Most people would agree, the modern political landscape has become highly polarised. The political Left and Right battle in a high-stakes culture war where it seems the only people occupying the middle ground are those that want no part in it. Hollywood stars no longer thank their supporters when receiving awards, instead they make impassioned political speeches calling for urgent action within the community. Being at opposite ends of the political compass can even see friends going their separate ways on social media. In fact, merely locating someone at the end of the political spectrum is immediate grounds to dismiss their views as unfit for public consumption (“right-wing extremist”). Let’s have a look at what this spectrum is supposed to look like:
So what do Left and Right actually refer to?
These terms originate from the French Revolution around the time of 1789-1794. Members of the national assembly divided into two groups and sat on each side of the chamber, as seen from the Speaker’s seat:
On the right were supporters of the king, loyal to religion, defenders of the constitution and status-quo. These were the aristocracy and clergy.
On the left were the commoners in support of the revolution, demanding progress and equality.
The terms left and right were used only to refer to seating in the legislature, before being employed to describe a set of political beliefs and typically by one’s opponents, as a slur. Initially, the right side of the chamber were opposed to the seating arrangements because they believed in supporting general interests and not forming factions or political parties. Being supporters of the status-quo, the right viewed the existence of a left-right spectrum as artificial and damaging to unity. On the other hand, those supporters of the revolution who were agitating for change, saw the divide as a useful mechanism to achieve unrest and ultimately their goal of progress.
Change vs. The Status-Quo
So, this political divide appears to have 2 different meanings, firstly:
The degree to which you are unhappy with the status-quo and desire change. The further left would indicate the greater the embrace of change, even for an entirely new system.
The degree to which you are content with the status-quo and aim to protect the existing system using established institutions and customs. The further right indicates an increasing resistance to change.
Coercion vs. Freedom
The second meaning would actually describe the attributes of a political system itself. Around the period of the enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries) when rule by monarchy was becoming very unpopular, it became clear that birthright inequality would no longer be tolerated. But what system would provide the necessary equality and more importantly, for how long would that equality last? This becomes the basis of a very natural dichotomy separating Left and Right:
A system based on the equality of outcome
A system based on the equality of opportunity
In the first case, to ensure outcomes are equal, a great deal of coercion is required – this almost always takes the form of a large and powerful state, dedicated to spreading wealth and prosperity to all. The further left on the spectrum the greater the powers of coercion required to ensure absolute equality.
Equality of opportunity can best be summarised as a belief in individual rights and freedoms – including freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and markets. Within a free and fair system, everyone has the opportunity to rise to their true potential, or fail for that matter. The powers of coercion are limited to a basic set of laws that revolve around negative rights – essentially ensuring that a person’s rights are not infringed upon by another. The further right on the spectrum the smaller the number of rules and regulations required to govern conduct.
For now, let’s put aside the axis that pits Change versus the Status-Quo. This is entirely dependant on what system is currently in place. This axis does become interesting when we have a system that is objectively sound. The question arises – will there still be groups crying out for wholesale change? Most likely, yes, and that is covered in more depth here.
Now that we know the origins of the political spectrum, let’s focus on the axis that is most meaningful – the amount of coercion required to maintain a stable system. The graphic below might be a more accurate depiction of where various groups, and modern political labels, inhabit the political spectrum:
Only two fundamental groups?
This may seem at odds with what you know about politics. Socialists and Fascists in the same group? Progressives and Neo-Conservatives also grouped together? What these four political beliefs have in common is the desire for control. No matter what is promised, the outcome is initially coercion and ultimately control – either direct or indirect.
