The Right/Left Spectrum is a Political Delusion

The polit­i­cal spec­trum across the devel­oped world is often divided along the lines of Right ver­sus Left. This dichotomy dates back to the French Rev­o­lu­tion when mem­bers of the Gen­eral Assem­bly clam­ber­ing most for change and rad­i­cal action sat to left of the cham­ber while those who urged cau­tion sat to the right. Since then, this dual­ity has become part of the stan­dard tax­on­omy for nearly every polit­i­cal move­ment.

These days, politi­cians are either ‘Right-wing,’ ‘Left­-wing,’ or more occa­sion­al­ly, ‘Mod­er­ate.’ George Bush was right, Obama left. The Tea Party is right wing, while the Green Party is left wing. Anar­cho-syn­di­cal­ists are left­ists, while anar­cho-­cap­i­tal­ists are right-wingers. Every­thing and every­one is either left or right, lib­eral or con­ser­v­a­tive, Bol­she­vik or Bour­geois, and peo­ple fight long hard ver­bal wars over who belongs in which category.

Yet, it seems to me that these are very poor clas­si­fi­ca­tions. At the out­set, it beg­gars belief that all of human­i­ty’s polit­i­cal move­ments can be clas­si­fied in one of two cat­e­gories, or that the same can be charted on a sim­ple uni­di­men­sional polit­i­cal spec­trum. And, on closer exam­i­na­tion, it appears that this is just the case you can’t rea­son­ably clas­sify every politi­cian or polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy as either right-wing or left­-wing.

For starters, how does one even define these terms? Just look­ing at what con­sti­tutes right vs left and you find that it varies from decade to decade and from coun­try to coun­try. In Europe, lais­sez-­faire mar­kets are con­sid­ered ‘lib­er­al’ but in the United States, they are ‘con­ser­v­a­tive.’ The term ‘Right-wing’ in Amer­ica refers to Repub­li­cans in gen­er­al, but in Ger­many it’s reserved almost exclu­sively to Neo-­Nazi groups. ‘Con­ser­v­a­tives,’ in the United States talk a lot about the US Con­sti­tu­tion, while ‘con­ser­v­a­tives’ in Spain talk a lot about the monar­chy. There’s no con­sis­ten­cy. But it’s more than that though. When you really drill the mat­ter down, you find that most issues just don’t fit on a left right spec­trum.

Take mar­riage for exam­ple. Recently in this United States there has been a lot fuss over whether homo­sex­ual cou­ples should be issued civil mar­riage licens­es. Sim­i­lar debates have been occur­ring in other coun­tries as well. In gen­er­al, those who oppose same-­sex mar­riage are con­sid­ered right-wing while those who favor it are con­sid­ered left­-wing. The for­mer sup­port tra­di­tional mar­riage norms while the later pre­fer a more inclu­sive approach. So far so good, but tell me: How does one clas­sify a sup­porter of polyg­a­mous mar­riage licens­es? On the hand, it’s more inclu­sive to sup­port it, so one would think that it’s a left wing posi­tion. On the other hand, the major­ity of sup­port for it comes from oth­er­wise right wing, rad­i­cal Mor­mon groups. Fur­ther, fem­i­nists who are clas­si­fied as left­-wing, gen­er­ally oppose polygamy on the grounds that it is usu­ally at the expense of wom­en. Yet you still can’t clas­sify polygamy as right-wing because it’s cer­tainly out­side of the scope of ‘tra­di­tional mar­riage.’ Is this because polygamy is actu­ally a ‘mod­er­ate’ posi­tion and between the right and left? Or per­haps, is it a rad­i­cal posi­tion out­side of the scope of left and right? The later obvi­ous­ly.

And you can apply this approach to other related issues. Bes­tial­i­ty? Group mar­riage? Abol­ish­ing civil mar­riage? Which of these are strictly right-wing and which are strictly left­-wing poli­cies? What about a per­son who sup­ports same-­sex unions, but opposes mixed-race unions? How about the reverse? There is no con­sis­tent way to clas­sify all pos­si­ble posi­tions on mar­riage on the left right spec­trum. The same with economics1 mil­i­tary, social issues, and so forth.

So why are the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ so widely used? Well, at one point it made more sense. In the 18th and 19th cen­turies in Europe the Right were those who favored the estab­lished order, while the left favored rev­o­lu­tion and broad social change of one form or anoth­er. Most of Europe was gov­erned by cen­turies old monar­chies and aris­toc­ra­cies at the time and the estab­lished gen­try were the Right. The Left were those polit­i­cal dis­si­dents clam­or­ing for changes such as rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment, civil lib­er­ties, free mar­kets, social­ism, nation­al­ism, etc. As such, French Repub­li­cans, Ital­ian Uni­fi­ca­tion­ists, and Russian Bol­she­viks could all be mem­bers of the Left, despite the fact that they had lit­tle, if any­thing, in com­mon. At the same time, popes, kings, and mag­is­trates could all be con­sid­ered part of the right despite the fact that few of them had much in com­mon either.

As time wore on how­ev­er, left wings move­ments sur­vived long enough to become the new right wing, and new ide­olo­gies formed which became the new left. Many new ide­olo­gies became throw­backs to older ide­olo­gies, and some ide­olo­gies fused both new and old ideas in novel ways. There were some move­ments which were both restora­tionist and rev­o­lu­tion­ary. It got to the point that the old ratio­nale for the terms did­n’t apply any­more but peo­ple would still apply them to the two largest fac­tions in their respec­tive coun­tries, what­ever those fac­tions hap­pened to be because it was eas­ier than invent­ing new, more descrip­tive labels. As such ‘right’ and ‘left’ ceased to have any mean­ing except as labels for regional polit­i­cal fac­tions.

These days, the terms right and left, and in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics the terms con­ser­v­a­tive and lib­er­al, have mostly become labels with which to brand polit­i­cal oppo­nents. For example: “The Amer­i­can Right opposes gun pro­lif­er­a­tion, Hitler was right-wing, there­fore gun pro­lif­er­a­tion is evil like Hitler.” Never mind the fact that the Nazis approach to gun con­trol looked more like the Amer­i­can Left’s and that real­ly, nei­ther the Amer­i­can ‘Left’ nor the Amer­i­can ‘Right’ looks much like Nazism at all. “You’re a right-wing nut­case!” “You’re typ­i­cal lib­er­al!” These accu­sa­tions mean next to noth­ing con­cretely and are con­cerned solely with fac­tion­al­ism, which at the end of it all, is a waste of time if you want to under­stand mat­ters and solve prob­lems.

So any­way, I try not to use them.

  1. If being pro-business and anti-tax is right-wing and being anti-business and pro-tax left-wing, what about a policy that gives businesses tax money for a specific purpose? 

Last update: 18/04/2013

blog comments powered by Disqus