JR'S Free Thought Pages
Left, Right and the “Extreme Moderates” – Michael Parenti, PhD
The terms "right" and "left" are seldom specifically define policymakers or media commentators—and with good reason To explicate the politico-economic content of leftist government movements is to reveal their egalitarian and humane goals, making it much harder to demonize them. The "left," as I would define it, encompasses those individuals, organizations, and governments that advocate equitable redistributive policies benefiting the many and infringing upon the privileged interests of the wealthy few.
The right-wingers are also involved in redistributive politics, but the distribution goes the other way, in an upward direction. In almost every country, including our own, rightist groups, parties or governments pursue policies that primarily benefit those who receive the bulk of their income from investments and property, at the expense of those who live off wages, salaries, fees, an pensions. That is what defines and distinguishes the right from the left.
What is called the political right consists of conservatives, many of whom are dedicated to free-market capitalism, the unregulated laissez-faire variety that places private investment ahead of all other social considerations. Conservative ideology maintains that rich and poor get pretty much what they deserve; people are poor not because of inadequate wages and lack of economic opportunity but because they are lazy, profligate, or incapable. The conservative keystone to individual rights is the enjoyment of property (moneyed) rights, especially the right to make a profit off other people's labor and enjoy the privileged conditions of a favored class.
Conservatives blame our troubles on what billionaire Steve Forbes called the "arrogance, insularity, [and] the government-knows-best mentality" in Washington, D.C. Everything works better in the private sector than in the public sector, they maintain. Most conservative ideologues today might better be classified as reactionaries, having an agenda not designed merely to protect their present privileges but to expand them, rolling back all the progressive gains made over the last century. They want to do away with most government regulation and taxation of business, along with environmental and consumer protections, minimum wage laws, unemployment compensation, job safety regulations, and injury compensation laws. They assure us that private charity can take care of needy and hungry people, and that there is no need for government handouts. On that last point, it should be noted, the superrich donate a far smaller proportion of their income to private charities than people of more modest means.1
Conservatives seem to think that everything would be fine if government were reduced to a bare minimum. Government is not the solution, it is the problem, they say. In actual practice, however, they are for or against government handouts depending on whose hand is out. They want to cut human services to low and middle income groups, but they vigorously support gargantuan government subsidies and bailouts for large corporate enterprises. They admonish American workers to work harder for less and have not a concern about the increase in economic hardship for working people.
Conservatives and reactionaries also support strong government measures to restrict dissent and regulate our private lives and personal morals, as with anti-abortion laws and bans on gay marriage. Most of them are big supporters of mammoth military budgets and the U.S. global empire, which they seem to equate with "Americanism." Yet many of them managed to avoid military service, preferring to let others do the fighting and dying. Such was the case with President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Congressman Tom Delay, commentator Rush Limbaugh, and scores of other prominent right-wing leaders and pundits.2
Not all conservatives and reactionaries are affluent. Many people of rather modest means are conservative about "family values." They want government to deny equal rights to homosexuals, impose the death penalty more vigorously, propagate the super-patriotic virtues, and take stronger measures against street crime, issues about which they feel liberals are dangerously deficient. As one newspaper columnist writes, they think that government has a prime responsibility to protect "their right to kill themselves with guns, booze, and tobacco" but a "minimal responsibility to protect their right to a job, a home, an education or a meal."3 Conservative politicians talk about "upholding values," but they make no effort to uphold values by rooting out corruption in the business world or protecting the environment or lending material support to working families.
The same conservatives who say they want government to "stop trying to run our lives" also demand that government regulate our personal morals, keep us under surveillance, and deny us the right to habeas corpus, open dissent, antiwar demonstrations, and safe and legal abortions. They want government to put God back into public life, require prayers in our schools, subsidize religious education, and shove their particular notion of Jesus down our throats at every opportunity. They blame the country's ills on secular immorality, homosexuality, feminism, "liberal elites," and the loss of family values. TV evangelist and erstwhile Republican presidential hopeful Pat Robertson charged feminism with hatching diabolical and even murderous plots against family, marriage, and capitalism.4 The religious right supports conservative causes. In turn, superrich conservatives help finance the religious right.
Toward the center of the political spectrum we find the moderates, also known as the centrists, exemplified by former president Bill Clinton. Like the conservatives, the centrists accept the capitalist system and its basic values but they think social problems should be rectified by piecemeal reforms and regulatory policies. Along with conservatives, many centrists support "free trade" and globalization, claiming that it will benefit not just corporations but everyone. They pushed for the elimination of family assistance ("welfare"), and regularly vote in Congress for big subsidies to private business and big military spending bills. They often back military interventions abroad if convinced that the White House is advancing the cause of peace and democracy—as with the massive 78-day U.S. bombing of women, children, and men in Yugoslavia in 1999, and the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq (withdrawing their support in the latter instance when Iraq proved more costly than anticipated).
A shade to the left of the centrists are the liberals who see a need for improving public services and environmental protections. They support minimum wage laws, unemployment insurance, and other wage supports, along with Social Security, nutritional aid for needy children, occupational safety, and the like. They say they are for protection of individual rights and against government surveillance of law-abiding political groups, yet in Congress (where most of them are affiliated with the Democratic Party), they sometimes have supported repressive measures and have gone along with cuts in programs for the needy. Some of them also have voted for subsidies and tax breaks for business. At other times they have opposed the reactionary rollback of human services, the undermining of labor unions, and shredding of environmental protections.
