Wednesday, April 4, 2012
What does Left and Right mean anymore? What did it once mean, and what will it come to mean?
There used to be a person called a liberal. Economically, they championed industry and free trade, with the view that government intervention within markets was, as a general principal, a bad thing.
On the other side of the coin there was the socially liberal person, who believed that people had a right to do as they pleased so long as they didn't hurt anyone else in the process. In principle this person ought to have championed human rights in all its forms.
These two understandings of the word liberal used to be connected, used to be one and the same. Nowadays, more often than not, we find that one lot have laid claim to one of the two pillars of liberalism, while the other lot have laid claim to the other. So, we get Right wing parties rejecting social liberalism, but championing economic liberalism, while also seeing Left-wing parties championing more socially liberal causes, such as gay people getting married.
So why all the infidelity?
There are two more terms which I want to deal with. The first is the term "conservative". If you were conservative in the past you would champion community values, whether they be religious, institutional or governmental. You would seek to preserve the status quo. Interestingly, sociologists have shown that people from both the upper echelons of the social strata and those from the lowest are likeliest to be conservative. There are all sorts of factors influencing this, and it may in fact be changing right before our very eyes.
The other term I would like to investigate is the term "socialist." This is the easy one, right? These are the people who in principle want to radically change the very structure of society, to see the redistribution of wealth, and the triumph of fairness over any class system that dominates. To what goal? That's the tough part. It's own utopianism may also its undoing, a kind of dangerous naivety, that fails to take into account the complexity of human interaction.
Today's politics is a hodgepodge mixture of different combinations of these terms. Liberalism has been split in two by the two main opposing trends in twenty-first century politics. If you're Right-wing, you are likely to champion the free market and less government regulation, while also supporting conservative ideals. On the Left you are likely to champion a more socially liberal agenda while still seeking transformation within society.
It seems that in the battle of political ideologies, liberalism is the real winner. Even though it has been ripped in two, in its separated form it has come to inhabit both sides of the political spectrum.
Perhaps it fills in gaps present within Right-wing ideology and Left-wing ideology. For instance, the traditional Right-wing was thoroughly liberal, while the original Left-wing was thoroughly socialist (Stalin never worried whether or not he upset this or that ethnic minority, quite to the contrary). Both these ideologies started out as catalysts for change, radical doctrines for the reorganization of whole societies.
Nowadays, there is a movement towards the centre, on both sides. Does political infidelity have anything to do with this? We see that liberalism has been the real victor in the battle for political hearts and minds. When both ideologies, conservatism and socialism, take on an aspect of it perhaps they are trying to paint a fuller picture of the world. What we get is conservatism but with freedoms which it once lacked. On the other hand, what we get is un-halting progress in the socialist tradition, but with respect to all things human, not as cold and rational as it once seemed.
The tensions still remain, but there is this idea of them both being fuller ideologies, in some way, with their adoption of these different aspects of liberalism. Still, there is this fundamental change in what political ideology once was and what it is now. It was a catalyst for change; now we are dealing with world views.
Can I be so bold to make one further allegory, between the beginnings of a religion - its adoption, its propagation throughout a given culture - and the political ideologies of our day. A movement beginnings, as always, as a radical catalyst for change. Then, as it gets adopted by those that oppose it, it becomes a world view, something within which dissenters will not be tolerated. Because a small amount of this radical spirit is allowed to live on in an extremely controlled environment, then this world view can be justified. So Jesus says that the meek will inherit the earth, and that wealth is bad. This didn't stop people from dominating the meek and ruthlessly acquiring wealth in Rome or Europe after it. This may be a point worth pondering upon, especially if you are a very political person. There are always alternatives.
For instance, why hasn't socialism teamed up with conservatism? Seriously. Why not? I know, certain things will have to be sacrificed within both of them. But in the end they are both interested in the same thing - the dignity of the human spirit, even if that ephemeral object is so damned hard to pin down. It may be close to the name Nazi - nationalist socialism - but perhaps it is a viable alternative, sans the fascism and the genocide. In their search for relevance, Sinn Fein seems to have stumbled upon this formulation. We'll wait and see how that one pans out.
We have shifted from the politics of change to the politics of the world. Only, in searching for a politics of the world, we have found many politics, for many worlds.
How very postmodern of us all.
There does seem to be a change coming, however. I feel like I just described a history to you, of political ideology before ... before what? What comes next? Now there's a question always worth asking.
What do you guys think? Feel free to comment, if you like!