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.