Living in the thick of it

Chris and Rob have been finding different kinds of fault in the classic left/right political spectrum: Chris prefers two criteria which (he argues) are more or less orthogonal (pro- and anti-state, pro- and anti-poor people), while Rob opts for ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ as fundamental alternatives.

The trouble with all these discussions is that so many different oppositions end up being overlaid. In comments on Chris’s post, for example, Tim Worstall makes a pretty good fist of locating himself on the Left. Speaking as a Marxist, I’m not fooled for a minute – but I have to admit that I often feel closer to the Worstall Right than to the Euston Manifesto Left.

I gave some thought to this stuff some time ago, in an attempt to work out why I counted at least one Tory among my trusted friends while finding many genuine socialists hard to be around. I dismissed the thought that I was moving Right with age, partly because it was uncomfortable and partly because I knew that my position on Chris’s rich-or-poor scale hadn’t budged; I don’t think there are many right-wingers who enjoy singing along to “The Blackleg Miner“, put it that way. I also dismissed the thought that the difference between my Tory friend and my irritating socialist acquaintances was that the former was a thoughtful and intelligent bloke; there was no a priori reason for this exclusion, you understand, it was just a bit too obvious.

Anyway, what I came up with was a two-part scale, covering both your views on human nature and your views on political change (the greatest flaw of Robert’s liberal/conservative scale, in my view, is that it tends to conflate these). Each of these two breaks down into two elements, giving a total of sixteen distinct positions. Where human nature is concerned, we look at whether people should be controlled or liberated and at who should be doing the controlling or liberating. As for political change, we ask both whether we believe change should be welcomed or resisted and how we relate this change to the present.

Human nature first. The most fundamental question: are people good or bad? In other words, if left to themselves would people destroy social order or create a new and better society? For this part of the scale I’ll borrow from Church history.

An Augustinian believes that, ultimately, people are sinful; politics is, or should be, concerned with establishing laws and institutions which enable sinful people to coexist without tearing one another apart.

A Pelagian believes that, ultimately, people are good; politics is, or should be, concerned with enabling people to work together, play together and generally enjoy life in ways which have hitherto not been possible.

Now for the location of control or liberation: central or local? government or community? ruler or family?

A Jacobin believes that all politics worthy of the name happens in government; left to their own devices, communities tend to stagnate or run wild

A Digger believes that politics happens in affective communities and in everyday life; left to government, politics becomes managerial and sterile

An Augustinian Jacobin is an Authoritarian: people need to be governed, and who better to govern than the government?
An Augustinian Digger is a Communitarian: what we want isn’t law-abiding individuals but communities of respect
A Pelagian Jacobin is a Liberal: the government can help people realise their potential, either by freeing them from oppressive conditions or simply by getting out of the way
A Pelagian Digger is a Hippie (sorry Paul): isn’t it great when people get together and do stuff, without waiting for politicians to tell them what to do?

A Liberal is the opposite of a Communitarian; an Authoritarian is the opposite of a Hippie.

Now for attitudes to political change.

A Whig believes that change should, all things being equal, be embraced: that the risk of regression and lost opportunities is greater than the risk that change will destroy something worth preserving

A Tory believes that change should, all things being equal, be resisted: that the risk of losing valuable cultural and political resources outweighs the risk of failing to grasp opportunities for progress

Finally, let’s look at how change relates to the present. For this part of the act I’ll need a volunteer from the history of Western philosophy; specifically, G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel believed that historical change had an immanent meliorist teleology – in other words, that things were getting better and better, and would eventually reach a point where they couldn’t get any better. He also believed that this point had in fact been reached (cf. Francis Fukuyama, who rather amusingly trotted out precisely the same argument the best part of two centuries down the line). Marx adopted the Hegelian framework, but with the crucial modification of placing the end of history the far side of a future revolution. We can call these two positions Right-Hegelianism and Left-Hegelianism.

