Thursday, September 16, 2010

Left vs right

I see that Legal Eagle has been wrestling with questions of left and right in Never the twain shall meet?. When I first became involved in politics, I struggled with the politically devout of all sides. I say all sides because I was Country Party. Having grown up on the stories of the early days of the Party, of the True Blues and the fights for country recognition, I didn't see politics in simple left-right terms; it was far more complicated than that. 

To my mind at the time, those on the left opposed the capitalist system, believed to greater or lesser extent in the primacy of the working class and in the class struggle, in socialism and considered capitalist imperialism to be the world's over-riding evil. Obviously there were many shadings of views, from the devout marxist who then still believed that the Soviet Union provided the light, through multiple shadings of socialist belief, to the sold Labor person who considered that trade unions and collective organisation by workers were necessary to protect workers and address social evils.

In the world in which I lived, my introduction to left wing views came not so much from the official Labor Party as from politically devout academics at the University of New England who both espoused a range of theoretical left wing views and also carried the Labor flag in a sometimes hostile local environment. Since this often drew them to oppose causes that I supported, I acquired a negative view.

A more positive view of the left came from history at school and from my own family on my father's side.

The first may sound odd, given that I went to a private school still run on English lines. Certainly, many local academics regarded the school as non-academic, a bastion of conservatism and the local class structure. Robert Barnard's crime novel Death of an Old Goat provides a very unsympathetic view of that school and indeed of Armidale at the time. Yet despite this, the English biased modern history that I did dealt with things such as the fight for suffrage and electoral reform, the rise of the union movement; the early fights for union recognition. I might have disagreed with Labor and the union movement on aspects, but I never doubted their legitimacy.

My father and his family provided an introduction to what we might think of as "soft-left" views. The Belshaws are working class English from Wigan. My grandfather was one of the first Labour councillors in England. At my father's funeral, his old friend marxist economic historian Professor Ron Nehl, described him as UNE's only truly working class professor.

There was some truth in that. However, my father and his siblings all broke out through education into the broader academic world. In doing so, they never forgot their working class roots, campaigning for things such as economic development and social justice, campaigning against prejudice. I heard these stories too.

I could never be a supporter of the left because I rejected so many of their views: I did not regard the capitalist system as evil in itself, although I thought that it had evil aspects; I thought arguments about class warfare were irrelevant to the Australian situation and indeed ethos; while I found some of the arguments about socialism incomprehensible.

On the other hand, this did not make me a supporter of the Liberal Party, nor of the right. In fact, I never used the word right. I thought that "right" meant fascist, extreme right.

It may sound hard to believe, but I was sixteen before I even met an avowed Liberal Party supporter outside a few Liberal Party parliamentarians. To me, the metro based Liberal Party in its various guises was the natural enemy. Politics dictated coalition, but I never forgot that politics also dictated that the Party was the real enemy when it came to expanding Country Party representation.

People often speak of tribalism and tribal dislikes in a Labor context. I grew up with a deep visceral distrust of the Liberal Party. Even today, I struggle to vote Liberal first preference. I can't help myself. I don't think that the Party represents the things that I stand for. I listen to Malcolm Turnbull or Tony Abbott espousing Liberal views, and I say that's not me. But then, neither is the ALP. I also struggle to vote Labor.

From time to time on this blog, I have tried to explain my political values and views set within a framework of what I have come to call New England populism. I have also tried to explain why New England populism is a distinct stream, neither left nor right.

Reading Legal Eagle's post which in some ways is set in a conventional left/right frame, I wondered how could I illustrate this. Let me try to explain with a story.

Grandfather Drummond became ward of the state at twelve: family conditions were very difficult, he was in some ways an uncontrollable child, and finally his step-mother had had enough. Despite this break, his brothers retained contact with him. Brother Will in particular used to send him books because, despite his limited formal education, the boy was an dedicated reader.

When I was a kid, my grandfather followed the same course with me. One day, he gave me a paper back. This, he said, shows the importance of cooperation and of cooperatives.

It was a good yarn. A benefactor purchased a tramp steamer and gave it to a cooperative to run. The book told the story of the steamer and its crew as it sailed round the world. It was partly the story of the voyages, partly the story of the success of the cooperative. My grandfather intended me to absorb the idea of cooperation and cooperatives as a vehicle, and indeed I did.

How does this fit in? Well, the idea of cooperatives and cooperation is neither left nor right. Both may try to claim it, but it actually has very little to do with the way the formal left-right constructs are presented. Indeed, and I accept that this a gross simplification, the story is antipathetical to both left and right.

To the left, the idea that social change can be brought about in ways other than Government action does not easily fit. I don't want to overstate this. Of course, the left accepts that individual and collective action outside state action can bring change, yet the focus is generally on the state.

To the right who believes (sometimes) that markets and individual action are central, I guess that that success of the cooperative simply sets up something for sale!  

I say sometimes, for one feature of the hard right is actually a collectivist ethos. Just look at what fascism actually means. The equation between the right, Hayek, markets and individualism is, what, less than sixty years old?

Time to stop here.


Reading this post later, I am still thinking through the arguments involved.

As LE suggested, we use labels to categorise people along the spectrum. On the conventional tests, I appear centre left, yet in terms of labels many of the things that I express support for would be categorised as right.

