6.2.1 Naming Ideologies and Approaches
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. Some of the terms in common use have more than one meaning:
- The term ‘right-wing’ can mean ‘conservative’ – a desire to adhere to known practices – but it is sometimes used to mean a desire to maximise the liberty of the individual.
- The word ‘liberal’ can also be used to describe those who seek individual liberty, but Colin Bell’s essay, What is Liberalism?, pointed out that:
“liberalism has become a hyper-inflated, multifaceted, body of thought – a deep reservoir of ideological contradiction”. [p. 8]
Paul Krugman, in his book Conscience of a Liberal, used the word to indicate his approval of President Roosevelt’s New Deal: which included taxing the rich, making it easier for workers to join unions and instituting a minimum wage, with what he described as positive effects:
“These decisions dramatically reduced inequality and, far from having the cataclysmic effects on the economy predicted by conservatives at the time, they led to the postwar boom.”
Some Americans equate liberalism with socialism, which many dislike. Barack Obama was accused of being socialist for example, although Aaron Klein wrote that Obama denies his economic policies ‘socialism’.
Friedrich Hayek, in his essay Why I Am Not a Conservative, pointed out the confusion in common terminology:
“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.”
In this book, Hayek’s logic is pursued further – adding a fourth category, ‘progressive’, as the opposite of the ‘conservative’ scepticism towards change. His use of the term ‘collectivist’ is retained, but the term ‘individualist’ – rather than his choice of the word ‘liberal’ – is used to describe a belief in individual liberty.
Individualism and collectivism are opposing ideologies, with different attitudes towards freedom and responsibilities as described earlier (2.2). Conservatism and progressivism can have an ideological basis, but they can also be regarded as approaches to the introduction of change rather than as ideologies. They take different forms, depending on the culture in a place and time.
Each of these four terms refers to a spectrum of opinion, varying from a mild tendency to an extreme. They can be represented as axes of measurement within a diagram like the one below:
It is possible to occupy any position on this diagram. Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution was both revolutionary 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 revolutionary or reactionary. People’s inherent diversity ensures that there will never be unanimity, and in practice people’s views change according to circumstances.
Each issue can be approached differently. There is no inconsistency in having a collectivist attitude towards public services whilst advocating the individualist policy of free trade, for example.
Differences between individualists and collectivists in economic policy (3.5.2), and in their moral viewpoints on socio-economic rights (220.127.116.11), 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.
© PatternsofPower.org, 2014
 This quotation was cited by Michael Tomasky, in his review The Partisan, in the New York Review of Books; it was available in March 2020 at https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2007/11/22/the-partisan/.