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Left, right, or the good fight?

Tabish Khair in The Hindu

Bestselling author Amish Tripathi recently set people arguing with his contention that he didn’t “believe in left-wing and right-wing ideologies”; he was “just proud of the land” in which he was born, and its culture. Immediately, some of my friends assumed that I would be hostile to such a statement, but I agree with Mr. Tripathi – partly.

The matter of ‘Indian culture’ is easily resolved. Born in Muslim circles, where many claim a similar pride in Islamic practices, I have long looked at matters specifically. As a Muslim I am not proud of the fact that we give fewer opportunities and legal options to Muslim women at times, but I am proud of Islam’s egalitarian and charitable requirements. Similarly, as an Indian I am not proud of our cultural preference for male children and our caste prejudices, but I am proud of a lot of other things: our art, music, philosophy and literature, our civilised ability to live with differences, etc.

I am sure Mr. Tripathi means what I mean: like me, he is proud of the fact that we have an increasing number of women authors, scientists and politicians and not of the fact that we also have female infanticide. So that part of the argument is hardly a matter of controversy.

Making sense of the demarcation

The left-right divide – or its lack – appears more contentious. As I am usually associated with the left by people, except, I suspect, overly assured people on the intellectual political left, who happen to hold tenure in universities like Cambridge or inhabit cities like Delhi and London, I am expected to take exception to this part of Mr. Tripathi’s claim. But once again, I agree – partly.

Yes, the demarcation between the left and the right – in terms of political ideologies – does not make sense. It stopped making sense at least as far back as the rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. That is so because the left – as Karl Marx understood – needs to be contextual and relational. The main difference between the left and the right is that the left, if it is really the left, looks at a matter in the present context, and tries to judge it in that living and material context. The right, if it is really the right, depends on the authority of ‘custom’, ‘religion’ and similar inherited matters for justification. Failing to shut you up with ‘god’, it hits you with the fetishised ‘gene for crime!’

With the rise of Stalinism – and similar communist ideologies – a part of the political left basically started thinking like the traditional right. It started justifying its positions not by engaging with the living and the always changing world of people and their social relations, but by telling people how to live and think based on inherited ‘sacred’ ideas and texts. The fact that these texts were attributed to Marx or Lenin and not to the Gospel writers or Luther makes no difference.
Now, one of the problems the actual left has always had – because it (rightly to my mind) wants to engage with the lived materiality of social relations – is its tendency to privilege change. Because the actual left is particularly alive to changes and sceptical of tradition-based arguments, it tends to see change in largely positive terms. You have nothing to lose but your chains, thundered Marx and Engels, momentarily forgetting that people always have more to lose than their chains, and the poor have more to fear losing the little that they have than the superflux-rich.

Similarly, as the right bases its arguments on traditions and custom, it tends to believe that everything inherited from the past – as culture or religion – is necessarily good. This again may not be the case. Inheritances from the past might be good or bad; they might even have been good once and turned bad now. Similarly, a change might be for the better or for the worse.

An unwillingness to engage

Given this basic realisation, just as there are those on the left who think like the right, there are also those on the right who think like the left. In short, there are those on the left who act on the basis of inherited ideas that may have no validity today, and there are those on the right who test traditions on the basis of a lived engagement with the changed conditions of the present.

Actually, many of the political problems of the world today stem from exactly this situation: the fact that there are many on both the left and the right who are unwilling or unable to engage with the changing socio-economic relations of power today. For instance, the political left keeps talking of the proletariat even as workers have been cleverly changed into minor managers of their own labour by neo-liberalism, and the political right keeps talking of the free market of capitalism, even as neo-liberalism survives by enforcing governmental interference in the market but only on the side of the very rich