Monday, November 03, 2008

Deeper into the Quantum Flux

posted by Brit, in Bryan's continued absence

Bryan has insightfully pointed out that the old terms 'left-wing' and 'right-wing' are now virtually meaningless, as politics enters an era of Quantum Flux. This is not the same as the End of History, a fantasy which Bryan has also successfully skewered on the grounds that "dominant orthodoxies always think they are the last word and they are always wrong and because history is not a linear narrative but a succession of tragic contingencies."

But enough of Bryan. My personal opinion is that it has been pretty ridiculous to claim to be in a right-wing or left-wing category for a while now, and that by doing so you expose a lack of thought.

Consider, for example, these five political see-saws* within a western liberal democracy: (a) wealth redistribution; (b) public/private ownership of services; (c) financial market regulation; (d) attitude to entrepreneurship; (e) individual liberty versus national security. One may balance to any degree on the left or right sides of each see-saw independently, without ideological inconsistency. If you are wholly on the right or left of all five then that's fine (if unlikely), but it should be because you've thought about each, not because you support Left or Right as you would a football team and you wear a Left or Right badge.

On last week's Start the Week, the philosopher Raymond Geuss made a wise point. He said that when it comes to formulating political beliefs, the wrong approach is to start with your favourite quality (freedom, equality, justice etc), and then try to imagine what a society would look like if it were arranged to maximise that quality. Instead, you should examine the political and cultural institutions you have already have and work from there.

The failure to do this leads to incoherence and fantasy, which is why pure libertarians are as absurd as hardline Marxists. Say what you like about them, but Blair and Mandelson and Cameron (and probably both Obama and McCain) are all politicians of the Quantum Flux - they understand it, whereas, say, Tony Benn does not and is now a quaint anachronism. The credit crunch fallout, with banks being bought up all over the shop, has only confirmed it. China, with its bizarre mix of communist repression and rampant free-marketeering, is the starkest global expression. We are heading deeper into the Flux, and the only thing we can know for sure is that it won't last forever, because nothing ever does.

*(US translation: teeter-totters, but only for left wing loonies - thanks David)


  1. Wow. You've not only delineated it very economically & elegantly, you've also incidentally pointed to why teenagers have such silly political views (speaking for myself, of course, back in the day).

    Into the Flux. And could the Quantum of Solace be the next stage? Please tell us...

  2. The old left-right terms have a meaning when everything within that polity is fixed. And when the whim of the current monarch will dictate the weight of a given wing.
    Those terms stopped having any real meaning between 1832 and 1845/50.

  3. Apparently there's a website called "Hitchens Watch" which monitors Christopher Hitchens and tries to prove he's really a crypo-fascist masquerading as a liberal; likewise i think they try to prove Peter Hitchens is really a hippy posing as a fascist. They can't grasp that CH could support the war in Iraq and PH could oppose it. The stupidity of people stuns me sometimes.

  4. Utopia would be a country governed by pragmatic, intelligent, non politically aligned administrators trained in the business of running a country, themselves regulated by a system of well thought out checks and balances, and the moon is made of Belgian chocolate.
    The time of Bevan and Shinwell, Macmillan and Eden is long gone, they have gone to the grey havens.

    Benn was a quaint anachronism even as a young man.
    The said quaint anachronism, as a minister, was responsible for ruining the heart of south Northumberland over a 25 year period (opencast mining)

  5. When future historians look back on the 18-20th centuries they'll think it was obvious that the left/right system was only ever a historically contingent phase - left/right didn't exist in classical Greece or Rome, nor in classical China, nor in mediaeval Europe... there were plenty of politicians and political thinkers in these societies but they didn't split along left/right lines.

    The left/right spectrum seems like the boundaries of the political universe when you're brought up to think so, but there's a whole world outside it.

  6. First, and most importantly, "see-saw" is what we call them. I don't know who calls them "teeter-totters," but I'm sure that they're left wing loons. I hate them.

    Second, I think that what you're noticing is the narrowness of politics in western liberal democracies at the moment. The policy differences are so slight that any one person's basket of policies can appear random. In other words, it's all down to the end of history, innit?

  7. Elberry - I've often wondered what it must have been like for poor Mrs Hitchens with those two sons to bring up...

    Thanks for the info David - I will amend the teeter totter reference with all haste.

    And yes, the End of History is fine except for the grand, unjustifiable claim.

    Finally, Vince intriguingly pushes the beginning of the meaninglessness of the terms left and right all the way back to 1832. Any advances on that?

  8. The problem affecting political discourse is the failure of most people to ask simple, basic questions pertaining to the propositions they put forth. Recently talk has been about "the failure of the free market." Putting aside the huge extent to which government involvement contributed to the recent financial crunch, it would be useful simply to ask: If not a free market, then ...? What we want, I should think, is an honest market, but I never hear tell of that. It is also useful to remind oneself from time to time that the government doesn't make anything or sell anything. You can then ask, "So where does does it get its income?" As for "change," so much talked about recently, Lord Falkland wisely observed that "when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change." So anyone arguing for change ought to specify - in detail - what that change is and why it is necessary.