Further along is the political left: the progressives, social democrats, democratic socialists, and issue-oriented Marxists. (There is also a more ideologically oriented component of the left composed mostly of Trotskyists, anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, "libertarian socialists" and others who will not figure in this discussion given their small numbers and intense sectarian immersion. What they all have in common is an obsessional anti-communism, a dedication to fighting imaginary hordes of "Stalinists" whom they see everywhere, and with denouncing existing communist nations and parties. In this they resemble many centrists, social democrats, and liberals.)
The issue-oriented progressive left wants to replace or substantially modify the corporate free market system, putting some large corporations and utilities under public ownership, and smaller businesses under cooperative worker ownership when possible. Some left progressives would settle for a social democracy—as might be found in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and a few other countries—with strong labor unions and firm controls on corporate business to safeguard the public interest and the environment. A democratically responsive government, progressives insist, has an important role to play in protecting the environment, advancing education, providing jobs for everyone able to work, along with occupational safety, secure retirement, and affordable medical care, education, and housing. In sum, a left-progressive government would spend far less on the military and on business subsidies and far more improving the social wage and the quality of life.
There remains a problem with this alignment of left, right, and center. It has to do with the tendency to ascribe "moderation" to those on the center, and "extremism" indiscriminately to those on the "far left" and "far right," based on an inclination to conflate spatial relations with moral meanings. Labels such as "left," "center," and "right" refer to the political spectrum. They are metaphoric spatial terms used to signify one's position on social, political, and economic issues. By virtue of its linear nature, the political spectrum can be extended at both ends to allow for limitless left-wing and right-wing extremes. The extreme, by definition, is the "utmost part, utmost limit."
It follows that an "extreme center" is a contradiction in terms, the extremes of the center being nothing more than the beginnings of the moderate left and moderate right.
But "extreme" has another meaning, a behavioral one that evokes an image of intransigence and violence. In news reports and common parlance, this second meaning is blended with the first and then ascribed to the left and right, but by definition never to the center.
By the same token, "moderate" has a purely quantitative meaning, as in a "moderate amount" or "moderate placement." However "moderate" also connotes "fair-mindedness" and "not given to excess." Again, the two meanings are conflated, and the political center is said to be occupied by moderates who, by definition, cannot be excessive or immoderate.
Other laudable concepts are associated with centrist moderation. Political moderates in various countries are described as defenders of stability. But whose stability? For whose benefit? At whose expense? Centrist moderates are "pragmatic," "un-dogmatic," and "free of ideology," a judgment made by ignoring, say, Chile, where the Christian Democratic centrists supported the fascist overthrow of a democratic government because, like most centrists, they were far more afraid of those to the left of them, even a democratically elected coalition of leftists, than they were of the militarists to the right who tore up the Chilean constitution and murdered thousands.
As our unexamined political vocabulary would have it, the moderate centrists can do no evil, while the immoderate extremists can do no good. In truth, those who occupy the mainstream center are capable of immoderate, brutal actions. It wasn't fascist extremists who pursued a massively destructive war in Indochina. It was the "best and the brightest" of the political center, the extremists of the center, the moderate extremists, if you will. These same moderates supported the overthrow of popular governments in Guatemala, Indonesia, Iran, and Chile, and helped install fascist military regimes in their stead.
It wasn't the leftists or rightists who waged a war against Yugoslavia, with its repeated bombings of civilian populations and its military assistance to ex-Nazi Croatian and Muslim Bosnian separatists.5 It was that paragon of centrism Bill Clinton and all the centrists and moderate liberals who stood shoulder to shoulder with him and with NATO and the CIA (along with a gaggle of those anarchists and Trotskists I mentioned earlier who convinced themselves that the destruction of the Yugoslavian social democracy was a blow against Stalinist communism).
The crucial point is that those who occupy the extremes of the political spectrum (in accordance with beliefs about changing the politico-economic order) are not necessarily extremists in the pejorative or moral sense. We might ask what is so extremist about landless peasants and destitute laborers in countries such as El Salvador taking up arms against death squads and starvation? What is so moderate about governments that maintain such repressive conditions? A glance at the many miseries of the Third World should tell us that extremism, in the worst sense of the word, is embedded in the prevailing "moderate" stability.
Our understanding of politics should allow us to distinguish between racists and anti-racists, between those on the "far left" who work with low income ethnic minorities and those on the "far right" who want to exterminate low-income ethnic minorities. But the presumptive label of "extremism" imposed by centrists is designed to blur just such essential distinctions. Indeed, the French go so far as to fashion a slogan, les extremes se toucbe; the extremes extend so far that they "touch," that is, they resemble each other and end up doing the same things. That is a rare thing if ever it does happen. At opposite ends of the political spectrum, the extremes stand for quite markedly different socio-political worlds.
The question of who is and who isn't an extremist in the moral sense, then, is not to be settled by resorting to a linear political spectrum. Different varieties of extreme moderates or centrists have long been in power. In collaboration with the rightists, they have given us Vietnam, Watergate, global counterinsurgency, gargantuan military budgets, dirty wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a regressive tax burden, huge corporate subsidies, and the promise of a rigorous repression of dissent—all in the name of security, stability, patriotism, religion, family, and other such things. Look then at what they do, not at how they are labeled.
1. New York Times, 22 August 1996.
2. See the discussion in Michael Parenti, Superpatriotism, 2004. , pp. 111-32
3. Frank Scott, editorial in Coastal Post, (Marin County California), 1 February, 1996.