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Why I Object to a “Left vs. Right” Political Spectrum

“The left, in all its myriad forms, is unified by a utopian vision and end goal. Meanwhile, ‘the right’ has no such vision and is made of many disparate groups who do not share end goals beyond a general opposition to the left.”

In June, I wrote an article for Quillette called “The Prison House of Political Language”, which provoked criticism from some commentators that it was “unbalanced” and “biased.” The article attacked the totalitarian language games of the left, while claiming that “the right”—at least as a meaningful and unified movement—does not exist. In fact, I argued that “right-wing” is used near-exclusively as a smear term by the left, and as a linguistic kill shot to circumvent debates before they can even take place. In this article, I want to explore my reasons for coming to these conclusions by analyzing some groups typically said to be on “the right”.

What does “bias” mean? Facts do not conform to an Aristotelian golden mean. They tend, rather, to swing quite heavily in one direction. Therefore, when one is dealing with facts, the expectation of “balance” is quite unreasonable. The fact that I established in “The Prison House of Political Language” was that the two sides—the left and those who oppose them —are not equal. My chief claim was that the left, in all its myriad forms, is unified by a utopian vision and end goal. Meanwhile, “the right” has no such vision and is made of many disparate groups who do not share end goals beyond a general opposition to the left. I want to spend the rest of this article exploring this point further, because it is seldom, if ever, discussed.

As the influential psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, has pointed out, the left—despite its many tedious Judean People’s Fronts—is still united by the utopian vision outlined in John Lennon’s “Imagine”:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

The left imagines that human nature can change, that it is perfectible. If only we could change the bad old institutions then all the other problems would go away (see Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions, 1987). This is why biology is such a sore spot for them, and why social constructivism remains a sacred creed in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And from parenting to exam performance to crime, that evidence keeps piling up, but it is strenuously denied because leftists like to imagine otherwise.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who saw the state of nature as one of peace and equality, “the noble savage,” imagined otherwise. Karl Marx, who perceived injustice at the unequal distribution of material possessions, imagined otherwise. Vladimir Lenin, Antonio Gramsci, Fidel Castro, The Frankfurt School, Lyndon B. Johnson, Tony Blair, Michel Foucault, Saul Alinsky, Bernie Sanders, Hélène Cixous, Judith Butler, Hillary Clinton, Anita Sarkeesian, Michael Moore, Hugo Chavez, Owen Jones, Swampy … they all imagined otherwise.

Because of this utopian element to leftist thinking, it stands to reason that it should find overwhelming faith in philosopher kings and their doctrines. And it is perhaps because leftism is a constant battle against both human nature and the truth that its adherents simply must be brainwashed by such doctrines. Indeed, over the past forty years or so, those on the left have repeatedly denied that there are such things as “human nature” or “the truth.” Very few individuals default to the view that criminals are, in fact, victims of society and not just bad people. Even fewer to the view that the very different behaviors of men and women are “performative,” rather than driven by biological differences. Perhaps fewer still that society should be “leveled” to eradicate the inequalities produced by the differences between individuals and places that constitute the diversity of life. And so, because such views do not come naturally and to gain support, those on the left need to beat these messages into their would-be followers.

Is it any wonder that they have ensured such thinking infests our schools and universities? When you need to indoctrinate, you must start young.  

In his latest book, Where We Are (2017), Roger Scruton helpfully distinguishes between communities based on tribes, creeds, and nationhood (the sense of belonging to a particular place): “Members of tribes see each other as a family; members of creed communities see each other as the faithful; members of nations see each other as neighbors.” It strikes me that leftism in all its many forms is undoubtedly a “creed community,” in other words a faith, which tends towards being transnational and transcultural, with a reduced sense of belonging to a particular place and a reduced sense of loyalty to “home.” Hence, the internationalism or “anywhere” globalism of leftist elites has been an ingrained aspect of leftist thinking since at least Leon Trotsky—“Imagine there’s no countries.” This might also help to explain why, in the West at—another globalist creed that does not respect national boundaries—seems to have allied itself with the left.

