The fundamental political conflict during the first part of the 20th century was staged under the sign of imperial confrontations between western industrial powers over the control of colonial territories and international markets. World War I broke out against the background of this panorama full of exacerbated hegemonic ambitions and regional diplomatic tensions. But the attention of the international media on that military drama hid an even deeper, more structured tension, based on the distrust of liberal democracies that accompanied the irruption of modernity.
The creation of the Weimar Republic in Germany at the end of the war replaced the traditional autocratic structures of the Wilhemian Reich, promised the definitive victory of democracies, and initiated, in the cultural sphere, an unprecedented avant-garde creative energy. Simultaneously, The Wilsonian spirit, which granted a universal prestige to American liberalism, dominated the western world. The disintegration of the Austrian empire into national republics, and the creation of the League of Nations bore witness to this new, international political order. At the time, liberal democracies, allied to market economies, claimed the recognition of having created the basic institutions of political and economic modernity and defined themselves, therefore, as leaders of human liberties, social progress, and cosmopolitan culture.
Through the creation of the Welfare State, the liberal model assumed the responsibility for economic prosperity, equity, and social justice. In other words, democracies incorporated their modem, secular faith in a trans-funned universe of institutions, social programs and fundamental myths that carried the idea of progress in all its components: political (liberties), economic (prosperity), social (equality and social mobility) and cultural (illustration).
Nevertheless, while the prestige of the liberal left-wing expanded, non liberal movements also emerged. These movements saw in political and cultural modernity a challenge to natural and historical authority, putting the essential nature of civilization and its institutions at risk. Committed to an autocratic, essentialist, and romantic (nationalist) sensibility, these right wing sectors rejected the legitimization of modem parliamentary democracy and organized themselves around authoritarian and paternalistic political movements that incorporated military values and the cult to a leader or father (the Führer principle).
It is worth noting that the anti-modernism of pre-war, right-wing movements refers only to political and cultural areas. The animosity against republican parliamentarianism and the disdain of the cultural avant-gardes did not extend to modern economic structures (capitalism), or to scientific and technological developments that had transformed the organization of the economy and the State. On the contrary, the consolidation of big financial, metallurgic, pharmaceutical, and media related companies was presented as examples of scientific advances and technological efficiency, while American Fordism was accepted as a working model of industrial production. It is not surprising that in national socialist Germany, engineers constituted the sector with greatest social prestige, while the radical distrust towards the cultural avant-gardes forced an enormous population of intellectuals and artists to exile. Because the rejection of modernity by the rightists was selective, the dominant mentality of the conservative movements of the 1930s, supported by religious and military institutions under the protection of an essentialist (and racist) nationalism, has been designated by several historians as reactionary modernism.
During the first half of the century, the focus of World political antagonism centered on the 1917 Bolshevik revolution that overthrew the Russian Czar, implemented a communist regime, and created the Soviet Union (USSR). Equally critical of the parliamentary structures of liberal democracies whose main function was considered to be the preservation of the capitalist order, revolutionary thought proposed the universal emancipation of the modem world through a reorganization of production structures under the direct control of a secular, centralized State led by a proletarian party. Lenin”s influence on the Bolshevik political ethos was able to modify the traditional Marxist vision, creating a political hybrid where the revolutionary social spirit of a world without classes coexisted with an autocratic state, built on the distrust toward democratic liberal institutions. The Soviet regime, therefore, combined notions of the humanist Marxist left-wing in their social program, but borrowed from the right-winged autocratic mentality in order to organize the structures of right administration of power.
The global perception of the Soviet experience, however, posed a threat arising from the extreme left, which sought to eradicate the power of the traditional stratum (including the commercial bourgeoisie) and to take away the predominance of capital in international economy. The Soviet objective of exporting the Bolshevik revolution, at the expense of both rightist autocratic regimes and democracies alike encouraged the enmity of the western world.
At the beginning of World War II, the ambitions and power of the totalitarian right-winged States of the time (Germany, Italy, and Japan) forced a left-wing alliance between revolutionaries (the Soviet Union) and western democracies led by the United States and the United Kingdom. By that time, the left-wing in the United States had incorporated moderate progressive elements that privileged political rights and individual freedom, while more radical sectors articulated a voracious critique to the structures of predatory capitalism, advocating for social emancipation as the supreme political value. In spite of their visionary and strategic differences, however, all leftist sectors shared their disdain for the reactionary, totalitarian, paranoiac, racist, militarist, and expansionary policies of the regimes that represented the right-wing mentality of the 1930s. The Spanish civil war (1936-1939) illustrates that conceptual state of the international political atmosphere. While the right-wing applauded and supported Franco`s uprising, the left-wing enthusiastically supported the Republic`s efforts to resist the hardships of the reactionary rebellion.
