Tagged: history

On the left-right spectrum: A response

politicalcompassinternationalchartSome world leaders according to PoliticalCompass.org (only vaguely related to this blog)

A friend who studies political science commented on Facebook in response to my last blog, saying among other things that she was (I’m paraphrasing) “confused about my determination to attribute everything to left-right frameworks.” She has a good point and I thought it deserved a good response. I wrote what turned out to be a very long response… I’ll let you decide if it was a good response.

I thought I might share it here as well, because a lot of my recent blogs have drawn quite heavily on the left-right spectrum, and I thought some other people might be interested. As always, all comments are welcome.


The truth is that we probably largely agree that the left-right framework is over-simplified etc. – likewise with the Political Compass, which is only slightly less simplistic (two spectra instead of one).

Where we might differ is: I don’t think the left-right frameworks are completely useless and thus should be thrown out completely. Or at least, I only think they can/should be thrown out by people like yourself who have the time and knowledge to look into, and analyse, each party and philosophy and candidate on their own merits – which is barely anyone. I personally don’t have the time, knowledge or brain-power to analyse everything and everyone on its own merits without any generalisations to help categorise it.

When I use the left-right framework, I partly use it as shorthand for more complex realities (I think conciseness is vital in blogging, and I struggle enough as it is here). But I partly use it with an implied audience not of people like yourself who know I’m oversimplifying things, but of people who struggle to understand politics at all. I talk to quite a lot of people who describe themselves this way, and the number may surprise you as a POLS student… this is not to say that these people are stupid, they just haven’t put in the necessary hours and hours of time to understand politics. With local politics this category is even larger… I think I’ve probably done more research into it than most voters (at least most young voters), but I still don’t really understand anything beyond what I wrote in my last blog.

While over-simplified, I do think the left-right spectrum touches on some truth, for example the way neo-liberalism has shifted the political ‘centre’ in NZ. You as a POLS student would have more sophisticated ways of explaining this than me, but is it completely wrong to say that neo-liberalism involves a shift to the (economic) right? I think it’s a generalisation but a generally true generalisation.

I think if someone doesn’t understand politics at all, nor how NZ parties have shifted over the years, and then they hear my (admittedly simplified) explanation of both Labour and National shifting to the right economically since the 80s, they’ve increased their understanding. I don’t want to sound superior or condescending but if some of the people who struggle to understand politics (because they have other priorities, and haven’t put in the hours and hours you and I have into politics) read my over-simplified blogs and feel they understand it a bit more, I’m glad.

I also note that a lot of polls say that the current government’s policies are unpopular, but John Key as a person is very popular. There seems to be a disconnect from understanding the political realities and trends and philosophies that certain parties stand for (consciously or unconsciously), and the kind of policies they are likely to enact because of it. So if I can help to slightly decrease this disconnect, I’m glad too.

It’s partly my personality… I know a lot of people don’t like generalisations, but I do like them, as I feel that they can help us gain some kind of understanding of the patterns of how the world works. Even if they’re over-simplified, which they inevitably are, I think it’s still better than just seeing the world as random chaos and not having any grasp of the patterns at all.

I don’t think everything should be attributed to the left-right spectrum, and if what I write sounds like I’m doing that, it’s because I like to write in an extreme style, and I like to point out what I don’t think is being pointed out enough. It’s my impression that what’s pointed out a lot at the moment is personalities, individual quirks etc, but what’s not pointed out enough (in my experience) is the patterns and the groups of individuals that tend to believe certain things and do certain things.

It’s a bit like people saying that when multinational companies do horrible things, it’s because there’s a few bad apples. But if there’s a consistent pattern that multi-national companies, in their exclusive drive to maximise profit, act in psychopathic ways (cf. The Corporation documentary – which is probably oversimplified too), I think it’s worth pointing that out.

Likewise with Marryatt’s pay-rise. People might think it’s just a few bad apple individuals on council that voted for the pay-rise. But I think it’s worth pointing out that they seem to have all been right-leaning (correct me if I’m wrong), and that the four of them who are standing again are all standing for right-leaning political groupings (I-Citz and City 1st).

