid-1990s) which emphasizes “real communities” as against corporate and therapeutic manipulations. While some leftists denounce Christopher Lasch as a reactionary, he continued to identify himself as a social democrat to the very end of his life.
The possibility of a coalition of the authentic Right and Left against the ersatz “Right” and “Left” Establishment agglomerate is suggested in the words of John Ruskin, the nineteenth-century aesthetic and cultural critic, who — in an age of a pre-totalitarian and pre-politically-correct Left — could confidently say, “I am a Tory of the sternest sort, a socialist, a communist.” G. K. Chesterton was also able to raise pointed questions against managerialist and consumerist capitalism, which he astutely noted was based on the premise of an unending economic growth which must ultimately destroy nature and thoroughly undermine social mores and human dignity. He defended the broader lower-middle- and working-classes and called for more local and human-scale systems of economy.
In the wake of the financial and economic crises continuing to engulf the planet today, both Right and Left should look to some of their more unconventional earlier thinkers, to give some notions of proper context and possible guidance, as to how one could truly emerge in better condition from these troubled times.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher. Earlier versions of this article have appeared at Enter Stage Right and Quarterly Review (UK).