Discrete Ideological Systems

Bora is doing me a great favor by reposting all of his old posts on ideology, which I usually disagree with. Now he reposted The Perils of Ideological Continua, which argues that continuous representations of political views, such as the traditional left-right line or the Political Compass, are invariably wrong. Instead, he says, a real representation will be discrete and have two different camps, liberalism and conservatism; then each camp has some continuum for its subvarieties.

Although the current ideological spectra have their problems, discrete systems are only good when classifying purity-minded idealists. More pragmatic people, and people who aren’t ideologues, don’t fit into the system at all. If the basic purpose of an ideological classification is to predict which political groupings people will support, Bora’s discrete system is no better than the standard spectrum.

Discrete classifications measure basic values. I’ve already explained that there are many more than two systems of incompatible values. Even in their most abstract cores, liberalism, socialism, and conservatism are equally distant from one another. Libertarianism is slightly harder to classify, but saying it’s just a type of conservatism is wrong.

Libertarians love this scheme for their own emotional reasons. Their core value is anti-authoritarianism (frankly, it is also mine, but I am a liberal). But, if you follow the libertarian logic to its full conclusion, you will end in tragedy. If libertarians ever took control of the government, there will be two possible outcomes. First one will start with anarchy, leading to dog-eat-dog world, leading to nationwide murder-fest, leading to emergence of a few most unscrupulous murderous thugs as “leaders” of the new totalitarian regime. We’ve seen this happen in many places, including in post-communist Eastern Europe. The second possible outcome is a more ordered system, something I like to call “dictatorship of the proletariat”, an illusion of personal freedom similar to that fostered in the past by Mr. Stalin and Mr. Zedong.

This is actually a very incisive observation, but Bora takes it the wrong way. It’s not that libertarian rule is in fact authoritarian because libertarianism is conservative. Bora’s classification places postmodernists in the liberal camp; but their only real-world political manifestation, postcolonialism, has been just as authoritarian. In contrast, traditional conservatism has actually been less visibly authoritarian.

The main distinction there isn’t liberal versus conservative. It boils down to the circular view of politics that Bora deprecates. You take a spectrum measuring the ideologue’s attitude toward change, and label it radical on one side, reactionary on the other, and progressive, reformist, and conservative in the middle. Then you note that radicals and reactionaries behave in exactly the same way and turn the spectrum into a circle. This will measure methodology more than values, but will explain almost perfectly which groups will turn totalitarian if given power and which won’t.

Along with explaining what a group of ideologues will do if given power, we’re also interested in explaining natural alliances. Some can be explained by shared ideals – the fusion of socialism and postcolonialism comes to mind – but not all.

Here, a discrete system fails especially spectacularly, because it makes alliances look permanent. It works reasonable well with conservatism and libertarianism, but not with anything involving socialism. In the academia, which this system is best suited for, it won’t explain the attacks on scientific positivism from both conservatives and socialists, and the attacks on science from both postmodernists and theologians. In politics, it won’t explain alliances between various kinds of reformists (who in the US include Schwarzenegger, Feingold, Wellstone, McCain, and most Independents) on such issues as campaign finance reform and electoral reforms.
Most political alliances can be explained fairly well with a spectrum that takes priorities into account. Libertarians’ first priority is capitalism; Hayek said political freedom is impossible without economic freedom rather than the other way around. And indeed, libertarians ally themselves with conservatives. Feminists’ first priority is gender equality, which explains why even radical feminists, who are ideologically almost identical to Marxists, tend to view Marxism as another patriarchal adversary rather than an ally.

An even better system would eschew a priori categories altogether and concentrate on real world questions. If I tell you I’m an individualist, you won’t know what my positions on most political issues are. If I tell you I’m enthusiastic about Russ Feingold, you’ll still be in the dark about education and trade, but you’ll know about my positions on many other key issues and about my priorities.

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