Saturday, May 18, 2013

What is the Right vs. the Left?

I've been sitting on this for awhile, this train of thought was initiated by reading over the comments in a rather old Economist blog post on a completely different topic, but I figure it's a topic worth posting about. However, I do think a bit of throat clearing is in order. I don't really believe that individual's political beliefs can be located along a line. But I do believe there are constant threads of political belief that tie together the aristocratic and democratic factions of Aristotle with modern Republicans and Democrats.

Specifically, it's the belief that some individuals are better endowed than others with controlling the ship of state vs. the belief that the important thing is that everyone that a decision involves should have a say (or as the disability community puts it, "nothing about us without us," which I see as the essence of left wing politics). I realize that doesn't form anything resembling a line, I believe this is an essential element in each side talking past each other. But I do think this can reasonably be used to compare Aristotle's, or Thucydides', democratic vs oligarchic party, with the optimates vs populares of the Roman Republic, with the Mensheviks vs Bolsheviks, or with the modern Republican and Democratic parties.

Something that needs to be noted is that this is about political orientation, it has nothing to do with people's economic beliefs; that's an entirely distinct way to group ideas that doesn't work with a right vs. left analysis.* Once this is accepted the classification works well enough to describe regimes, though it will upset those who use a more muddied conception of left vs. right to do things like classify the Soviet Union as left-wing (it was a radical regime, but it was far more elitist than Aristotle's oligarchic party which makes it really weird to put it on the left wing of the political spectrum, obviously where it is on the economic spectrum is irrelevant to its political classification).

It also needs to be noted that this does not necessarily make regimes more democratic. Many more left oriented regimes, particularly in ancient Greece and with Caesar's populares but also many Latin American regimes, resulted in dictatorships. Some of these eventually shifted right, remember Augustus started on the side of the optimates, others however simply collapsed after the death of a popular dictator who never formed an elite to facilitate the rightward shift. Generally stated, however, the political orientation is that of elitists vs. populists, in a modern context identifying characteristics are things like wanting to limit the franchise to people who are good citizens or embedded in their communities vs. those that think everyone should have a voice, even if they are downtrodden and despicable.

*I realize using right vs. left to communicate economic ideas is common even among well educated people. However, it results in nonsense like saying they're so far right that they're left. This just doesn't work, the Bolsheviks, for instance, compare with the Nazi regime because both had political beliefs regarding the need for an elite to dominate society, to an extent that could be called extremely far right. Both were radical parties and both implemented many similar economic policies, though to protect radically different social segments. But ultimately they were both rather similar in their political orientation as classified by Aristotle, even if radically different in many other ways of classifying societies.


  1. I wonder if the "so far right that they're left" doesn't come from this: There appear to be some people who are relatively moderate, and others who are relatively extreme (both right and left). You will occasionally see someone shift between the moderate and extreme positions, albeit generally only slightly.

    But what is far more common is someone who was once at one extreme shifting to the other extreme. It is as if what is important to them is not whether they are right or left so much as that they have views which are absolute.

    They cannot become moderates, because that involves accepting that there is no set of consistent hard and fast rules for all occasions. But they can shift from one set of rules to another. And some do.

    1. I think there's a lot of truth to that, at the extremes it does seem that people crave the certainty that comes with extremism, as well as having some other traits in common.

      I think another part of it is that you really can't locate people on a line, though I think you can do a decent job of it with three dimensions (say political, economic, and individualist vs group orientation, though I'm sure I could recall a better one give time). In a lot of cases what is happening is that the shift is only on a single dimension while the other two stay stable (so something like a shift from Communist to fascist may have the same orientation on economic and political measures, state control and authoritarian while shifting on a class orientation).

      So if we're going to use the left right orientation I think it is important to define what orientation we are talking about. In my opinion most of these shifts between extremes don't involve all that much movement, it's not that far from believing in an intellectual elite dominating over an authoritarian class based planned economy to believing in a race based elite dominating over an authoritarian race based planned economy (which is not too far from the shift of many fascists, though over-simplified). Most of the structure is still there, it's just replacing how the elite is defined.