Following my last post, which touched on a few of the issues below, I thought I may as well write a few words on what I find problematic about the left-right spectrum in politics.

I guess that I should provide some background before proceeding. One of the reasons I dislike the left-right spectrum is that it has never been able to accurately categorize me. I will admit a guilty pleasure in undertaking those online political surveys (the in-depth ones, not the 5-question clickbait quizzes) which purport to tell you where you lie on the spectrum, what party you align with, etc. The algorithms never seem to work for me, and usually give up in frustration (not literally, I would imagine) and place me dead-centre. In UK-specific tests, I have often been said to be almost-equally likely to vote Liberal Democrat or UKIP, which if you know anything about British party politics is so ridiculous as to be laughable.

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For some time, I have found this simple spectrum to be fundamentally flawed, and I am not quite sure why we still pretend it is valid. To see its multiple flaws, let us look at the general way the political spectrum is seen to work in the West.

If you are on the “right”, you are generally believed to be more socially conservative (tough on drugs, suspicious of gay marriage, etc.), perhaps more nationalist (fond of a larger military, less happy about immigration), and usually supportive of “small government” and a free-market approach to the economy. For this reason, libertarians, social conservatives and nationalists are all seen to be somewhat “right-wing” in the general perception. A casual look at the broad ideological views of these different groups will reveal they are almost incompatible with each other. Libertarians are generally fond of the smallest government possible, with no regulations on the economy and complete social liberty for its citizens. Nationalists support almost the opposite views, generally calling for tighter immigration controls, an emphasis on traditional national culture and a larger military (which requires greater government spending). Indeed, a glance at the current wave of successful populists in the West will often reveal they are not really that “right-wing” economically at all; President Trump calls for large increases in infrastructure spending (including that infamous wall), greater tariffs and he threatens businesses who attempt to shift abroad for reasons of economic efficiency. The Front National is protectionist and apparently quite fond of greater state intervention in public services. Yet somehow they are lumped in the same category as the libertarians and the free-marketeers.

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Hmm. Not quite right.

I won’t go into analysing the “left” for sake of time; what I will do is draw your attention to the two “extremes” of the left-right divide as it is commonly seen; communism and fascism. Both are seen to be at the opposite ends of the spectrum, as different from each other as they could possibly be. Yet, it can soon be seen that they are really not that different at all in many ways. Let us look at the great clash between the two main proponents of these ideologies, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany of the Second World War. Both were one-party states run by totalitarian dictators with a violent approach for dissent; both had nationalist, populist tendencies; both were protectionist; both had heavy state intervention in the economy (admittedly, the Soviet Union more so than the Third Reich). While in theory these ideologies might technically be opposites, in the practicalities of the real world the two enemies were actually very similar.

While obviously the example above is an extreme one, even today it is not as hard to hop widely between the purported “left” and “right” as it is often seen. Multiple studies have shown that in Britain, a large proportion of those who now support UKIP were former Labour voters, and indeed the populist party is now actively targeting working-class Labourites. In a similar fashion, Trump’s success is partly due to the support of working-class whites who formerly voted Democrat. The rise of the right-wing populists is being sustained by the support of former left-wingers, and the established political realities of the UK and USA are reeling as a result.

Perhaps a major reason everyone is so shocked about the recent elections is simply because we are so tied to our concept of the political spectrum that we cannot imagine people shifting so rapidly from one end to the other. Perhaps if they did not think from within this constrictive box, the analysts would have seen how futile left-right divisions have become.

It was not always like this, of course. Before, the left-right divide did have genuine meaning, usually when it was constricted within narrower margins. In Revolutionary France, the Left and Right referred to the anti-monarchists and monarchists respectively. Later in Europe, it would generally come to be divided more along class lines; the working-class usually voted left, the middle-class generally voted right. Nowadays, however, even these very broad divisions don’t really work anymore. The major left-wing parties in the UK and the USA have left their working class roots behind, and now the spectrum is a shattered mess.

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There are further problems with the left-right spectrum as I see it. Firstly, people tend to associate with one side or the other (the only real argument for its continuing relevance). I am fairly certain that people tend to support policies or positions because they are considered to be “left-wing” or “right-wing” rather than on the basis of the actual merit of the policy. I have done so myself in the past, when I have been more aligned with traditional party beliefs, and still do instinctively have an instant negative reaction to anything I consider “too leftist” or “too rightist”. This enforces an unfortunate ideological view of politics rather than the pragmatic approach that I believe we need, especially in our rapidly-changing world.

Secondly, this left-right spectrum enforces upon us a binary way of looking at the world. You are labelled as a “right-winger” or a “left-winger”, “centre-left” or “centre-right”. For left-wingers, the right-wingers (and vice versa of course) become the “Other” – a being seen as fundamentally different, perhaps subconsciously slightly less ‘human’. You hear terrible news after turbulent elections about people who broke off friendships with those who vote differently from them. Is that person fundamentally different from the friend they knew and loved before the election? I doubt it.

Thirdly, how far is this left-right spectrum going to sustain us in the future? We are looking at a century where the very nature of work, economy and human value could fundamentally change. How are the ideologies of our current system going to work in a world where the majority of human beings might not be working for a living? Where capitalism might not exist in a form remotely similar to the way it is today, or may not even exist at all? Where humanity itself might start to change biologically? I have no answers, but that does not make the questions any less pressing.

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The Political Compass is better, but not perfect

Of course, there are always going to be opposite ways of looking at the world, and methods of categorisation (especially when it comes to political views) are never perfect. But a single sliding scale to categorise all political beliefs seems ridiculous. I would suggest a more pragmatic and topical approach to political categorisation. Rather than talking of “left” and “right”, talk maybe of conservatives and progressivists, statists and free marketeers, authoritarians and libertarians as the need arises. These scales and categorisations aren’t particularly exceptional either, of course. No form of categorisation, of putting billions of individuals in a few arbitrary boxes, is ever going to be accurate – but surely using multiple scales is better than relying on just one outdated system?

The left-right spectrum is an unfortunate binary system that stratifies and divides society, building walls between us and reinforcing them at a time when they really need to be broken down. Our civilisation is broken enough without these arbitrary divides; let us try and remember our fundamental solidarity with fellow humans, rather than focusing on these petty differences.