First published on 23rd June 2022.
What does it mean to be ‘left-wing’? Nowadays, buzzwords like ‘oppression’ and ‘inequality’ have replaced the old left-wing theories of ‘exploitation’ and ‘alienation’. Contrary to right-wing mantra, Marxism is out of fashion on the left — who on the left seriously reads Capital and cites the labour theory of value when arguing with right-wingers on Twitter? OK, perhaps quite a few. But something, needless to say, has changed. The left has shifted from a structural critique of the economy to a social critique of the culture which the economy has created. Once critical of class divisions, now the left attacks the patriarchy and the legacy of colonialism, without paying much, if any, attention to the political and economic foundations of these systems of oppression. But already we have conceded too much. If being left-wing just means being against ‘unfairness’, from the school yard to the South China Sea, then left-wing really means nothing. Life is unfair. But’s left-wing about this observation?
Instead, I’d like to define what it means to be left-wing in a completely different way. Even traditional notions of what it means to be left-wing seem to miss this observation, in favour of complicated ideas of class struggle. For what, indeed, is class in the modern world rooted in? What generates class divisions? Once upon a time, classes were tied to land, where serfs worked the land and lords reaped the benefits of their labour. Now, classes are tied to the market, where ordinary people sell their labour to their employers, who sell the products of their workers’ labour to generate profits that can be reinvested in production, and accumulated in investment funds. To be left-wing, I suggest, is to attack this rotten system at its core: the market.
What is the market? The market is an economic system of transactions between buyers and sellers. There are markets of commodities, like coffee beans and natural gas, as well as markets of stranger products like stocks and shares, and financial bonds for investment in the ‘real economy’ of physical commodities. All these markets share the inner division between the ‘x’ and ‘y’ axes of Economics 101 class: the supply of the ‘seller’, and the demand of the ‘buyer’. Equilibrium is reached as a compromise between these competing classes; but the equilibrium presupposes a division between the two, and is therefore hard to reach. Prices therefore oscillate wildly in response to changing material conditions and therefore varying advantages of the parties to trade. The market not only produces class struggle, by dividing the sellers and buyers of labour power (workers and capitalists), but also produces a great degree of technological dynamism. This combination of inequality and prosperity, underpinning by precarity and uncertainty, displays the colourful contradictions of the market economy.
To be left-wing is to reject this system, and to desire an alternative way of organising the economy. What this alternative way is is up for debate; and the left is divided between different views of how to organise the economy outside of the market paradigm. But if that was it, then the left should still ‘get along’: why must intellectual disagreement spill over into the outright bile that is poured over petty feuds between the warring factions of the left-wing magisterium? Perhaps because these factions are not merely warring; they are, moreover, trading.
See, by attacking the market, the left is attacking the foundation of the society we live in: a ‘market society’. In such an environment, the left can critique all it likes, but it is caught up in the contradictions of such a society. So the left does not have any reason to behave differently from anyone else when it comes to ruthlessly exploiting market incentive and selling its ‘products’ as dearly as possible, in order to survive — just like everyone else. But the left is met with the political accusation of ‘hypocrisy’: if you oppose the market, why are you relying on it for survival? Of course, this accusation is completely unfair: we are all trapped in this market economy, so we are all doing our best to survive in it. And since the incentives in a market economy are deeply perverse, we are compelled to exploit every advantage that comes our way. Everyone must behave as Dr. Faust to the devilish Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust: we must concede something to the market Mephistopheles in order to survive as doctors, or healers, of the ills that this market creates, and perhaps the ill of the market itself. But most people don’t realise this, and the left is confused and afraid.
As a result, the left concedes too much, and tries to behave in a way that doesn’t accord with any market incentive whatsoever. But this is unsustainable in a marketised world. So the left, in ‘repressing’ the desire to exploit every opportunity the market offers, inevitably allows this repression to spill over into the ‘catharsis’ of exploiting itself. In a society based on the market economy, exploitation of seller by buyer, of worker by capitalist, and even reversals of some of these unidirectional relationships are endemic to the system in which we live. In a market economy, exploitation is inescapable. To try to reject it is noble; but to pretend to escape it is foolish, and will lead any movement that tries to itself become a reflection of that which it rejects. Left-wing movements are so divided, in other words, because in pretending to escape market logics they fall prey to market logics more than any other organisation, and become caught up in the catharsis of their repressed market Mephistopheles. In Faust, the doctor overcomes the devil through guidance and patience. In left-wing movements, the market takes over the movement that inevitably fails to manage the monster it rejects but fails to overcome.
The left is trapped. If it concedes anything to market logics, it will not be left-wing. But if it tries to reject such market logics, it will also fail to be left-wing, because in the rejection of market logics it will create a repression that inevitably destroys the movement against marketisation, becoming instead a movement of marketisation. The left cannot easily escape its dominant function in modern society, that of accelerating marketisation of every aspect of human life, through giving false hope to the workers of the world. There is no escape. The sooner we realise that, the sooner we can start figuring out what to do next. Maybe then we’ll find out what it means to be left-wing.