There’s another reason why I stubbornly cling on to the left-right spectrum as a way of describing things. The last few decades have seen a growth of ‘post-modern’ distrust of big stories and grand theories, and part of this is the growth of what has been called a ‘post-political’ and ‘post-ideological’ mindset, where we don’t like politicians to be tied to any big ideas, our politicians claim to be ‘pragmatic’ rather than ideological, and supposedly all the big grand narratives of religion, nationalism, communism etc. are dead.

But what this obscures is that there is in fact one ‘narrative’ that is far from dead. Capitalism (and consumerism, free markets, commodification, inequality etc) is more globally dominant than ever before, and it no longer needs a big narrative to support it – in fact it’s supported precisely by the post-modern turn from big theories to individual feelings and individual consumption. (You could also say that social liberalism/individualism is a narrative that is extremely powerful in the West, but I’d say that capitalism is more globally dominant – cf. China combining capitalism with social authoritarianism and doing it even ‘better’ than the countries who combine capitalism with democracy).

Paralleling this, in political science (from my outside perspective) there seems to be a movement towards seeing the old left-right frameworks as inadequate and seeing people who ‘still’ use them as out of touch. But again, I think this can potentially obscure real political phenomena like neo-liberalism, especially if you don’t replace my over-simplified ‘shifting to the right economically’ explanation with a better and more accurate explanation that is still accessible to non-POLS students.

So my question is what should we replace the left-right spectrum with? I think I’d be happy to abandon the left-right spectrum (and the political compass two-spectrum model) if I saw that there was a better alternative. I’m very happy to be corrected and educated here, but at the moment, all I see replacing the ‘old’ left-right model is A) from academics: complex theories that are inaccessible to most people, B) from politicians: cynical obscuring of the real political realities they represent. I’d rather have an ‘old-fashioned’ model that can be understood and engaged with than intentional or unintentional obscurantism that contributes to lack of understanding and apathy.

Let’s get one thing clear

NZ’s political parties at the 2011 election now updated for the 2014 election, according to PoliticalCompass.org

“It’s actually a very clear decision for New Zealanders. It’s sort of centre-right versus the far left.” – John Key today

Coming from the most right-wing prime minister in NZ’s history, this is the height of dishonesty and hypocrisy.

At most, Cunliffe et al will take NZ as far left as the Kirk government (1972-1975), which was the last government that didn’t make a total mockery of our claims to be an egalitarian country.

More likely, the next Labour government will be centrist or centre-left… still considerably to the right of traditional Labour values yet hopefully a genuine alternative to the neo-liberal inequality consensus of the last four Labour/National governments. Cunliffe has gone on record acknowledging that this neo-liberal inequality experiment has failed our economies and our people.

Meanwhile, Key, a long-time architect of this failure, is still drinking the neo-liberal Kool-Aid… dogmatically pushing National’s far-right, anti-democratic, economically idiotic, ultra-capitalist inequality ideology as far as we let him get away with.

Key, with his loyal servants in the corporate media, will attempt to claim the ‘centrist high ground’ and whip up McCarthy-esque hysteria about Cunliffe. For the second time in Cut Your Hair history, I’m advising: set your bullshit detectors to maximum.

Three thoughts on the Labour leadership

My preferred candidate…

1. I’m hearing a narrative from a few friends about Shearer being a nice guy betrayed by his MPs. I think this has it partly right but is largely missing the point. Shearer was betrayed first and foremost by the faction in caucus who put him in power – commonly known as the ABC (Anyone But Cunliffe) clique. They knew the wider party membership and affiliated unions wanted to move the party back to the left, and overwhelmingly supported Cunliffe. But they rallied behind the obscure and inexperienced Shearer instead.

It would take a charismatic political genius with a compelling vision to win over a party when you’ve been made their leader as a big fat F-you to its members. And it would take the same qualities to be a real match for Key. Shearer may be a nice guy but he’s certainly not a charismatic political genius with a compelling vision. Whatever truth there is to media speculations about Cunliffe and/or Robertson undermining Shearer, I don’t blame Labour MPs for being frustrated as Shearer mumbled and stumbled and bumbled for the last 20 months.

