Virtually every day we hear that “the lefties are doing this and the righties are doing that” but what do we really mean when we say the right and left wing? Traditionally the left and right have been defined by Engels’ and Marx’s theory in Das Kapital of the conflict between labour and capital, with the left being Socialism and the right being Capitalism. However, these terms are used by their authors in an economic context (they were economists) and while they have some societal connotations (further explored in the Communist Manifesto by the same authors), they don’t always make it easy for people to place individual policies or party ideologies.
While most politically aware people have an innate sense of left versus right policy, the two are often confused and the inherent nature of politics is to blame anything which turned out to be bad on the “other side” while wholly adopting anything which might have done some good. Also, it’s no longer the case that economic ideology correlates to social organisation ideology – this was an invention of Victorian Britain and a derivative of the conclusion that people’s thinking was driven by their wealth and place in society. Thus socialism was naturally aligned with the working class (poor) and capitalism with the elite (rich).
How often today do we see the ultra-wealthy espousing socialist ideology? One would assume that these people are indeed economic capitalists, because the opposite would lead them to give all of their wealth to the state and I’m yet to see any of them do that. Also, we see working class people with values which would have been considered on the right of politics, yet when you dig deeper what they’re really showing are showing signs of social conservatism, while still being economically socialist.
Given the confusion that’s apparent in this era of identitarian politics, maybe we need an easier way to place ideology, one that is more defined and harder to confuse?
Politics, at its core, is the belief in a certain type of social organisation; on one side the values of the collective are perceived to be more worthy than the values of the individual and vice-versa for the other. Thus, the real dividing lines in politics can be seen as the rub between the ideology of collectivism (the left) and individualism (the right).
This shouldn’t be viewed as a redefinition of political battle lines, but a clarifier of the exiting ones, which fits within existing theories. Also, by defining the extremes of each of these ideologies, it becomes fairly easy to place any policy, party or person on a spectrum between the two opposing forces. So, what are the extremes? Well, for the left it’s pretty easy – the ultimate incarnation of collective rule is that the state (the collective) controls everything from money to liberty, aka Totalitarian Statism, which would conform with the various manifestations of Communism over the years. It’s equally easy for the right, but it isn’t capitalism or fascism as might be often quoted, the ultimate expression of individual freedom is Anarchy, where there is no state and people are free to do anything they wish. It’s this far-right area that is often confused by people because previous explanations like “fascist or capitalist” lack clarity and are very hard to define.
While that sounds fairly logical and you don’t need to leaf through a long book riddled with Victorian jargon to understand it, it does have some profound implications on the way we view our political landscape. First, and self-evidently, there would never have been and never will be an extreme right-wing political party. Anarchy is the belief that the state has no place in our lives and the belief that individuals should be free to do as they please regardless of the consequences. Anarchists are therefore, a) Incapable of organisation of any kind. b) Ideologically opposed to government, thus have no interest in running for office.
While there have been some nations which have fallen into near anarchy by accident; Somalia, Libya, etc … and this has always led to death and destruction, we’ve seen plenty of attempts at totalitarian statism: China, USSR, North Korea, Cambodia, Venezuela, etc … none of which have created the utopian living environments for their citizens that Engels and Marx promised and again have always led to death and destruction. This is probably the root of the often cited idea that the spectrum of political ideologies is in fact circular, not linear, and the extreme-right and extreme-left are essentially the same. They’re not, they’re diametrically opposed in belief, but the symptoms (death and destruction) are the same for all extreme ideologies, because anyone who holds extreme beliefs is naturally incapable of reconciling that other people hold different beliefs and this almost always leads to violence.
Looking at political ideology in this way highlights a number of things, like the fact that in western democracies virtually the whole of mainstream politics is fought out in a very narrow, centre-left arena. The below example is for Australia, but could equally apply to the UK, Canada, etc …
While many would think it an odd claim that none of the main parties are right of centre, consider their policies rather than their rhetoric or the rhetoric of their detractors. Then consider that anything left of the centre is on the path to bigger government and more state involvement in your life and anything on the right of the centre is on the path to smaller government and more individual freedom. The reality is that no party which could be considered mainstream today supports smaller government and less involvement in your life. Even if they claim they do, they’ve all consistently, when in government, increased the size of the state and created laws which allow them to control more of your life.
For those people who like to invoke the Nazis as an example of far-right extremism, try placing them on this spectrum. In doing so, ignore the 70+ years of rhetoric from people desperate to distance their own ideology from the atrocities committed by the Nazis and just place their policies: They nationalised whole swathes of industry, they grew the state to previously unknown levels and they intruded into people’s lives to the point where thought crime was a real thing. Now look at the policies of Stalin and note the similarity. Yet one has been almost unanimously branded far-right and the other far-left – why? The point here is that it’s impossible to erroneously or wilfully attribute organised ideology to the wrong side of politics if you look (fairly) at it this way. It’s also impossible to support far right extremist organisations – the sentence itself is an oxy-moron and they simply don’t exist. The misguided idiots currently claiming to be far-right extremists and stomping around in Nazi uniforms will find far more in common with communists than anarchists if they dare to look beneath the sheets.
Another question I’ve been asked is “where do you place issues like environmentalism, which is currently almost always attributed to the left?”
Well, that depends on the policies being espoused to “fix it”. Real environmentalism (the desire to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment) isn’t in itself a politically controversial issue – you’d be hard pressed to find anybody who didn’t support this desire. Environmental activism (the politicisation of the environment) has only become an issue as organisations, which would otherwise have little following due to their inherently unpopular ideologies, have used care for the environment to gain popular support, while masking their true intentions. The good thing is that these groups are pretty easy to identify by just looking beyond their names and their headline grabbing protests and placing their policies on this political spectrum. Then if you still support them, great. This goes for many activist organisations who propagate quite extreme ideas from behind the veil of popular causes.
In the current febrile political and social environment, it’s important to know who you’re offering your support to and what their underlying belief system is. So, when an organisation seeks your support, ask yourself the following question: Would its policies lead to increased government involvement in my life and thus a requirement for increased government size, or would they lead to increased individual freedom of choice and less government involvement in my life? When you have an answer to this, it’s very easy to place them on the spectrum of real right-left politics and it will help your decision to give them your support or not.
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