Accordingly, the very presence of coercion implies that another important trait is evident in these left ideologies; a society divided into two groups – Insiders vs. Outsiders. Over time, the insider group may subtly project this divide as Intellectuals vs. Non-Intellectuals or even Virtuous vs. Deplorable. Members of the former group consider themselves as masterminds, presuming to know the best course of action for all others, even in the face of strong opposition. Masterminds would have everyone believe they can out-think thousands of years of evolved experience by dreaming up wonderful new solutions. Highly contentious policy positions suddenly become self-evident and are eventually removed from the public debate. Speaking against these axiomatic “truths” becomes a taboo or even a criminal offence. The particulars of each political framework vary, but the underlying ideology is always the same – insiders controlling outsiders. And participation in these groups can be ruthlessly enforced. In frameworks that embrace violence, being expelled from the insider group can result in death (Communist, Fascist, Theocratic). While the passivist frameworks rely on ex-communication and loss of livelihood (Green / Eco, Intellectual, Social Justice, Progressive).
In our simplified spectrum above, the right side contains philosophies that embrace true equality. Government is seen as a necessary “evil”. It has been learned the hard way that power corrupts, so a cynical approach is taken when entrusting fellow man with authority over others. Political leaders are considered to be “of the people” and short-term in tenure, not a special breed of intellectual masterminds enjoying perennial authority. And most importantly, those in power are merely considered stewards of a highly-evolved set of frameworks. In some cases the actual workings of the system (i.e. economics) need not be fully understood, just that the benefits overwhelm the shortcomings. Leadership by whim is strongly opposed, no matter how much time someone has invested in education.
Why is the perceived spectrum so common?
This perception would appear to be based on a duality between the progressive left and the conservative right, in relation to economics and social issues:
Progressives desire nearly total freedom in social matters (i.e. abortion, sexuality, marriage) while at the same time requiring substantial coercion to guarantee economic outcomes are equal.
Alternatively, conservatives desire substantial coercion on social matters while demanding extensive freedom in the area of economics (laissez faire markets).
These incompatible views seem to pit two large political groups neatly at opposite ends of the political spectrum, as seen in our first diagram. However both groups have something in common, they seek coercive powers that are at odds with liberty and freedom. Let’s briefly touch on the domains where coercion is sort:
- Coercive Economics: In the history of political movements, we are yet to find a single success story of a centrally-planned economy. It is an utterly failed idea.
- Coercive Social Theory: It is highly contentious that government is the right authority to codify social behaviour. In its extreme form (theocracies) large sections of society lose fundamental rights (i.e. women and homosexuals under Islamic Sharia law).
Any group advocating for wide coercive powers (outside of basic legal & contractual frameworks) must surely inhabit the same part of the spectrum – in this case, the controlling left.
To further break the myth of the diametrically opposed Progressives and Conservatives, it would now appear that these groups have swapped roles on some issues. Both pornography and video gaming initially faced resistance from sections of the conservative right. However in recent times it has been the progressive left calling for censorship in these domains. In another example, these “opposite” groups both continue to seek greater powers of surveillance over the public. We are told everyday we must sacrifice more freedom to ensure our safety against terrorism and security threats. It only amounts to greater coercive powers in the hands of these similar ideologies.
We can never look at politics through the prism of specific issues, only the level of coercion being sought by those entrusted with authority. Attitudes and circumstances always evolve. Slavery was once widespread, along with racial segregation. A teenager labelling an octogenarian a racist is not a matter of moral superiority, but rather of quirk of nature – particularly in an age of longer lives and warp-speed evolution. When it comes to social norms, granting legislative power to some, in order to bully and admonish, or worse – fine and imprison others, is very unwise.
And finally, the mislabelling of political views might best be summed up with the group calling itself ANTIFA or Anti-Fascist. This group specifically targets political opponents that it perceives as violent and authoritarian, by using violence and authoritarian tactics. This hypocrisy could only be justified through a delusion of intense self-righteousness. Given the right side of our spectrum is built around a uniform application of the rule-of-law, it is almost by definition that the left flounders in double-standards. And it is these double-standards that are the gateway to tyranny.
Have some become dangerously distracted by a horizontal political spectrum?
