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The right and left of Politics 101

By Kay Rollison - posted Wednesday, 12 September 2012

I keep seeing the suggestion that the political categories ‘left’ and ‘right’ no longer have relevance. I don’t think that’s so. It may be more complicated than it used to be, but the distinction between left and right has never been more important.

Back in the far off days of Politics 101, we were introduced to an admittedly crude continuum running from left to right, with positions along it assigned by reference to a set of political options relating to the role of the state in the economy. At the far left was state ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. At the far right was the unfettered free market. Positions along the way were determined by attitudes – or actual policies – on matters such as the state’s role in education, health, welfare, banking or transport, and on the issue of progressive taxation. The greater the role of the state, the further to the left; the less intervention in the market, the further to the right.

Bisecting this x axis was a y axis: at the bottom libertarianism – the unfettered individual (think Ron Paul), and at the top total state dominance of society. Positions along the way were determined by attitudes – or actual policies – on matters such as human rights, free and fair elections, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the rule of law, freedom of religion, separation of church and state and respect for minorities.


We then plotted political parties/types of government on the x and y axis. Needless to say the government of the Soviet Union fell in the top left corner and the American Republican party towards the centre of the bottom right quadrant. But dictatorships often fell in the top right corner, as authoritarian practices often went hand in hand with a laissez faire attitude to the economy, and veneration of property rights. In Australia, the ALP fell somewhere to the left of the centre and the Liberal Party somewhere to the right, but neither was extreme, and both were well below the line on the freedom/authoritarian index, if I remember rightly. As I’ve said this was a crude index, and no doubt served the prevailing cold war orthodoxy.

Now much has changed. We no longer have the Soviet Union (or even China) as examples of a so-called command economy. Very few political parties now challenge the dominance of the free market; it is more an issue of how far it should be regulated. I expect we were taught that in a democracy both the left and the right had the good of all citizens at heart, but believed in different ways of achieving it. This is increasingly hard to believe, as greater and greater shares of wealth accumulate in the hands of the rich. The rise of identity politics, to some extent independent of class, has thrown positions on the old freedom/authority scale into confusion as issues of race, gender and sexual preference challenge comfortable old views about personal freedom. Fundamentalist religious convictions also challenge the new conceptions of personal freedoms, for example on a woman’s right to choose and gay marriage. The political reaction to terrorism has undermined the rule of law and the respect for minorities. And then there is environmentalism, the issues of climate change, sustainability and the limits to growth.

I certainly agree that these factors complicate the picture. And they have changed where you might place a party on particular issues on my graph. US Republicans, for example, are even further to the right on economic matters, and on individual rights, like a woman’s right to choose, gay marriage, or respect for minorities, they moved well above the y axis. The Australian Liberals are not far behind. Both Liberal and Labor in Australia fall above the line on anti-terrorism provisions and the rights of asylum seekers.  The ALP is pursuing a market based response to climate change, while the Liberals (apparently) favour government intervention.

Does this make the model irrelevant? I don’t think so. Positions on the y axis are all over the place. But the x axis still has a left and a right. You could argue that the left has shifted more to the right, with privatisation of government assets. There are also arguments that governments have fewer means of effective intervention in the market than they did fifty years ago. But none of this alters the fact that there is a left right continuum, and individuals, policies and even parties by necessity take a stand along it on any given issue. I’m sure there are lots of inconsistencies – the other day we saw Clive Palmer supporting a public service union – but in general individual positions – and party policies – cluster round either a more regulated free market, or a less constrained one. This is as true for regulating carbon emissions as it is for deregulating the labour market.

The bottom line is that the market does not and cannot distribute wealth in a fair and equal way. An unregulated market is not in the best interests of all. A rising tide (even if there is one) doesn’t raise all boats and wealth does not trickle down. So an awful lot depends on the state’s readiness to limit the inherent inequities of the market, for example by ensuring decent education and health, proper welfare provision, and by minimising large disparities of wealth through taxation. This is the agenda of the left, not the right. Everyone who thinks of themselves as being on the left, and maybe some on the right on the x axis regret that freedoms on the y axis have been compromised by parties of both sides. But that doesn’t alter the fact that an understanding of what is at stake in the left right division over the economy is crucial to our future. Maybe even the word ‘class’ hasn’t lost its usefulness.

Every candidate for political office – Labor, Liberal, National, Green, Independent – has views on these issues – even if they are not well articulated or thought out. By all means vote for the candidate who supports your view on hunting in national parks, poker machines or gay marriage, but don’t kid yourself that they – or you – are free of being left or right wing.

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About the Author

Kay Rollison has a PhD in History.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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