I have tried to explain in the post that the apparent mix in my views is linked to my very specific experience.

Interestingly, Paul Barratt who shared similar experiences to me displays the same apparent spectrum confusion. If you look at Paul's posts, you could conclude that he is left of centre, and indeed he is on some issues. Yet he also talks about issues from new states to the Country Party to the New England independents in the same way I do.

Hardly surprising, in fact. Like me, Paul grew up in Armidale. Like me, Paul was a townie whose father was an academic at UNE. We went to the same schools from the Misses Cooper kindergarten to the University of New England, if a little apart. We both worked in the Commonwealth Public Service for many years.

Our views on many issues are not the same, yet many of our core values are. They do not fit the Australian conventional left-right spectrum because our experiences dictated otherwise.

I am not saying that Paul and I are unique, although aspects of our shared history places us outside the some of the conventional matrices. Rather, I think that I would challenge the value of the very concept of left and right unless carefully defined. They are labels that tend to obscure rather than clarify.                


Legal Eagle said...

I don't really like the traditional "left-right" divide (which is why I often say that I'm "my own wing"). It doesn't really cover the complexity of views. I don't like the tribalism of it, either.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I confess to complete tiredness of this sort of framing. It sometimes seems you can't have any sensible discussion on any topic until the proponents have been classified as either right or left. Only then may the discussion commence, and then most usually with the same old, same old, vitriolic pointless pointscoring.

LE is right to try to be her own wing, but I suspect she hasn't got the proverbial prayer which goes with it.

Anonymous said...

Jim - sorry - kvd signoff missed

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi LE & KVD. KVD, I agree with your sense of tiredness on this sort of framing, yet and as you note, it is very hard to avoid.

A recent example is the way that commentators and others struggled to discuss the hung parliament in a sensible way because those involved and especially the country independents did not quite fit conventional frames.

The revival and attachment of the "socialist" label by the Liberal Party was an attempt to attach to and thus discredit the country independents. It had some impact reading the comments on stories in the Northern Daily Leader.

LE, I also try to be my "own wing." However, as KVD notes, it is almost impossible to escape.

Anonymous said...

Jim the other thing I don't "get" is the tribalism which both LE and yourself mention and seem to accept. I have never felt myself part of a tribe as it might relate for instance to politics or to sport, and the only area I could apply this term to is my immediate family and their partners and offspring.

I enjoy sport of any sort when executed at a high level, but carry no flag for a particular team - and that even applies to cricket. As for politics, it seems to me that both "sides" have good ideas in their place, but the problem seems always to be the hidebound relocation of those preconceptions to inappropriate areas of community and national life.

Oh well, but it is going to be a nice day.


Jim Belshaw said...

It depends on what you mean by tribalism, KVD. The existence of views/reactions that both LE and I complain about is an objective reality in the sense that it exists and has to be dealt with.

Part of the problem with tribalism, and it is a concept that I use myself, is that it has varying meanings. The habit of left-right pidgeon holing is not, of itself, tribalism. The fervour of the party or ideological faithful probably is.

Part of my point is that I don't see the world in terms of "both sides". If by both sides you mean that Labor and the Coalition each have good ideas, of course. But I don't see politics just in terms of that tripartite subdivision.

I would agree that you get inappropriate application. As you know I try to fight against this.

I would argue, I think, that the discussions ftom LE and I, while our focus is different, is part of the process of clarifying the issues involved in our own minds.

And, yes, it is a nice day!

Anonymous said...

Jim, I do understand that tribalism exists, and must be dealt with. I think I was trying to state that tribalism seems to provide the followers with some sort of sense of their identity, their "place" in the world; and that is what I don't get.

It just seems otherwise quite nice and thinking people somehow check their thinking caps at the door, in the need to belong to some perceived greater whole in order to either give greater meaning to, or get greater enjoyment from, that part of their lives.

The sight of crying football supporters, or otherwise rational politicians arguing that black is in fact white is quite foreign (and sometimes frightening)to my view of the world.


Jim Belshaw said...

You raise a big topic here, David, one that is difficult for me to respond to properly tonight since I fly to Greece at 6am tomorrow.

Briefly, I think that we are all tribal to some extent. To my mind, it's a natural part of being human. The problem arises when our tribal loyalties block out consideration of other things.

Again, and as so often happens in our conversations, the topic warrants a full post in its own right to extend discussion. I do wonder, however, if I will ever catch up with (complete) the list of topics you have stimulated!

Winton Bates said...

I was interested in your account of your father's political views. I had thought him to have been strongly influenced by Austrian economists - based largely on an informal discussion I had with him once about Hayek's capital theory (which he seemed to have been able to comprehend and I still struggle with).
Perhaps Prof. Belshaw liked to provoke discussion more than expounding his own views.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Winton from Rhodes

Certainly Dad knew Hayek, but he was not a supporter of any school. His two core specialities were the history of economic thought plus development economics. I think that it is hard to be a specific school supporter when you spend your time analysing changes in the way people have thought. He was a Keynesian in macro terms, he did his original PhD on depression economic policy in NZ; he supported Government intervention in specific cases; he also made a distinction between economics as a tool kit and the values that informed the questions asked; in this sense, he saw economics as a profession.