6.2.1  Identification of Ideologies and Approaches

(Extract from the book Patterns of Power: A Rough Guide)

Negotiations in the Political Dimension largely revolve around people's different political ideologies and attitudes towards social change; it is therefore important to identify these unambiguously.

It is quite usual in conversation to refer to political ideologies as being either left-wing or right-wing. The terms ‘left-wing’ and ‘socialist’ are associated with ‘collectivism' in this book (2.2).  The word 'conservative' is often loosely associated with smaller government, but it can also mean the desire to maintain the status quo – allowing only gradual change – even in a socialist context; it can also represent a desire to return to a previous way of doing things.  The word 'liberal' can be used to describe those who seek to maximise the freedom of the individual but it can also be used in the sense of broadminded or ‘progressive’.  These terms can cause confusion, as Friedrich Hayek pointed out:

“The picture generally given of the relative position of the three parties does more to obscure than to elucidate their true relations. They are usually represented as different positions on a line, with the collectivists on the left, the conservatives on the right, and the liberals somewhere in the middle. Nothing could be more misleading. If we want a diagram, it would be more appropriate to arrange them in a triangle with the conservatives occupying one corner, with the collectivists pulling toward the second and the liberals toward the third.” [i]

When describing a belief in freedom of the individual, this book uses the term 'individualist' rather than 'liberal' to avoid confusion.  It also adds ‘progressive’, to describe a desire for change in the direction of a perceived improvement on previous ways of doing things, which is the opposite of the ‘conservative’ scepticism towards change – but conservatism and progressivism are characterised here as approaches to the introduction of change rather than as ideologies, and they take different forms depending on the culture in a place and time.  And each of these four terms refers to a spectrum of opinion, varying from a mild tendency to an extreme.  They can be represented as taking up a position within a diagram like the one below:

It is possible to occupy any position on this diagram.  Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution was both radical and communist, for example, whereas China's government at the start of the 21st century could be categorised as conservative and less absolutely communist. 

The central point of the diagram represents the status quo, which varies by place and time:

If mapping the whole world in the early 21st century, China would be below and to the left of centre, whereas George W. Bush’s America would be below and to the right on domestic policy.

If mapping within America in the same period, the average Republican would be below and to the right of the centre and an average Democrat would be above and to the left.

Political programmes can be thought of as mapping a direction of movement away from the status quo, as in the example of Thatcherism – which moved Britain to the right during the 1980s.

Most people have an ideology that lies somewhere between the extremes of communism and libertarianism, and most have an appetite for change that lies somewhere between the extremes of being radical or regressive.  Inherent diversity ensures that there will never be unanimity (2.2), and in practice people’s views change according to circumstances.

Differences between individualists and collectivists in economic policy (3.5.2), and in their moral viewpoints on human rights (4.2.4), have been summarised in earlier chapters.  In the Political Dimension they profoundly disagree about the role of government.  People also differ in their appetites for change.  These ideologies and approaches are described more fully in the next four sections, followed by a section on steering a course between them.


[i] Friedrich Hayek’s essay, Why I Am Not a Conservative, was available in December 2012 at http://hem.passagen.se/nicb/cons.htm.