Some 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.
When I wrote my last blog on child poverty, I was planning to follow it up with a critique of ousted ACT leader Rodney Hide’s Herald column where he made the bold claim that there is no child poverty in New Zealand.
I was going to make all sorts of jolly yet incisive points about how I’m actually quite fond of Rodney (something I can’t say about more recent ACT leaders), but that he’s revealed an embarrassingly out-of-touch and simplistic understanding of poverty as a mere lack of money (“All kids are poor. Children typically don’t own much beyond a few toys”, “Poverty can’t be the cause … Liver … costs 70c a serve”).
I was going to point out that not everyone has grown up in the Protestant-work-ethic-Northern-European-stockpiling-rationalising-individualising tradition that he and I have, but that the economic system that’s been imposed here is set up to favour people with these values and shaft everyone (and everything) else.
I was even going to say that, despite all that, I’m considering trying out his suggestion of boiling up bones and getting a stew going for my lunches. Anyway, I didn’t get around to writing this blog, and now Hide’s “let them eat liver” column is old news.
Still, I think it’s worthwhile to address the most important point – the idea that poverty in New Zealand is ‘only’ ‘relative’ poverty and therefore isn’t ‘real’ poverty. Hide points to one common measure of poverty: living on less than 60% of the median wage. In Hide’s mind, all child poverty statistics can be summarily ignored, because this measure doesn’t measure what (supposedly) really matters: how much money the country has overall.
I suppose this poo-pooing of statistics is what enables Hide to state with a straight face that it’s the welfare state’s fault that kids go hungry, despite the fact that the child poverty figures began to skyrocket precisely when his friend Roger Douglas began to roll back the welfare state in the 1980s.
But this idea isn’t just touted by extremists living in a libertarian fantasy world; deputy prime minister Bill English used this very notion as an excuse to dismiss the Child Poverty Expert Advisory Group’s recommendation to set child poverty reduction targets, claiming that “such a relative poverty measure made no sense as it did not show how rich or poor people were in absolute terms”.
But hold on a second. Even if we go along with Hide and English and ignore the Advisory Group’s other poverty measures such as material deprivation or access to GDP growth, there’s something pretty fishy about such an easy dismissal of relative poverty, a.k.a. inequality.
This ignores a whole host of research showing that ‘relative’ inequality absolutely does matter. The book The Spirit Level compiles some of this research to show that unequal societies with high ‘relative poverty’ like New Zealand have significantly worse statistics for life expectancy, literacy and numeracy, infant mortality, homicide, imprisonment, teenage births, obesity, mental illness and social mobility than more equal societies – across the whole society, not just for the ‘relatively’ poor. Even though inequality or relative poverty is relative, it causes real, solid, objective, material, absolute damage.
The truth is that we’re relational beings, so it shouldn’t be surprising that how we’re doing relative to each other affects us – but neo-liberals indoctrinated into the “no such thing as society” philosophy seem to forget this.
Hide and English assume that what really matters is the ‘absolute’ matter of how much money people have. But since when was money ‘absolute’? Money only has meaning insofar as we give it meaning to represent the value of goods and services, and to say that this person can access this much goods and services, while that person can only access that much. In other words, it’s only meaningful as a relative measure; relative to real stuff and real power in the real world, and relative to how much stuff and power others have.
So, when Rodney Hide licks his lips about a “windfall that doubled all incomes” but “wouldn’t budge the child “poverty” figure”, that’s exactly the point. Doubling all incomes wouldn’t change what those incomes are relative to; it wouldn’t create any more resources. Inflation would soon ensure that each dollar was only worth half as much, so nothing would have changed at all. Poverty and affluence would be exactly the same as before.
Of course, if this ‘windfall’ was localised in New Zealand, it would give us relatively more access to resources than other countries; and that’s what National mouthpiece David Farrar, who endorsed Hide’s column, says we should be aiming for: “In these times of huge global economic uncertainty, the focus needs to be on economic growth, not [equality, which Farrar conflates with] increasing tax and welfare.”
But The Spirit Level shows that internal economic equality is far more important than economic growth for improving conditions in developed societies. Perhaps it’s because we care more about how we’re doing relative to people around us than about being even more relatively rich on a global scale than we already are.
So the fatal flaw of this spurious neo-liberal argument is that it absolutises the relative; money, while relativising the absolute; inequality.
Bill English and his government are repeating this error with devastating consequences by calling the real suffering of real children ‘merely relative’ while treating economic growth as the absolute to which all else must be sacrificed (and it isn’t even working).