The ‘Political Compass’ and Class Politics: A Better Way to Classify Ideologies?

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. B47E81B8FE3F4E54829E1EB4059FE270

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. BetterCompass

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.

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Socialism, Labour-Notes, and Black Markets: does private currency lead to private capital?

Floating around in socialist headspace there is sometimes the idea of what I’ll call here ‘labour notes’, a form of currency for a society that was socialist but not fully communist (or at least not yet – sometimes this is seen as a ‘transitional stage’ as culture adapts away from capitalist habits of thought).

The essential idea is that if it turns out that material incentives continue to be useful and necessary, then people could be ‘paid wages’ by the commue (whether local, national, whatever) for doing useful work, which they could then spend on buying certain priced goods. Not all work need by paid, and not all goods need be priced – this system could take up a high or a low percentage of the economy, and presumably that percentage would be changed over time as non-material incentives became more effective (e.g. work was re-organised to be more rewarding, or whatever).

The idea is that this isn’t money, i.e. can’t function as capital, because it can’t be used to gain ownership of means of production, i.e. can’t be invested. It just goes to the individual from the commune for work, and then goes back to the community for consumption goods – and the commune need not keep a ‘stock’ of it at all. Indeed, it might even be given a ‘negative interest rate’ so that over a certain period of time it ‘evaporates’ and ceases to be valid.

Now I’m not particularly keen to endorse or recommend such a scheme over proper communism (where goods are generally just freely available, or in some cases rationed with equal rations – i.e. ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’). But I do think it’s useful to have as a possibility, especially for arguing with people who are convinced of human depravity.

In a recent comment, though, SnowdropExplodes says

“Honestly, I don’t know how you could stop it from circulating and becoming capital. Even if the currency itself is not transferable from one person to another then the goods for which it can be exchanged, are. From there, it is only a short step to a black market economy using a currency of its own devising, for the trade of commodities obtained using the official currency. At that point, official currency will be redeemed not for goods with use-value to the person who earned the points, but for trade-value in the black market system.

A further problem is that it clearly opens up the door to corruption if one person obtains a large amount of this official currency, and uses it to bribe others by obtaining for them goods that those others do not have the currency to buy themselves; this could in turn potentially lead to individuals obtaining control over means of production through bribery.”

This is a common question that I think is provoked by what I’ll call ‘labour-note socialism’ – is it stable? Would it morph back into capitalism? I think that it would be stable, and that black markets wouldn’t morph it into anything, so I wanted to talk a bit about why.

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The Ethics of Rebellion and Moderation: Values for Revolutionaries?

One of the ideas in yesterday’s post was the distinction between doing the sociology that supports political agitations towards socialism, and creating the ‘ideology’ (or perhaps, the ‘mythology’) that would preside over such a society, the values that it would understand itself in terms of.

I’ve recently been reading a very interesting book – Albert Camus’ ‘The Rebel’ (subtitled ‘an essay on man in revolt’), and I think one of its major goals is, in a certain sense, to lay out what is essentially an ‘ideology’ in that sense – what I will call ‘the ideology of rebellion and moderation’. So I thought I’d devote a post to talking about it, because I like it.

A few words about what I mean by ‘ideology’. I don’t mean a set of detailed political principles or analyses, but something like an overall view of the world, of how to act, of what has value. In that sense, we might say, modern ideology contains such ideas as ‘freedom’, ‘progress’ and ‘reason’ – which can be appropriated and used in very different ways by different particular movements (though not in absolutely any way). Religions often provide similarly ‘ideological’ terms (‘faith’, ‘sin’), which are also very flexible in practice. Ideology in this sense is generally something that links together how people understand 1) their own personal lives and actions, 2) their society and its politics, and 3) the universe and human history as a whole. It’s probably closer to an ethical code than a theory of any kind. To a certain extent it will always be a tissue of obviousness, truisms, and cliches.

Critics of ideology might describe it as the lies that a society tells itself, and they’re right in that ideology is generally 1) not strictly true – though also not strictly false, nor strictly arbitrary, and 2) useful to established interests (because if it wasn’t, they’d get it changed). But on the other hand, it seems clear to me that it’s not something that can be dispensed with, and the ideology of a supposedly ‘non-ideological’, ‘scientific’ movement (turns disapproving eye on USSR) is liable to just be bad, veiled, ideology.

So – what is the ideology of rebellion and moderation? It says

-that the experience of rebellion, an ‘essential dimension of human nature’, is the best revelation of human dignity – of ‘that part of man that must always be defended’,

-that this dignity is something shared by all humans,

-that the fact that we share our rebellion, that we defy the same fate and the same order and the same unjust world, reminds us of our community with each other.

