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Storm Warning: Are Left and Right Obsolete?

Charlene Spretnak is author of two books on Green analysis and vision: Green Politics (1984; out of print) and The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature, and Place in a Hypermodern World (Perseus Press, 1997), which was named one of the best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times. She is also author of States of Grace: The Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991). In 1984 she co-founded the Green Party movement in the US, which resulted eventually in several state-level Green Parties attaining ballot status.

Aaaargh. To ask a Green whether "the long-running practice of viewing the political/economic landscape in terms of left vs. right is still useful" is to elicit gnashing of teeth. For more than twenty years, the Green Parties around the world (now numbering over seventy) have used the slogan "Beyond Left and Right" to place an ecologically sane and community-based political economy off the narrow spectrum allowed by modern political and economic theory. The fact that a symposium in a savvy magazine like Whole Earth now ponders such a reframing as a new topic is, alas, more painful evidence that Green political analysis has not spread much beyond our own circles, especially in the United States.

In the nascent days of Green political/economic theory, the phrase "Beyond Left and Right" was coined to express a fundamental contrast between state socialism and corporate capitalism. Rather than an economy owned by either the state or huge corporations, the Green economic model favors spreading wealth and ownership as broadly as possible, in such ways as strengthen the fabric of communities. A second meaning of the Greens distancing ourselves from left and right is the rejection of industrialism, the modern belief that progress demands sacrificing everything to the demands of industrial (and now postindustrial) expansion. More fundamentally, the Greens reject the adherence of both left and right to economism, the modern sense that economic relations, and their various ramifications, are the primary factors in life.

In fact, the left and right share a great deal of common ground because they are both imbedded in the ideologies of modernity. They agree that humans are essentially Homo economicus, that material expansion brings well-being and the evolution of society, and that Progress through technological invention delivers us to increasingly optimal states. They share a mechanistic view of the human body and the rest of nature. Most importantly, modern culture defines itself as a triumphant force progressing in opposition to nature. Consequently, moderns harbor contempt for non-modern cultures, which are seen to be "held back" by unproductive perceptions such as the "sacred whole" and by reciprocal duties to the rest of the Earth community. Finally, modern societies are sometimes called hyper-masculine because "masculine" traits such as a persona of rationalism, a preference for dominance-or-submission structures of relationships, and a need for competitiveness are valued more highly than "feminine" traits such as empathy and compassion. (For a fuller discussion of modernity, see my most recent book, The Resurgence of the Real.)

While the Green analysis has circulated almost solely in alternative publications (and has often been misrepresented, by the way, in left/progressive magazines), a thoroughly pernicious version of "Beyond Left and Right" has been touted on editorial pages of major newspapers, policy briefings, and presidential speeches. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, as well as their counterparts in most countries, celebrate the new era of "liberalized" trade?that is, the New World Order according to multilateral trade agreements such as GATT (the General Agree-ment on Tariffs and Trade), and their regulatory/administrative agency, the WTO (World Trade Organization)?as an advance into a "post-ideological" age, leaving behind all that head bashing over left and right. What they mean is that all areas of human life should now shut up and get out of the market's way.

One could hardly imagine a more ideological option than "free trade" as currently defined by GATT and enforced by the WTO. Essentially, the new "free trade" means that transnational corporations (TNCs) are free to do nearly anything they want. Democratically elected national governments now must change their own laws or else pay "damages" if a corporation wins a judgement from the WTO upholding the corporation's complaint that, say, an environmental law is "prejudicial" to its product. Communities and entire countries are now vulnerable to the invasion?and abrupt departure?of TNCs. In short, the renegotiations of GATT did an end run around the United Nations and established a highly ideological global rule by the oligarchy of TNCs. For this reason, Ralph Nader's presidential campaign this summer and fall on the Green Party ticket specifically challenges the oligarchy of ever-spreading and inherently undemocratic corporate influence here and abroad.

For those who like to think in terms of polarities, though, one way to do so today is to consider the Localists vs. the Globalists. The Localists/Regionalists insist, with justification, that GATT must be radically renegotiated?"Fair Trade, not 'Free' Trade"?so that communities, regions, and nations have some protection from the rapacious TNCs, who are under pressure to greatly increase profits every year. The Localists/Regionalists want to develop regional trade (such as South-South) and community-based economics (keeping money circulating largely within the local and regional area, along with some long-distance trade that is structured fairly). The Globalists view all that as anachronistic; they champion, instead, a global mass culture and globalized economy controlled by the big players.

Another oppositional pair is Proponents of Ecological Sustainability vs. the Free-Marketeers, the latter having managed to make environmental crises non-issues in most governments until various ecological disruptions claim attention...for a while.

Then there is the opposition of the Slow-Growth Folks vs. the Pave It Over Now Group in nearly every locale.

And let's not forget All the People Who Are Concerned that Children Are Being Raised to Be Illiterate, Apathetic, Manipulated, Techie Consumers vs. the Forces of Expanding Commercialism.

Or one might cite People Dismayed That Spirituality Has Been Widely Reduced to Narcissism, Stripped of All Social, Ethical, Ecological, and Cosmological Dynamics vs....who?

In every one of these pairs, the first group I have mentioned opposes vast centralization of wealth and ownership because it skews societal power relations in severely undemocratic ways?yet the vision of those first groups is different from that of the traditional left and most of its contemporary versions. There is and always has been much common ground (for example, anti-nuclearism and anti-militarism), but the gestalt is not the same. The eco-social analysis has a different grounding. The vision is Green.