Fortunately, at last year’s party conference the grassroots members party successfully voted in a more democratic method of electing the leader – 40% current MPs, 40% party members, 20% affiliated union members (the ABC clique, not surprisingly, opposed this). It’s currently being implemented for the first time. So whoever the next leader is, he (they’re all hes) will have one major advantage over Shearer – the perception that he was chosen by the whole party. (This is also why Shearer should have called for an election on the new system directly after the conference… coming off his successful housing speech and showing courage and respect for the members, he just might have won his job back and a proper mandate to go with it).

2. The other narrative about Labour being crippled by infighting and struggling desperately in the polls is also quite misleading I think. Gordon Campbell and Frank Macskasy point out that division is normal for a major party in opposition and National’s in no position to judge. It’s worth comparing Labour now to National’s last era in opposition – note also election results and methods of changing leaders…

National Labour

3. I support Cunliffe for the leadership. If Labour et al want to defeat Key in 2014, they’ll need to do exactly what Shearer couldn’t do: Articulate a coherent and attractive vision, clearly point out how the Key government is failing New Zealand, and offer a genuine and compelling alternative. While Robertson, Jones and Cunliffe are all more charismatic and articulate than Shearer (and probably have better music taste), Cunliffe has the edge on coherent vision and genuine alternative. Of the three, Cunliffe has been the most clear about returning the party to its Labour roots, and opposing the shameful slide to inequality that all our governments since the 80s have tolerated (Clark) or actively promoted (Lange, Bolger, Key).

But I’m not getting my hopes too high. Cunliffe’s not the messiah, and sometimes he’s a naughty boy. He’s still only centre-left (if that) while Key is hard right. Plus, if he’s leader he still has to deal with a caucus full of dead wood, many of whom seem happy with the neo-liberal consensus, even though it’s crippling NZ’s health and their party’s credibility. And he’d have to find a finance minister who’s competent and on the same page (preferably Russell Norman).

I’ll still probably vote Mana as I want to support more radical critiques of the capitalist status quo. But if the next Labour government can end this National one, shift the centre slightly back towards equality, and do something about our horrendous child poverty problem, I think that’s a good thing.

PS: Best source of info and the range of opinion about all of this: Bryce Edwards’ political round-ups.

If Bob McCoskrie is allowed a blog, what next?


Three reasons slippery slope arguments are stupid:

1. Slippery slope arguments make you look like you can’t articulate a proper argument against what’s actually being discussed. “Why is this bad? Because it could lead to something bad happening.”

2. You can use them to say pretty much whatever you want:

If we allow straight people to marry, what next? Gay people wanting to marry too?

If we allow blacks and whites to marry, what next? Gay people wanting to marry too?

If we ban gay marriage, what next? Banning straight marriage?

If we let gay people raise kids, what next? Letting single parents raise kids?

If we make alcohol legal, what next? P?

If taxes on cigarettes go up, what next? Taxes on rich people going up? (I wish!)

If we change the time-honoured tradition of modern Western marriage, what next? Changing the time-honoured traditions of drink-driving and domestic violence?

If we eliminate gender restrictions on marriage, what next? Elimination of gender inequality in straight marriages?

If gay people are allowed to marry, what next? Elimination of alienation, victimisation and mental health issues among gay youth?

If gay people are allowed to marry, what next? I might have to buy them a wedding present?

3. Slippery slope arguments understand a change through a constructed narrative, rather than looking at the specific phenomenon and the actual history of change.

Swift recourse to slippery slope arguments implies that the only lens through which you can understand something is in part of a broad category of “changes to ‘traditional’ marriage” or “strange new developments” or “things my pastor told me God doesn’t like.”

This is actually a serious moral deficiency insofar as it displays a lack of ability to analyse the specific significance of something and how it affects people and society. So gay people in loving, mutual relationships are equated with sex addicts, paedophiles and men who have sex with dolphins.

Worse, proponents of slippery slope arguments project their own failures of moral imagination onto their opponents. Instead of listening and responding to the actual arguments of those who are arguing for (e.g.) gay marriage, they caricature their opponents’ moral logic into a simple reverse of their own: I want to preserve ‘traditional’ marriage. Therefore, You want to change ‘traditional’ marriage.