A Right-Hegelian believes that, to the extent that it makes sense to talk of a good society, the good society is an extension of trends which have a visible and increasingly dominant influence on society as it is now

A Left-Hegelian believes that it emphatically does make sense to talk of a good society, and that such a society will in important senses require the reversal or overthrow of society as it is now

A Right-Hegelian Whig is a Reformer: things have changed, things will continue to change, there has been progress and there will be more progress

A Right-Hegelian Tory is a Conservative: our existing institutions are valuable and should not be put at risk for the sake of speculative benefits

A Left-Hegelian Whig is a Revolutionary: things could be much better, and things can be much better if we push a bit harder

A Left-Hegelian Tory is a Historian: things could be much better, but our main task is to keep alive the resources of that hope

The opposite of a Revolutionary is a Conservative.
The opposite of a Reformer is a Historian.

Liberal, Authoritarian, Communitarian, Hippie; Conservative, Reformer, Revolutionary, Historian. That gives us a total of sixteen hats to try on, and to fit to our various political rivals. See how you get on.

Me, I’m PDLT, a Hippie Historian (who’d have thought it?); this makes me the polar opposite of an AJRW, an Authoritarian Reformer. (Like, for instance, Charles Clarke.) Works for me.

I have spotted one potential weakness of this scale. It gets in most of the points made by Rob, Chris and their commenters, including Matt and Tim, but with one obvious gap: Chris’s rich/poor scale, which (as I’ve said) is fairly fundamental to my own sense of political identity. Can this be fitted into the model, and if so where? Or is this a different kind of question?

Update 30th April

Jamie, the only other Hippie Historian to have surfaced so far (if anyone can think of a better label than ‘Hippie’ for the Pelagian/Digger combination, by the way, I’ll be all ears), writes

I’m also, incidentally, mildly annoyed at having to qualify libertarian with left wing. Hayekianism is not a libertarian doctrine.

I think this is an important point & goes some way to addressing my point about the rich/poor axis, just above. Consider: if I believe in freedom of action, I must necessarily believe in freedom of action for everyone, to be curtailed only by provisions which have a similarly universal reach. But equality of opportunity and constraint for rich and poor is no equality at all – in Anatole France’s formulation, The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread. Inequalities of wealth are, in effect, inequalities of constraint and opportunity; any consistent libertarianism would begin by establishing whether these inequalities follow any consistent pattern, and would oppose them if so. The alternative would be to take the current distribution of wealth and power (and hence of effective liberty) as given, accept it as a more-or-less immutable starting-point. I don’t understand why anyone would do that – but then, I’m a Left-Hegelian (see also my posts on Euston).

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21 Comments

  1. Rob
    Posted 28 April 2006 at 23:02 | Permalink | Reply

    What about people who think human nature is contingent upon the ensemble of social relations?

    What about people who feel that where one ‘situates’ politics is dependent upon a concrete combination of social/poltical/material relations?

    And that left/right Hegelian thing is a bit odd; what about people who hold to the [traditional] Marxian analysis of sublation, whereby certain positive trends from modern society are going to be preserved in a ‘higher sythnesis’?

  2. Phil
    Posted 29 April 2006 at 09:04 | Permalink | Reply

    What about people who think human nature is contingent upon the ensemble of social relations?

    That would be me. But it depends where you go next, or where you’re temperamentally inclined to go next: [contingent human nature] ergo [strong institutions required to ward off chaos], or [contingent human nature] ergo [if society were different people would be better]. The scale is very much about gut-feeling starting-points.

    What about people who feel that where one ‘situates’ politics is dependent upon a concrete combination of social/poltical/material relations?

    See above re: gut feelings. Questions like this only really work if they tap into affective orientations as well as thought-out political positions: otherwise we’d all end up saying much the same thing (obviously I’m in favour of state intervention where it’s appropriate, but at the same time…)

    And that left/right Hegelian thing is a bit odd; what about people who hold to the [traditional] Marxian analysis of sublation, whereby certain positive trends from modern society are going to be preserved in a ‘higher sythnesis’?

