On one side of the political divide is the intellectual Left. What’s on the other side?

The non-intellectual Right? A philosophy with just one very simple idea

October 2021

Last week my wife was invited to write an article for a non-English language publication described as being “on the intellectual Left”. It got me thinking. What’s the intellectual Right?

Is there one?

It’s relatively easy to define what’s meant by the intellectual Left. It’s those people who argue for greater equality, who want to see the rich taxed more, and who dream of a fair and just society. The sort who read Chekhov at the weekend, wear roll-neck jumpers with patched elbows, and eat vegan tofu sandwiches in their ivory, out of touch, towers.

That’s generally how the other side likes to portray them anyway, as a way to discredit them.

What really defines the intellectual Left is that their thinking is based on foundational principles which often have their roots in Greek philosophy. The Left’s ideas are based around the notion of fundamental rights – the right to work, to dignity and freedom. The principle of equality before the law. Protection against arbitrary detention. Justice.

Where the intellectual Left resides

What then of the other side? What of the intellectual Right? What is it’s thinking based on?

It’s based on principles too, and many sound much the same. The principle of individual freedom lies at the core of the Right’s thinking, though it extends further, so that it’s almost entirely unrestrained. Rather than promoting justice through a system of laws, the Right prefers to encourage justice without laws whenever possible. Regulations are viewed as unreasonable barriers to freedom, as are most forms of government. This justifies companies like Ryanair, Uber and Facebook ignoring laws when they find them inconvenient. To those on the Right, justice is about natural justice. It’s the natural reward that comes from hard work.

Taking the elements of the Right’s approach to human progress, and boiling them down to their essence, produces a relatively simple philosophy. The only principle of the Right is rule by the rich.

Capitalism, in other words. (Because wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a small number of people, capitalism means rule by the rich.)

Dewey Decimal category 330

With such a simple idea at the core, there is not much to say, and not much to write about. This is why there is no intellectual Right to speak of, populating the hallowed halls of the top universities. The Right is relegated instead to business schools (note the word), where students are given the chance to think as deeply as they can about the finer nuances of marketing (selling stuff), trading (moving stuff), finance (how to fund and account for selling and moving stuff) and economics* (which attempts to justify all this commercial activity with complex mathematical formulae).

Notably absent from the curriculum is the rather more taxing work of designing, engineering and manufacturing stuff.

As if to reinforce the lack of intellectual rigour, the damaging consequences of all this activity – the destruction of the natural world and everyone’s future – are casually dismissed as externalities, and ignored.

When I studied economics in the 1980s and 1990s (I even taught at a business school**) it was a slightly different. Then, almost every economist was seen as a rabid socialist (socialism means rule by society, by all the people), with a passionate interest in how to achieve pareto optimum – the best possible outcome for the greatest number of people.

But neo-liberalism put the next generation of economists through a brain-washer and took their principles away. So when people now win the Nobel Prize for economics, which is not a real Nobel prize – it was a set up in 1968 to legitimise neo-liberalism – it is for such ethereal and obscure work as “empirical contributions to labour economics”, and “the analysis of causal relationships” – research which sounds very impressive but is in reality intellectually questionable.

Must be the accounting and finance class

As the Right has very little intellectual to say, it focuses its efforts instead on making the rich look like heroes: people like Elon Musk, Jack Ma (until his detention), Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.

These people are portrayed as role-models, supermen who run the world with their radical inside-the-neo-liberal-box thinking, a willingness to skirt the law, and control over vast anti-competitive monopolies.

In essence, they are held up as examples to follow because they are extremely rich. To take the edge off the emptiness of this notion, to suggest warm-heartedness, much is also written about their philanthropic activities – about the moments they choose to hand out some of their riches, like alms to the poor, when they decide what’s best for society, despite being unelected businessmen.

It’s medieval: like a rich Lord deciding to be beneficent on occasion, with people falling to their knees to catch whatever falls from the golden purse.

Gordon, is it?

Of course, the super-rich say they want to make the world better, just like the intellectual Left. But those on the Right have an agenda which the intellectual Left does not.

At the core of almost everything the Right does is the desire to take money from other people, to profit from them as much as possible in the short term. They want to cover the costs of the goods and services they provide, reinvest for the future, and also skim off as much as they can for themselves. They are like gigantic magnets for other peoples’ money. That is their central, driving motivation.

OK, where’s the problem with that?, you might ask. It’s a free world.

There are many problems with this. It’s exploitative, extremely destructive ecologically and it creates social division. Unfortunately, these objections are easy to brush aside if you have a few business school professors in your pocket to provide a veneer of credibility, and they can convince people that capitalism is the solution to all these problems, despite being their cause.

Harder to sweep away is the challenge of climate change, which cannot be fixed in a world run by (let’s be blunt here) a comparatively small number of greedy, selfish people.

If the economic system – if the entire system of human progress – is based around a small number of people getting very rich, without let, hindrance or restraint – and to hell with everyone else – it’s impossible to slow the warming of the planet.

Just an externality. Ignore it.

How’s that then?

Almost everything societies need to do to slow the pace of planetary warming is incompatible with this short-termist, divisive, profit-driven system.

To slow the pace of climate change requires cooperation and long term thinking. Profitable businesses, such as those in fossil energy, cement and pesticide production, have to be closed. Oil, coal and gas reserves have to be written off. Huge investments have to be made in methane capture, in making public transport free, in banning landfill, in providing people with a basic income for life, and in the construction of sea walls to protect cities vulnerable to sea-level rises. None of this will make any money at all. Millions who have lost their land to droughts and wildfires will have to be helped for no financial return either, to avoid an unmanageable surge in migration.

Absolutely none of this is compatible with capitalism.

For everyone, the intellectuals on the Left as well as those on the Right, the basic question is the same: how can societies combat rising temperatures and ensure their long term survival?

For capitalists, the answer is troubling. They can’t.

This book on Natural Capital is just so funny

Graeme Maxton’s latest book, written with his wife, is A chicken can’t lay a duck egg. It explains why the economic system can’t slow the pace of the climate change and what societies need to do instead.

* Classical economics is a bit different from what’s taught today. Its most famous proponent was Adam Smith, who was a moral philosopher and historian, not an economist. His work focused on increasing output to reduce poverty, and raise average living standards. Despite his name often being invoked today, his ideas have very little to do with modern neo-liberal economics, which seeks to maximise output in order to boost the short term earnings of a small number of financial investors, i.e. the rich.

** I taught business strategy on the MBA Programme at CASS Business School in London for over 15 years. I also lectured for several semesters on banking and finance, and taught a course for several years on European Business.

Photo credits:

Laughing Boy, Ben White

Fantasy Tower, Donna Kirby

Books on shelf, conversationswithval

Schoolroom, Mouad Bouallayel

Gecko, Kate Che

Drought landscape, Sven Lachmann