Where did the modern left ideology come from?

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TUD experts asked: How the sociologist Felix Schilk sees the development of political left-right orientation schemes

In the past four or five years it seems to have become more and more common in the public climate to defame people who think differently or even political opponents by accusing them of being a leftist or - on the contrary - a rightist, and thus replacing content-related disputes with symbolic polarization . Donald Trump, for example, creates “left” enemy images and combines them with looting and violence. On the other hand, sometimes people in this country who are critical of the energy transition or an emphatically bicycle-friendly transport policy, for example, have to defend themselves against the accusation of being “right-wing”. The UJ interviewed Felix Schilk, doctoral candidate at the Professorship for Sociological Theories and Cultural Sociology at the TU Dresden and at the SFB 1285 »Invectivity. Constellations and dynamics of degradation «.

UJ: Actually, the political position determinations “left” / “right” come from different historical contexts and have something to do with the earlier seating arrangements in parliament, right?
Felix Schilk: The terms originally go back to the seating arrangement in the French National Assembly of 1789. On the left sat the republican supporters of the revolution, on the right the defenders of the monarchy and the ancien régime. This bipolar division was finally established in order to delimit political directions of the modern age and their ideas of society from one another. According to the Italian political scientist Norberto Bobbio, there is an essential distinguishing criterion; namely the understanding of equality and inequality. Left-wing politics assumes that inequality is a product of social circumstances and proclaims equality as a goal, while right-wing politics thinks society from a supposedly natural inequality of people. But this is not only a question of the image of man, but also an expression of different social interests and positions. Our societies are structured as a hierarchical field. Those who have a privileged field position legitimize this order by naturalizing social inequality. Those who do not have privileges question the legitimacy of this order by invoking the equality of human beings. In short, right-wing positions are more likely to be found among old elites who defend their privileges downwards, while left-wing positions are more likely to be found in upwardly mobile social groups who question the privileges of established milieus.

Often "rights" are also referred to as "conservatives" and vice versa. Where does this term come from?
From the root of the word, "conservative" means to preserve. Ironically, it was Napoleon first who wanted to preserve the revolutionary achievements and in 1799 subscribed to "conservative ideas." Only after 1814 did the concept of conservatism appear as a self-designation for reactionary forces, first in France, then in England and later as neologism in the German language. Reactionary means here that these forces saw themselves as a reaction to the revolutionary changes that they wanted to push back again. The opposite term to this is »progressive« and means that one understands oneself in harmony with a relatively linear social and historical progress. That is why one often speaks of a "left" and "progressive" camp and a "right", "conservative" or "reactionary" camp. In addition to the emphasis on equality or inequality and the various references to the idea of ​​"progress", the relationship to the existing institutions is central to this distinction. Rights are orderly and fear that the questioning of institutions, action routines or values ​​and norms will lead to chaos and uncertainty. On the other hand, leftists are of the opinion that the existing can be made better and fairer. In this sense, the sociologist Niklas Luhmann says: “Anyone who is for anything that can be described as ruling or ruling is conservative. Anyone who wants to emancipate is - even and especially if he wants to do this to others - progressive. "

Would you classify the CDU and CSU as more right-wing parties?
That would correspond to their self-image and also their electorate, whereby the CDU as a people's party must of course bring together very different political milieus. But if we take a very specific look at tax policy or education policy, we see that they are oriented towards ideas of “elite” and “performance” and that they are hostile to demands for redistribution and compensation for disadvantages.

What role did the situation after the Second World War play? The self-attribution "right" was then certainly avoided, wasn't it? Political parties, which according to the previous understanding would be considered "right", believed that they were in the middle.
This is above all a specialty of the FRG. After National Socialism, self-positioning on the right-hand side of the political spectrum was initially discredited and suspicious. That is why the CDU shied away from calling itself a "conservative" party in its early years. On the other hand, there was the notorious anti-communism, which put all "left" positions under general suspicion. In no other country is the "center" so symbolically charged as in the FRG. It was then a relatively successful strategy of the big parties to communicate their own contents as positions of the "middle" and to accuse the political opponents of radicalism. When the argument arises today that what is being said used to be quite "normal" positions of the political "center", we are again right in the middle of this struggle for symbolic occupation. "Middle" sounds like measure and normality, accordingly the majority of the population locates themselves in the social "middle". At the same time, the symbol of the center makes the reality of class society invisible. The German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) recently published a study on the distribution of wealth in Germany, which shows that half of the population owns over 98 percent of wealth and the other half actually has nothing. Therefore one should be skeptical if political actors refer to an alleged "middle".

What about positions on the energy and transport transition? Sometimes the differentiated advocacy of nuclear power or the internal combustion engine is referred to as "right". Aren't the political terms also used as a weapon of war?
First of all, it is a marker that enables it to be located in the political field. That may be one-dimensional and sub-complex, but it is the prerequisite for the formation of camps and coalitions, without which our political system would probably not function. In advocating nuclear power or the internal combustion engine, it is »right« to serve the interests of established industries and lobby groups, whose profits are now threatened by social and technical change. If you want, you can make an analogy to the social field here and apply it to the interests of "old" industries and "new" industries. Then "right" and "left" would not be moral, but analytical categories that help us to describe social conflicts of interest. On the other hand, there are typical argumentative figures and rhetorical tricks that we can locate on a left-right scale. The reference to “common sense” or the accusation that the political opponent argues “ideologically” are decidedly “right-wing” figures, while references to prejudices or stereotypical ways of speaking are typically “left”.

