when democrats talk about income inequality, all they want is political hierarchy. when republicans talk about individual rights, all they want is economic hierarchy. neither party's ideology is compatible with even a vaguely sincere egalitarianism.
i watched a bunch of the last day of cpac. now i want to consider this "nuanced analysis", attributed by dan balz to henry olsen, who distinguishes four factions of the republican party: somewhat conservative, very conservative, moderates, and liberals. i say this is a perfect example of what i call "spectrum blindness": you can't see anything about anything if it has to fall on the left-right spectrum. so, rand paul, who killed the straw poll, is a severe peacenik, screamingly anti-nsa, and more or less sympathetic to gay marriage and marijuana legalization. but he's anti-welfare-state in a big way, and will start by savaging government spending. sarah palin who finished the whole thing up with a masterful if substanceless stand-up routine howled small government throughout, except for the part where she was extremely about increasing military and intelligence spending. rather a silly juxtaposition. there was a lot of anti-immigrant talk, and jesus and "pro-family" (=anti-gay) stuff came from a number of speakers. then you have heldover bushy national-security state pure huge gov hawks. now when you try to range these extremely incompatible positions by which is very and which is somewhat conservative it obviously makes no sense, and these factions are more incompatible with one another than with the obama they all hate. so, you've got to go: libertarians; neo-cons or military-security hawks; religious/social reactionairies; and chimerae such as palin. it's amazing that people can keep going 'sorta right, right, very right' when it just obviously has nothing to do with reality. who's further right: palin or paul? dan balz has no more idea than anyone else, really.
as you may be aware, i view the left/right spectrum as the most useless contraption ever patented. so here's the problem with tracing it to burke and paine. read 'common sense'. now consider it in the light of the politics of the contemporary left. oops no it's far right: pure classical liberal individualism. it's literally a tea party document, and is certainly much closer the ideology of the pauls than, say, the clintons. indeed, if you had to say, you'd say that burke is closer to obama than is paine. there just was nothing like the left/right spectrum in american politics or political thought until the late 19th century. the left originates if anywhere before marx in rousseau, with his intensely uneasy, or just fully incoherent combination of classical liberal conceptions of individual rights with 'general will' or collective consciousness.
as you may know, i reject the left/right spectrum as a way to describe anything, though sometimes i slip and use the locutions because everyone else is working with it. so the nyt or guardian, say, while in every sentence using 'crazy', also in every sentence go 'far right.' is cruz to the right of john mccain? in virtue of what? what does that mean? think of the set of positions you yourself associate with 'the american right': cheney's poisitions, say, and also rand paul's. really we need a taxonomy and not this bullshit anymore.
also i want to say this to the american left: you are outraged that someone would try to stop obamacare or whatever it may be; you want government running smoothly (and you regard protest movements as insane). now, i want you to understand what you are supporting when you support the democratic party, obama, and so on: among other things wall street in a huge way, and a total surveillance state. you are supporting the most intensely bourgeois vision of america ever articulated: government by lawyers, professors, bankers, google, and standardized-testing experts. are you comfortable with that? are you aware of that in yourself? i have this funny feeling that by your own ideals you are endorsing something terribly wrong. and you and many others are being pushed into taking a set of randomly grouped or flatly incoherent positions, or positions poised exquisitely opposite your professed principles, because you are flummoxed by this left-right bullshit.
in the oed, the earliest citation of the use of the terms 'left' and 'right' in the political-spectrum sense are in carlyle's french revolution (1837), and one supposes that the use of the concepts or this way of conceptualizing politics is somewhat earlier in france and is associated with interpretations of the 1789 revolution and its aftermaths. it does not appear in american politics, i believe, until the late 19th century; it is completely irrelevant to the american political spectrum of the early and mid- 19th century, in which the dissident wing was christian, individualist, etc. now, of course, the question of when the terms became commonplace is not the same as when the conceptuality or something like it came into being, and you could no doubt read medieval politics through left-right spectacles. you really, really shouldn't, and you should indeed jetison the whole thing imediately from your thinking.
just an addition: neither left nor right are political positions; if they were, people would try to make them make sense or hang together or something. they're social affiliations. so here's my advice for you if you're on the right or the left: stop pretending to take positions or make assertions. it only makes you look ridiculous. smile at people who are wearing or driving the right brand, have to right haircut, live in the right region, went to the right school, and so on, and make obscene gestures otherwise. really that's all you're doing anyway.
One traditional task of
philosophy is to examine the conceptual underpinnings of other areas of
inquiry: for logical consistency, for example, or in relation to various
aspects of intellectual history. A particularly urgent case is provided by the
basic way we define political positions: the left-right spectrum.
