ESSAY 1: What is the Current Political Spectrum?
I have never really understood the political spectrum. Growing up, I had a vague sense of which politicians were on the left and which were on the right, but I never really understood the policies that we associated which each side. As I grew into my adolescence, the differences became clearer.
With a core diet of social media and sides of mainstream media through my teen years, the majority of the issues I encountered were social issues. As many have done around me, I conflated these social issues with the entirety of politics until sometime in my late teens and early 20s. In this time, my concept of the difference between left and right would have consisted of examples of social concepts like gay rights, women’s rights and refugees.
In my early 20s, I have come to educate myself on economics the role of corporations and the media in politics. I have also spent time educating myself on the intricacies of certain policies whether it be disability funding, the aged care sector or energy policy. Having done so, my attitudes toward broad social issues have shifted, not in direction but in strength of opinion. Understanding the money and power at play, together with the function of shifting discussions from policy to personality, from logic to emotion, I have shifted further and further away from these more abstract and divisive social issues.
Combining these two parts of my life, my concept of the left-right political divide became fairly clear.
The Right was characterised by socially conservative people, that is those who want to conserve Australian culture, traditional family values tied with Judaeo-Christian values. There were also economically conservative people, who maintained that a national budget was just like a household budget, and that we should be austere with our spending and make sure that there isn’t too much bureaucracy in the public sector. The myths and contradictions here were plentiful and I had become quite clear on how to argue against them.
In my view, the Left was characterised by socially progressive people, who want equality for women and LGBT+ communities, who wanted cultural diversity and all that comes with it. Economically progressive people are those who want to spend more on the public sector, on welfare and on social programs to cater for the working class. The progressives took their economic theory from John Maynard Keynes, whereas the conservatives took theirs from neoliberals like Milton Friedman among others.
So, here I was, sometime in my early 20s, with a pretty good idea of what was on the Left and what was on the Right. But there was always a suspicion that it was a little too simple. What if you were socially conservative but economically progressive, or socially progressive but economically conservative? Then, you weren’t on either side completely. Did that make you morally inconsistent? There were also people who seemed to be on the Left in some instances, but shift towards the centre when circumstances changed – were they to be called shills or pragmatists? It was all a bit confusing, so I started to think about it.
I have always been fascinated with language and how language works. Having completed a few units at university about linguistics and having a lot of conversations with a somewhat politically minded friend, I began to articulate a first principles approach to the labels of Left and Right.
Language itself, words themselves, are simply symbols that we use to communicate. There is no inherent meaning to a vertical line with a smaller perpendicular line intersecting it slightly higher than its centre other than to Christians who take it to mean the cross, and to readers of English who, in the right context, take it be a lowercase “T”.
If languages are symbols that we use to communicate, then the only meaning that a word has is a meaning which is shared. If I believe that the letter “T” means “yes”, but you believe that the letter “T” means “no”, the letter “T” holds no real meaning between those two people until we agree on the meaning. Otherwise, unless you are only using it within your own mind, it is useless.
Languages are symbols that we use to communicate, and we need a shared meaning for those symbols to mean anything. This means that the words Left and Right only have real meaning when those who use them share the same definition for them. In politics, especially in today’s climate, there is absolutely no agreement on what the words Left and Right mean. This is a core reason why I have abandoned the terms.
Even in my own descriptions of Left and Right above, in which I attempted to be as objective as possible, I doubt that there are many people who agree with it completely. For example, many who call themselves progressive will point out that they also want to conserve family values, albeit in a different way than conservatives. The reality is that there is no accepted definition of these terms, and that the terms themselves create far more tribalism than any kind of progress.
The labels of the extremes of each side of this current spectrum are mostly agreed upon – capitalist and communist. Those on the far-right want a very minimal government, and those on the far-left want government control of virtually everything. The vast majority also know that neither of these extremes would ever work, nor have they ever been attempted despite American politicians’ rhetoric and the name of the Chinese Communist Party.
What never seems to be properly addressed in these discussions of Left, Right, Capitalist and Communist are the roles of the people. Those who call themselves Capitalists maintain that the only way to have democracy is in a capitalist society, despite the oxymoron which will be explained later. Those who call themselves Communists are forever naming their parties the People’s Party of Whatever and talking about a worker’s revolution, despite the obvious fact that if a government is in control, the people are clearly not.
There always seemed to be a lack of nuance in these discussions, stemming from the simple fact that no one could agree on what each side really represented. Thinking about it more and more, and with some hints from Noam Chomsky among others, I started rejecting the Left-Right political spectrum and trying to find a better way to represent how the world worked than the very simplistic polar model. That is what this series of essays will seek to explore.