Sunday, April 06, 2003

I also hate it when this happens
Earlier that same Wednesday, I had thought about ignoring the real world for a while and taking up a subject that has rattled around in my mind for about a quarter century: an exposition of the value of discarding the right-left political scale for some sort of two axis analysis. Many of you can anticipate where this is going. Christian, the Mighty Reason Man, wrote my article before I could.

I came to find the traditional right-left scale flawed when I was in college in the seventies. The political science classes I took were strongly flavored by the then popular totalitarianism theories. These theories taught that ideology was meaningless at the extremes. All extremist governments behave the same: they become rights-denying, violent, and probably anti-Semitic dictatorships. Only the justifications differ. I still have one of my textbooks, ca. 1976. The back cover shows the right-left scale as a two-headed arrow, bent into a circle, with the names of countries around the perimeter. Red China and Burma pass each other at the extremes going in opposite directions. The US, of course, sits perfectly balanced at the center.

Aside from the obvious objections to this representation (ideology does matter, there are meaningful differences in communism and fascism, the US is not the golden mean), I was bothered by the lack of any place for an anti-state or anti-authoritarian philosophy. My first impulse was to draw a second circle for anarchists and libertarians of the right and left. The resulting figure eight looked stupid, so I spread the whole thing out into a graph with the previous four extremists at the corners. Authoritarian and anti-authoritarian-ness made the vertical axis to compliment the right-left scale.

I left it there for a couple years. A few weeks after the 1980 election, I thought about this idea again. I sat in a bar and doodled on cocktail napkins. At this point it occurred to me that leftness and rightness are highly subjective terms. What, I asked myself, is this thing we represent on this scale? To this day, I don’t have a clear answer. Every few years I try something different and then map different political philosophies and parties onto the chart. I also usually draw the current spectrum of American politics onto the chart, producing some interesting curves.

One of the best fits is to say the left-right axis represents a scale of collectivism-individualism. Collectivist-authoritarianism is state communism. Collectivist-anti-authoritarianism is some form of highly democratic anarchist commune. Individualist- anti-authoritarianism is something similar to Ayn Rand libertarianism. Individualist-authoritarianism is similar to a “triumph of the will” sort of fascism. Populism can be all over the chart.

One final note: when I returned for graduate school (in Balkan history) during the late eighties, I found a couple books that used the two-axis method for modeling factions in political groups. None of them seemed to feel that the chart needed to have a citation, so I don’t know if this is a common idea among hard core political philosophy people or not. The earliest use of it I’ve seen is from the late fifties. I'd love to know if this chart has a name and what the axes usually are.

No comments: