One very basic question – seldom asked – is: what does the left-right political spectrum actually measure?
The familiar left-right political axis is a conventional way of classifying a range of common ideas about society and government, developed over the last two hundred years. It is a poor, anachronistic guide to ideas in the ancient or medieval worlds, a weakness that provides a useful warning that it is not a universal map of the human condition, despite the desire of political ideologues to treat it as such. It must also be emphasised that it is a gradation of ideas, not of people. We place ourselves on it at varying points through our lives and we can easily sit on it at different places simultaneously with respect to different areas of our personal affairs. The old proverb “Think left, eat right” springs to mind.
It is also important to point out that the ideas traced across this axis are more practical and less mutually exclusive than purists would have us believe. Most of us are very flexible in the ways we employ either left- or right-wing approaches within our personal affairs. People are often comfortable in their private concerns with a position rather further to the right than they are in their wider views about public policy. Interestingly, the reverse is very seldom true.
What goes for individuals also goes for entities acting as individuals, like interest groups, corporations and states, which habitually act further to the right than their avowed principles might indicate. Notionally left-wing states pursuing expansionist foreign policies while supporting privileged elites are not unknown. Similarly, some trade unions in 1970s Britain were more right-wing than left, because they were actually resisting change and defending hierarchical differentials in wages. Both of these things made them more conservative than progressive, and cast them as defenders of history, localism, tradition and sectional privilege, ideas more suited to guild workers in fourteenth century Italy than of ‘comrades’, as they liked to call each other. Promoters of radical change in that era were more easily found in Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservative Party, though nobody could mistake them as left-wing.
This can serve as a salutary reminder that real politics is often more about self-interest than principle, which is why the simplified cerebral geometry of the left-right axis has increasingly less real meaning towards its middle. Around its centre point, were it a canal, it would have spread out into more of a marsh. Its meaning is much clearer at the left hand end where we are offered the single choice of a world of equality, without property, class or significant division. At its opposite, right hand end the line runs off into a sort of a fantail, because there has never been an agreed ideal right-wing world.
There was a possible model of a perfect right-wing society available in the Egypt of the Pharaohs. They had a supreme leader to whom the people gave absolute obedience. There was official religious and social conformity, and they were even nasty to the Jews. Hitler or Franco couldn’t have asked for more. Egypt erected enormous public works to the glory of the ruler that are still standing today which, frankly, make Mussolini’s efforts look a bit feeble. Ancient Egyptians avoided conflicts of temporal and spiritual authority by believing that their supreme leaders were living gods, but this did have its problems, chiefly that those leaders kept becoming dead gods. This god-among-us element has been underplayed in subsequent right-wing political models, although several Roman emperors tried to revive the device in the interim. But they were no more able to escape its central flaw, as death inevitably removed them regularly from the political scene too.
In modernity there has been a healthy, and completely appropriate, competition among ideal right-wing models of society. Among these have been versions based variously on Adam Smith’s economics, the Old Testament, Mein Kampf, Colonel Blimp’s Little England and Victorian values, or put otherwise, on pragmatic prosperity, God’s word, racial purity, national identity, or the thrifty family. So, what is it that makes all these apparently disparate models generically of the right and not the left?
To find a broad answer we need to ask a series of questions. Why does the modern right wing love the law and yet hate regulation? Why is innovation in the economy to be rewarded, yet innovation in society to be execrated? Is right-wing philosophy about anything other than money, among moderates, or race and nationality, for extremists? The common factor revealed by answers to these questions is; a willingness to perceive and rationalise Difference, whether under the guise of hierarchy, competition, ‘race’, nationality or normative behaviour.
Throughout its history the left-right oppositional model has generally been assumed to be connected to economics and by extension to private property and the role of the state. That connection certainly exists but I suggest it is a secondary reflection of a deeper intellectual division relating to the concept of Difference.
Willingness to see Difference tracks across the political spectrum, with the highest sensitivity located at its right hand end. It is at that end that ‘natural’ hierarchy is most prized, that differences between white-skinned and dark-skinned people are thought to be most significant and, in religious terms, where the difference between God and Man is most heavily emphasised.
There are obviously hundreds of ways in which we are not all the same, but some people notice these differences more than others, and some definitely ascribe more meaning to them than others – racists, sexists, nationalists, and denominational bigots, for example.
