What’s in a political name?

Once upon a time in America, there was a political party that believed in a strong central government, high taxes and bold public works projects. This party was popular on the college campuses of New England and was the overwhelming choice of African American voters. It was the Republican Party.

The Republicans got started as a counterweight to the other party: the party of low taxes and limited government, the party suspicious of Eastern elites, the party that thought Washington should butt out of the affairs of private property owners – the Democrats.  David Von Drehle writing in theWashington Post, July 2004


The premise of today’s article is how I would explain contemporary political labels to a visitor from Planet Zog. The quote above illustrates the difficulty of the enterprise. It is very easy to forget that Abraham Lincoln, the president who emancipated the slaves, was a Republican. It is hard to imagine Honest Abe on Fox News. Political labels are a minefield. If you look on Wikipedia’s list of political ideologies you are bombarded with names which aim to succinctly define the worldview of their adherents; Anarcho-capitalism, Hoxhaism, Paleoconservatism, Ordoliberalism, Minarchism, Melanesian socialism are just a few of the labels you can see. They certainly played havoc with my spell check.

In 1789 King Louis XVI of France was forced to convene a form of parliament for the first time in over a century. At this assembly, the more radical delegates took up seats to the left of the King, while their conservative counterparts sat on his right. Ever since then the labels left and right for socialists and conservatives have stuck.  One common complaint that you hear is that these one-dimensional categories are inadequate to deal with our complex modern political landscape. There are more sophisticated ways of defining yourself politically; politicalcompass.org has been around for a few years now. After you have answered 61 questions, you are placed on two separate and independent axes. The Economic or Left-Right) axis measures your opinion of how the economy should be organised. “Left” is defined as the view that the economy should be run by a cooperative collective agency, typically the state, but it could also be a network of communes. “Right” is defined as the view that the economy should be left to the devices of competing individuals and organizations. The Authoritarian-Libertarian axis measures your attitudes to personal freedom. “Libertarianism” is defined as the belief that personal freedom should be maximised, while “authoritarianism” gives more weight to authority and tradition. Here is a visual representation:


I did the test and came out as … a half-baked libertarian. I wasn’t completely happy with the wording of some questions, but anyway here is what I scored:

Economic Left/Right: 0.50

Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -3.95


This is how I compare to other leaders:


What I want to look at now is some of the contradictions and paradoxes present in these labels.

I want to argue that communism and fascism are in fact not so far apart. Mussolini was a radical socialist, before going on to become Il Duce. Nazi (I prefer to use the pejorative term and pronounce it “Naaazi” like Winston Chirchill), Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers Party) is a fascinating blend of left and right. If you look at ideologies as a circle, the extreme points of the circle do meet. Both communism and fascism share a disdain for economic freedom. Communism nationalized property explicitly. Market relations and the price mechanism were abolished. Fascism required that owners use their property in the “national interest”. The appearance of market relations may have remained, but extensive planning of all economic activities was going on. Fascism controlled the monetary system and set all prices and wages politically. In doing all this, it effectively neutered the marketplace.

To begin with, the word liberal was based on the ideal of individual liberty. Classical liberals favoured laissez-faire economics, limited government and the rule of law. But somewhere in the transition to the twentieth century the word metamorphosed into a diametrically opposed meaning. Social liberalism gives the state an important role in such questions as unemployment, health care and education. This is the use of liberal in the United States, where the right employ it as a term of abuse. A few years ago The Economist had a piece calling for the word liberal to be reclaimed. The magazine argued that there ought to be a word and a indeed a political party to stand for:

 “… what liberalism used to mean. The idea, with its roots in English and Scottish political philosophy of the 18th century, speaks up for individual rights and freedoms, and challenges over-mighty government and other forms of power. In that sense, traditional English liberalism favoured small government—but, crucially, it viewed a government’s efforts to legislate religion and personal morality as sceptically as it regarded the attempt to regulate trade (the favoured economic intervention of the age). This, in our view, remains a very appealing, as well as internally consistent, kind of scepticism”

In the last three or four decades the term neo-liberal has become the favourite term for left-wingers. In the ironic words of The Economist neo-liberals are “market-worshipping, nihilistic sociopaths to a man. Many are said to believe that there is no such thing as society.” I always enjoy listening to Cayo Lara, the leader of the Spanish Communist Party (known as the United Left). He seems to be on a mission to see how many times he can use the word neo-liberal per minute. The Guardian’s resident unreconstructed Marxist, Seumus Milne, recently used this epithet to describe the EU. I really do struggle to see the EU as neo-liberal. I don’t think anyone could imagine Hayek or Friedman designing a monstrosity like the Common Agricultural Policy. If you look at one neo-liberal symbol, Margaret Thatcher, you will see that from 1979 to 1990 government spending was 40.88% of GDP on average. This is hardly a minimalist state. Under New Labour from1997 to 2010 the comparative figure was 41.29%. Thatcher may well have wanted to do more, but she was constrained by the system.

This is my mini-tour of political labels. We have seen that it is very difficult to even agree on basic terminology. And I haven’t even gone into such loaded words as democracy, freedom and progress. That will have to be in another post. But if there are any well-informed aliens out there, perhaps they can explain these labels to me.


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