    I was quite careful wording the left- and right-Hegelian capsule summaries, but obviously not careful enough! Yes, a Marxist believes that we’re living in a class society – and, as such, a society which is defined by the relations between bourgeoisie and proletariat. The developing power of the proletariat, its role in producing the everyday existence of this society, is precisely a trend which will be preserved and suppressed in a future revolutionary Aufhebung of class society. (Or so I’d argue if I were a Revolutionary like Dave Osler and not an eeyoreish Historian…) Right-Hegelians (at least in my simplified version) believe that we’re essentially beyond the last Aufhebung – things don’t get much better than this. Hence the equivocation over whether it’s useful to talk about the good society, and the reference to trends which have a visible and increasingly dominant influence on society as it is now.

  3. Backword Dave
    Posted 29 April 2006 at 11:43 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m definitely a PD, largely a Tory, and I’ve a foot in both camps of Hegelianism. (Under the present, reformist lot, I’m more right-wing; until 1997, however, I was more left-wing: and I don’t think the difference is down to personal maturation.)

    Brilliant post, though I think most people who read it will be similar to you. Be good to wave the idea under the noses of various Euston Manifestations and see how they come out. Whig, I’ve no doubt, Augustinian too, probably. No one who blogs, with the possible exceptions of David Miliband and Oliver Kamm, is going to admit to being a Jacobin; we are the people, after all — though I think quite a few others are.

  4. Rob Jubb
    Posted 29 April 2006 at 15:22 | Permalink | Reply

    On the categories themselves:

    Augustinian vs. Pelagian – I’m not sure whether what’s doing the dividing here is the condition of the world, or the views of human nature, whatever that is anyway. This is because you could think people were basically good, and, in certain situations, needed to be prevented from making their lives nasty, brutish and short, just as you could think that people were basically bad, and yet could coexistence relatively happily, under superabundance or something like it. It’s the difference between Hume’s two conditions of justice: neither angels nor devils, and enough but not excess. The problem here may be that some of the views about change reflect directly back on the views about the role of politics, since views about change are likely to dictate what you think about the enough but not excess condition. I think that I think the human nature idea is foundational, and you should get rid of the reference to what government is actually doing (think of it as the difference between Locke and Hobbes: both think you need a state to enforce order, and even for the same kinds of reasons – assurance problems, basically – but because Hobbes thinks people are much nastier than Locke does, Hobbes comes out as an Augustinian, whereas Locke is considerably more Pelagian).

    Jacobin vs. Digger – What about someone like De Tocqueville, a partisan of governmental institutions embedded in tightly knit, often morally homogeneous communities? I think the problem is working out exactly what you mean by government. If by government, you mean central government, I come out as a Digger, but if by government, you mean any established, in some way legitimised institutions for the regulation and distribution of the goods of social life, I’m probably a Jacobin. Unless you meant it as an elites vs. the people distinction, which obviously raises a whole load of other questions.

    I can see what you mean about the conflation of the attitudes to change with those to human nature in the liberal/conservative distinction, although what I was really interested in in the post you link to was the question posed at the end: the liberal/conservative stuff was just to set that up, really. I suppose that the problem for me in understanding the ways in which your attitudes to change might be determined by things other than your view of human nature, as generally being in a tradition in which political theory which is either ahistorical, or more or less entirely backwards looking.

    There’s also the issue, which, as acknowledge, of responsibilities to others. What level of support are our fellows entitled to? Although the (reworked) Augustinian-Pelagian distinction has some bearing on this, it doesn’t strike me as decisive.

    This has becomes clearly rambling. Basta.

  5. Charlie Whitaker
    Posted 29 April 2006 at 18:07 | Permalink | Reply

    Thinking about this more, I’m a bit worried that my choices are turning out to be unreliable and unfixed. People often behave badly, but I find I believe that I ought to root for good behaviour, because this is what we want. To paraphrase: we’re good, right? So, I’m a Pelagian. But is my Pelagianism of a shallow kind, rooted in Augustinian pessimism?