A strong sense of the presence of Difference in the world leads on to distinctive approaches to the use of universal categories and concepts. The left, being less inclined to detect Difference, tends to think in universals and broad concepts while those on the right, who see Difference everywhere, tend to think in specific, particular terms, which then need larger concepts bolted on to them to give them weight and force as abstractions. In this way right-wingers can feel comfortable generalising from their own, limited experience at least as well as intellectual left-wingers who inhabit the larger universe of ideas. These elevating concepts are usually related to what pre-exists, or to what is ‘natural’, ideas based either on God, nature, tradition or ‘common sense’.
Throughout this process of refining experience into abstractions, it is inevitable that rules and exceptions will be generated, and there is a clear left-right distinction here too. The left attributes more weight to the rules and the right prioritises the exceptions; the left sees majorities and the right minorities. This is why the right fixates on the egregious in behaviour and the monstrous in criminality, yet ignores the massive preponderance of good behaviour all around us, all the time. This is why the right finds one national hero and happily transfers his virtues to all his compatriots, while the much more numerous, unexceptional foot soldiers will be ignored. Or why bad behaviour by one immigrant will taint all others. Mrs. Thatcher’s glorious qualities can also be denied to other women; she was different.
The tendency on the right to think in small, local units produces another distinction across the spectrum, a big-little divide, creating a left-right model based on an Us Together (left) vs. Me First (right) opposition of attitudes.
But it is unwise to try to unify the right hand end of politics too glibly, because it is a much more diverse area than the left. Varying sensitivities to a range of types of Difference produces three main schools of right-wing thinking. These are:
1) the traditionalist or conservative, preoccupied with status and social order
2) the individualistic or economic, preoccupied with liberty and wealth
3) the authoritarian or conformist, concerned with overt behaviour
Strand 1 is ancient and can be found through all human history, but its basic premises were severely shaken by the arrival of modernity and societies based on choice, individual rights, and multiple forms of identity. Strands 2 and 3 are not of long descent and are reactions to the modern world.
The first two strands prize and promote (positive) Difference whereas the third fears it and seeks to control it by the imposition of uniformity (Sameness) in a broad range of social categories.
These three streams experience problems in cohabitation, particularly the traditional with the economic, which disagree over innovation, and the individualistic with the authoritarian, which conflict over liberty. What unites them is a concern with Difference and an emphasis on its importance. What distinguishes them is the way each chooses to see Difference and advocate Sameness in different economic, social, ethnic and sexual terms. Each also has its own set of relationships with a secular-religious spectrum, with the traditionalists the most formally religious and the individualists the least.
The left has had less local and historic variations and divides roughly into materialist Marxist and moral socialist traditions, the former being not only secular but also anti-religious, whereas the second can coexist with egalitarian forms of religious faith. Anarchism is sometimes placed far out on the left, but not all anarchists would accept this. The role of the state is so crucial in classical socialism and communism that its complete rejection logically puts anarchists outside most left-wing definitions; proper anarchists do not participate in the politics of the state. Purely for purposes of classification, therefore, I will say that anarchists are radical egalitarians with a distaste for organisation, a prejudice that I will respect by making no further attempt to place them anywhere.
Belief in the reality of Difference offers a more consistent general principle to explain the broad range of right-wing positions than other themes such as love of tradition, respect for authority or regard for divine commands, which cover some but not all of the right. This is neatly echoed in the belief in the ‘undeserving’ poor, the reality of national characteristics, and in the old nature-nurture argument that sees criminals as ‘born’, and declares that you can take the boy out of the ghetto etc. In longer perspective it also explains how the broader, larger units favoured by the right – race and nation – were formed and modified, based as they are on essentially superficial, contingent characteristics. As an analysis it also extends in reverse to the left, which underplays or ignores Difference, treating it at most as an unwelcome side effect of morbidly diseased social structures.
But why Difference really matters is because self-government requires that you must share your pooled sovereignty with someone, and the less they are different from you, the better the outcome can be expected to be. Self-government calls into being political power, and not everyone agrees on how it should be used. This is why left and right wing views will persist, and will constantly find detailed issues upon which to differ. Neither wing will disappear any time soon.