the Disillusioned kid: I Say Lefty, You Say?
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Monday, August 23, 2004

I Say Lefty, You Say?

In a response to a previous post, timx opined that I should stop using the terms left and right wing because they are passe and don't really mean anything in the modern political context. This got me thinking about political labels and their value. In the interests of furthering my thoughts in this area and possibly stimulating a debate on the issue, I append some thoughts on the question below...

The terms left and right have their origins in the early stages of the French Revolution. The French Assembly of 1789 was organised so that the nobility were seated on the right and the common people on the left. "Thus," as Wikipedia notes, "'right' generally meant conservative, upholding the existing social or political order, and 'left' meant radical, attempting to change or overthrow the existing order." The point of reference for the political spectrum was the ancien regime ("old order"). 'Right' implied support for royalty, aristocracy and the associated baggage, while 'left' implied opposition to all that.

With the ancien regime no longer relevant, the terms have shifted considerably. Various opinions are offered as to exactly what they refer to. Wikipedia suggests the following interpretations:
# Whether the state should prioritize equality (left) or liberty (right).
# Whether the government's involvement with the economy should be interventionist (left) or laissez-faire (right).
# Whether the government should be secular and separate itself from religious beliefs (left) or should take a stance of religious morality (right).
# Fair outcomes (left) versus fair processes (right)
# Whether one embraces change (left) or prefers rigorous justification for change (right). This was proposed by Eric Hoffer.
# Whether human nature and society is malleable (left) or fixed (right). This was proposed by Thomas Sowell.
# Support for the economic interests of the poor (left) or the rich (right).
There is some truth to all of them, but it seems to me that each alone is missing something. Perhaps the truth is a combination of some or all of the above.

Whatever the significance of the terms, some argue that the left-right dichotomy is of limited use. The Political Compass argues that the terms are "one dimensional" and asks,
On the standard left-right scale, how do you distinguish leftists like Stalin and Gandhi? It's not sufficient to say that Stalin was simply more left than Gandhi. There are fundamental political differences between them that the old categories on their own can't explain. Similarly, we generally describe social reactionaries as 'right-wingers', yet that leaves left-wing reactionaries like Robert Mugabe and Pol Pot off the hook.
They suggest a new scale. This operates by comparing people's opinions on broadly economic questions along a left-right axis and plotting this against their positions on social issues, which defines people as libertarian or authoritarian (or more accurately, places them somewhere in between). The resulting graph looks something like the diagram which you should hopefully be able to see below. They have a test which you can do to see where you lie in this scale. I scored -8.75 on the economic scale and -7.79 on the social, which puts me firmly in the libertarian left, which is what I expected.

Political Compass

For comparative purposes, they present the positions of several "globally known figures". In case you're interested, I'm way more left-wing and liberal than anyof the figures they select. I invite you to draw your own conclusions.

Political Compass Famous People

The political compass strikes me as a sensible and potentially very useful scale for analysing and comparing political positions and I have used the vague idea as a guide for sometime. Nonetheless as timx points out, I do tend to go on about "the left". When I use this term I am referring to those who consider themselves to be involved in radical social change. This (very small) milieu is, unfortunately in my opinion, dominated by Marxists of various shades, but also encompasses the anarchist movement (such as it is) and radical environmentalist and feminists. While I think most of these groups have serious, perhaps even fatal, flaws and wonder at times if they are not the greatest barrier to social change in this country, they interest me because they reflect my belief that things can and have to change. Until something else comes along, they are unfortunately the only game in town.

The one thing timx is definitely right about is his implication that the left-right dichotomy is irrelevant within the mainstream political spectrum. That the Labour Party has abandoned socialism and the associated baggage should hardly be news. It is interesting that the Conservative Party's move away from its roots doesn't seem to have attracted so much comment. (I may be wrong about this because I don't move in 'right-wing' circles, but it is at least my impression.) Recall that conservatism (note the small-c) originally referred to movements primarily concerned with conserving the status quo. The basic idea was, "If it ain't broke don't fix it," and perhaps even, "If it is broke, don't fix it anyway" or, "If you do have to fix it, change as little as you can". This seems to bear little relation to the radical neo-liberalism of Thatcher and her successors. That the LibDems are seen as by many (even some of my friends) as the 'left-wing' party says a lot about the paucity of choice presented to voters at the ballot box.

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