    And government ought to be the locus for the key decisions that affect the collective. If it isn’t, our nation is a lot smaller than we thought. This is not to say that there should be restraint on local communitarianism. There’s no question that, in practice, my peer group upholds a set of values. So am I a Jacobin or a Digger?

    An interesting and worthwhile post, though.

  6. Chris Williams
    Posted 29 April 2006 at 19:28 | Permalink | Reply

    Hippie Revolutionary – but you knew that already.

  7. Chris Lightfoot
    Posted 29 April 2006 at 23:11 | Permalink | Reply

    PRTD, but I think I preferred the SHWI version where you could make some of the letters lower-case. And doesn’t R rather imply T?

    It’d be interesting to see how many degrees of freedom there really are in this space, too, and how it compares to my own efforts in this area….

  8. Phil
    Posted 30 April 2006 at 09:44 | Permalink | Reply

    I think I preferred the SHWI version where you could make some of the letters lower-case.

    I’d forgotten that. Not keen, though – too Laodicean for my tastes.

    And doesn’t R rather imply T?

    Not at all. If you want to see Right-Hegelian Whiggery look at the Blairite/Tom Friedman line – change is good, more change is better and change all the time forever is best.

  9. Rob Jubb
    Posted 1 May 2006 at 00:56 | Permalink | Reply

    “Hayekianism is not a libertarian doctrine.”

    I disagree. It is, it just has what you and I find a bizarre definition of liberty. That doesn’t alter the fact that what right-libertarians care about is liberty, or at least something they think is liberty.

    “Inequalities of wealth are, in effect, inequalities of constraint and opportunity; any consistent libertarianism would begin by establishing whether these inequalities follow any consistent pattern, and would oppose them if so. The alternative would be to take the current distribution of wealth and power (and hence of effective liberty) as given, accept it as a more-or-less immutable starting-point.”

    Oh, it’s worse than that. Thorough-going right-libertarians believe that only property acquired through a just appropriation and since then transfered non-coercively, where the state is coercive and poverty is not, is legitimate. All other property must be redistributed to the last person who held it justly or returned to the commons, if no-one ever held it justly. Quite apart from the moral horror of it – anyone whose family hadn’t grabbed enough tens of thousands of years ago would be fucked – it would be a total administrative nightmare. Anyone whose ancestors ever lost anything through coercion would be entitled to it back, so long as their ancestors didn’t acquire it through coercion.

  10. Phil
    Posted 1 May 2006 at 20:02 | Permalink | Reply

    Robert – whew. I’d thought right-libertarianism was inconsistent, but perhaps it’s only right-libertarians themselves. (Before now I’ve tripped up people banging on about right-libertarianism in terms of justice of outcome – rewards for those who work hard and so on – by saying, So you’d favour a 100% inheritance tax, then? Unfair, I know.)

    Anyway, consistent right-libertarianism sounds like a very bleak place – historical in the worst sense. My own sense of politics is strongly inflected with history, as you’ve noted, but very much in the sense that history tells us what a just society is less just than. It sounds as if R-libertarians can’t properly speak of justice at all.

  11. jamie
    Posted 1 May 2006 at 21:15 | Permalink | Reply

    ” “Hayekianism is not a libertarian doctrine.”

    I disagree. It is, it just has what you and I find a bizarre definition of liberty.”

    I was thinking specifically of the “limits of reason” doctrine. If reason is limited, then it follows that you can’t know what those limits are through the exercise of reason. It follows from that that you have to suppress “dangerous” ideas on principle. So a Hayekian society which applied that doctrine would necessarily be authoritarian. In that sense Hayekianism is an authoritarian doctrine irrespective of its adherents subjective attachments to touchy feely type things, which as you say only applies to those with property – or in practicel only to those with enough power to steal the property of others.

  12. Joe Otten
    Posted 1 May 2006 at 23:32 | Permalink | Reply

    Fascinating post.