I think that the arrangement of
positions along this axis - progressive to reactionary, or conservative to
liberal, or socialist to capitalist, or for that matter Democrat to Republican
- is conceptually confused and historically contingent. Let's take a few
minutes to think about the left-right spectrum rather
than from it.
It can seem permanent and
inevitable. But this taxonomy arose at earliest immediately before and during
the French Revolution, in the late 18th century, with figures such as Rousseau
and Burke. It only crystallized fully with the emergence of Marxism in the
middle of the 19th century. Before that, or elsewhere than in the West, there
have been many intellectual structures for defining and arranging political
positions. There are likely to be many others after the left-right spectrum
One way people talk about left and
right is in terms of time: progressives want time to continue to move forward
or even want to accelerate it, taking us into a future bright with promise,
while conservatives want time to stand still or even run backward to a golden
age. Either approach appears to depend on a conception of time on which it is
extremely malleable, its pace and direction depending on the outcome of the
I think that is incompatible with any
plausible conception of time in metaphysics or in ordinary experience. No one
needs to help make sure that time keeps moving forward and, proverbially, no
one can stand in its way. Sarah Palin and Rafael Correa, Ayman al-Zawahiri and
Beyonce, the 'stone-age' Suruwaha people of the Amazon and the prime-time hosts
of MSNBC: they overlap in time, all moving temporally in the same direction at
the same rate, contemporaneously. Among other moments, they all exist precisely
Another way that the left-right
spectrum is conceived is as state against capital. This is central to
contemporary American politics, as Democrats urge that government makes many
positive contributions to our lives, while Republicans argue that it is a
barrier to the prosperity created by free markets. On the outer ends we
might identify Chairman Mao against Ayn Rand: state communism against
Much of the left wants to constrain
the power of capital by increasing the power of the state, while many on the
right want to reduce the power of the state in order to unleash the power of
capital. Putting it mildly, the assumption of both groups that state and
capital, or political power and wealth, are opposed forces, or can be pitted
against one another, is not historically supported. As a matter of historical
fact, political hierarchies and economic hierarchies tend to coincide. Beefing
up one almost always beefs up the other.
We might consider, for example, the
relation of the NSA to Booz Allen or to Google, or the relation of
Goldman-Sachs to the Department of the Treasury, or Halliburton to Defense, or
regulators to the corporations they regulate. In many ways, the distinction
between state and corporation in the U.S. is notional.
As Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin argue
in their recent book The Making of Global Capitalism, capitalism
arises together with the modern state, and each is inconceivable without the
other. From the East India Companies to the robber barons to neo-liberalism,
capitalism has depended on the state to project force; subdue, train, and
control populations; and curtail competition.
Communism of the variety
practiced in Maoist China or the Soviet Union only represented a slightly
different and even more extreme merger of state and capital, placing both
squarely in the hands of party bureaucrats who lived in luxury and had at their
disposal an abject population. Marx prescribed placing banking, transportation,
and communication into the hands of the state, an evidently unpromising
direction in which to pursue human equality. Contemporary China, the EU,
the United States, and the Islamic Republic of Iran are all intensifying and
increasingly sophisticated mergers of polity and economy.
One way to see the incoherence of
the left is to focus on one of its basic values: equality. The means proposed
by the left to increase economic equality almost always increase political
inequality, because these means consist of larger state programs: that is, of
more resources and rules, coercion and surveillance in the hands of officials
or state contractors, including in welfare-type programs. But wealth flows
toward power, and vice versa, and it is plausible, I believe, to argue that
ever-more pervasive state power has coincided with ever-more extreme and
chronic structural inequalities of resources.
The right runs into similar problems
with the concept of liberty. Right-wingers' commitment to individual rights is
often baldly incompatible with their enthusiasm for the security state or
opposition to gay marriage or marijuana legalization. Probably, both left and
right were invented by the people who became 'the left'. But 'the right' has
encompassed an extraordinary range of positions, from fundamentalism to fascism
to libertarianism. These positions are at least as incompatible with one
another as any of them is with American liberalism, for example.
Indeed, we might think of all the
positions that fall comfortably anywhere on the left-right scale as a single
ideology, because they all in practice prescribe extremely pervasive
hierarchies, and hierarchies tend to coincide. We tend to oscillate between an
emphasis on state and corporate hierarchies, while the overwhelming fact is
that they are not distinct; the thing grows ever larger.
If this criticism
can even be meaningfully articulated, then the left-right spectrum should not
be uncritically pre-supposed as a neutral or factual way of characterizing
political positions. It needs to be established. People who find impossible the
task I suggested earlier - thinking about it rather than from it -
accept it as a sheer irrational dogma.
