Wednesday, January 30, 2008

So What Do Right and Left Mean, Really?

In seeking to define fascism as left-wing, Jonah Goldberg acknowledges that right and left are slippery concepts, difficult to pin down. One of the reasons for that is that the left-to-right spectrum is a gross oversimplification, an attempt to measure a multi-dimensional reality with a one-dimensional yardstick. I will attempt to oversimplify a little less by measuring right and left along several different axes.

A good place to begin is Dr. Science's definition of conservatism as "maintaining the status quo of power." This refers primarily to the economic dimension, since money talks. People who wish to maintain the status quo are conservatives (the moderate Right). People who wish to turn back to clock to an earlier status quo of power are reactionaries (the Far Right). People who want to keep the basic social structure, but modify it with controlled changes are liberals and reformers (the moderate Left). People who want to overthrow it altogether are radicals and revolutionaries (the Hard Left).

It logically follows from this that what is conservative depends on who has power and what the status quo is. Ideas that were once radical become conservative when the "status quo of power" changes. In the old aristocratic order (which, Goldberg correctly points out still had vestiges in Europe between the wars), conservatism meant upholding the hereditary privileges of nobility. Equality before the law and commerce free of government interference were radical notions. Under mature capitalism, conservatism means upholding the interests of capitalists, i.e., deregulation, favoring employers over workers and developers over neighborhood associates, and "tort reform." Radical Communists and Socialists favored the nationalization of industry. Under Communism, conservatism came to mean upholding the privileges of an ever-ossifying bureaucracy. Regardless of what the "status quo of power" is, people who have power will want to hold onto it and so (with notable individual exceptions) be economically "conservative."

Moving from the economic to the social axis, conservatism (the moderate Right) might be defined as upholding "traditional values" and mores, while the liberal Left challenges them and the Radical Left openly attacks them. What is "traditional" once again varies with time and culture. "Traditional" values and mores have often included racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice, hence the tendancy (which Goldberg deeply resents) to associate racism with the Right. The dominant elite, though economically conservative almost by definition, are often not very socially conservative. In fact, one of the privileges of power is not to be bound by the usual rules and conventions, and the common people often resent the elite for their "decadence."

The third axis, that of foreign policy, is more complex and difficult to understand. I confess to not having a general theory here. But it is clear that since Bismark's time, extreme nationalism in the sense of exalting one's own nation-state over others and regarding other nations with hostility has been a characteristic of the Right. Liberals have been more inclined to seek international cooperation, while Communists and Socialists claimed (dubiuosly) to have an international brotherhood of labor transcending borders.

Goldberg, as I understand it, largely ignores the foreign policy dimension and attempts to collapse the economic and social dimensions along a single axis -- interventionism versus non-interventionism. By his definition, any government intervention in any economic or social matter is left-wing and oppressive, while non-intervention is right-wing and freedom-loving. Superficially, this actually seems to make sense. The status quo of power and traditional values, after all, are well-established and so should not need the coercive power of the state to support them. But the real world is not this static.

The powerful see their dominance threatened -- in the case of capitalists by unions, strikes, product liability suits, NIMBY, and even business rivals -- and are never loath to call on the power of the state to uphold their position. Traditional values are challenged, and traditionalists call on the state to uphold them. In a pluralistic, multi-cultural society like the United States (or old Hapsburg Austria), different sub-cultures may have different ideas of what is "traditional" and each see the other as a threat to its values and mores. Anti-sodomy laws and the War on Drugs are examples of state intervention on behalf of traditional values.

Goldberg is notably reluctant to acknowledge, let along condemn, such things. And his hostility to interventionist government famously stops at the border. It was Goldberg, after all who endorsed the Ledeen doctrine: "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business." Approvingly, he said, "The United States needs to go to war with Iraq because it needs to go to war with someone in the region and Iraq makes the most sense. " So apparently opposition to government intervention does not go so far as seeing anything wrong with starting senseless wars just to show how tough we are.

And in "asserting, in effect, that any government that does more than prevent abortions and provide for the common defense is inherently fascist," Goldberg deliberately downplays the most important axis of all: respect for democratic norms and individual rights. To the extent that he acknowledges it, he argues that respect for democratic norms and individual rights is "right-wing" and trampling on them is "left-wing." That is nonsense. Respect for democratic norms and individual rights has nothing to do with right or left at all; people can be just as nasty upholding a "status quo of power" or "traditional values" that they see as threatened as overturning them.

What determines whether fascism was right-wing or left-wing is not whether government was economically and socially activist, but the policies it adopted. And what most of all deserves to be condemned in fascism is not that fascist governments pursued activist policies, or even (necessarily) some of the policies they adopted, but the utter lack of respect for democratic norms and individual rights.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Roger Moore said...

The third axis, that of foreign policy, is more complex and difficult to understand. I confess to not having a general theory here.

I think that the most obvious way of putting foreign affairs on the same general scale is to recognize that most people see foreign affairs from a national perspective. So conservatives concentrate on preserving their countries' importance in international affairs. Reactionaries focus on restoring their countries' historic status. Liberals and reformers want to make their national policies more just and fair. Radicals want to overturn the whole international order and make it over from scratch.

That would lead to the following classifications, which I think most people would find accurate:

Fascists, with their dreams of returning their nation to the limelight, would classify as reactionaries, and consequently rightist.

Post war Britain and France struggling to keep their colonies would classify as conservative, and also rightist.

Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton trying to use US foreign policy to improve civil rights in other countries would classify as liberal and leftist.

Communists trying to overthrow the existing world order and establish international Communism are radicals and leftists.

8:45 PM  
Blogger Enlightened Layperson said...

Thank you, Roger. That is very illuminating.

10:30 PM  

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