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What does 'left' and 'right' mean?

What does 'left' and 'right' mean?


This essay begins by studying how political parties and political polarisation used to work, and does not in fact work. It finds that the main drivers to a bipolar political world have now vanished. However, in asking a series of basic questions about how their society works, what their role is in it and how they feel about that, individuals generate a set of values which it is possible to uncover for the US and, in general terms, for Europe. This allows us to plot the attitude clusters which govern political choice on this framework. It transpires that US and EU attitudes are so distinct that internal differences are trivial by comparison. The apparent vitiation of politics is due to the circumscription of the nature of the questions that can be posed by any party that has a hope of getting itself elected. Further investigation points up severe internal difficulties for the European enterprise in this regard, as the new members do not at all agree with the core values of the old, established continental core countries.

Political parties: what are they for?

Political parties: what are they for?

Political factions and formal parties have a long history. They exist because there is strength in solidarity. They sometimes form around grand cleavages in society – between wealth and poverty, for example – but also around seemingly arbitrary social indicators, as with the Greens and the Blues, factions which nearly paralysed Byzantium. Socially or economically polarised societies do not necessarily produce parties which reflect this state of affairs – South America, for example, was liberated by Bolivar and others for the landed classes against a moderating Spanish throne and church, not for the poor majority. Parties may reflect the interests of a tiny elite – such as the Whigs and Tories, which dominated British politics during its formative stages. Their respective interests were to do with the relative power of the Crown and propertied classes. The electorate whom they represented were, however, a tiny fraction of the society as a whole.

The assumption that a whole society can be mobilised into political action is a C19th invention, usually true only in war. Social models, by contrast, can easily grip a society, as with Empire, Nationalism, Consumerism and the like. These have proven stronger, if less durable, than the worthy goals of equality and liberty which romantic intellectuals have always projected as the stuff of politics.

The modern world in the industrialised West has arrived at a consensus of how these and other forces are to be balanced. We have expectations of a social and economic infrastructure which is placid, functional and predictable. We allow winning and losing, but modulate this at the level of the individual, the corporate body and the social class. We expect service from our political leadership, and ideas from many sources, not merely from officials of the state.

We are cynical about big ideas, not least as we note the existence of many competing rationalities. That national productivity rises is good; except for the low skilled, who are no in oversupply and so paid less than hitherto. So what constitutes “good”? The issue founders, as it has foundered all through history, on many rationales which cannot be brought into a common frame or reference. Aesthetics and economics, social goods and grand projects can be caused to communicate, but not to agree on benchmarks or firm criteria. Consequently, we rely on social discourse, a process of opinion-forming in which judgement replaces analysis, where expert issues are decided by those who have a stake in the issue and where grand politics is confined to generic issues and generalities. Nobody votes against public health, but few vote for it, either, as it is an assumption of modern life.

Today, therefore, the political parties of the Western democracies exist in something of a vacuum. There are no overweening issues around which all other concerns can be treated as secondary. Polarisation, in the sense used by physicists, implies a field around which particles which sense that field clump. If the electorate feel strongly about one and only one issue, then they clump neatly into two groups, each with a predictable agenda. Each is easy to represent, and all other issues become trivia. Unhappily for this model, the electorate is hugely plural in its views and values. Where it is polarised, it responds to many “fields”, not to one. A given person can feel attraction and repulsion in ways which another does not. If there is clustering, it is fortuitous and representative only of a single issue. This issue may not matter to the bulk of the electorate at all. Seen from a different perspective – a different “field” they cluster in quite a different manner.

As a result of this, he concept of a party as the representative of a category of persons (a “class” in the true sense of the word) is therefore largely invalid. Parties are like brands attempting to span a divide in the consumer population which does not exist.

Political parties exist because we cannot think of a better way to manage the process of democratic selection. This said, the idea of “party” is written into many constitutions, and is central to those nations that do not have such a constitution. This note considers the consequence of a system built around and obsolete concept. In particular, it looks at the traditional left-right division.

The changing nature of representative politics.

The changing nature of representative politics.

Political alignments are simplifications of a very much more complex pattern. They are, in effect, a final step in a long chain of events. The relevant patterns of information could be configured in other ways to create other outcomes. This section is going to argue that the way in which this once occurred has now been transcended, and that the new approach is going to change what can be done in politics.

A society is comprised of many people, each of whom is going through a process of enquiry. It is likely that how people undertake these processes depends on their innate qualities, on their experience and on the tide of events as this is interpreted by their milieu. These last two are very important. The interpretation that an individual places on events is heavily conditioned by their past experience, and the way in which their group has discussed or reacted to similar events in the past. It is uncommon for any one individual to influence the group’s outlook in a measurable way. Groups have usually evolved ways of talking about specific or general about issues. There are established entities which are agents in these debates – the Capitalists, market forces - and standard models as the behaviour, responses and innate motives of these.

The process through which each of these individuals is going consists of three steps:

The figure shows a South American peon asking these questions. He can live his life within the constraints of the model, he can try to go outside the model – perhaps by going to the city, perhaps through education – or he can take measures that are designed to change the model, not his relationship to it. All three of these steps have implications for the continuation of this model of how life is to be lived, but only the third is deemed “political”. However, all forms of social change (or lack of it) are agents in the way in which societies are ordered and the stories which they tell themselves about this. Politics is a domain where this change is the result of conscious effort, but may not be the domain which has the greatest affect.