In contrast, those who oppose the left, have no such need to indoctrinate. Just as the left dominates top-down controlled media, it is no coincidence that the so-called right dominates bottom-up user-generated media—think of talk radio stations or YouTube. Leftists have been telling themselves for decades that this can only be because of false consciousness or mass brainwashing or stupidity, but this is only projection. Those who oppose the left do not typically condescend to the great unwashed in this way. They do not greatly elevate the wisdom of the elites over the wisdom of the people, which is inherent in the social processes we have developed over the centuries. As Russell Kirk put it, in The Conservative Mind in 1954,  “The individual is foolish, but the species is wise; prejudices and prescriptions and presumptions are the instruments which the wisdom of the species employ to safeguard man against his own passions and appetites.” Here, Kirk is very obviously writing in the tradition of Edmund Burke, and this is one form of conservatism.

How can one characterize this tradition? It is less a doctrinaire set of ideas—because there are no philosopher kings—but a disposition, a general orientation against abrupt, radical and disruptive change. But Burkean conservatives do not oppose any and all change; they expect it to come incrementally, and it is more that they seek to slow down the rate of change. To draw on Kirk meditating on Burke again, “Change is inevitable … a process of renewal. But let change come as the consequence of a need generally felt, not inspired by fine-spun abstractions. Our part is to patch and polish the old order of things, trying to discern the difference between a profound, slow, natural alternation and some infatuation of the hour.”

The Burkean social contract— in contrast to the Rousseaun one which thinks in terms of “the General Will”—is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” (Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790)

Writers such as Roger Scruton or Peter Hitchens are perfectly at home with such intergenerational thinking, but is this Burkean distaste for rapid change shared by other people supposedly on “the right”? Those on the classical liberal or libertarian right—let us say, Margaret Thatcher, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, FA Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Ron Paul—are fully at peace with Schumpeter’s Gale, the natural process of “creative destruction” that takes place when entrepreneurs reallocate capital to more productive ends (see Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1942).

When Russell Kirk looks at the repeal of the British Corn Laws in 1846, he sees the eventual destruction of British agricultural life and the unbalancing of a nation which would become too dependent on its industrial sector and prone to “atomic individualism.” Kirk’s instinct is essentially Romantic; he wishes to preserve a whole way of life, and he laments its loss. Classical liberal and libertarian thinkers, meanwhile, emphasise the economic benefits brought by technological change: in the short term there might be some job losses, but in the long term everyone is better off for it. When discussing the repeal of the Corn Laws, they celebrate the fact that it led to tremendous prosperity for Britain, a 90% increase in workers’ wages, and a population boom which disproved the Malthusian Trap. Hence, famously, F.A. Hayek wrote an essay called “Why I’m Not a Conservative” (1960), which Milton Friedman echoed in a lecture in 1978:

I’m not a conservative. A conservative is someone who wants to keep things the way they are. Mr. Begin wants to change things; I want to change things. Mr. Begin is a liberal; in the true sense of the word I’m a liberal …. The word is now used in a distorted way. The modern liberal is only liberal with other people’s money. The word liberal means of and pertaining to freedom. And I believe in freedom. It isn’t freedom for the government to take 40% of my income out of my pocket and spend it on things we through our political mechanism have decided on, but I as an individual, you as an individual have no control over.

And then there was the woman who reputedly once slammed down a copy of Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty and declared “this is what we believe!” This woman, Margaret Thatcher, has been criticised many times by conservative voices such as Melanie Phillips for being an agent of radical change, and not “a conservative” at all.

We can see that these two groups have wildly different ends—preservation of traditional ways of life on the one hand, and the maximization of individual liberty on the other. They also advocate extremely different means for achieving those ends. Conservatives in the Burkean tradition think nothing of using command and control state-based solutions to social problems, whereas this is anathema to classical liberals and libertarians. Yet, despite their frankly incompatible differences, these two groups are united by their opposition to the left, which views the likes of Margaret Thatcher or Melanie Phillips with indiscriminate hatred.

In America, the coalition on “the right”—roughly speaking between paleoconservatives in the mold of Russell Kirk and libertarians in the mold of Milton Friedman—was forged by William F. Buckley in the pages of National Review. The comingling of these disparate groups is embodied in the figure of Ronald Reagan. Hence, he declared a “war on drugs” while being advised by Friedman himself who was famously for the legalization of drugs.

