May. 13th, 2007

flewellyn: (Default)
So, as some of you who have read me might know, I'm rather political. I care a lot about various political causees, such as social welfare, women's rights, GLBT rights, racism, class struggle, civil liberties, and so on. This is no secret of mine, and I've never been shy about expressing my opinions.

More to the point, however, political theory and philosophy has long been a passion of mine: one of my college majors was political science, and I have been interested in not just the issues, but the fundamental mechanisms and philosophies of politics since I was a child. In that time, I've noticed a few things.

One of the things I've noticed is the tendency in our political discourse to "flatten" the broad array of political beliefs in the world into a one-dimensional "spectrum", the familiar "Left-Center-Right" spectrum. It's an hisotrical relic of the first French Revolution, and I admit, a convenient shorthand for some belief systems.

But I have come to believe very strongly that, ultimately, this "political spectrum" is a harmful mental framework. This is for several reasons.

First of all, obviously, it's limiting. The notion that political beliefs should naturally align along a one-dimensional spectrum, when talking about a four-dimensional world, does not make a great deal of sense. I have seen some efforts in the blogosphere to correct this with two-dimensional graphs, but this again is limiting, because the "dimensions" are determined by whoever frames the graph.

There is also the problem that, in the "classic" spectrum, it's not entirely clear what's being measured on the axis to begin with. The nearest I can make out is that the spectrum represents "degree of change/progress desired". That's not very helpful, to be honest; it's simultaneously vague and overly narrow.

But the real problem, the reason that I hauled out "Considered Harmful" for the title of this essay, is this: I believe the political "spectrum" gives bad ideas too much legitimacy.

Schools of political thought such as orthodox Marxism, anarchism, fascism, ultranationalism, fundamentalism, and such, are simply placed on a "spectrum" as "left" or "right", when they should be placed in the trash can of history as "just plain wrong". Similarly, legitimate schools such as democratic socialism, sociocapitalism, minarchism, noninternventionism, and such, get lumped in with these bad ideas as well. On the "left", you find a cluster of philosophies which have some few characteristics in common, but are so wildly different in most other ways that they might as well exist in separate universes; the "right" is the same, except (in my opinion) for the proportion of good ideas to bad.

The "center", of course, becomes some kind of "compromise" ground, where these philosophies are supposed to somehow melt together into some "moderate" whole, which does not make a ton of sense on its own. Consider: a political philosophy will, naturally, prescribe certain policies, and proscribe others, in order to achieve its stated goal. While it's reasonable to try synthesis of two or more philosophies, you can't do this when some of them are diametrically opposed to others. For instance, it makes very little sense to try and blend anarchism with fascism, or sociocapitalism with minarchism.

So, what do I propose, if using a spectrum, or even a two-dimensional graph, is not a good idea? Well, I believe it's more useful to discuss political philosophies according to several questions, which do not necessarily fit on any "spectrum", but at least allow a basis for comparison. The questions I ask are these: what is the goal, that is, what kind of society does this philosophy want to bring about? Who is on top in that society, and who is left out? How are resources allocated? How are decisions made, and who makes them? How flexible is this society, and how does it deal with dissidents and elements that just don't fit? Are new ideas welcomed, or suppressed? What historical examples do we have of societies that tried to embody this philosophy?

Using these questions, I think, it makes the political landscape make more sense. For instance, I can discuss the difference between a Marxist and a democratic socialist, or a sociocapitalist (think FDR for this one) versus a corporatist, or a fascist versus a fundamentalist. You can also say to someone who espouses what they term "liberal" or "conservative" beliefs, "Sorry, that doesn't mesh with my beliefs because of XYZ", rather than "well, I'm not THAT liberal/conservative". And, finally, you can say to someone "that's not leftist/right wing, that's just WRONG, and here's why."

AND, you can see parallels and similarities between groups that the traditional "spectrum" puts on opposite ends, such as Marxists and Rand-style Libertarians.


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