    You are right, that the spectrum doesn’t address ‘Anti poor v pro poor’. Nor does it address ‘free markets v central planning’.

    I would object to being called a Hegelian of any kind. I endorse Popper’s view that there are no laws of historical change. And on the fence with J/D.

    P–W

  13. Stu
    Posted 2 May 2006 at 09:14 | Permalink | Reply

    Jo.

    I am with you on that point. My only discrepancy on an otherwise excellent analysis is you have not left room for those of us who do not believe (rightly or wrongly)in a teleological process of development/society.

  14. Anonymous
    Posted 2 May 2006 at 11:04 | Permalink | Reply

    I think your hippies sound like punks

  15. dearieme
    Posted 2 May 2006 at 15:57 | Permalink | Reply

    People good or bad: how about people differ? Then you have to find some way of coping with the bad even if many people are good – or at least middling good. We post-Humian scepto-empiricists are inclined to that view.

  16. Rob Jubb
    Posted 2 May 2006 at 17:21 | Permalink | Reply

    Jamie,

    I don’t see why reason, if limited, shouldn’t be able to discover its own limits. The fact that we can’t feel electrons doesn’t stop us from being aware that we can’t feel electrons. That said, I know nothing about Hayek himself – I assumed ‘Hayekianism’ was a stand-in for right-libertarianism more generally, which I associate with Robert Nozick, who I am familiar with, and has a an argument from a bad interpretation of Locke’s theory of appropriation of property which says nothing about the limits of reason – and so maybe it’s clearer why reason has limits it can’t know if you’re familiar with Hayek.

    Phil,

    “It sounds as if R-libertarians can’t properly speak of justice at all.”

    Nozick did sometimes have a nice turn of phrase, and discussed at one point the idea of ‘socialism for our sins’. I’ve no idea, and I don’t think anyone else does really, of what R-libertarians would do in order to wipe the slate clean of unjust transfers.

  17. My fist of flounce
    Posted 2 May 2006 at 20:48 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m a PDRHW, moving to PDLHW, depending on which day I buy the Guardian.

    Talking of scales, you may be interested in the political compass, which reduces political positions to statistics and so avoids dispute over philosophical terms.

  18. Paulie
    Posted 4 May 2006 at 10:49 | Permalink | Reply

    Phil.

    Am I right in assuming that your main reason for drafting this metric was that you wanted to annoy me after I argued with you about the Euston Manifesto?

    You KNEW that I would fall into the ‘Hippy’ camp, didn’t you? You could have called it anything else, but you had to pick the H word.

    Which is probably the most pointlessly annoying thing that has happened to me for some years now.

    What goes around comes around Phil….

  19. Phil
    Posted 4 May 2006 at 12:29 | Permalink | Reply

    I think your hippies sound like punks

    Nice one. What I’m trying to get at in the Pelagian/Digger space is collective self-activity, if that makes any sense – as distinct from the collective self-discipline of the communitarians. And yes, punks were well into that. I remember ’77, oh yes. Kids these days with their ringtones and their ASBOS…

    So you can be a punk, Paul, if that suits you better. Actually I’m surprised you’re one of us PDs – I had you down for a PJ or possibly even an AJ. The Left & Right of Hegel is where we really differ, obviously.

  20. Larry Teabag
    Posted 7 May 2006 at 14:29 | Permalink | Reply

    Left-Hegelian-Communitarian-What-The-Hell?

    My Questionnaire is much more straightforward.

  21. charlieahern
    Posted 24 May 2006 at 04:53 | Permalink | Reply

    As a Hippie Reformer with Liberal Revolutionary tendencies, the characteristic that required the most thought was the word “overthrow” in the context of describing Revolutionary.

    While I am basically a Reformer, I believe that shocks to the status quo may be necessary to ‘unstick’ progress. In the case of the Great Depression, the shock came as a result of an obvious generalized failure. In the case of the civil rights movement,
    the failure required hard work to expose.

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