22 May 2011

Left and Right

A commenter accuses me of "basing the whole of my political philosophy on the seating plan of the French Revolutionary Parliament" because I described someone as "not a lefty".

Twenty years ago, I was happily drawing Nolan charts, representing social liberalism and economic liberalism as orthogonal, and all sorts of other issues as being capable of being decided independently.

Back then, I saw politics as an intellectual pursuit, and policy positions as the result of analysing the justifications and effects of policies.

Meanwhile, on Planet Earth, actual politics was going on. Politics is about who has power, and you don't get power by being on the fringe. You do it as part of a dominant coalition. If you are serious about politics, you support all the positions your coalition holds, whether you really believe the arguments or not. Anyone who is not with the party is against it.

Therefore whether any given idea is placed on the left wing or the right wing may well be arbitrary from an intellectual point of view, but it is an ineluctable necessity from the point of view of a politician. If you are a left-winger in Britain or America today, you'd better support renewable energy and oppose nuclear. Maybe in a couple of decades today's left-wing policy will be a right-wing position, but that doesn't matter today. Also, you must only take as strong a position as the main left coalition does, because if you take a stronger position than them, you're an extremist, which is always bad. Again, an extreme position today may be moderate in ten years, or vice versa, but there is a moderate-left and a moderate-right position on any issue, defined by the two coalitions competing for power.

If you really have strong policy views of your own on a particular issue, you can try to change your coalition's position on that issue, but if you don't hold with your coalition, you're not doing real politics.

For that reason, there always are just two sides that matter, and those two sides each have a position on everything. So it makes perfect sense to describe politics in terms of "left" and "right", in the eighteenth century, the twenty-first century, or arguably even, as Alison Plowden does, in the sixteenth. Any given policy position might be left-wing in one country or one generation and right-wing in another, and the main axis of left-right opposition might be social policy, economic policy, or foreign policy, but there have to be two sides.

Related: Fascism: Right or Left

3 comments:

A Nonny Mouse said...

In the world I was brought up in (and you were born into) Right/Left politics was quite simple. At the extreme of the Right there were bosses and millionaires, and the extreme of the Left there were deep-sea fishermen and coalminers. In such a world there was no left-wing demand for renewable energy: obviously the Left thought that industry should be powered by the combustion of coal.

For some reason I refuse to accept any other definition of left versus right politics. But during the 70s the world as I knew it changed into something else. The first inkling of descent into (what appeared to me to be) silliness was called “Rock against Racism”. Then there was the Feminist movement, relying on a series of absurd illogicalities and parodying Marxist class dialectics. Together, and with other ingredients, they formed the basis for the time-wasting activities of so many “equal opportunities” employers today.

Another development of that decade, in which by contrast I actively participated, was the Green Movement.

The Right Wing, in England the Conservative Party, does not just consist of the Bosses and millionaires. There are a great body of lesser persons who keep the movement going, mostly those who live in hope of becoming rich, and who therefore do not want any obstacles put in their way.

In contrast, Ecologists seek only to benefit the planet, the environment, and future generations. As such, I would have thought they were eminently unelectable, and indeed have only managed to gain one seat in England, though in Germany they have become a political force.

That they can spend time on such abstractions suggests that as individuals they have no immediate economic worries: they are thus already better off than Left Wing voters, and probably most Right Wing voters as well. Green voters must be classified as haves rather than have-nots, and so cannot be assigned to the left wing of anything.

A Nonny Mouse said...

Some further comments occur to me.

I am reminded of some French intellectuals, of the Maoist inclination, who were asked to lend their name to a petition about the treatment of such and such a Chinese political prisoner, who had held office after Liu shao-chi had been imprisoned and before Mao had died.

The intellectuals refused, saying that they did not wish to be associated with the errors of the Gang of Four. The petition organiser was not impressed since, he said, these were exactly the same people who had been trumpeting the doctrines of the Gang of Four, when they were in power.

The urge to conform to a particular political system is a very strong one, and is comprehensible when that system rules the country you are in, but it is strange that people in a non-Maoist country (France) should prefer to conform to a system that prevails elsewhere (China). They are, it seems, playing at politics.

It seems to me that you, by positioning yourself on one side of an imaginary French Revolutionary parliamentary brick-bat throwing session, are merely playing at politics. Your line is: Meanwhile, on Planet Earth, actual politics was going on. Politics is about who has power, and you don't get power by being on the fringe. You do it as part of a dominant coalition.

Here I might ask, since when were you on Planet Earth? The trouble with actual politics is that it requires compromise. The formation of the ruling coalition generally involves the inclusion of folk from centrist parties.

Even when this is not the case, the ruling party can be blackmailed by its own members who have centrist tendencies. Centrist members of the Labour Party broke away and formed the Social Democratic Party. As a result there will be almost no political difference between the two sides, which is why the current Prime Minister wants to present himself as having Green tendencies.

To a foreigner, different political factions which are diametrically opposite to a native look remarkably similar. An interesting take on this can be seen in the film “Mio fratello e figlio unico”, which is available on iplayer at the moment. The Ode to Joy scene is very impressive, I find:-
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0160176/My_Brother_Is_an_Only_Child/

A Nonny Mouse said...

Excuse me, try:-

http://tinyurl.com/6yfpmxz