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Political Philosophy

A Map of Political Ideas

Phil Badger draws the boundaries of political thought and explores the territories.

Egalitarian Hierarchical
Communitarian Communitarian left/Socialist Traditional conservatives
Liberal Individualist/Progressive liberals Classical/Neo-liberals

There are many ways to classify political ideologies and map out the boundaries between them. I cordially invite you to consider mine. Although my examples are drawn mainly from the United Kingdom’s political history, I think it is broad enough and subtle enough to describe the ideological landscape of most Western secular countries, and to help clarify the nature of many of the disagreements in recent political life. So consider this chart. Its four quarters could be respectively called ‘hierarchical-communitarian’ (top right), ‘egalitarian-communitarian’ (top left), ‘hierarchical-liberal’ (bottom right) and ‘egalitarian-liberal’ (bottom left). Strange terms perhaps; but as we shall see, together these divisions enable us to delineate the major political positions taken in today’s world. So let’s look at these four positions, and the relationships between them.

Traditional Conservatism

The ‘hierarchical-communitarian’ slot in the top right corner is where traditional conservative thinkers live. For them, the central concern of politics is what is sometimes called ‘The Problem of Order’, and we can have considerable sympathy with these concerns. Traditional conservatives ask how societies are meant to maintain cohesion and social peace in the face of the dizzying pace of social change. This question is hardly new – Aristotle asked it – but since the Industrial Revolution it has become increasingly insistent. In our own era, racked as it is by concerns about mass migration and technological disruption, climate change, war and waves of pandemics, the question of how some semblance of social continuity is to be maintained is particularly acute.

Conservatives are prone to defend the cohesive power of tradition and to speak of ‘organic models’ of society, in which different individuals and sections of society play different roles. Here they tend to defend hierarchies in which ‘natural differences’ between classes of people are assumed to be shown. Domination – historically especially in terms of paternalistic relationships – is considered both natural and right. People are generally held to be irrational and even vicious in their motivations, so that integrating them into a community of shared values, often defined in national terms, is an essential process, in which discipline plays an important role. Often, however, conservatives are uncomfortable with authoritarian solutions imposed from above, since they tend to think that politicians are no more rational than the rest of us.

When taken to the extreme, this position can include ideas of racial or ethnic superiority (or at least ‘cultural purity’), or radical nationalism.

Classical/Neo-Liberalism

The ‘bottom-right’ corner of our map is the home of ‘Classical’ and ‘Neo-’ liberals. They share a belief in hierarchies with the ‘top-right’ conservative folk , but by contrast with them see these hierarchies of status and wealth as justified in terms of a meritocratic process in which the best rise to the top, and, through pursuing their own self-interest, bring significant benefit to the rest of us. The last thought is the idea that wealth ‘trickles down’ or (flowing in the other direction) that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’.

Classical and neo-liberals are individualists who see us as ‘rational calculators’ of our own self-interests. This again sets them apart from traditional conservatives. Being less attached to both tradition and nationalist notions of identity, they are the cheer leaders of globalisation and the ‘creative destruction’ it brings. Being liberals, they are often tolerant of non-standard sexual orientations and generally take a ‘pro-choice’ position on abortion: some would also legalise recreational drug use. Classical and neo-liberals also favour low taxation and a ‘minimal’ or ‘night-watchman’ state: they often want to leave welfare to the voluntary sector, and here they have things in common with conservatives. Taxation is often seen as a form of theft. For classical and neo-liberals, the able and industrious are entitled to the fruits of their efforts, and state welfare leads to dependency and ‘free-riding’.

‘Classical’ liberalism, conspicuously a ‘free market’ doctrine, was for a long while partly eclipsed by the ‘progressive’ individualistic version of liberalism, so those who wanted to reanimate it needed a fresh title for their project. Thus in the 1970s, ‘neo-liberalism’ was born, largely as an economic doctrine: its liberty is centrally the freedom to make money.

When taken to the extreme, the ideas of economic liberals results in a ‘libertarian capitalism’, which sees all state involvement in market relations as illegitimate.

Utopia
Map of Thomas More’s Utopia

Socialism

The top left quarter belongs to the ‘communitarian left’, or more generally speaking, the socialists. Like the conservatives, they are sceptical about extreme individualism, and see a meaningful life as one rooted in a community of shared values. They also see life as being about more than economic well-being, and fret about the socially disruptive impacts of capitalism in general and globalisation in particular. Traditionally, class is seen by socialists as a key aspect of social identity, and work as a source of pride, dignity and community. More recently, and often dividing the political Left, there has been a concern about the breakdown in moral values and social bonds that comes from people feeling alienated from their cultural heritage. This thinking has led to a significant increase in the valuing of diverse cultural traditions and a consequent rise in the belief of multiculturalism. In the UK, where I live, this led for example to the promotion of so-called ‘faith schools’, run by religious organisations but still funded by the state. In part these measures were seen by New Left leaders such as former British PM Tony Blair, although not a socialist himself, as a way to stitch the communitarians and individualists together by fusing cosmopolitanism (which tends to the individualist) with collectivism.

