… and Why It’s Largely Irrelevant
Apologies if this comes across as explaining the obvious, however for every person that already understands this, there are perhaps many who don’t. I feel as though I’m sounding like I’m explaining this to children, but the standard of political comment on social media suggests that it is necessary. Anyone familiar with social media can vouch for the terrible standards of literacy and comprehension in the general population; a poor reflection on our current standard of education. The purpose of this article is to address this at a fundamental level, develop more robust definitions of terms frequently used in political discussion, and to deny those who use misdirection, misdefinition and deception as tools to win rather than inform.
It’s been a matter of debate since before the French Revolution as to what really constitutes left and right in a political sense. They have been characterised in a multitude of ways, and are subject to narrow and broad definitions based mostly on political expedience. However, the most common characterisation is that left is socialism and right is capitalism, yet both of these are ill-defined.
In recent times, the traditional left-right spectrum has come under significant challenge on a number of fronts, one being the Political Compass. This postulation essentially adds another dimension in authoritarianism versus libertarianism, which draws significant distinction between people who otherwise share the same space on the economic dimension. I would argue that the real elephant in the room represents a third dimension, however its character is one that i will leave until the right moment. While the Political Compass adds to the debate, and arguably improves political theory, its methodology has some shortcomings, however none that are not rectifiable.
Socialism is expediently characterised by its adherents as encompassing all public properties, including, conveniently, such public properties that existed millennia before socialism, such as town squares and roads. It is of course important here to draw the significant distinction between socialism as an ideology and public ownership as a characteristic of certain properties. So socialism as defined by socialists is arguably an inadequate definition of the left end of the left-right spectrum.
Conversely, capitalism is also subject to mischaracterisation, yet people can be forgiven, considering the hodgepodge of meanings listed in Wikipedia under capitalism’s etymology. Worthy of note is that the term “capitalism” was coined by a socialist with a highly dubious and challengeable definition – one that has been perpetuated to this day, however that is not central to this article, so discussion of it is for another day.
Capitalism in its narrowest sense is simply the use and leverage of capital to fund ventures for potential profit, enabled through various innovations such as brokerage and stock markets. However, while this helps to explain the maximisation of economies of scale and other positive externalities, it does not explain the negative externalities enabled through monopolisation of markets. For this reason, the concept of the free market is a better definition of the right end of the left-right spectrum.
Considering the shortcomings of socialism versus capitalism as definitions of the left-right spectrum, a look at the differences at a fundamental level may provide a better definition. One such definition is collectivism versus individualism, the former implying collective ownership and the latter private ownership. But is this adequate? To be adequate, they would need, as extremes, to be mutually exclusive. To be an individualist would exclude you from belonging to any collectives, and vice versa. But this isn’t ostensibly true. Practically everyone belongs to collectives by choice, even alpha individualists. We belong to families, clubs, places of employment, neighbourhoods, and all ultimately by choice, even families. This implies that the opposite of individualism isn’t collectivism, but involuntary collectivism. This gets us closer to the fundamental difference between the ends of the economic spectrum, however the involuntary aspect is potentially a different dimension entirely.
Another definition is characterised by its simplicity, being private ownership versus public ownership. Most people agree with a mix of public and private ownership, such as owning your own house and car, while having access to public goods such as roads and footpaths. Yet more relevant to this discussion is having public and private hospitals and schools, as a choice considered by many to be a fundamental right. This definition works as it adequately describes the centre, being where people accept the existence, and benefits, of both private and public properties.
However, there is a more fundamental definition of private property excluded by the narrow economic definition we are all familiar with.
Your self is the ultimate private property. The right to do as you wish with your self, as fundamentally opposed to doing as you wish with or to others, is arguably the most fundamental right of all. And this, as a concept, confronts the absolute left position of all property being public. It implies that under a far left position, you do not own your self, and by extension, your body or your thoughts. This, incidentally, is quite consistent with communism’s general understanding as being a far left position. If your government murders you, it effectively already owned you.
