Thursday, July 31, 2014
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The Future of Ideological Conflict

WARWICK – The just-concluded French presidential election seemed to suggest that the old left-right divisions are as potent as they have ever been – and certainly in their birthplace. But are they?

The modern political spectrum is an artifact of the seating arrangements at the French National Assembly after the revolution of 1789. To the right of the Assembly’s president sat the supporters of King and Church, while to the left sat their opponents, whose only point of agreement was the need for institutional reform. The distinction capitalized on long-standing cultural associations of right- and left-handedness with, respectively, trust and suspicion – in this case, of the status quo.

In retrospect, it is remarkable that this distinction managed to define partisan political allegiances for more than 200 years, absorbing both the great reactionary and radical movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But the decline in voter turnout in most of today’s democracies suggests that this way of conceptualizing ideological differences may have become obsolete. Some have even argued that ideologies and parties are irrelevant in an increasingly fragmented political landscape.

But one division that looms on the horizon could reinvent the right-left distinction for the twenty-first century: precautionary versus “proactionary” attitudes toward risk as principles of policymaking. In social psychological terms, precautionary policymakers set their regulatory focus on the prevention of worst outcomes, whereas proactionary policymakers seek the promotion of the best available opportunities.

The precautionary principle is the better known of the two, and increasingly figures in environmental and health legislation. It is normally understood as the Hippocratic Oath applied to the global ecology: above all, do no harm. By contrast, the proactionary principle is associated with self-styled futurists, for whom being “human” is defined by our capacity to keep ahead of the game when taking calculated risks, whether by benefiting from success or learning from failure.

The difference between the two principles is most clearly apparent in their implications for the relationship between science and technology. Precautionary policymakers invoke scientific uncertainty to curb technological innovation, whereas their proactionary counterparts encourage innovation as an extension of scientific hypothesis testing.

They also differ subtly over their conception of humans. Precautionary types aspire to a “sustainable” humanity, which invariably means bringing fewer of us into existence, with each of us making less of an impact on the planet. Those with a proactionary bent are happy to increase the planet’s human population indefinitely as nothing more or less than a series of experiments in living, regardless of outcomes.

Not surprisingly, conventional political and business leaders are not entirely comfortable with either group. After all, precautionary policymakers would have business value conservation over growth, while the proactionary camp would have the state encourage people to transcend current norms rather than adhere to them. A precautionary firm would look like a miniature version of today’s regulatory state, whereas a proactionary state would operate like a venture capitalist writ large.

But perhaps most conspicuously absent from both precautionary and proactionary thinking is the old welfare-state ideal – that we might procreate at will in a world where our offspring are assured a secure existence. For all of their substantial disagreements, both sides dismiss this prospect as a twentieth-century fantasy that was only temporarily realized in Northern Europe for a few decades after World War II.

Lurking behind this dismissal is a sense that humanity itself is undergoing a massive transformation in its self-understanding. However, that transformation is moving at once in two diametrically opposed directions, which I have called “Humanity 2.0.”

Precautionary types would reacquaint us with our humble animal origins, from which we have strayed for much too long, whereas exponents of the proactionary principle would expedite our departure from our evolutionary past. At the very least, they would re-engineer our biology, if not replace it altogether with some intellectually superior and more durable substratum.

To be sure, the precautionary and proactionary principles remain relatively marginal to mainstream political discourse. But they have the potential to shift the ideological axis by 90 degrees. The right is currently divided into traditionalists and libertarians; the left into communitarians and technocrats. In the future, I suggest, the traditionalists and the communitarians will form the precautionary pole of the political spectrum, while the libertarians and technocrats will form the proactionary pole.

These will be the new right and left – or, rather, down and up. One group will be grounded in the earth, while the other looks toward the heavens.

Read more from our "Stiglitz on America" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedMichael Griffin

    The new division makes sense, but I'm not sure how predominant it will actually be--will traditionalists really value their mutual suspicions more than their dislike of hippie communalists? Will a mutual love of technology overcome the technocrats' and libertarians' radically different views on society and government?

