Reimagining political labels: Why left and right are insufficient – Ivo Vegter

In a thought-provoking analysis, Ivo Vegter challenges the conventional left-right political spectrum, advocating for a more nuanced approach. He argues that labels like ‘left’ and ‘right’ are often insufficient and misleading in capturing the complexity of political ideologies. Instead, he proposes using axes of liberalism-to-authoritarianism and individualism-to-collectivism, which offer a more comprehensive framework for evaluating policies and political positions. By delving into the nuances of nationalism, socialism, conservatism, religious influence, and the role of government, Vegter illuminates the need for a deeper understanding of political dynamics beyond traditional labels, making a compelling case for a more nuanced and insightful political analysis.

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By Ivo Vegter

The traditional left-right distinction is of limited analytical value. I prefer using alternative spectra for political analysis.

In a recent column, I briefly mentioned an article by Rebecca Davis, in which she points out that both the MK Party and the Patriotic Alliance (PA) are better described as ‘right-wing’ parties that cannot be considered ‘progressive’ or ‘left’.

This is perhaps clearer in the case of the Patriotic Alliance. It promotes nationalism, religious conservatism, free markets, and small business.

The case of MK is harder to parse. It holds social views that are extremely regressive, including opposing gay rights and wishing to incarcerate single pregnant women, but it also supports clearly left-wing socialist policies such as nationalisation and land redistribution.

Davis is certainly correct in saying that MK is not a ‘progressive’ party, but where does that place it on the left-right spectrum?

Terence Corrigan wrote an excellent article on using ‘left’ and ‘right’ for political analysis recently, concluding that they retain only limited analytical value.

Origin

He points out the terms’ origin in the French revolutionary assembly, where democratic revolutionaries were seated on the left of the presiding officer, while conservative royalists were seated on the right.

Both MK and to a lesser extent the PA seek to elevate the role and authority of tribal leaders, which is a throwback to feudalism that would place them firmly on the right in the French National Assembly.

Yet Corrigan also points out that the particular policies that Davis considers to be right-wing, such as opposition to immigration, the return of the death penalty and reinstating conscription are not at all unique to countries governed by the right. 

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Left-wing governments like those of Cuba, North Korea, China, the former Soviet Union, and the former East Germany, all feature mandatory conscription, hostility to both immigration and emigration, and harsh penalties for crime.

The idea of liberalism itself is chameleonic, to steal a term from Corrigan. In the United States, it is universally viewed as left-wing, while in South Africa, the liberalism of the DA is often denounced as right-wing. 

Descriptors

In truth, many liberal policies are left-wing, while others are right-wing, which suggests that left and right make poor descriptors for political analysis.

Although you’ll often catch me describing socialists as left-wing, and nationalists or conservatives as right-wing, I agree that the left-right continuum is insufficient to describe many political positions.

In particular, it is insufficient to determine whether a given position or policy is a good policy – where ‘good’ can mean morally preferable, practically desirable, or even just effective.

For this purpose, I prefer to use two other axes, or spectra, namely liberal-to-authoritarian, and individualist-to-collectivist.

I will generally prefer policies that are closer to the liberal and individualist ends of these spectra, both for practical economic reasons (free markets create prosperity and reduce poverty) and for moral reasons (all individuals have a right to autonomy and freedom from oppression by others).

There is no particular relation between these two axes, although they often coincide.

Examples

Nationalism and socialism, usually placed on the right and left side of the political spectrum respectively, are both collectivist. I don’t believe governments ought to favour particular groups at the expense of others, since that violates the individual rights of people who are not members of the group. Therefore (among other reasons) I reject both nationalism and socialism.

Conservatism is the logical opposite of progressivism. My problem with conservatism isn’t just caution about the unknown, unknowable and known deleterious effects of progress and change, but also that it is authoritarian in the sense that it makes the strictures of tradition a guiding principle for governance.

That would make me a progressive, which in truth I am – I favour social, economic and technological progress. Unfortunately, that term has also been much abused, and is often applied to a form of regressive anti-capitalism. (The disutility of the term ‘capitalism’ is a topic for another day. Suffice to say that it was coined by its socialist critics.)

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Religious influence in government is often associated with the right, but religion can also be left-wing, as in the case of Catholic liberation theology, for example. As much as religion was used to justify apartheid, there were also churches that openly and vocally opposed it. Religion has had both negative and positive influences on the course of history. (I believe the negatives outweigh the positives, but that, too, is an argument for another day.)

Basing a government on religious principles forces people to abide by rules and mores that they may not share, and whose breach may not violate the rights of others in any way. 

Therefore, religious government falls on the authoritarian end of my analytical scales. This is why I – like Corrigan – prefer a secular state, which takes its moral cues from modern humanist principles, rights and freedoms rather than from ancient texts. 

Absolutism

As with anything else, it doesn’t do to be absolutist, extremist or fundamentalist about any of these labels. 

Although my preference for individualism leads me to advocate for free markets, there are sensible regulations that can guard against market abuses. My preference would take the form of a presumption that regulation is to be opposed unless proven to be necessary, whereas a more authoritarian outlook would consider regulation and other restraints on markets to be positive unless they are shown to have negative consequences.

My stance against collectivism doesn’t mean I think everyone should go it alone and there is no value in family, community or cultural groupings. I merely wish such associations to be voluntary, rather than assumed by, and subsumed in, law.

My antipathy towards authoritarianism doesn’t mean I’m an anarchist who opposes government of any kind. My preference is merely for a limited government that does a basic set of essential things – like common security, justice, protecting property rights, common infrastructure (so-called ‘technical public goods’), and providing a social safety net – effectively and efficiently. 

Again, my bias or presumption favours a smaller government, unless it can be shown that expanding its scope would do more good than harm.

Insufficient

This, then, is why dismissing a person or party or political position as merely ‘left’ or ‘right’ is insufficient. That the DA is to the right of the ANC is not in dispute, but is it ‘right-wing’? I think not. I think it is pretty centrist, with policies that fall on both sides of that line. 

I prefer to evaluate its policies as being more liberal than authoritarian – which is good – and more individualist than collectivist – which is also good.

This also gives us a far easier way to describe other parties. The PA and MK are both authoritarian, although MK is more collectivist than the PA with its free market approach.

The EFF is left-wing, yes. After all, it is openly Marxist-Leninist in its orientation. But it has also been described as ‘fascist’, and fascism has traditionally been associated with the right. 

On my scales, I simply describe it as collectivist and authoritarian, and the apparent contradiction is resolved. Both the left wing and the right wing can be liberal, and both can be authoritarian (with Nazism and Stalinism being canonical examples of each).

There are other axes one could use. For example, one could analyse policies on a scale with violence or revolution on one end, and peace or gradualism on the other. Or one with autocracy and democracy on either end. 

In my view, however, distinguishing between liberalism and authoritarianism, or individualism and collectivism, are the most useful for judging policies or political positions. These axes have far more analytical power than the much-confused (and much-abused) left-right spectrum.

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This article was first published on Daily Friend and was republished with permission