When politics is a sport, people love nothing more than to dress up in their team’s colours and hurl abuse at the other side. While it’s all very tiresome for those for whom politics is something serious and dignified, political sport is deeply satisfying and team psychology is no small part of democracy as it’s practiced. Besides, who really wants to trust something as serious and dignified as politics to people who don’t know how to have a little fun.
So political sport is ok, but people keep getting the teams mixed up! For starters, ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t refer to anything useful and haven’t for a long time, as far as I can see. I’ll spare you the stuff about the French Revolution and the arbitrariness of the names — that’s besides the point. ‘Liberal’ and ‘conservative’ don’t much refer to anything useful either.
For just one example, let’s consider one of the great conservative insights (yes, there are some! Goal kick.) For traditional conservatives, the world isn’t full of individual human beings, but rather people who practise particular cultures. That is to say, people aren’t detached or generic entities but come preloaded with certain inheritances of history, language, geography and other shared particularities that they did not choose to have but which nonetheless form a significant part of their identity. How not? For instance, I can’t help but experience the world through the eyes of my upbringing in suburban Australia to middle-class parents of British working-class origins. And though I hesitate to identify with ‘gay’ culture, I nevertheless share with many other gay people a certain experience of being somehow different and outside, and a gradual discovery of what this means. My curiosity about the world has led me to discover and reflect upon the meaning of all this so that it is now possible for me to write the paragraph you are now reading, and who’s to say that my upbringing and other unchosen particularities of my existence have not greatly contributed to this curiosity. This is simply to say I am who I am for many reasons, and not entirely by choice.
In any case, if a great conservative insight is that people are part of common cultures and communities, and thus a large part of the conservative political project is precisely to conserve these communities, what are we to think when Margaret Thatcher, as leader of the British Conservative party, says there is no such thing as society?
Well, it turns out Thatcher is speaking as a liberal! For her, and for lots of others from the late 1970s onwards, people are detached, generic individuals who make rational decisions in their own self-interest, and somehow the combined total of everyone doing this makes the whole of ‘society’ better off. This ghastly melange of classical Enlightenment liberalism, welfare economics and cherry-picked bits of Adam Smith, often goes (unhelpfully) by the name neoliberalism. The political project of neoliberalism therefore consists mostly in removing the barriers between the way things are and a universal state of affairs in which people (or to use the fashionable metonym — consumers) are able to exercise the power of their choice in free markets. Hence all the deregulation, privatisation and outsourcing (and flat wages, job insecurity and lack of corporate responsibility) you might have noticed in the last couple of decades.
So… is it the Right or the Left responsible for this? What does such a question even mean? If we want to, we can start splintering into ‘social’ and ‘economic’ liberals (as if these can be easily or sensibly separated), but such semantic contortions simply mask a flaw in the starting categories. Visual posters like this one that attempt to map out the entirety of the left-right political spectrum are admittedly a broadly helpful aid to understanding, but only serve to make the point that ‘left’ and ‘right’ are too diffuse to be of any use in the first place, even if people’s actual views fall neatly into the little boxes as illustrated.
Besides, as far as I can tell, neoliberalism is still the tacit default of both the ALP and the Liberal party in Australia, the Democrats and Republicans in the US and the British Labour and Conservative parties. Whether we’re going Forward with Fairness into a Big Society, with Change We Can Believe In or with Country First, everyone is starting from roughly the same place, with various vestigial bits of ideology tacked on or tucked away. In fact it is the bland sameness of these starting places and the utter incompatibility of the neoliberal idea with the world that real people actually live in that produces such confused and increasingly deranged policies as we have been seeing lately throughout the West.
We need a new political vocabulary. The Enlightenment has been and gone and changed things forever, just as the Renaissance and the Reformation did before it. But we’re still stuck talking about left and right and markets and socialism and liberals and conservatives even though the times have since moved on. Pitiful but sincere attempts to acknowledge this can be seen in stillborn slogans like compassionate conservatism, triple bottom line economics and the Third Way, but upon close examination these are simply the old ideas half-formed and passed off as fashionably new, like a political open sandwich.
The crisis of politics in the West runs deep. While we swear at the players limping, confused, around the pitch as we shout for the rules to be changed, somewhere there is taking shape a game that is altogether new.