Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891


Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

Left, Right, Up, Down

Penned upon the 11th of August, 2008

Politics! Left versus right, yeah? Well, no – I’m sure we’ve all figured out by now that a one-axis scale like ‘left’ and ‘right’ doesn’t actually tell us much – especially when, say, an arch-moralist conservative and an anti-moralist free-marketeer would both be classed as ‘right’. Left and right are really just relics of the French Revolution, based on how the members of the new Assembly divided themselves. And two hundred years is a long time in politics.

There have been a few propositions for multi-axis political scales. The Political Compass measures civil freedoms against economic collectivism, which is fairly sensible – they’re major issues, can’t ignore them, and the Compass has found its way into school curriculums and the like accordingly. I even had a stab at creating a political scale myself, in the Chook Chart, though that really only applied to Euro- or even Anglo-derived systems, where three traditions dominate political discourse.

Really, though, where these attempts to quantify politics fall down – along with a great deal of political discussion – is that, well, politics is so broad and messy and poorly defined. Is a right-winger the same as a capitalist as a free trader as a free marketeer as a liberal as a conservative? Is a left-winger the same as a socialist as a collectivist as a liberal as a democrat as a radical? If not, do most people even know that? And those are (mostly) just economic issues – what about other major factors, like religion, or science, or environmentalism? And can you even compare democratic to non-democratic systems at all?

I think it might be damn fine idea to get together some historians, some political scientists, some linguists and, well, whoever else will come to the party, and try to come up with continuous, meaningful definitions of common political terms. As it is, debates almost inevitably get mired in wordmuck – like the classic “can you be a socialist if you live in a capitalist society?” I’ve got my own ideas, and because this is my blog, I’ll throw them out there: ‘capitalist’ isn’t an ideology, per se, but rather a social and economic role: the capitalist is they who provides capital for a project, in return for executive control and a portion of the profit. Ergo, living in a capitalistic society no more makes you a capitalist than living in a Catholic society makes you a cardinal.

Now, the big targets for this sort of debate are obvious – socialism vs communism, moral conservative vs economic conservative, so on – but there’s just as much if not more need for some serious examination of the more benign, everyday phrases. For instance: is free trade the same as the free market, and are either the same as capitalism? I’d say ‘perhaps not’ – trade is just that, trade, and can be relatively free in any decentralised economy. One could easily have a situation of free trade between socialistic bodies. ‘The free market’ implies, well, market economics – sellers competing for business, and buyer and seller competing for favourable prices. We can assume a profit motive is driving this economy.

‘Capitalism’ itself, though, tells us something neither of the other phrases does – that the bodies providing the goods and services that are traded are controlled by capitalists, they with the capital, or by managers working on their behalf. Naturally this gets complicated – in publically traded companies, this role is diffused among the shareholders, the board of directors, the upper echelons of the executive, and so on and so on – but we can still differentiate a capitalist system from a broad ‘free trade’ system. Free trade might occur among self-employed producers, or non-capitalist businesses, or public bodies – it might even be noncompetitive and done without profit. This might not happen at the international level but it happens everyday at street level!

Anyhow, I’m sure you’ve all got some ideas of your own – a term you never thought quite made sense the way people overuse it, a phrase that just bugs you, a name which has radically different meanings in different countries. Let me hear them, and perhaps we can get started on finding those historians and linguists, eh?

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