But these are just two parts of the coalitions found in the mainstream modern conservative parties in Britain and America. Another broad faction here in the UK would be the “One Nation Tories,” in the tradition of Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill, John Major, and now Theresa May, who are more Big Government, pro-welfare, and paternalistic in outlook. In the U.S., they found their counterparts in “Rockefeller Republicans,” who were more urbane and socially liberal. Both embraced interventionist and protectionist Keynesian economic policies in the post-war period. Since the 1970s, the Rockefeller Republicans were generally replaced by “Neoconservatives,” epitomized by the presidency of George W. Bush. They are often characterized as disillusioned leftists with interventionist foreign policy ideas—but domestically, they were also Big Government, somewhat paternalistic, and pro-immigration.

But there are also many other people opposed to the left who are lumped in with “the right.” Christians who oppose the left for any reason. “Populists.” Nationalists of any kind. Racists. Indeed, in the U.S., William F. Buckley used National Review essentially to police “acceptable boundaries” of the intellectual right. Friedman and the Chicago School were in, but Murray Rothbard and the Austrian School, as well as Ayn Rand, were out. Cool intellectuals such as James Burnham were in, but firebrands such as Robert W. Welch Jr. and the John Birch Society were out. National Review did its best to exclude Donald Trump, but their efforts failed, perhaps a sign of the waning influence of legacy media in the age of the Internet.

Now let’s talk about Adolf Hitler. He was surely not against radical and abrupt change. He was also surely not for unleashing the power of the free market. Any rational, objective consideration of the history of ideas would struggle to find common ground between Hitler and either Burkean conservatives or advocates of the free market. Indeed, William F. Buckley famously threatened to punch Gore Vidal in the face after Vidal called him a “crypto-Nazi.” It should be obvious that fascists long for a more tribal and hierarchical society based on ethnicity and “the fiction of kinship” (Where We Are, p. 60). This way of thinking has no place in the Burkean or classical liberal/libertarian traditions. As I noted in “The Prison House of Political Language,” those on the left are still pulling this trick by accusing their opponents, such as Candace Owens or Jordan Peterson, of being “alt-right”. For those who do not know, the “alt-right” is an explicitly identarian movement that seeks the establishment of an American white ethnostate—try googling “Richard Spencer” or “Mike Enoch” to see what an outrageous smear on Owens or Peterson that label represents.

Peterson is now said to be on “the right” because he opposes the left. Serious and independent thinkers as diverse as Carroll Quigley, Samuel P. Huntington, Michael Oakeshott, Isaiah Berlin, Quentin Skinner, Robert Nozick, Leo Strauss, Harvey Mansfield, and Francis Fukuyama, were all at various points said to be on “the right.” But few, if any of them, fit neatly into any of the categories I’ve discussed in this article.

I stand by my claim that “the right” is a ragtag jumble of many disparate groups and individuals thrown together into a coalition—some willingly, some simply labeled as such—because they do not share the end goals of the left. I will continue to resist the label “right-wing,” because it concedes far too much power to the left. It makes the left the moral center of the political universe. It means they get to set the agenda. It means that we have the entire argument on their terms. I will not have the argument on their terms, to do so is to lose said argument before it even starts. Neither should anyone have to have it on their terms. They crave power more than anything else, so why give it to them? Those who oppose the left need to develop strategies that make “the left” increasingly irrelevant by denying them any sense of moral purchase, by refusing to dignify their emotional outbursts, and by insisting on plain speech, facts, and evidence.

Neema Parvini is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Surrey.

4 thoughts on “Why I Object to a “Left vs. Right” Political Spectrum

  1. The problem with this article is that it does not answer a first-principles question — namely: what is the purpose of a political spectrum? In other words, what is a spectrum supposed to accomplish?

    Modern ideas about right vs left arose from seating arrangements in the French National Assembly after their Revolution in 1789. Supporters of the king and aristocracy were on the right whereas supporters of the Revolution sat on the left.

    In the most general sense, right-wing means people, organizations, movements and political parties that tend to defend the status quo and oppose materially significant changes within society – and who believe reforms or changes should be accomplished in incremental fashion whereas the left-wing is comprised of people, organizations, movements, and political parties which actively seek major changes within society without delay.

    One wonders where the author of this article would place George Lincoln Rockwell (founder of the American Nazi Party) on a political spectrum? How about a Ku Klux Klan member?

    1. According to your criteria, a Ku Klux Klan member would be on the left since they oppose the status quo and seek radical changes to society.

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