Monday, 21 May 2012


Reading or listening to Western journalists, analysts or mainstream politicians describe political parties one has no clue of what they really mean. Invariably, they label social-democratic groups as 'far left'; they place middle class environmental groups in the same category and call them radical left;  anti-globalization groups are in the same category as Communists; leftist rebels in Latin America are 'terrorists' without any distinction from Islamic or extreme right-wing groups employing para-military methods to achieve their goals. How can the news reader/audience possibly understand anything from the term 'radical' when the mainstream media uses it to lump together al-Qaeda, Colombian rebels FARC, environmental groups of varying types, social-democrat movements, and protesters against austerity programs? Is the intention of such rhetoric to inform, or to indoctrinate the audience toward conformity to the status quo?

Providing no explanation of the ideological and political terminology leaves the reader/listener/viewer confused and forced to associate anything politically evil with the terminology used. Why do mainstream media journalists, politicians and analysts, especially in the West deliberately use hyperbolic terminology to stigmatize any progressive group by lumping it together with fringe elements of varying types? Given that there is often no attempt to ascertain the details of the group's ideology and/or platform/agenda, and given that the loaded ideological/political terms have a different meaning today in different countries because society has moved toward a neo-liberal model under globalization, it is important for the reader/listener/viewer to look at the agenda or intention behind the rhetoric.

Just as Stalin and pro-Soviet groups used the term 'social-fascists' in the 1930s to describe those that were not Stalinists, and just as American journalists, politicians and some intellectuals in the 1950s used the term 'totalitarian' to describe both the Soviet Union as well as the Nazi and Fascist regimes, similarly today there is an amorphous term 'leftist' to describe anyone and anything advocating anything from environmental protection and minority rights to trade union rights and anyone opposed to neo-liberalism, globalization and military intervention in non-Western countries. This trend continued during the early Cold War in the US amid the Communist witch hunts when intellectuals, journalists and politicians endeavored to engender conformity among the general population, and it continues today during the age of globalization with the purpose of engendering conformity to the neo-liberal political economy. For example, in the 1950s a pacifist advocating abolishing nuclear weapons was a leftist, someone supporting Communism and the USSR.

As far as the critics of Franklin D. Roosevelt were concerned, he was a radical leftist, while as far as Stalinist were concerned, he was a social-fascist. Did these terms say anything at all about FDR, or did they really describe the critics ideological and political orientation? To some people, Obama is a radical leftist who appeases gays and Islam, while to others he is a mainstream Democrat who supports the sociopolitical and economic status quo while pursuing militaristic policies abroad. Is he either of those things, a bit of both, or something different? And what about cases of politicians who may be fiscal conservatives but have a progressive - left-leaning - position on sociocultural issues, or any such combination? Unless there is deconstruction to ascertain issue by issue the politician or political party, how well does the label 'left or right' serve the public? Today, mainstream media journalists, analysts and politicians expediently use terms 'far left' not to describe anything about the political party, person or position, but to stigmatize and defame, without really saying anything about the specific policies.

During the French Revolution of 1789, the terminology of leftist and rightist politics and rhetoric emerged. The term left designated the seating of Estate General representatives that sat on the left side of the assembly hall, and adopted progressive positions, that is, positions that benefited socially, economically and socially the Third Estate representing mainly the middle class, as opposed to the nobility and clergy represented by the second and first estates respectively. The French Revolution evolved from a moderate phase in 1789 to a more progressive phase in 1793, thus the term left evolved, because a leftist in 1789 was a moderate (centrist) in 1793.

In the course of the 19th century, as Europe was embracing increasing influences from the middle classes and workers during the dawn of mass politics, the terms left were attributed to anarchists, syndicalists, and socialists of varying types from Utopian to Marxian. Rightist politics became identified with those demanding either the preservation of the status quo, or reverting to a bygone era - hence the term reactionary, also made popular during the French Revolution.

The term 'centrist' emerged to describe mainly classical liberals and advocates of liberal democracy - both in the Lockean and Jeffersonian sense - those who believed in some compromise to the unrepresented classes of people in the bottom of the social ladder and outside the mainstream. The terms right, center and left have never had a fixed meaning across different nations or even within a country, considering that a radical in New York is not the same thing as in Mississippi. Such terms have always reflected society's political establishment and mirror the critics' ideological/political position rather than the position of the movement or person they describe.

In a more conservative Western society like America, the term left or radical could easily describe a centrist, whereas in a more progressive society like Norway, terms like left do not describe the same political ideology, group or party as in the conservative society. Moreover, a position that was once far left or radical, such as the right to collective bargaining for trade union workers, eventually became mainstream, and currently radical owing to neo-liberalism that prefers no collective labor contracts or any protection for workers. Therefore, we see that a program or position, which at some point in history in a particular country is radical, could evolve into a mainstream or status quo position and back to radical depending on political and socioeconomic conditions.

Clearly, the media, mainstream political parties and institutions mold public opinion to accept hyperbolic rhetoric describing political ideology, group or party as 'far leftist'. However, the self-proclaimed 'leftists' have had a hand in defaming the progressive forces, given that Socialist political parties across Europe have evolved into neo-liberal ones, embracing policies that are more accommodating to big capital and globalization than conservatives. This has been the case across Southern Europe. Considering that the Socialist political parties or Labour in the case of the UK are linked to trade unions also calling themselves 'leftist', the term has lost its meaning because the label and rhetoric may be progressive but the policies are neo-liberal and hardly different in essence from those that conservatives pursue.

When a genuine socialist or even social-democratic political party or group emerges, as in the case of Greece with SYRIZA, the entire Western media, analysts and politicians label it 'far left', or radical left. In essence, SYRIZA platform reflects policies that European Socialists or social-democratic parties of the 1970s would have embraced without raising an eyebrow. Clearly, what has changed is that society throughout much of the world, especially the West, has moved so far toward a market-dominated mode that center-leftist positions are now called far left, or radical left.

Varieties of progressive groups and political parties that emerged in 20th century open societies where women, minorities, and workers demanded political representation and basic human and political rights. This meant that left, center and right groups fell under a large ideological and political umbrella. The issue of whether there is a gap between ideological positions, actual platform and practices of political parties is another issue. Similarly, a left-wing politician in the US may be a Kennedy-style Democrat, while that same politician may be a center-rightist at best in Norway or Spain. Nor does the label left mean the same thing geographically in the US today as it did in during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

It could be argued that people want simple terms to describe politicians and do not care about specifics or nuances. Left-right political terms are subject to relativist interpretations that include factors such as geography, epoch, given societal and political conditions. The discerning 'consumer' of news and analysis would do well to investigate the intention behind the rhetoric, for as the philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein argued, intention behind words is of the essence and not necessarily the words. Finally, the only way to make sense of loaded terms that mainstream media, and politicians use is to examine the source using the terms.

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