– and that to stay true to itself, this value that rebellion reveals must be understood as ‘moderation’.

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Right and Left: Being ‘Anti-State’

Both right-libertarians (anarcho-capitalists, minarchists, ‘The Libertarian Party’ in various countries) and left-libertarians (anarchists of every other variety, libertarian socialists/communists, etc.) are ‘anti-state’. But notice:

Right-libertarians are generally least hostile to the state when it’s performing its ‘core functions’ (defending property rights, upholding the law, etc), and most hostile to it when it extends its activities to include providing public goods (like social security, safety regulations, healthcare, etc.)

Left-libertarians are generally least hostile to the state when it’s providing such public goods, and most hostile to it when it’s performing its ‘core functions’.

How Should Anarchists Fight a War?

A few thoughts on ‘anarchist warfare’ and ‘statist warfare’.

In normal wars (though to varying degrees), the contest is between two or more territory-controlling forces. The activity of ‘controlling’ territory is distinct from the activity of living there; the contending forces are thus distinct from the populations inhabiting the areas fought over (again, to varying degrees). Consequently, the inhabiting population tends to appear as a passive ‘background’, as what is ‘fought over’.

As long as this pattern is in place, I would call the conflict ‘statist’ regardless of whether it’s one ‘official’ state against another, one ‘rebel’ group against another, an established government against rebels, etc. The point is, insofar as the dynamic of the war divides the population in general from the contending forces, and makes one passive and the other active, the essential dynamics of statehood are in play.

So what would an anarchist war look like? The ideal (however closely it is or isn’t acheived) is that this division between warring force and local population not exist. That is, the ideal would be that the activity of ‘controlling’ territory be simply an aspect of living there; that local populations at each point be actively organised to maintain something like a ‘monopoly of violence’ in that area.

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Discussion between Bakunin, Marx, and Warm-Fork

I was reading this recently – it’s some extracts from a book by Bakunin (prominent Russian anarcho-communist) which Marx had written notes in (the online text, on libcom, unfortunately doesn’t distinguish between who’s saying what, but I think I’ve worked it out from context – who’s calling who an idiot, generally). The topic, as one might expect, is the ‘workers’ state’ and the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (hereafter DOTP). It stimulated some thoughts in my brain, so I reproduce some of the exchanges, with my comments.

My sympathies are mixed – partly I agree with Bakunin, partly with Marx, and I think a lot of the time their exchange may be clouded by their rivalry and dislike of each other.

Bakunin: We have already stated our deep opposition to the theory of Lassalle and Marx, which recommends to the workers, if not as final ideal then at least as the next major aim — the foundation of a people’s state, which, as they have expressed it, will be none other than the proletariat organized as ruling class. The question arises, if the proletariat becomes the ruling class, over whom will it rule? It means that there will still remain another proletariat, which will be subject to this new domination, this new state.

Marx: It means that so long as the other classes, especially the capitalist class, still exists, so long as the proletariat struggles with it (for when it attains government power its enemies and the old organization of society have not yet vanished), it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means. It is itself still a class and the economic conditions from which the class struggle and the existence of classes derive have still not disappeared and must forcibly be either removed out of the way or transformed, this transformation process being forcibly hastened.

Warm-Fork: Is Bakunin denying that the proletariat is likely to have many enemies, even after the threshold of revolution has been passed? Surely not. Nor, presumably, is he denying that the proletariat will have to ‘struggle’ with them in some sense, nor that it will have to meet force with force, nor that it will have to organise itself for such purposes.

So the precise dispute is when Marx says “it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means”, about which Bakunin says “It means that there will still remain another proletariat, which will be subject to this new domination”. So what is meant by ‘governmental means’ – my instinctive definition would be ‘establishing a centralised apparatus for initiating physical force against not-immediately-violent targets’. It’s certainly a plausible allegation that this inevitably makes people other than the intended counter-revolutionaries vulnerable to such an apparatus.

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Abolish Lawyers

This is going to be another post where I cast aspersions on the legal system from a position of relative ignorance. In fact, it’s that ignorance that I want to talk about in particular.

(also, I’m going to use ‘law’ to mean simply the standing rules and regulations of a society, including those of an anarchic society, although I’m aware that many anarchists are ‘against laws’ because they define ‘law’ slightly differently)

Because, why are we ok with the fact that we don’t really know what the law says? I mean, I could probably tell you a good number of legal facts, especially those most relevant to my life. But I doubt they would add up to 1% of the legal facts that there are, and even if we added in all those which I might have a chance of guessing based on common sense, I think it would still be a minority. And I don’t imagine many other people are much better off. In a word, law functions as a specialism.