And that brings us to the concept of ownership. What precisely is ownership? We commonly define ownership as having title to something, such as real estate or private transport, yet this is a formal and legal, but narrow definition. Owning your own car implies that you can drive it anywhere that is not explicitly owned by someone else to the exclusion of others. However, if conditions apply to this, do you really own it in an absolute sense? If you do not have control over it, then, at the very least, you do not have full ownership beyond its strict legal sense. If the government can restrict your use of your car to having a breathalyser on its driver’s door, with a condition of passing a test before you can turn the engine on, then your ownership is not absolute. We have consistent calls for spare bedrooms in private properties to be made available to the public, and farming is highly regulated in Australia such that farmers cannot do much of anything without formal approval. In reality, their actual ownership is significantly reduced.
This begs the question – if you only partially own your home, your car or anything else, who owns the rest? Everyone else? If everyone else, then everyone else has equal control over parts not owned by you. Yet anyone who has worked in a hierarchical organisation knows that this simply isn’t the case. The administrator of your local public hospital has undoubtedly more control over the hospital than you do. And if ownership means control, then control means ownership. So, for true, 100% public ownership, no hierarchies can exist in the public sphere, something which most people understand is unworkable. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, then a committee of everyone would produce what exactly?
This understanding explains both the popularity of socialism, and its historically poor outcomes in terms of human rights, let alone its economic ones. It also questions the principles of those who benefit assymetrically. If control is a prize, it is thoroughly inconsistent with the concept of collective ownership, and this brings us to the elephant in the room.
Anyone acutely aware of modern politics is aware of the immense power and influence of social media, being collectively one of the information age’s most prominent and powerful gatekeepers of information. Such people should also be aware of the disturbingly apparent interchangeability of social media barons to switch from rapacious capitalists to authoritarian socialists at will. This challenges the very definition of socialism and capitalism by muddying their differences with profound impacts on politics and society. It also makes more sense viewed as control rather than ownership in the strict legal sense. Moreover, it highlights the limitations of capitalism as a definition for one end of the economic political spectrum.
Social media giants, in hindsight, exploited capitalism, not for capitalism’s sake, but for power and profit. It’s exceedingly unlikely that they all changed ideologically due to some sort of sudden magical insight at the same point in their trajectory to power and influence. Occam’s razor suggests are far simpler reason – personal benefit. And from a pragmatic point of view, it makes perfect sense. Once there is more to lose than there is to gain, it makes little sense to embrace free markets when that is where all your threats are. Rather, buddying up to governments and regulators can provide protection against bothersome competitors, as we have seen countless times before social media was even a concept. And this is where capitalism diverges from free markets and Adam Smith’s concepts of positive externalities arising from innovation and trade, among other things.
What we see here and elsewhere is something not reflected at all in either the traditional political spectrum or alternatives such as the political compass. What we see here is pragmatism as opposed to principle. As demonstrated, both socialism and capitalism are readily exploitable as methods to achieve other agenda. This highlights the pragmatism of entrepreneurs and bureaucrats, but the real elephant in the room is the political class. In addressing the pragmatic dimension of politics, I’ve sought to highlight the pragmatic aspect of politicians’ agenda, who seek the highest positions of power in the land, and globally. This reduces political parties to mere vehicles to transport politicians into positions of immense power and influence. Recep Erdoğan was infamously quoted as saying that democracy is like a tram, where you get to your destination and then you get off. If democracy itself is mere political expediency, what does that say about political parties?
This is not only something that we’ve seen occur through time, but something that appears to be increasing rapidly in occurrence. The Manchurian Candidate was originally a work of fiction barely sixty years ago, yet now it seems that more politicians meet that definition than those that do not. Some politicians have infamously turned on their own parties, but how do we know how many are secretly at odds with their parties ideologically, pragmatically, or both?
A failure to take into account pragmatism in politics is a fatal flaw in defining political theory; a flaw wholly missing in the existing postulations of political placement due to its implicit assumption of principle as a defining characteristic of the entire spectra.
Without understanding and due consideration of pragmatism in political theory, the fundamental differences between left and right become irrelevant in any practical sense.