In short, with the eruption of World War II, the antagonistic fields of world politics were clearly defined both in its visionary components and in its political representations. It is not surprising, then, that the definitive defeat of the Axis in 1945 elevated the prestige of the liberal tradition to unusual levels. The dismantlement of fascist dictatorships (with the exception of Spain), the peace in Europe and in the East, the decolonization of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, the creation of the United Nations, and the economic domination of American capital promised years of democratic stability, with social and cultural progress. At the same time, however, movements of national liberation developed and consolidated everywhere. Many countries, uncomfortable with the erratic and incoherent nature of the de-colonization process and anxious to take advantage of the historical circumstances of a world political climate favorable to decolonization, adopted the rubric of international communism as emblem of their national and social aspirations. The best-known examples are China and Cuba, whose notoriety arises from the unexpected success of explicit hostility towards the United States.
But the nuclear era inaugurated by the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not take long to create a new antagonism between western democracies and the Soviet Union. The latter, encouraged by the success of its “Great Patriotic War” and its access to nuclear weapons (nuclear parity) distrusted the intentions of its former allies. The Stalinist regime, paranoiac and non liberal, challenged the American hegemony with an extensive militarization program based on new technologies, while offering support to the multinational movements of national liberation. Internal political repression, originally established to consolidate Stalin`s dictatorial power and later extended at the outset of the war, found a favorable environment in the new climate of international antagonism in the so called Cold War.
Meanwhile, Western Europe was being reconstructed with the support of American capital (through the Marshall Plan), and the United States initiated a massive campaign of world propaganda against the Soviet Union, its allies, and the international revolutionary movements. The American government proceeded to restructure its diplomatic, military, and intelligence mechanisms in order to face the Soviet challenge, while limiting its liberal ideology to the issue of political rights, leaving behind the most radical social programs of progressive traditions. McCarthyism served as a political tool to associate liberalism with the enemy`s objectives and to displace radicalism from electoral and media arenas. After McCarthy, the left-wing withdrew, except for some outlying isolated groups, to a narrow moderate space that began to extol patriotic values and state paternalism over the social goals of emancipation.
The right-wing, however, recovered with strength. The Cold War seemed to validate the notion that political nature posits a permanent antagonism where the opponent is not an adversary with whom to debate (according to liberal ethics), but an enemy (external or internal) that must be destroyed by using the power of State. On the other hand, welfare institutions started to show unexpected fissures, weakening their social promise of vindication. During the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, in spite of the attempt to restore the prestige of the State as provider of social justice (”The Great Society”), the bureaucratization of federal institutions created a favorable atmosphere for reforms under the new neo-conservative symbol of the free market.
The United States began to show, as well as its European allies and satellite states, the intrinsic weaknesses of a liberal order that did not keep its promises of equality. The hope of universal prosperity and permanent progress promoted at the end of the war shattered when faced with the persistence of inequality and exclusion, while the expansion of global capital in an atmosphere of unprecedented technological development explored new forms of organization apart from the controls of the National States. However, the biggest enemy of the international left-wing during the first decades of the post war was the growing discredit of the Soviet Union, as the regime stagnated contradicting, in practice, the values of the traditional revolutionary spirit.
According to the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, the most consequential cultural event of rupture during the 20th century began with the student movements of 1968. These movements emerge from the disappointment caused by the evident inability of electoral systems to execute necessary social changes, and from a widespread recognition of the limits of traditional humanist canons of modernity. This resulted in rebellious acts everywhere with the objective of forcing changes in State policies and institutions. At that moment, the right-wing and left-wing began to be redefined outside the sphere of traditional utopias and binary oppositions between totalitarian and democratic systems. On one hand, a new postmodern sensibility became popular among cultural and academic circles stimulating skepticism and the abandonment of politics. At the same time, however, antagonistic sectors of left and right were now redefined under the sign of the New Left and the Neo liberal ideology.
The postmodern sensibility was able to exercise a deep critique of liberal principles in its universal, rational and individualist assumptions. This critique proliferated within academic and theoretical circles, particularly in college programs of cultural studies. Richard Rorty regrets that the effort of cultural studies programs to privilege separate sector identities has had the practical effect of contributing to the abandonment of the political and of the public sphere, with negative effects on democratic institutions and the common good. According to Rorty, the devaluation of politics implicit in the postmodern critique of traditional humanism and liberal norms annuls the possibility of action and real change in politics.
The decisive factor of the new world political configuration, however, is the emergence of a global economy that seeks to replace the regulations of the National State with self-regulating supranational institutions. A. new theoretical body, sometimes-incorrectly called neo-liberal but best known as neo-conservative (neo-com), has redefined the international right-wing without altering its essential mentality. Neo-conservative postures do not offer a direct critique of democratic order but rather suggest a modification of its institutions to the extent of divesting the States of their benefiting social function in favor of the free market.
Umberto Eco has said that fascism today no longer wears brown shirts; nor does it defend anti-Semite postures, or propose totalitarian order, or take a stand against democracy. Nowadays, without phalanges, without Nazi parties and without openly Fascist discourses and symbols, it is more difficult to recognize the countenance of right-wing groups.
