Politics are thought and fought, policies forged and implemented, political ideas wax and wane within a global space.footnote1 The space itself decides nothing: only actors and their actions can do that. But it is this dimension—long global, in many respects, but with its worldwide connectivity now greatly thickened—that endows these actors with their strengths and weaknesses, constraints and opportunities. It constitutes the coordinates of their political moves. Skill and responsibility in the art of politics, luck and genius—and their opposites—remain intact within this realm; but it is the latter that largely allocates the political actors their cards.

This global space comprises two major planes. One is geopolitical: it provides the parameters for military and diplomatic power-play between states. The other is socio-economic, laying out the preconditions for the social and economic orientation of politics—in other words, for Left and Right. This essay aims to map the social space of Left–Right politics, from the sixties through to the first decade of the twenty-first century. It is neither a political history nor a strategic programme, although it bears some relevance to both. It is an attempt to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the forces of Left and Right, taken in a broad, non-partisan sense, both during the recent past—which still bears forcefully upon the present—and within newly emerging currents.

The geopolitical space proper will here be invoked only where it weighs most directly upon Left–Right politics. But for the underlying conceptions involved, a few points of clarification may be needed. The analytical distinction and separation of two elements does not, of course, imply that they are literally distinct. In the concrete world, social and geopolitical space are mutually conjoined. Nevertheless, it is important not to confound the two. The Cold War, for example, had an important Left–Right dimension—that of competing socialist and capitalist modernities. But it also had a specifically geopolitical dynamic, which pitted the two global superpowers against each other and entrained, on each side, allies, clients and friends. Which of these two dimensions was the most important remains a controversial question.

The power resources, opportunities and options of inter-territorial actors within the geopolitical plane are generated by a variety of factors—military might, demographic weight, economic power and geographical location among them. For the understanding of Left–Right politics that concerns us here, two further aspects are particularly significant: the distribution of geopolitical power in the world, and the social character of inter-territorial, or trans-territorial, actors.

On the first, we should note that the distribution of power has changed dramatically during the last forty years, and not just in one direction. The period began with the build-up to the first military defeat of the US in its history, in Vietnam, and with the ascent of the USSR to approximate military parity; then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the US able to claim a final victory in the Cold War. In 1956, the fiasco of the French–British–Israeli invasion of Suez signalled the end of European military might on a world scale; but with the EU, Europe has returned both as an economic great power and as a continental laboratory for complex, inter-state relations. At the beginning of the period, Japan was the world’s rising economic star; it is currently fading economically and rapidly ageing socially. By contrast, China’s still unbroken decades of spectacular growth have given economic muscle to its massive demographic weight.

The social character of inter-territorial actors can be read not only from the colour of state regimes, but also from the orientation and weight of non-state forces. Two new kinds of international actors—of divergent social significance—have become increasingly important during this period.footnote2 The first consists of transnational inter-state organizations such as the World Bank, IMF and WTO, and has been a major, neoliberal spearhead for the Right (although the World Bank has had some dissenting voices). The second is a looser set of transnational networks, movements and lobbies on global concerns that have emerged as fairly significant, progressive actors within the world arena—firstly through their link-ups with such UN mechanisms as the Human Rights conventions and the Women’s and Population conferences; more recently, through their international mobilizations against trade liberalization.

In brief, even though the US has become the only superpower, the geopolitical space has not simply become unipolar: it is taking on new forms of complexity.