LEFT VERSUS RIGHT

[ Wed. Feb. 28. 2007 ]


Brian Eno
, musician

Interventionists vs laissez-faireists
One of the big divisions of the future will be between those who believe in intervention as a moral duty and those who don't. This issue cuts across the left/right divide, as we saw in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. It asks us to consider whether we believe our way of doing things to be so superior that we must persuade others to follow it, or whether, on the other hand, we are prepared to watch as other countries pursue their own, often apparently flawed, paths. It will be a discussion between pluralists, who are prepared to tolerate the discomfort of diversity, and those who feel they know what the best system is and feel it is their moral duty to encourage it.

Globalists vs nationalists
How prepared are we to allow national governments the freedom to make decisions which may not be in the interests of the rest of the world? With issues such as climate change becoming increasingly urgent, many people will begin arguing for a global system of government with the power to overrule specific national interests.

Communities of geography vs communities of choice
At the same time, some people will feel less and less allegiance to "the nation," which will become an increasingly nebulous act of faith, and more allegiance to "communities of choice" which exist outside national identities and geographical restraints. We see the beginnings of this in transnational pressure groups such as Greenpeace, MoveOn and Amnesty International, but also in the choices that people now make about where they live, bank their money, get their healthcare and go on holiday.

Real life vs virtual life
Some people will spend more and more of their time in virtual communities such as Second Life. They will claim that their communities represent the logical extension of citizen democracy. They will be ridiculed and opposed by "First Lifers," who will insist that reality with all its complications always trumps virtual reality, but the second-lifers in turn will insist that they live in a world of their own design and therefore are by definition more creative and free. This division will deepen and intensify, and will develop from just a cultural preference into a choice about how and where people spend their lives.

Life extension for all vs for some
There will be an increasingly agonised division between those who feel that new life-extension technologies should be either available to those who can afford them or available to everyone. Life itself will be the resource over which wars will be fought: the "have nots" will feel that there is a fundamental injustice in the possibility for some people to enjoy conspicuously longer and healthier lives because they happen to be richer.

Anthony Giddens, sociologist

"The future isn't what it used to be," George Burns once said. And he was right. This century we are peering over a precipice, and it's an awful long way down. We have unleashed forces into the world that it is not certain that we can control. We may have already done so much damage to the planet that by the end of the century people will live in a world ravaged by storms, with large areas flooded and others arid. But you have to add in nuclear proliferation, and new diseases that we might have inadvertently created. Space might become militarised. The emergence of mega-computers, allied to robotics, might at some point also create beings able to escape the clutches of their creators.

Against that, you could say that we haven't much clue what the future will bring, except it's bound to be things that we haven't even suspected. Twenty years ago, Bill Gates thought there was no future in the internet. The current century might turn out much more benign than scary.

As for politics, left and right aren't about to disappear—the metaphor is too strongly entrenched for that. My best guess about where politics will focus would be upon life itself. Life politics concerns the environment, lifestyle change, health, ageing, identity and technology. It may be a politics of survival, it may be a politics of hope, or perhaps a bit of both.

Nicholas Humphrey, scientist

How can anyone doubt that the faultline is going to be religion? On one side there will be those who continue to appeal for their political and moral values to what they understand to be God's will. On the other there will be the atheists, agnostics and scientific materialists, who see human lives as being under human control, subject only to the relatively negotiable constraints of our evolved psychology. What makes the outcome uncertain is that our evolved psychology almost certainly leans us towards religion, as an essential defence against the terror of death and meaninglessness.

Marek Kohn, science writer

The right, of course, is still with us; robust structures remain to uphold individualism and the pursuit of wealth. There is also plenty of room in the current orthodoxy for liberalism and conservatism of all kind of stripes. What's left out? Equality and solidarity—which takes us back to the egalite and fraternite of the French revolution, where the terms "left" and "right" came in. These seem to be fundamental values, intuitively recognised as the basis of fair and healthy social relations, so we may expect that they will reassert themselves. But as dominant ideologies fail to give them their fair dues, they will reappear in marginal and often disagreeable guises. Social solidarity may be advanced within narrow group solidarities; equality may be appropriated by demagogues.

Recent manifestations in central Europe and South America have been overlooked because they are accompanied by tendencies that rightly affront liberals. It is hard to imagine what could restore social solidarity and equality to the heart of political discourse, so we must expect that collectivist tendencies in our kind of polity will likely be largely confined to the bureaucratic management of resources placed under ever-growing pressure by economic growth and its environmental consequences.

Mark Pagel, scientist

Modern humans evolved to live in small co-operative groups with extensive divisions of labour among unrelated people linked only by their common culture. Co-operation is fragile, being the contented face of trust, reciprocity and the perception of a shared fate—when they go, the mask can quickly fall. The psychology of the co-operative group, of how we can maintain it and equally how we can control its dangerous tendencies—parochialism, xenophobia, exclusion and warfare—will often be at the front door of 21st-century politics.

The reasons are clear. The politics of the 20th century were expansive and hopeful, enlivened by growing prosperity. In the 21st century, increasing multiculturalism and widespread movements of people will repeatedly challenge the trust and sense of equity that binds together co-operative groups, unleashing instincts for selfish preservation. For politicians and thinkers, a pressing task at all levels of politics is to seek ways to manage these issues that somehow draw all of the actors into the elaborate and fragile reciprocity loops of the co-operative society. It sounds impossible, it won't be easy and there are no simple recipes. But if we fail, we risk sliding into xenophobic hysteria, clashes of culture, and the frenzied and dangerous grabbing of natural resources.

Lisa Randall, scientist

Debates today have descended into those between the lazy and the slightly less lazy. We are faced with urgent issues, yet the speed with which lawmakers approach them is glacial—actually slower than that: glaciers are melting faster than we are attacking the issues.

Steven Rose, biologist

Last century's alternatives were socialism or barbarism. This century's prospects are starker: social justice or the end of human civilisation—if not our species. To achieve that justice it is imperative that we retain the utopian dream of "from each according to their abilities: to each according to their needs," but needs and abilities are constantly being refashioned by runaway sciences and technologies harnessed ever more closely to global industry and imperial power and embedded within a degraded and degrading environment. This century's "left," just as that of the last century, is constituted by those groups, old or newly constituted, struggling against these hegemonic powers.

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