February 24, 2013

Re: The Political Spectrum Goes 'Round and 'Round

Carroll Andrew Morse

My previous post referenced the circularly structured political spectrum that Justin proposed a few weeks ago. Samuel G. Howard criticized Justin's mapping in a post at Rhode Island's Future, one objection being that choosing individual emphasis versus community emphasis as a defining axis leads to problems that are intractable...

I suspect it would be difficult for anyone to choose between the individual and the community. I’ve always argued that we seek a more equal community so as to strengthen the liberty of the individual. My emphasis is on the individual, but the method works on the community. There’s no dividing line for that philosophy, the kind that sees equality and liberty as two sides of the same coin.
But because a choice is difficult doesn't imply either that it is beyond analysis or unimportant. Indeed, one of the leading contemporary academic authorities on the classification of political ideologies, Michael Freeden of the University of Oxford (the famous one in England), treats the ideas people have about the relationship between individual and community as central to understanding political choices they make and actions they undertake.

Here is Freeden, in a 1999 article about the intellectual evolution of the British left ("True Blood or False Genealogy: New Labour and British Social Democratic Thought"), describing a set of ideas about liberty that, in the 20th century, had come to replace "the old Hobbesian understanding of liberty as the absence of impediments to individual action"...

The first remained focused on the benefits liberty conferred on an individual, but did not rule out any intervention genuinely conducive to removing barriers to personal growth and welfare. The second concentrated on the benefits liberty conferred on society, developing the Marxist notion of emancipation to include human realisation only through full immersion in social life.
Add to the above a non-controversial assumption that some form of liberty should be a primary concern of government, and Freeden's two new foci for liberty exactly match Justin's individual versus community split.

In the same article, Freeden also discusses the difference between Britain's Fabian socialists and liberals...

For many socialists, though not for all, the logic of state activity was conceptually attached to the nationalisation of key public resources and services, but it could concurrently be employed to enlist state supervision and control of other important social practices. Notably, the liberal concern with the state as a source of potentially arbitrary and unaccountable power was largely removed from Fabian understandings.
So we have one strand of political thought that holds that government should supervise and control social practices while another that holds that it should not. An obvious question that follows is: if government isn't controlling social practices, then who or what is? Just acknowledging this question, along with making the reasonable leap that social practices and morality strongly overlap -- understanding that this entails some open and interesting questions about how they relate to and influence one another -- gives us a second axis in Justin's chart strongly congruent to Freeden's work, i.e. a dividing line between the belief that the state should supervise and control social practices and morality, versus a belief that the state should reflect of social practices and morality that have their origin elsewhere, in the broader culture. (However, it would be fair to add here that we want to be careful about defining culture in too reductionist a manner, where culture becomes simply everything that is not government).

Let's move from the general to the specific for a moment. One purposes the Freeden set out to achieve in his 1999 article was an accurately description of the "ideational roots" of the new Labour government of Tony Blair. If we take two of the dividing axes that Justin defined; i.e. emphasis on the individual, and a distrust of state supervision over social practices, which are consistent with Freeden's work, then the group that Justin labels as right-libertarians potentially ends up as a part of Tony Blair's governing coalition. I will hazard to say that respectable conservatives and libertarians can be found who would object to the suggestion that Prime Minister Blair's government was sympathetic to libertarians, while certain progressives might readily agree that Justin's chart points to how "neoliberals" hijacked the left in Great Britain -- and voila, we've got a discussion going about what is really happening in politics and governance, in terms that are "beyond just left and right". Such discussions are meaningful, not when they are about political labels alone, but when they are about the ideas that underlie the labels.

In the end, the only way to understand the alliances that citizens and groups actively involved in politics will make and break and the policies they will pursue is to understand how the view fundamental political and social concepts, and what common ground they share with their contemporaries. That's true up and down the line, for award winning academics and us yahoo local bloggers alike.