In the last few years, many intellectuals, journalists and artists have openly started describing themselves as belonging to the right wing, or at least as ‘right of center’.
Before the current dispensation, ‘right wing’ was almost considered a term of abuse in public discourse due to its associations with totalitarian regimes such as Hitler’s Germany.
Similarly, the phrase ‘Liberal’ or ‘Left Liberal’ — once considered an ideal for anyone in politics to live up to (or at least pay lip service to) has lost much of its allure.
In fact, on some media like Twitter, describing oneself as a Left Liberal can often result in a volley of scorn being thrown one’s way.
However, as often happens with new classifications and terminologies, much of the outrage and scorn is based on an inadequate understanding of what these terms mean, and the underlying human tendencies.
LEFT AND RIGHT
In political terminology, the so-called ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ indicates one’s attitude towards ‘outsiders’ or ‘others’, or people unlike oneself.
In this context, outsiders/others could refer to people in your neighboring country, or within your country (such as minorities or people of different sexual orientation) who follow a different lifestyle.
The Left is characterized by its belief in the innate commonality underlying all human beings, and its openness to and attempts to build bridges with the other.
Leftist philosophy believes that people are inherently good, and that are few problems that cannot be solved through love and goodwill.
The Right, on the other hand, believes in caution when dealing with ‘others’.
It does not share the Left’s optimism that that people are essentially good, and in fact sees it as a dangerous misunderstanding that threatens the group’s survival. Instead of brotherhood and love, it views things through the prism of competition and strife.
While the Left relies on love, goodwill and optimism, the approach of the Right is shaped by caution, suspicion and fear.
The vast majority of ordinary people are neither left wing nor right wing, but are guided by their past experiences in deciding whether to trust another person or group, or not.
While the definition of Left and Right is hardly in contention, there is a lot of confusion when it comes to the term Liberal, as used in Indian political discourse today.
For example, can there be a right wing liberal as there is a left wing liberal?
Is Subramanian Swamy, who holds right wing views, a liberal, as he is also a passionate advocate of free speech and individual rights and opposes government overreach?
The word ‘Liberal’ is linked to the idea of freedom.
Specifically in the political context, it is linked to individual freedom.
A liberal is someone who believes in individual liberty, and who therefore opposes the state’s attempts to curb individual freedoms.
This is not to say that a liberal opposes the government in total: That position is reserved for the ‘anarchist’.
A liberal is a pragmatic anarchist who realizes that some amount of government is necessary for individual freedom to exist. He or she realizes that if there was no police or army, the physically weak would be enslaved by strong and subjected to their whims and fancies.
So, on the one end of the individual freedom spectrum is the anarchist — who detests all governments, and on the other is the totalitarian, who sees the individual merely as a medium for the group to survive.
For the totalitarian, the individual is not the end of existence. The individual is like a cell in the body, and doesn’t enjoy primacy of existence.
They see “too much” freedom granted to individuals as a threat to the efficiency and survival of the group, and stress on discipline and self sacrifice.
Hitler’s Germany, for example, was both right wing and totalitarian: It was afraid of the ‘other’, and also quashed individual freedoms for the sake of state glory.
North Korea is also a good example of a totalitarian system, where individual freedoms are curbed to reduce internal strife and ensure the survival of the nation. But it is not a right-wing totalitarian system, like Germany was.
Today’s confusion results from our belief that our attitude towards ‘others’ is also linked to our attitude towards individual freedom.
In other words, we assume that if someone is right wing (suspicious of others), he must also support a totalitarian government.
Similarly, it is assumed that if someone is very open towards other groups, he or she must value individual freedom very highly.
However, there is no logical or empirical evidence to suggest that it must always be so.
It is possible, like Swamy, to be perfectly skeptical of others/outsiders, while also nurturing a deep distrust of big, overarching governments and potential surveillance systems like Aadhaar.
In other words, it is perfectly possible to have a ‘right wing liberal’ and a ‘left wing authoritarian’, as is already seen in countries like the US.
Hitler, as already explained, was a right wing authoritarian suspicious of Jews and minorities, while Stalin was a Leftist authoritarian who quashed individual rights like Hitler did. Similarly, Mao Zedong was a Left wing totalitarian who crushed individual free expression.
In other words, being a Leftist doesn’t automatically make a person a Liberal, and being right wing doesn’t automatically make someone an enemy of individual freedom.