Left and right are arrangements in
practical politics, and many political parties in many parts of the world
understand themselves as falling along that spectrum somewhere. But as a
framework or taxonomy of political positions, or for the purposes of, say,
research in political science, it has got to be optional. You've got to keep
open the possibility that it is a flawed or tendentious paradigm or could be
replaced with a better explanatory framework. If not, then you are yourself
embroiled in the ideologies that you're supposed, in political science or
political philosophy, to be trying to understand; you are inquiring in a circle.
As a first move, I'd suggest
replacing left and right with up and down. We might usefully think about political
positions in terms of whether they seek to constitute political/economic
inequalities or to dismantle them.
Crispin Sartwell teaches in the political science department
at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. His most recent book is Political
Ayn Rand and Vlad Lenin, Kim Il Sung and Barry Goldwater, Barack Obama and Rand Paul, Francois Mitterand and Margaret Thatcher, Ronald
Reagan and Fidel Castro, Friedich von Hayek and Leo Trotsky, Alain Badiou and Augusto Pinochet, for all I know, disagreed on several matters. But they agreed on this, or said they did, or have been represented as saying they did, even if they acted entriely incompatibly with it:
the state was a force that was historically pitted against private capital. To
reduce one was to increase the other and to increase one was to reduce the
other. They vary inversely and the balance between them that you recommend
constitutes the fundamental way of characterizing your political position. From
an anti-authoritarian, anti-statist, or anarchist point of view, this spectrum
stretches from authoritarianism on the one end to authoritarianism on the
other, with authoritarianism in between. It makes anything that is not that
incomprehensible. It narrows all alternatives to variations on hierarchy,
structures of inequality, or profoundly unjust distributions of power/wealth.
And also as a single ideology, it is merely false. Massively, quite obviously
false; throughout the last five centuries, economic and political hierarchies
have been massively mutually reinforcing. This is not to say that in some local
moment the balance could really shift according to some left or right political
progam; it is meant to point out that the choice is extremely constructed and
as anselm argued, that is a vocal performance than which no greater can be conceived in soul music, proof of the existence of god. it's dynamic, baby.
that's - yes! - little beaver and willie clarke doing everything from b.b. to shaft.
so now everyone (including maybe joe biden) is chorusing terrorists! about the tea party. (richard cohen is late to the nihilist party.) nocera says they are "waging jihad on the american people." and you were getting ticked with hints that obama was unamerican? the rhetorical pitch is excruciating; there's no hiigher place to jack it up to. ok, tell you what, you can have these tropes as long as you don't mind at all when i call nancy pelosi a maoist who hates god and is trying to destroy our sacred american way of life. it's true that obama isn't a muslim. he's a satanist, etc. so chill out about that; surely it's a fairly mild criticism. and just don't start appealing to your reasonableness and fact-based opinions. obviously we're all well beyond that.
i'll insist on this: if someone takes a shot at michele bachmann or rand paul, or opens fire at a vbs, i want joe nocera and richard cohen to accept exactly as much responsibility for that as they assigned to right-wing or anti-muslim or anti-immigrant blogs for the norway shootings, or to sarah palin on gabby giffords. remember last time you said 'words have consequences' etc? then think about the idea that tea partiers are terrorists and jihadists and nihilists who are trying to destroy our country and who are beyond the reach of rational discussion.
i think that the mainline left wants government growth in order to accomplish specific admirable goals: the amelioration of poverty, for example. but i also do think that there's an underlying commitment to statism almost no matter what, because the basic idea is that the state is all of us together; it's our collective action and identity; it ameliorates not only poverty (well...) but our aloneness, our individuality. this is why inside that discourse 'individualism' is a name for evil, what we're supposed to be fighting against. the state is our solidarity, our unity, or even our love etc. now all of this would be relatively groovy, if the whole thing did not obviously rest on coercion. the reality so luridly puts the lie to the ideology that i find it hard to imagine how the ideology persists.
jackie calmes in the nyt points out the obvious: that the debt debate is really coming down to a fundamental difference about the 'scope and role' of government. there is much to be said for a clash on this basic question, for the occasional foray into basic political visions/principles. now i think it's true that the republicans want to aid the wealthy. but on the other hand they are opposing any increase in taxation on anyone for any reason: indeed a rigid position (and a principled one). but from the other side, you get the feeling from the left that government is simply and obviously a good thing, good for its own sake, that higher taxes and a bigger 'public sector' is self-evidently good in itself. that's the sort of position rachel maddow takes up, i think. and also some of my facebook friends (nadelhoffer, anyone?). i suppose that no one will simply flatly state that, but that doesn't mean it isn't in effect what they hold: we will accept no position that doesn't include revenue increases; obama will veto it if there isn't more tax money. when the position gets that raw, i just have to say it just can't be right. we are on the edge of showing that statism and leftism amount virtually to the same thing in our actual political spectrum. well, you could start backwards into keynes, marx, and rousseau, for example: cultists of the state. a libertarian left is possible and sensible; i'd just like to see more of it.