Questions about the distinctiveness of communitarianism from conservatism become acute once it is noted that traditional communitarian thinking is often as concerned with national identity as with class identity – for example, in talking about ‘British Jobs for British workers’, or an equivalent for your own country. What mostly divides communitarians and conservatives is the tendency of the latter to endorse and defend hierarchical social arrangements, which socialist folk see as socially divisive. Egalitarianism, from their perspective, is good for social cohesion.

Individualism

People in the bottom left corner are individualists, and tend to be just as sceptical of tradition as their classical/neo-liberal cousins – rather, they believe in people freely entering into what we might call ‘communities of choice’. However, ‘progressive liberals’ (as people in this corner are sometimes labelled) are also greatly sceptical of the ability of unfettered free markets – markets that are not regulated by states – to actually deliver the personal freedom they promise. The problem comes down in part to the issue of ‘equality of opportunity’, which is thought impossible when unregulated markets create radically different starting points in life for different individuals. Progressive liberal individualists tend to be well educated city dwellers, and, perhaps crucially, have youth on their side (especially when compared to traditional conservatives). Progressive liberals are also sometimes called ‘social liberals’, or even ‘social democrats’.

Progressive liberals are cosmopolitan, and share with classical and neo-liberals a belief in ‘human’ as opposed to ‘local’ (or ‘tribal’) rights. However, they differ from their neo-liberal cousins in tending to believe these rights to be positive rather than negative: that is, progressive liberals think your right to life places an obligation on me not just to refrain from harming or hindering you, but to positively help you when you are in need.

At the extreme, progressive liberalism can shade into ‘libertarian socialism’, a.k.a. anarchism – a position which sees states as the tools of those wishing to maintain inequality. But progressive liberalism itself is more likely to be associated with the idea that the state can be a tool for attaining progressive goals.

Relating the Quarters: Top Right & Bottom Right

On the face of it traditional conservatives and classical/neo-liberals don’t have much in common, and it is fair to say that historically speaking their relationships have been fraught. For example, in the 1840s in Britain, the then Tory Party was torn apart by a fight between those who wanted to maintain the advantages of the traditional ruling class, which were partly reliant on high import taxes, and those who saw those protectionist trade tariffs as unable to meet the needs of a current food crisis. The Prime Minister Robert Peel split the Tory Party in order to abolish the so-called Corn Laws, and thus allow cheap imports of grain to feed the starving population of Ireland during the Great Famine (an Gorta Mór). In the short run the political result was the emergence of a new, radical Liberal Party, committed to the benefits of free trade (this is classical liberalism) and opposed by a protectionist Conservative party.

Things, however, are seldom static in politics, and in Britain the Conservatives became pragmatic converts to free trade, while by the latter part of the nineteenth century the (once classical) Liberals were beginning to have reservations about unregulated markets. This was the beginning of ‘new’ or ‘progressive’ liberalism.

For conservatives the tension between the dynamic power of free market capitalism and their belief in natural social hierarchies and social continuity has long been problematic; but from the mid-1970s, they became moot with the election of Margaret Thatcher as leader of the Conservative Party in Britain, with Ronald Reagan having a similar impact on the Republican Party in the USA. Thatcher and Reagan were radical free market liberals, but they also held profoundly conservative views about social issues such as sexual conduct and traditional family structures (in Reagan’s case this was underpinned by conservative religious values). One way to think about this situation is to consider Reagan and Thatcher as seeing social conservatism as a necessary brake on the disruptive power of unrestrained capitalism, which they would otherwise endorse. Both leaders were strong on ideas of personal responsibility, and unsympathetic to what might we’ll call ‘social luck’ theories, which say that our circumstances in life owe much to genetic and environmental factors beyond our immediate control. They both consequently favoured harsh responses to law-breaking, and a moralistic ‘war on drugs’.

Bottom Left & Bottom Right

The relationship between progressive and classical/neo-liberals has been especially fraught, with each side asking the other a series of extremely pointed questions. The classical/neo-liberals, suspicious of the ‘tax and spend’ tendencies of their progressive neighbours, want to know why the talented and hardworking should give up their cash to the government, and how giving welfare payments to those who lack these qualities could ever incentivise them to do better. For their part, the progressives want to know how much ‘tax and spend’ the neo-liberal free marketeers have themselves actually benefited from (free education, street lights, roads, law, etc), and in general, how much the surrounding society has contributed to their current personal wealth. They also ask if neo-liberals really think that lack of ability justifies people living in poverty (progressive individualists are ‘social luck’ theorists), and generally question the validity of the neo-liberal image of the plucky, risk-taking entrepreneur: in fact, major companies are often run by risk averse shareholders who are more interested in short term profits than long term investment.