But “changing ‘traditional’ marriage” probably isn’t the best way of explaining the history of gay rights, and there’s certainly no alliance of polygamists and cousin-marriers plotting with gay people on what their next blow against ‘traditional’ marriage will be. If there’s any plotting, it will be about how to further increase the rights and respect of LGBTI people (see second-to-last statement in #2 above).

Of course, the increasing focusing of morality around individual freedoms, developing throughout (post-)modernity, may have something to do with the increasing support for LGBTI rights. (Or with why the marriage rights of individuals is a more important moral issue to most NZers than our ballooning economic inequality.) But individualism/liberalism can’t account for the entirety of the motivations and arguments for gay marriage. Moreover, the recent law change is the removal of a gender restriction, not a liberalisation of relationships.

Anyway, the trend towards individualism/liberalism doesn’t just mean “changes to ‘traditional’ marriage.” It’s just as much ‘to blame’ for the rise of the nuclear family, freedom of religion, and freedom to publish verbal diarrhoea about slippery slopes on the internet. Where were the slippery slope arguments then?

Two occasions where modified versions of slippery slope arguments might be OK:

1. Pointing out the logical implications of people’s assertions. This isn’t really a slippery slope argument so much as an examination of the wider scope of someone’s moral logic.

For example, if someone says “I think everyone should be allowed to marry whoever they want, so long as they consent” you can respond “So a brother and sister should be allowed to marry?” or “So one woman should be allowed to marry three men and a consenting goose?”

In which case the response is either, “Yes, I suppose you’re right, I’m happy to let people do what they want” or (more likely) “Hmmm, no, I’ll rephrase. I mean everyone should be allowed to marry whoever they want, so long as they consent and so long as it doesn’t harm them or others.”

And then – and here’s the important part – you get into a more constructive debate about which relationships we should see as inherently harmful, and why… and each case can be examined separately.

Of course this requires actually listening to what someone is saying and analysing their moral logic. For example, If someone’s moral logic is “I believe most people should be encouraged to enter healthy, lifelong, supportive marriages with people they love, and I don’t believe any particular gender roles are necessary components of a healthy marriage” the implications are going to be quite different to the liberal-permissive logic often assumed by slippery-slope proponents.

2. When there is an actual connection between what’s happening now and what might be the logical next step… and where the current step would actually make it easier for the next step to happen.

This is particularly useful if what is happening now is generally seen as harmless, but what might happen in the future is not. In this case, a slippery slope argument could form part of a range of considerations, showing that the consequences of what is happening now may be wider than people may think.

A good example might be expanding the powers of the GCSB. Even if you support some functions of the GCSB, we all know that all-encompassing Big Brother-esque powers is going too far, and it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. Since we can observe an international process of increasing powers of surveillance agencies and reducing human liberties and privacy, particularly since 9/11, it makes sense to call place the current GCSB bill in this context and let possible future developments enter into our considerations. (In fact, maybe we should have thought more about these ‘slippery slopes’ when the GCSB first opened, or when the Terrorism Suppression Act was passed, etc.)

Obviously, this is very different to gay marriage / polygamy etc. The connections are a lot closer, and the various ‘steps’ are a lot more gradual and difficult to examine/evaluate separately. Moreover, since the laws are complex the process is a lot easier to understand than the individual developments – again unlike gay marriage.

For services to prejudice, ignorance and easy listening music


Paul Holmes, this country’s most prominent representative of mainstream racism, respectable prejudice and populist ignorance, has been knighted for “services to broadcasting and the community”.

Holmes is most famous for his 7pm current affairs show which ran throughout my childhood… it was like a dumber version of Campbell Live, but to its credit it did set the blueprint.  Despite some hiccups, Holmes was a powerful force in the NZ media for sixteen years.  Accepting a better offer on Prime TV in 2005 was a poor career move, but he’s refused to disappear since then.

The last significant thing Holmes did was write this nasty column for the New Zealand Herald.  The New Zealand Press Council upheld seven complaints against the column and the Herald’s defence of it, ruling that it made racist and inaccurate attacks against Māori as a people.  Hone Harawira’s response is worth a read.

The timing of Holmes’ knighthood is no doubt inspired by his recent health problems.  But knighting him, now or any time, is yet another blow to the credibility of knighthoods and other such honours, of John Key, and of the assumption that we’ve moved past racism as a society.