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Home » Archives » September 2008 » Asking for Directions

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09/26/2008: "Asking for Directions"

Throughout virtually all kinds of political discussions the political spectrum is divided into two extremes. Known most accurately as the left and the right, they are also called other names. Democrat and Republican. Liberal and conservative. Communist and fascist. etc.

Sadly, the definitions of "left" and "right" are slippery and constantly changing. They originate in the old British legislative cabinet, where the conservative (Tory) party sat on the right side and the progressive (Liberal) party sat on the right. However, in those days, the Tories were more concerned about keeping the status quo, and the Liberals about promoting liberty. Today, the right generally connotes free enterprise and a strong military, while the left generally connotes egalitarianism and state controlled social welfare.

In any case, they are defined as two diametrically opposing directions on the political spectrum, and usually the only two directions. This kind of dualism leads to long-held but nonsensical observations about the nature of the left and the right. For example, it is commonly said that in their extreme forms, the left and right actually meet in the middle. Given that the ideals of left and right-wing politics are irreconcilably opposed, this is complete bafflegab.

This doesn't however explain how communism, as seen through Lenin and Mao, and fascism, as seen through Hitler and Mussolini, had many things in common. It also doesn't explain those who are anarchists with both communal and free-market views. To explain this, there must be another dimension.

The Political Compass points out that there are two dimensions or axes to the so-called one-dimensional political spectrum. That is the economic axis, on which the left and right labels fall, and the social axis. The social spectrum grades between authoritarians and libertarians.

By the way, please take the time to take the test to get a better idea of where you really stand before reading much more on the site. It is worth the time. As it says on the front page, "there's no right, wrong or ideal response. It's simply a measure of attitudes and inevitable human contradictions to provide a more integrated definition of where people and parties are really at."

Adding this second dimension makes it much more apparent what actually happened with the so-called extreme forms of left and right-wing politics. These extreme forms, embodied in communism and fascism, were not so much extremely left or right but rather extremely authoritarian. Their policies placed most of the decision making power out of the hands of individuals and into the hands of the state.

It is no longer enough to simply label political figures as left-wing or right-wing, assuming it was ever enough. Remember this when you read such reports, and realize there is more to the picture than just a line.

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