Like all civil wars, the one between the liberals is especially vicious, and attempts to bridge the factions have been tortuously difficult. The progressives have suggested the introduction of a ‘living wage’, which they argue incentivises work and gets around the issue of welfare dependency – only to be told by neo-liberals that this will cost jobs because firms can’t then compete with foreign ‘sub-living’ wage rates. The progressives counter that a living wage would generate savings from welfare which could be offered to firms as training and capital investment grants, and that, like the ‘living wage’ itself, these could be regionally variable and targeted to help struggling areas. However, such grants might still decrease employment, as they could be spent on labour-saving mechanisation or computerisation. Indeed, the coming ‘new machine age’ is a particular problem for both kinds of liberal because economies depend on consumers, and, traditionally at least, consumers get their money from work. Progressive liberals sometimes respond with talk of a ‘social wage’, a.k.a. ‘universal basic income’, where everyone would get subsistence money, even for not working. But this idea, involving huge state action in redistributing wealth, is anathema to most (but not all) classical/neo-liberals.

Bottom Left & Top Left

There is a particular tragedy for those on the left side of our map, the socialists and the progressives, because the two groups on that side of the border, former allies, currently seem to have a lot of trouble getting along.

In some ways the problem starts with the success of neo-liberal politicians in shaping the economies of both Britain and the United States, as well as more widely across the world. The last forty years have witnessed a transformation of Western economies from a model founded on heavy industry to one much more dependent on services. In part, the process of globalisation, which shipped lots of industrial jobs to the southern hemisphere, was inevitable. However, the de-regulation introduced by neo-liberal politicians (for example, making it easier to move capital around the globe in order to seek higher profits) accelerated the process to the disadvantage of the old industrial working class in the developed world. In electoral terms the rise in unemployment was a huge challenge for Western politicians to deal with. But for a while, Democratic Party in the USA and the Labour Party in the UK responded to this challenge with great success. The key was to compensate those who had lost out by milking the ‘new economy’, while hoping to engineer the growth of new, high skill, high productivity jobs. Unfortunately the second part of the plan didn’t work out. There was no real incentive for investment in ‘rust belt’ areas, for example, and profits instead fed a credit bubble that, for a while, sustained demand (and created huge trade deficits) via a financial services sector which saw weak regulation as the price governments paid for all the tax money it generated for them.

The bursting of the credit bubble from 2007 onwards, when people on falling wages just couldn’t pay their loans back, saw massive welfare cuts, as governments rushed to bail out the ‘too big to fail’ banking sector (doing otherwise might have placed the world on a path to complete economic collapse). Thus the anger of the so-called ‘left behind’ was unleashed at both the progressives who had accommodated themselves to the neo-liberal legacy, and at globalisation itself. Isolationism, fuelled by fears about jobs, combined with an unprecedented refugee crisis in Europe to produce a nationalistic backlash against the economic ‘experts’ who failed to predict or manage the chaos of globalisation. Part of the problem was that transnational corporations are too powerful to be regulated by individual states. Add to this the rise of a jihadist movement with complex roots in old enmities; Western and Russian power-plays; and the resentment of new inequalities (oil wealth is very inequitably distributed, for example), and we had the perfect conditions for social and cultural reaction. Most of the political benefits of all this chaos have accrued to the more radical inhabitants of the top right corner of our map, where communitarian conservatism morphs into a militant protection of vested interests.

The Future

In the short term there is little doubt that an idea suggested earlier – requiring a living wage from employers in exchange for business investment grants – has much to recommend it. To start with, it holds out the prospect of rehabilitating progressive liberalism by meeting some of the concerns of both neo-liberals and socialists: work rather than welfare is the source of income, yet skilled employment is promoted. Nowadays, all political parties rely on coalitions of voters (Thatcher and Reagan’s nationalism and traditional values played well with many communitarians, and Blair and Clinton did not rock the neo-con boat, while mollifying traditional conservatives with authoritarian penal policies). For a while the progressive liberals have been out of the game, although the relative youth of their supporters gives them a big hope for the future. But all political perspectives are going to have to face profound changes brought about by the rise of the robot workforce. The resulting challenges will profoundly impact our identities and our sense of purpose. The era of mass employment will perhaps be over. In addition, climate change will produce more existential shocks, and probably a migration crisis that will dwarf anything we’ve seen so far.

It is easy to envisage a imminent dystopia in which mass poverty and ethnic conflict overwhelm our societies. The challenge is for political ideas to emerge which allow us to harness our technology for the common, and global, good.

© Phil Badger 2022

Phil Badger studied social sciences, including economics, psychology, and social policy with philosophy. He teaches in Sheffield.

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