We can affirm that until the 1950s, our political panorama still showed a certain synchronism with the modern antinomy between right and left as it prevailed in the world. While the local conservative right defended” the metropolitan regime (for it constituted the established sovereign authority), it accepted an advantageous participation in the economy and protected the privileges of the traditional lasses. The opposition to the regime organized in rebellious movements with ideological ties to the international left.
The nationalists, for example, proposed political emancipation through a radical program of national liberation under the principle of free determination that was borrowed form anti-imperialist European movements, mainly from the Irish. Meanwhile, there were organized liberal projects of modernization that tried to update government without abandoning the alternative of independence. Another radical sector, weaker in terms of popular support, but of an enormous political-cultural influence, came from the international socialist tradition that proposed, over other objectives, the implementation of a revolutionary social emancipation program
Within this diverse rebellious political activity, exacerbated by the apathy of the imperial regime, a modernizing liberal project located in the moderate political left of similar movements was able to exert its domination over the country”s political imagery in the late 1930s. The movement, propelled by the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), did not take long to consolidate its domination over State structures, through impressive electoral success (1941-1968) and with the American federal government`s overwhelming support.
While World War II (1939-1945) was interpreted as a battle for world prevalence between the totalitarian rightist regimes (the Allies constituted by Germany, Italy and Japan) and the Western liberal democracies (the Allies led by United States, the Soviet Union and the British Commonwealth), the victory of the Allies was perceived as the triumph of the democratic left over the authoritarian right. A historical period of peace and progress began with that victory. In other words, the political culture of the post war in Puerto Rico reflected the prestige and power of modernizing liberalism.
Soon after, however, when the alliance with the Soviets broke off and the Cold War began, the enemy of the United States (and the free world) became identified with the Soviet Union and the revolutionary movements that country supported all over the world. The Puerto Rican State under the Popular Democratic Party was determined to modernize the country without substantially altering the relationship with the United States. This geopolitical condition made it indispensable to shift towards the political center and to collaborate with federal politics in isolating rebellious political groups. The McCarthy strategy of criminalizing the radical opposition of nationalists and pro-independence groups was implemented locally. The objective was to undermine them as an electoral alternative. In this Manichean and paranoiac atmosphere, the terms left-wing and leftist became identified as enemies of the United States, of world peace and of progress.
The years between 1968 and the end of the Cold War indicate a tendency in Puerto Rico to abandon the old concepts of left and right in the political discourse. The establishment of the New Progressive Party (PNP), successor of the old right, is done with a populist tone that replaces outdated conservative slogans with a populist ethos that had benefited the PPD in the past.
During those years, political parties in other countries also began to redefine themselves as labor or socialist leftists and Christian- democrat rightists. Those terms, however, did not take hold here. Under the general notion that here we are different, the opposition between left and right almost disappeared from the political discourse, hidden under the adoption of a denaturalized populist discourse, based on the principle of State patronage, aspirations of social mobility, and the issue of status. That is how we were able to strengthen disinformation, deny our ability to put ourselves at the same level with the rest of the world, and contribute to our isolation and obsolescence. The unfortunate results are the first sign of political and institutional immaturity and, in a broader sense, the deterioration of cultural development.
In the wake of the new century, the commercial media in Puerto Rico contributes daily to that isolation. Their structural complicity with political parties, insisting that here we are different, is evident by addressing public issues from a partisan point of view on a daily basis. For example, it is a habit, in the name of impartiality, to include representatives from the three parties in all radio and television programs.
There is not a voter in the entire United States unaware of the fact that democrats lean more towards the left, and that republicans lean towards the right. During the 1940s and 1950s, following traditional ideological distinction, members of the PPD were democrats and members of the PNP were republican. Nowadays, however, such is not the case. The relevant symbol of identity for the electoral discourse, though much is heard about ideals, is the status issue. “Ideals” and political parties unite in a primitive discourse of a fundamentalist nature that undermines true political debate, relegating the most elementary principles of participatory action to ignominy.
Meanwhile, media practice in the international sphere continues to respect the ubiquity of binary left and right opposition. For informative purposes, the world media always identifies the electoral-contenders_-as rightists-or leftists. It has been this way for the recent elections in Uruguay, Spain, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Portugal, Mexico, Ecuador, Germany and more recently, Venezuela.
It is necessary to ask, therefore, if we are facing a crossroad, a historical circumstance that merits a realignment of the political forces in Puerto Rico based on the real political alternatives offered by the present world.
Long-standing historical structures define the limits of the political field from which situations and opportunities for action emerge; that is to say, spaces in which real social changes can be pursued beyond mere administrative succession. Isolation, however, condemns us to trivialization: to reduce political thinking to mere party politics, to disarticulate institutions, and to deny ourselves the possibility of actual change.
Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Tal Cual Editorial
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: September 24, 2010.
This post is also available in: Español