In recent years the term "new law" has appeared more and more often to characterize political positions. What's it all about?
“New Right” is a self-designation of extra-parliamentary groups that emerged at the end of the 1960s and want to aggressively rehabilitate right-wing positions. Today the New Right is mainly reduced to its racism and ethnic thinking, but at its core it is about strict anti-liberalism, the questioning of ties to the West and an elitist and hierarchical image of society. Politically, the New Right reacts to the structural change in industrial societies in the 1960s and has recognized that long-term anchoring in social milieus and the shaping of mentalities are necessary for the successful implementation of social projects. With reference to the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, she speaks of "cultural hegemony" and "metapolitics". Metapolitics describes the idea of ​​using tactical communication and discrediting political opponents to shift the realm of what can be publicly said and imagined, as you described at the beginning for Trump. This includes the reinterpretation and instrumentalization of terms such as democracy, freedom of expression and tolerance. Actors of the New Right are not concerned with participating in public discussions, but with strategic positioning. That is why we often find it so difficult to meet them in public disputes.

But isn't that also a normal political process? Where do you see a threat to democracy in this?
The New Right calls into question fundamental principles of liberal democracy, such as the equality of all people, the separation of powers, the protection of minorities and, in general, the idea that authority has to justify itself and is socially controlled. In the AfD, where there are strong ties to the New Right, prominent members are calling for the general suffrage to be given up and for a return to census suffrage. Right-wing parties, as we can see around the world, have a keen sense of maintaining power and generally use all mechanisms to weaken the opposition. Fair political competition then becomes impossible.

To what extent do we owe the polarization of the public climate and the apparently increasing renunciation of fair intellectual disputes also to the lure of »social media«?
Without the mediating function of the media, a complex society would not function at all. In this sense, Niklas Luhmann said: "What we know about our society, yes about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media." And social media are certainly doing their part today. As far as polarization is concerned, this is not a new phenomenon at all. Since the individualization processes and the change in values ​​of the 1960s, political communication has been increasingly target-group-specific. Political actors orient themselves on the results of election research and "frame" their terms accordingly. For this reason, Jürgen Habermas noted a »disintegration of the public« as early as 1962 and a little later the historian Christopher Lasch warned against the formation of »filter bubbles«. Social media may speed up this process, but it's more of a symptom than its cause.

The seriousness or objectivity of political or historical statements is always challenged with the remark that they came from a conspiracy theorist. When are these allegations justified?
A conspiracy theory is the explanation of events through the secret actions and evil intentions of elite groups. Depending on how irrational the explanation is and how absolute the claim to explanation is, one can differentiate between hypotheses, ideologies and delusions. If the possibility of a conspiracy is considered for a specific event, it is a hypothesis. That may well be true, as we saw in the Watergate affair, for example. If, however, a large number of events or even the whole of world history is attributed to the work of evil forces, then there is a conspiracy-ideological worldview that quickly takes on delusional traits. In this case, one will always come across anti-Semitic patterns, because modern anti-Semitism is based on the idea of ​​a Jewish world conspiracy and has developed stereotypical interpretative grids over centuries to which conspiracy theories are structurally connected.

Does the spread of conspiracy ideologies have something to do with the longing of very many people for simple explanations and solutions?
More like looking for connections and explanations. In this respect they are absolutely related to science, as Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer say about myth in the "Dialectic of Enlightenment": "Myth wanted to report, name, say the origin: but thereby represent, hold on, explain." Myths and conspiracy ideologies are reactions to experiences of impotence in a complex world. By suggesting causalities, they give back a piece of agency. Their identity function must be distinguished from this. Anyone who believes in conspiracy theories often thinks they are in possession of a special knowledge that enhances them compared to other people. The questioning of conspiracy theories is experienced by these people as a painful attack on their own person and their constructed self-image. That is why every criticism is often so aggressively fended off and every argumentative contortion is used. It is then less about the matter and more about asserting yourself and maintaining your own identity.

What possibilities do the sciences, such as political science and sociology, have of suppressing ideological thinking in the public sphere in favor of critical, knowledge-based thinking?
First of all, I would question the strict separation of science and ideology. Science is not just about progress in knowledge, but about success and visibility in an extremely competitive field. That is why we all also pursue science policy. Non-academic interests, career ambitions and a certain degree of conformism play a role here. In addition, by recruiting its staff, the university reproduces a very specific view of the world. About 90 percent of the chairs are occupied by university graduates. It would be ideological to deny the influence of these factors and to think that only objective knowledge production is taking place here. Ultimately, the decisive question is with how much self-reflection science is carried out and communicated. The opposite of ideological is not knowledge-based, but open to experience.

Mathias Bäumel asked the questions.

This article was published in the Dresden University Journal 13/2020 on September 8, 2020. The complete edition can be downloaded free of charge here in pdf format. The UJ can be ordered as a printed newspaper or as a PDF file from [email protected] More information at universitaetsjournal.de.