Now, having got this far, would you consider yourself of the Left, or Right? It could actually be neither. It is clear than something else is emerging. Government has always been lobbied by special-interests and donors with vested interests in the economy. These groups may spend large sums of money with the goal of creating favourable conditions for themselves. Given the power wielded by government, it would be naive to think government itself isn’t its own special interest – willing to say and do anything to protect itself. If history is any guide, government is prone to making itself bigger and more involved in every area of life. Greater spending, ambitious new programmes, lavish international travel, bold personal titles, new global bodies – it is never ending. This growth, naturally funded via public debt, rewards only a certain class of people. While many have been distracted by the perceived and real differences between Left and Right, they should be more concerned with whether they are part of the Insider or Outsider class:
It goes without saying that not all individual group members fit neatly into the respective categories. Nonetheless, we are witnessing a blurring of the lines. The political establishment on both left and right have essentially joined forces. It matters little which political party commands a majority. The mainstream media echoes a selected narrative reinforcing a very narrow public debate. Big business funds much of this, in return for favourable conditions. Our academic and intellectual “superiors” further reinforce a moral imperative, that many important issues are largely settled and not to be questioned. On the surface, the political and mainstream elite pretend they are at war over left and right “issues”, giving outsiders an opportunity to pick a side. In reality, the insiders have narrowed the debate so much that any outcome will be palatable and they get rich either way.
In the early stages of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, it appeared a likely showdown would emerge between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Jeb Bush. Few would consider the choice between two dynastic political families as actually offering any real alternative. Indeed, when a brash and independently wealthy businessman stepped into the ring, pandemonium broke out. This total outsider was suddenly an existential threat to the cosy insider left-right establishment. Despite be attacked from every angle possible, his ultimately successful campaign could simply be summed up as championing the cause of outsiders whilst calling out and shaming the totally rigged insider racket.
Across the Atlantic, when Britain voted to leave the European Union in the same year, this also broke almost entirely down the lines of insiders and outsiders. Some sections of the insider group were totally shocked by the result, simply because they didn’t know of a single person who voted to leave.
A quick look into the conditions of these two groups is revealing. It goes without saying that life is good for the insider, in fact nearly all of the economic and social gains flow in their direction. Jobs are well-paid and plentiful. The neighbourhoods and elite schools are very safe. Personal security is routinely on hand for the top level.
For outsiders it’s a different story. They face massive competition for jobs and housing, and for access to public transport and other amenities. Much of this competition stems from rampant immigration and job off-shoring. At the same time, taxes that should be spent rejuvenating public infrastructure are absorbed by the huge government bureaucracy. Neighbourhood safety is a thing of the past. Most countries have stripped gun-rights from law-abiding folks and left them in the hands of a growing criminal class.
Perhaps the greatest source of imbalance would be the financial markets, which are pushed steadily higher by ultra risky behaviour and reckless monetary policy. The large asset holders do extremely well during the boom times, but not before the inevitable market bust leads to calls for a tax-payer bailout, in order to socialise the cost of failure to all and sundry.
Left and Right, Insiders and Outsiders
So where does all of this leave us?
If you believe in principles of the left (necessary coercion) yet are an outsider, you are granting others extensive power yet wield none of it. This is sometimes referred to as a useful idiot – unwittingly advancing another’s cause usually at your own expense.
Those who favour principles of the right (inalienable freedom), whether insiders or outsiders typically have a stabilising impact on society. They commit to consistent and equal treatment under agreed laws and seek to be left in peace. They are not overly concerned with the action of others, so long as it is lawful. This group is mostly concerned with maintaining personal liberty and being a check on authority.
What remains are those who believe in principles of the left (inherent or subtle coercion) and also belong to the insider group. These are the most dangerous and manipulative of all. They are the so-called experts, creating the very problems that they then seek to fix, but only after they have been further empowered to do so. Typically, an air of moral superiority exists. Some agitate and divide society into sub-groups, cultivating bogus grievances that require a “solution”. And if real issues do exist, the cure is almost always worse than the illness. It is here that the initial axis of Change vs. The Status-Quo again becomes relevant. In order to gain coercive control, this group must always be agitating for fundamental change – falsely imputing that highly-evolved and stable democratic systems have gaping flaws. When the useful idiot cohort grows large enough, these insider leftists gain a meaningful majority, and tyranny soon follows.