Most people interested in politics will have come across ‘The Political Compass’, which markets itself as an improvement on ‘The Left-Right Spectrum’ (which those interested in politics will also probably have come across). It’s basic idea is that the Left-Right axis should be kept as a gague of economic views, but supplemented with a vertical ‘authoritarian-libertarian’ axis.
This gives four corners, as indicated right:
(Note that this approach gives no obvious way to reflect issues such as feminism vs. antifeminism, environmentalism, racism, etc.)
Is this any good? I think it’s major problem is that although it’s presented as replacing the left-right spectrum, it’s actually a different sort of thing. It is, so to speak, a classification ‘from first principles’ that sets up abstract criteria and then compares people’s views to them. It’s spirit is almost like that of a scientific experiment that tries to isolate certain variables and then model them. What it ends up doing is asking two (very broad) questions – about capitalism and about personal freedom – and then tell you how you answered them.
The left-right spectrum doesn’t do this. It looks at the complex and messy reality – of divergent all-encompassing worldviews, and how they imply views on particular issues, and how this plays out in practice, and who will ally with who, and tries to group this into hazily-defined but (at least somewhat) practically-relevant lumps.
The first method might be more appropriate if people’s political opinions were formed in a purely intellectual process of debate and inquiry, but if this weren’t the case – if, in fact, systematic interests lay behind most if not all production of ideology – then we would expect that the most relevant ideological contours would actually be based on fault-lines that weren’t always immediately obvious at the ideological level, and which could best be understood in terms of a certain sense of ‘partisanship’.
That would suggest that ‘the left’, whatever particular ideals they espouse, are partisans of a particular side; the ‘right’, partisans of another. This approach also has the virtue that it can deal better with different views of what the basic questions of value are – whereas the political compass’ approach has to assume that, say, ‘personal freedom’ is an important issue for all views, and that they define it in the same way.
However – isn’t there some usefulness in trying to spread the left-right spectrum out over at least two dimensions? It does seem strange that Hitler and Stalin must be placed at opposite ends despite their similarities, for example. So what if we tried to combine the merits of both – to look for a schematic representation that could incorporate more information than a mere line, while retaining the ‘class-partisanship’ approach of the traditional left-right spectrum?
That’s what I want to try to do today! I may not do it very well, but that’s ok.
See second image, right (and bear in mind the colours may not always be most appropriate, I was trying to balance historical associations with making it look pretty overall).
So what’s the idea? The idea is that four major trends all appear as paths leading away from the grey muddy centre: liberalism, socialism, nationalism, and conservatism.
All ultimately are best understood in class terms, although only two are specific to a certain class. Socialism, as is conventionally assumed, seeks the interests of the proletariat, i.e. it seeks a society without private capital, on behalf of the class whose members have no private capital.
Liberalism, again not saying anything too strange or novel, seeks the interests of the bourgeoisie, of those who do own private capital and seek a return on it. But the ambivalence of liberalism comes from the differentiated of this class into the petit-bourgeoisie, who have little capital, and whose interests (and hence ideology) can potentially move close to those of the proletariat, and the haute-bourgeoisie, who have loads of capital and are thus a proper ruling class.
This merges them into conservatism, which is not the ideology of any particular class but rather a body of ideas and sentiments that any established ruling class can use to defend its position and hold back change.
So what then is ‘nationalism’? It is the converse – a body of ideas and sentiments that any non-established ruling class (or class-section) can use to establish itself. This can mean both a ruling elite that used to be established but whose legitimacy has been undermined and need to re-establish control (when it is likely to be most reactionary, as in Fascism), and also an aspirational ruling elite seeking to mobilise layers of the oppressed to change society and put them in power (when it is likely to be progressive at first, as in Stalinism or Anti-Colonial nationalism).
At the intersection of nationalism and socialism is what I would call ‘populism’, movements that take some features of socialism but use them merely for cosmetic changes – of which, in a sense, authoritarian socialism is the more radical version.
Conversely, around the intersection of liberalism and socialism, at the real extremities, are the different flavours of ‘anarchism’, some more socialist, some less, but all recognising the importance of ensuring economic equality and fighting the power of big business. The ‘anarchists’ who don’t recognise this, anarcho-capitalists, are over at the extreme conjunction of conservatism and liberalism.
Now, obviously the right-left axis does still fit into this: insofar as socialism and liberalism are both left-wing, and insofar as they are close relatives (both because ideologically their values are the same – freedom, equality, reason, etc., and because in practice if they are true to themselves they come together), and insofar as nationalism and conservatism are both right-wing, the left-right spectrum is pretty much vertical here. The reason for which, obviously, is that the left is, at the most abstract level, the ideology of the weak againt the strong (i.e. oppressed and exploited classes) and the right is the ideology of the strong against the weak (i.e. ruling classes).
But note what has happened to the ‘centre’. The traditional left-right axis had to make ‘the centre’ simply mean ‘moderation’. But on the view here advanced, there are actually three points that are half-way between right and left: the moderate centre, and then populism on the one hand, and right-libertarianism on the other – the latter two being, potentially, ‘extreme centrist’ positions.
I think it’s reasonable to call them this because populism often does deliver valuable gains, even if for cynical reasons – even if populist politicians are just ‘using’ the masses, there is a certain power in being used, since it means that your concerns must at least be listened to, and your activity solicited. On the other hand, consistent right-libertarians are on the good side on plenty of issues – war, civil liberties, immigration.
We can also see to some extent where Stalin and Hitler connect and differ – both are extreme ‘nationalists’, if ‘nation’ is defined broadly enough, i.e. broadly enough as to make ‘extreme nationalist’ synonymous with ‘totalitarianism’. But they stand beside different borders – one the border with racist, hierarchical, big-business-supporting but not-quite-fascist conservatism, the other the border with collctivist, masses-empowering, socialism.
We can similarly avoid lumping authoritarian socialists in next to anarchist socialists, or else deciding which is ‘more left’ or ‘more radical’ – they are both equally far from the centre, but one is closer to liberalism and the other is closer to nationalism.
So that’s about the extent of what I’m trying to do here. The ‘political compass’ makes some of these distinctions, though it misses, say, the difference between an extreme but very non-fascist conservative, and a relatively non-conservative fascist – since both are profoundly authoritarian, but in different ways (only one is totalitarian). You could in a sense draw it onto my diagram (with the social libertarian/authoritarian axis going horizontally) but it doesn’t give any sense of the class-based partisanship that links together different ‘political opinions’.
It may have been noticed that there’s no mention of feminism, or other such ‘unconventional’ ideologies – that’s true. This schema focuses on conventionally-defined ‘politics and economics’, because it seeks to clarify the role of politico-economic classes. A different schema could perhaps be drawn for, say, sex-classes, though I’m less confident about what it would look like.
Note that if such a schema were drawn, we could again apply the left-right dimension to it: the ideology of oppressed groups (e.g. feminism) would be left-wing, and the ideology of oppressing groups (e.g. sexual conservatism) would be right-wing. So the left-right spectrum is something broader (precisely because so simple) than most more detailed analyses.
So there, that’s my shot at it. Obviously it could be improved, I hope – especially by finding a way to not make anarchism orange. And it embodies my own political opinions, although hopefully not so egregiously as to make it entirely opaque to those I disagree with. Thoughts?