The Left’s Problem With Order, the Center’s Problem With Happiness, and the Right’s Problem With the Truth
by Benjamin Studebaker
There’s something wrong with the conversation in each of our mass movements today–the left, the center, and the right. Each one is missing something important, and because of this it’s difficult for perceptive people to feel truly at home in any of them.
To accomplish anything of value in politics, it’s necessary to have order. Order is what makes it possible to collectively pursue other things of value. It’s what allows us to take meaningful decisions. But orders cannot be sustained unless people believe in their value and abide by their decisions. An order has to justify itself–it is necessary, but it is not enough for people to find it self-justifying. North Korea has order, but it maintains that order by cultivating extraordinarily low expectations for itself in the hearts and minds of its people. Most of us want more from our orders than this–we want orders which help us to self-actualise, to pursue our projects, to be happy. We won’t cooperate with orders which consistently don’t make us happy.
The center speaks for the order we have–it emphasises the value of its order, the value of the institutions and norms that it defends. But it increasingly is unable to tell a story about its order which speaks to the values we have beyond order itself. The center can no longer convince us that its order makes us happy. Its order feels increasingly empty, even sinister. What’s it for? Why should we care about it when it doesn’t solve our problems–when it leaves us with stagnant wages, limited opportunities, and shrinking life prospects? We keep asking the center to do something to show us that it is serious about making its order do more than just sustain itself. We want an order which works to make us happy instead of telling us over and over that we should be happy when we’re not. But the center ignores us, tells us everything is fine, and urges us to go our merry way.
The right doesn’t buy the story. It’s sick of the center’s order. But the right’s solutions all involve trying to make the world more like it used to be. The right has nostalgic dreams about the 80s and the 50s and sometimes even the 20s. It remembers these periods with rose-colored glasses and it forgets the reasons why things changed. If manufacturing came back to the rich countries today, robots would get the jobs instead of people. If immigrants are kicked out or denied entry, they will create labor gluts in poor countries which lower costs and make our economies less competitive with those of the developing world. The cultural diversity which the right associates with its misery has little to do with it–the change comes not from the influx of different people from different backgrounds but from global economic integration and automation which increasingly leaves ordinary people behind. The right calls for strong leaders to protect it from these people, to “restore order”–but such leaders cannot bring them happiness and the “order” they would restore would be even more hollow and meaningless than the order of which the right has become so tired. The right tells compelling stories but there’s no truth in them. It is a movement built on lies and false hopes.
The left understands the economic origins of the problems which the right mistakes as racial, ethnic, or national. It understands that we can’t go on ignoring the mass unhappiness our order increasingly leaves unaddressed. But the left is order-phobic. It views powerful institutions like the state or major political parties as fundamentally corrupt, and it views the strategies and tactics necessary to capture those institutions as morally unclean. The left wants a politics of self-actualisation–it wants to prioritise happiness not merely in its policies but also in the political means by which it pursues its ends. Worse, it wants this self-actualisation on an individual level, making it difficult for people who self-actualise in different ways to work with one another. The left resists engaging with institutions, and it views efforts to engage with institutions and the constraints they impose as an assault on the purity and moral identity of its movement. It is so hostile to order that it is unable to tell a story in which its proposals to make us happy can be enacted or sustained through stable, lasting institutions. This makes the left increasingly irrelevant and allows the political debate to focus around the distinctions between the center and the right.
We need to be able to care about the importance of both order and happiness at the same time. Caring about order requires a sensitivity to what’s possible, what’s sustainable, what conditions allow. Caring about happiness requires a sensitivity to what’s ideal, what we care about, what our order is for. Without order, there is death, chaos, and power vacuums, and from these power vacuums spring authoritarianism–the very thing those who fear order seek to avoid. Without happiness, orders fail to inspire, and orders that don’t inspire can’t last anyway. The left can’t wait for us to all become good people who don’t need order to help us accomplish things. The center can’t wait for us to all lower our expectations and settle for the disappointing order it provides. If each persists in its respective failure, the right stands to gain. The right offers a clear vision of how to fix our order which answers both people’s questions of how they can be happier and how that happiness can be institutionally protected and sustained. The right may be full of it, but it is making some effort to talk about both order and happiness at the same time. The left and the center have forgotten how to do this–the former sounds utopian and the latter sounds indifferent to people’s needs. This must change.