Where is the left middle?

Arithmetic majorities are meaningless when it comes to societal projects

Michael Jäger (editor of Freitag)

Two of the three parties that might form a Red-Red-Green coalition [i.e. a coalition between the Social Democratic, Left and Green parties in Germany] use the idea of the ‘middle’ in order to define their strategies. The third, what with bearing the name ‘The Left’, has a hard time doing the same. Some of its supporters can be heard proclaiming that any talk of a ‘middle’ is merely idiotic, empty rhetoric. In this, they unfortunately forget that the word ‘left’, seen just as a word, is equally as empty, and even more stupid. For what it’s worth, the idea of the political middle was coined by Aristotle, and he was certainly no dunce – so investigating its meaning might be an interesting exercise.

Aristotle’s argument runs as follows: behind the middle, we find the idea of the mean, where there is neither too much, nor too little. The obvious reference is to the merchant’s scales. If the weights are correct, the scales are balanced and the hand points to the middle. Then things are just. Virtue is to be guided by this: “In general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue.” The translation of these ethics into politics, which Aristotle already understood as the medium wherein the class struggle expresses itself, is rendered problematic by the fact that wealth results in pleasure, poverty in pain. The political middle then consists of those people who are neither too poor nor too rich to be interested in the maintenance of the common good over and above their own interests. This is an economically defined ‘middle class’ that separates the ‘extremes’ from each other and keeps their antagonistic interaction from endangering social stability.

The weakness of this Aristotelian conception lies in its erring on the quantitative side. Given that the mean stands between two quantities, the excess (too much) and the defect (too little), it is itself apparently only a quantity; for example, a moderate amount of wealth. Thus the demand that it is this middle class who should exercise political leadership will maybe only be supported by those of moderate wealth. But we should not overlook that Aristotle also deploys a qualitative definition of the mean: It is that which ‘one should’. At the beginning there is knowledge of a norm. Only insofar as it is followed does it develop its quantitative aspect, i.e. that one should avoid excess and deficiency.

An idea that ‘should be’

The idea of the political middle expounded some months ago by the [German] Social Democrats’ new party leader Sigmar Gabriel was fundamentally Aristotelian: one needs to have an idea and implement it in society. An idea of which one believes that it ‘should be’. If this is successful, the idea has become the new middle.

But at this point, a clarification is in order. If all Gabriel had meant to suggest was that ‘the middle class needs to be strengthened’, we could ignore his comments. The political middle, after all, today defines itself as the middle between ‘left’ and ‘right’, but one cannot necessarily say that the left half of the electorate is poor while the right half is rich. To use the terms of class analysis: in terms of social statistics, the overwhelming majority of voters belong to one or another fraction of the working class, if we include those ‘white collar workers’ who also produce surplus value. The refusal to establish a political middle within the electorate thus necessarily implies a willingness to contribute to the division of the working class.

But we need to pose the question in a more fundamental way: is it enough today to think with Aristotle’s ideas? Juergen Link’s concept of ‘normalism’ suggests that the answer is ‘no’. His point of departure is his diagnosis of a pervasive nihilism. Somewhat paradoxically, the term ‘normalism’ expresses the fact that it is the norm that has been lost; according to Link, Normalism’s answer to Nietzsche’s question whether we are not “constantly falling”: “of course they are, but only some fall ‘sideways’, most fall into the bell-curve belly of the Gaussian normal distribution.” This belly has to pretend that it is the norm. In normalism, it is the middle. Picture it thus: given that we no longer have a virtuous or any kind of goal that we can strive towards and which thus maintains us, we will all fearfully try to be just like everybody else. This leads to the emergence of several clusters of sameness, and the largest cluster forms the middle.

In order to belong to it, you follow the rules of its homogeneity, a process that is facilitated by competitions with ranking-systems: the more you are the first of the middle, the more certainly you are a part of it; the less you are, the greater the danger of being relegated to the second division. The inverse also applies: the more in the middle you are, the greater the chance of being the first. Thus the struggle for the political middle can also just mean that a party has entirely lost its principles, has sunken to the bottom of nihilism, but still wants to be all the way at the top.

We can believe Sigmar Gabriel when he says that he wants to establish the right norm, if he indeed had it. We can most certainly believe the editorial collective of the international Marxist journal Turbulence, which recently called for the occupation of the middle by the most radical left.

The authors start with the obvious observation that neoliberalism, while having lost its hegemony in the current economic crisis, has continued to run things without much of a challenge. Their explanation: already before the crisis, neoliberalism relied not only on its ideology, but indeed more so on a particular kind of habitual ‘training’ of people in their everyday actions, which it imposed on individuals. At the same time, the loss of its hegemony implies that it had to vacate the political middle. In this situation, the authors suggest, the radical left has to go beyond the purely ‘antagonistic’ practice that was appropriate during those years when it had to battle the myth of the ‘end of history’: it has to occupy the middle itself.

Pretty Desperate

But here we run into a problem: this left does not have a political project! The inverse of this is the fact that it is in no way united. As a result, the authors’ impulse results in the following postulate: the left has to find a “new common ground”, which is autonomous insofar as it can ask its own questions on its own terms.

Obviously, no such common ground exists at this point. The situation must in fact be pretty desperate indeed if we have to investigate which “answers” emerge, where they “communicate”, and where the “points” are, “where they overlap and reinforce each other”. This shows, after all, that nihilism has also taken a hold of the left. But it also shows that the left is trying to escape this nihilism – precisely by trying to reach for the political middle.

The original German version of this article was published in the weekly Freitag on 4 February 2010. It was translated by Turbulence editor Tadzio Mueller and reproduced with kind permission. All links have been inserted by Turbulence for reference. The German article is online here.

For more discussion of Turbulence, click here.

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