Making left wing politics work

My recent post on Simplified Politics was inspired by a Thomas Sowell quote sent to me by my friend Kristian:

The most fundamental fact about the ideas of the political left is that they do not work. Therefore we should not be surprised to find the left concentrated in institutions where ideas do not have to work in order to survive.

Now Kristian claims me as a conservative but actually my point was that neither of these two generalized political ideologies provide a complete match to how “we, the people,” behave. We are both selfish and empathic. Both seeking to better our own fortunes and helping others. We balance these opposite interests in our personal ethics – the choices and actions that we make every day. Politics, on the other hand, is how we balance these ethical interests when we try to live with other people, and the necessary agreements and compromises that come with making such a community work (or not).

What I like most about the Sowell quote, though, is its unadorned self-righteousness. Like any good conservative, he considers left wing politics and says “That’s well and good in theory – but does it work in practice?” And true enough, left wing politics have had a tremendously bad track record when it comes to turning its theories into viable practice.

But following that, I find that the strength of the left wing has never been its theory, which is usually naïve and passionate but nowhere near the thoughtful Realpolitik schematics presented by the right wing (for good or for worse). The left wing excels at its practice, and by extension draws remarks such as “That’s well and good in practice – but does it work in theory?”

And remarkably, it doesn’t have to. I find that when we don’t worry about making reality match our theories, as so many economists do, we can still surprise ourselves at what we’re capable of without being told otherwise. In a way, this is what is happening with digitally reproducible goods such as software, text, photos, music and film – the economics of which are being changed through the various intellectual property licenses which encourage open sharing contrary to the rationale predicted by all those economical theories.

To be fair, these theories all take scarcity as a basic premise, which is intrinsically not the case with digital goods. But it is still so with all kinds of physical goods. So, even if all that good practice succeeds in the digital realm, challenging not only conservative economic theory but also related political theory, the corporations and politics of the physical world will remain untouched and unchallenged.

Thus I’d like to see some way of turning the idea of a corporation up-side down. Usually, corporations only care about making profits for its stockholders, no matter how and likely at the expense of its employees, customers or competitors and with responsibility for any unsavoury actions firmly tied to the company rather than the individuals running it.

Being inexperienced (to say the least) when it comes to corporate law, I wonder if it is possible to invert this typical charter in the same way the GNU General Public License inverted the Copyright into the Copyleft. Would it be possible to institute a corporation which not only consider the interest of those investing in it, but also the interests and rights of anybody working, selling, buying, using or depending on the products of that corporation to such a degree as becoming something akin to an ethical obligation the way it is becoming in the digital realm.

I don’t know if this is simply something akin to the collectives and kibbutzes of yore, or the worker-led factory occupations as depicted in recent films such as “the Take.” I’d like to think that it is more than that.

What I think is needed is a kind of corporation that offers to build a social bond between producer and consumer that can help make production and consumption transparent to both parties, in turn affording a shared sense of mutual responsibility around their work and lives.

Take, for instance, a bottle sun lotion, for instance, as a (average) consumer, you have no idea about how it is made, what happens to it when left in the cupboard for the winter and how it actually protects your skin, yet you still rub it on your skin. Wouldn’t it be nice if you felt you could trust the people making this product enough to tell you the truth about this rather than having to fear that they might have ulterior motives such as seeking to sell as much sun lotion as possible?

I’m sure it would be possible to make such a upside-down corporation work. The problem would be, of course, that it would have a hard time competing with traditionally economic-minded businesses. In that case, I guess it comes down to branding. And I just adore the way a company like Innocent Drinks present themselves. I dare more companies to be so honest.

(and hopefully, the good practices will follow)


Add Yours →

hi andreas,

thanks for the thoughtful post… i agree with a lot of it and i like the idea of turning a corporation upside down. but i think some of the statements are a little too broad or pertain let’s say to the left of today and not the left of yesterday.. for example you say:

“But following that, I find that the strength of the left wing has never been its theory, which is usually naïve and passionate but nowhere near the thoughtful Realpolitik schematics presented by the right wing (for good or for worse). The left wing excels at its practice, and by extension draws remarks such as ??That??s well and good in practice – but does it work in theory??”

well, if we consider marx left, i think in many ways, his theory was quite strong and not just naive or passionate (on many fronts which is why we still study him) and had a strong strong impact on practice. so while many marxist inspired projects failed miserably, others, like the establishment of unions did not fail and added very important rights and safeguards, which are sadly being whittled away today.

I just mention this small point to emphasize how the theory of the left is not some unstatic thing but actually has quite a lot of nuance and sophistication. and i bet there is still some of it today that does but certainly this is not an era at all where leftist views hold much water because of the strong dominance of conservative politics. that is, the ways that theory even is perceived, has to do in part, with the broader social climate.

Hey, don’t ruin my lovely dichotomy! 🙂

Thanks for the comment. I know full well that I am, um, over-generalizing with this post, but it did spring for perhaps the most simplified view of politics imaginable and continuing in that vein seemed like the easiest thing to do.

Not the proper argument to pick, for sure, but it was intended to be playfully so. My point was merely that doing stuff first and then theorizing about has much better track record on the left. Not that left wing theory is bad in that way. I guess my argument is closer to David Graeber’s than I thought at first.

To know me is to love me 😉

Yes, the Sowell quote is terribly arrogant, which no doubt to some point is about provoking people into thinking about it.

Your observations on the quote are good but I actually think it goes both ways, which to me is the most interesting dimension in it. The free-market hardliners/libertarians and so forth are, to the best of my knowledge, usually found in the academic world, where their tremendously idealistic worldview isn’t tested by reality – but merely by the very convinced socialists that they meet on the university premises 🙂

And speaking of “Sowell” and “Quotes” – he has a collection of such (by other people) on his page, which is usually a bad thing. Not here – you can go see at:

Let me end with this with one by somebody named Joseph A. Schumpeter:
“The first thing a man will do for his ideals is lie.”

– who knows, perhaps this too could apply to both the left and right?

I like the Schumpeter quote as well. And I do think it applies to both left and right. Especially when it comes to lying to ourselves. But, most often, I guess it is a lie we need.

Kurt Vonnegut would call it a foma – a comforting untruth.

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