  9. One guesses that Tony Blair might have seen these terms pushed all the way back to AD 33 or thereabouts, when he humbly arbitrated between the good thief to his left and the naughty thief to his right.

    Your mention of football rather gives the game away. It's very hard to talk about labels, any labels, without tribalism butting in somewhere. Looking around at the nasty wars going on in the world, and which always go on, the conclusion is that whether you call them categories, labels, traditions, tribes or anything else, things come down to us versus them. And if try to abolish one or other, it will promptly reinvent itself.

    Our evolutionary history means we are pretty well locked into this. We're tribal and that's how we like it. Talk of Quantum Flux is about as likely to be true as Broon's "no more boom and bust". The only difference is that the Quantum camp haven't yet been rumbled.

  10. I smell change in the air, the Brown Merkel axis, froggies watch your backs.
    What do think the two girls talked about ?

  11. Yes you are right. But a couple of notes in the margin.

    Is it not what you believe that is important, but the way you believe it.

    I think for historical reasons Conservatives have best understood this as they are less ideological than "progressives", for example Reagan gave Hayek the congressional medal, the same man who wrote the book "why I am not a conservative"

    Its interesting that Obama is for capital punishment and national ID cards, so in the UKs political landscape he would be hounded out of the Labour and liberal party for maverick views.

  12. passer by : In theory conservatives are less ideological, that in fact is the whole point of conservativism, but it's rarely true. I mean it would be insane to say that the modern Republican Party is more pragmatic and less ideological than the Democrats. It's absurd. Now you might say that Republicans are "not really conservatives" and maybe that's true, but if so, who are the real conservatives?

    New Labour?

  13. as a left wing loon as a teenager and I never called them "teeter-totters"! I'm still more left than otherwise I think and my view of "teeter-totter" remains the same.

  14. OOPS! I did type this but it must have got eaten (maybe a right-wing conspiracy). I wrote:

    David - I was a left wing loon as a teenager and I never called them "teeter-totters"! I'm still more left than otherwise I think and my view of "teeter-totter" remains the same.

  15. I seem to have provoked a storm of controversy with the teeter-totter gaffe.

    I remember it being the answer to a pub quiz question: "What do Americans call see-saws?", since when I have laboured under that misapprehension (although admittedly it doesn't come up much). Which just goes to show that pub quizzes are not necessarily a 100% reliable source of knowledge.

  16. we read you the first time, Mrs B.
    as a youth, better to be left than right, loony or otherwise. look at the spectacle of young Will Hague at party conference. I mean, he turned out all right considering but it could have been a lot worse. swastikas and union jacks vs. Rock against Racism and Greenpeace - no contest really.

  17. Hey, I am just doing a little political experiment if anyone is interested in getting involved. Just trying to form an government online, it is in its very early stages but if you wanna join in got to

  18. Because what we really need are more governments.

    Ms. Baroque:

    Sorry for the slur. I should have known that even lefties couldn't force themselves to commit the crime against nature that is "teeter-totter." In any event, Wikipedia blames Norfolk.

  19. Oh, and Brit: I real thought I had broken you of believing everything you heard in pubs.

  20. neuroskeptic

    Loosely right of centre parties or conservatives tend to be the part of the constitution.(and related institutions of the constitution.

    Therefore Zanu Labour cannot be regarded as the party of the constitution and thus not conservatives, as they have ripped our constitution to shreds.

    Ideology tends to be a word people throw at ideas that they dont like, most people have a comprehensive world view, the issue is, is it 100 miles wide or 10 miles deep.

    I personally take Hayeks view that we are a bundle of Taxi or Cosmos order, and depending of which weighs the most you identify with.
    Which Hayek built on Burkes view of order.

  21. David:

    I don't know who calls them "teeter-totters," but I'm sure that they're left wing loons. I hate them.

    I spent my first five years on this planet in eastern Pennsylvania, where people called them teeter totters.

    Now that I know you hate me, I can be found curled in the fetal position under the desk with my head in a puddle of drool.

    The policy differences are so slight that any one person's basket of policies can appear random. In other words, it's all down to the end of history, innit?

    I lived in England from 1981-1984, so I remember Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Arthur Scargill reasonably well. Then, the Labour party platform included things such as nationalising the means of production. Scandinavian countries had tax regimes so progressive that, beyond a certain (and not particularly high) threshold, the marginal tax rate could exceed 100%.

    Didn't work recently enough that governments aren't going to try making it not work again.

    I'm less convinced than Brit that the terms "left" and "right" have completely lost meaning, as they are proxies for a few concepts which are more basic than Brit listed:

    communalism vs. individualism

    equality of outcome vs. equality of opportunity

    freedom from speech vs. freedom of speech

    No doubt there are a few others, but I think the terms "left" and "right" still have some meaning with respect to the most basic concepts, from which less basic things, such as attitudes towards wealth redistribution, derive.

  22. Jeez, I am waaaaay out of my depth with this whole teeter totter debate...

  23. Brit, for goodness sake don't spell Pencilvania wrongly, they might use you for target practice.

  24. Can't even get a good hate on any more. Damn political correctness.

    Oops. Darn political correctness. Sorry.