Now we might be fine with that if we were dealing with a scientific discipine, or a complex craft – we’re not surprised that most people understand only a minority of medicine or of chemistry. But law’s not a scientific discipline, it’s a public creation, and it’s meant to be something that we all give assent to – indeed, which at some level exists because we all assent to it. And of course, it’s supposedly our responsibility to be familiar with it, because ignorance is not a defence.

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Environmentalism and Anarcha-Feminism – who owns ‘Green Politics’? Part 2

In yesterday’s post I asked how ‘environmentalism’ fitted into other schemes of political ideas. I distinguished three sorts of ‘environmentalism’, and promised to talk about a fourth.

Of those three, the first two (an ‘instrumental’ version that cares about ‘the environment’ only for the sake of the humans who depend on it, and an ‘animal rights’ version that extends this to care about the other sentient creatures who depend on it) were reasonable and sensible, but weren’t really ‘environmentalist’ in any strong sense. The third (valuing life of all kinds per se) was clearly ‘environmentalist’ in nature, but also, in my opinion, wrong and foolish.

The fourth, that I want to focus on today, is less about what doctrines and principles one rationally holds, and more about a different sort of emotional mindset, a different way of approaching matters – things which, I’d argue, play a large and sometimes underestimated role in making apparently ‘rational’ political decisions.

This sort of ‘environmentalism’ is opposed to a mindset that opposes two abstractions, ‘nature’ and ‘humanity’, supposes them to be locked in conflict, identifies with ‘humanity’ and therefore legitimises, encourages, and takes pleasure in all ‘triumphs over nature’ that humanity acheives.

In its place, it would recommend a mindset that holds up a single abstraction, ‘nature’, and treats ‘humanity’ as one component of that, alongside ‘moose’ and ‘fungi’. It then regards conflict within nature as regrettable, and prefers ‘harmonious co-existence’ to ‘triumph’.

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What’s a Revolutionary? What is the Left?

In yesterday’s post, I talked about the mainstream left and what defines it, what the familiar divide between these two gangs of politicians and their various hangers-on is all about.

But there’s a similar divide within that so-called ‘left’, a fairly familiar one between two sorts of statists. On the one hand, there’s those who put their hopes in the existing state, and try to find accomodation with it in various ways. On the other hand, there’s those who think this is hopeless, and want to replace that state with a new and completely different ‘revolutionary state’.

One suggests that the existing state is the legitimate expression of what ‘the electorate’ wants, the other suggests that their new-and-improved state will be the legitimate expression of what ‘the revolutionary proletariat’ wants.

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The Left, the Pseudoleft, and the State

Most of us have probably been in the situation of hearing some young or not so young student of politics, trying to tie together what they understand of politics in the following formula:

“being more left-wing means wanting the state to intervene more in society”

Conversely, being more right-wing means wanting a ‘small state’, and a society of people left to themselves.

Now, this formula is wrong, for various reasons which I’ll assume my readers are already aware of, but I think there’s an important element of truth to it. There is a systematic connection between the state and a certain sort of ‘left’.

In yesterday’s post I called this the ‘pseudoleft’, and described it as an attempt to compensate for the impotence that comes from the divide between the various holders of radical views and opinions, and the social forces capable of making them a reality, most obviously socialists and proletarians, between the do-gooders and well-wishers dreaming of a classless, co-operative society, and the classes of non-owners with the economic position that allows them to re-arrange society from the bottom up.

Now, we might suppose then that this would produce a lot of people who can see what’s wrong, who can see the problems and the unhappiness in class society, but who don’t know what to do about it. They may be confident of its eventual self-defeat in a century or so, but not patient or callous enough to just sit and wait. So what they’d really like would be an easy way to ‘paper over’ the cracks, to take problems as they appear and either solve them or conceal them or a mixture of both.

And guess what! That’s just what states do! That’s what ‘politics’ is: the place where conflicts appear and get resolved. And the state justifies itself, and makes itself functional, by being the mechanism that can enforce such ‘solutions’. If religion is ‘the heart of a heartless world’, the state is ‘the unity of a divided society’.

The result is that under normal (i.e. non-revolutionary conditions), people who notice that society is grossly unfair and a lot of people are being made very unhappy, naturally gravitate around the state. They write letters, they present petitions, they announce initiatives. They struggle and then eventually a politician of their camp gets into the position to deliver a rousing speech about how they will mend the world and help all the poor needy X’s, and they feel themselves to have scored a great victory. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the problems never seem to dry up.

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