  2. CommentedTom Slocombe

    I do not think that what we saw in the recent French presidential election was reflective of a traditional left-right battle; what was most evident in the Sarkozy/Hollande debate was an attempt to win as much of the electoral spectrum as possible, whether it be through capturing support from the financial elite through social cuts or more extremist pools of support by advocating anti-immigrant legislation. The lack of a genuine underlying theme in either campaign I believe reflects the coalescing of the "left" and "right" under the banner of a general neoliberal capitalist model of governance that is prevailing in Europe and beyond, with economic imperatives often stifling the operation of the political realm.

    The precautionary and "proactionary" distinction is an interesting one to make, but it is questionable as to whether there is any "proactionary" politics to speak of here. On one hand there is a commitment to regionalism based on free market economics, which is homogenising the globe and reinforcing the power of large states such as the US. On the other, reflective of the Front National's relative success, is a promulgation of a return to protectionism, re-industrialisation and distancing from the main tenets of the EU.

    Perhaps the most "proactionary" approach at present would also appear one of the most precautionary or "animal": a recognition of the imbalance of wealth and power in France and beyond, and a return to stronger representational local politics, sustainability and lower economic disparity. A reigning in, as it were, of the attempt to constantly advance technologically, which can lead to such eventualities as over-consumption, poverty and environmental degradation.

  3. CommentedJohn Doe

    Respectfully Steve, as regards the United States, you have no idea about what you are talking.

    1. There is only one issue in the United States: abortion. It trumps everything, making it impossible to move in any direction, which is exactly what both sides want.

    2. Precautionary types are as irrelevant now as when Cicero lead the same sorts of people against Caesar.

    3. A secure existence is more at hand than ever before and yet farther away. Why? Jealously and mistrust are easier to create and we lack a political system capable of electing leaders with the ability to do anything about it. Look at how pathetic Obama is compared to the tasks before him.

  4. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I think voter's apathy has many reasons, for example today most people realize the party politics have become self-serving, totally disconnected from the public elected politicians should actually serve, and also that our leaders are standing desperately helpless in the face of the deepening global crisis and only care about their own personal agendas, legacies, re-election prospects.
    Besides today's "left and right" are extremely close to each other, both serving the same system, the same misguided "constant growth, expansive" model that keeps their financial supporters happy.
    Our present political and economical system is in a deep crisis, and the way out of the crisis requires fundamentally new attitude, new program, returning to a natural, comfortable, sustainable lifestyle in terms of economics and true, transparent, independent public representation in terms of politics.
    Regarding the "precautionary and proactionary" split the author suggests, I am not sure it would represent any higher level of development, it would simply rearrange our present separations along different lines.
    But the separation, misunderstanding and usual stand-offs would remain, originating from a single reason: We have no idea about the natural system we exist in, thus either we are afraid to move forward fearing the consequences, or we go "boldly", destroying, harming, depleting until we cross a point of no return.
    The true "next stage" of human evolution is a stage when we examine our global, integral, interdependent system to the last detail, we understand we are part of the system (not above it like a child in a toystore), and that we have a special role within the system to facilitate its harmony and homoeostasis.
    Armed with such knowledge, and educating it to each and every human being we would not need to be either precautionary nor proactionary, we could simply live our lives with our eyes open seeing the direct cause and effect relationships in whatever we do.

  5. CommentedVincent Garton

    This is a fairly typical bit of liberal confusion (and I recognize it isn't Professor Fuller's argument). Voter apathy doesn't show that ideological differences have become obsolete; the elite's consolidation of a technocratic "centre" and its belief that ideological differences are obsolete have caused voter apathy. "Post-ideology" ultimately just means hegemonic ideology. This is why the far right has surged in Europe: since the left has been absorbed into this elite consensus, it's only the far right that offers an ostensible alternate to the "post-ideological" elite.

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