Explicitly political processes spawn issues of substance and of style, of alliance, trust and enmity. Max Weber, thinking about these issues over a century ago, discussed groups which are naturally inclined to defend positions and groups which are equally driven to erode them. The apparently obvious self-interest of any one f these groups leads them to solidarity with other members, and enmity with members of opposing interests. Marx said much the same, and the assumptions permeate late C19th and C20th discussion.

It is, however, a projection of the times, not a necessary condition. Social movements are not like Darwinian species, striving to dominate niches in a finite environment. If the developments of the past 150 years have shown us anything, it is that the economic and social environment is capable of exponential growth, and the “size” of the world’s economic environment doubles roughly every twenty years. The knowledge environment grows much faster, and the capacity for connectivity more swiftly yet.

This point is made not to score points off long-dead sociologists, however, but to show that discourse - how we have learned to think about a problem – is itself a set of assumptions. The three questions – how my world works, where I fit in, what I am ‘supposed’ to think and do as a result of this – are all rich with assumptions. We now know much more than we did about economies and societies, as well as the details of events and personalities. Nevertheless, we are awash in rival assumptions and interpretation. We come back to this in a moment.

The public sector

The perceived purpose of the public sector has changed. The state was a way of “owning” the people until only a few hundred years ago in the West, and the trend is making itself apparent elsewhere at this moment. The mass movements of the early C20th saw the collective as the means through which extraordinary things could be achieved, such that it was reasonable to direct the individual because the ant hill could deliver what they as individuals could not.

Today, by contrast, most would see the public sector as being as much a means of delivering impersonal backdrop services – security, law, science – as it is a vehicle for meeting aspirations. Where aspiration exists, it is often met through non-state vehicles that are mandated or in other ways caused to exist through state intervention. States can build and operate electricity systems, or states can make it worth entrepreneurial effort to do the actual work, whilst guaranteeing financing, quality and access through apposite regulation. Some areas (such as defence) are not easily open to such arrangements, whilst others (such as education or health) are contentious in some countries. The grounds for contention may be to do with the practicality of motivating private suppliers, but is more commonly “political” in the sense of being bound up in history and issues to which we will turn in a moment.

Complexity has increased enormously with economic growth. More things have to work for life to be possible, and more options, more risks and more possible crises exist than hitherto. Companies (and individuals) have addressed this by specialisation. Indeed, the essence of productivity growth is founded in specialisation. A firm or individual can rely on a vast infrastructure to deliver the necessities of their particular activities. A vast “tool kit” exists through which any form or individual can address a bewildering range of options and facilities. However, as firms specialise, so the complications have been swept off onto the public sector: workers are to be educated, policed, delivered to the office door and treated when ill. And so forth.

The result of this is that the state spends – and therefore has to administer – nearly half of national income in most countries. It has to cope with enormous complexity with scare resource: consider how much people are prepared to spend on a holiday, dental bridge work or pet food in a year, and contrast this with the cost of local taxation. It is simply not true that the state is necessarily inefficient. However, the very fact that the public sector is now entwined in the individual vitals of corporate and private life, in a way that would have been inconceivable a century ago, makes what it does “political” even when politicians are not involved. The implicit models (of social support, of policing, of health management) are all deeply emotive when challenged, and events lead us to challenge them. Like the South American peon, we all consider our options. Chiefly, we consider it our due that services will “just exist,” whilst dreaming of new and better ways of spending money.

Social change

People are changing. The average Westerner is now more informed, has more options and can choose between more interpretations of their proper role in society than ever before in history. This rapidly-accelerating trend has important implications for representative politics.

Social roles would have been familiar to Marx or Weber until fifty years ago. There were new capabilities and new aspirations, but most people were fundamentally “boxed” into characteristic roles. Membership of a group playing such a role was strongly normative, and the attitudes and behaviour of an individual member of one was fairly predictable. It was possible to be quite precise about the values and views of a member of, for example, the late C19th urban proletariat; and still more so when we knew that they were female, forty and uneducated. In 1945, the British firm Mass Research could correctly anticipate over 95% the expected responses to a questionnaire if they knew the respondent’s age, gender, social class at birth and educational attainment.

These urban peones were predictable because the models of the world against which they worked were stereotyped. One could manipulate these views to sell them toothpaste, or perhaps a political party.

Education and economic specialisation began to change this. As a result, the range of understood stereotypes grew in number through the next two decades, spawning at least dozens of “types.” The responses and self-image of these remained similarly predictable, however, but social types were now much more dissected. Marketing narrowed its focus (“urban female C2s with cars”) and political parties strove for the middle ground.

This was less successful. Economists call this process of flight to the middle “Hotelling”, after the person who first defined the dynamic which drives it. The mass market is always in the middle of a range, and it is better to blur a product such as a fine dry cider so as to offend nobody, rather than to defend and extreme position of interest only to connoisseurs. Thus, too, with political parties, which must please all and offend none; or at worst offend only those who would never vote for them.

A small group of those with education, usually born to money, failed to fit into these categories. They were not “boxed in” and were therefore called “unboxed”. They proved to be the door on the social future.

The seventies in the USA and the Eighties in Europe marked the general ‘un-boxing’ of society. That is, people still followed the three existential questions that we described earlier, but now they had access to many interpretive models. They thought differently about issues and arrived at different conclusions depending on the situation in which these were placed. If the context was work, then view can be expected that are completely at odds with those produced by the same person when the context is different: perhaps shopping with a girlfriend or educating a child.

The political classes

Politics had always been a career, but it was normally understood that one needed to get practical experience (and to build a personal fortune, if one had not inherited it) before becoming involved. A few aspirational politicians broke this rule, but it was largely the case that politicians in the democracies were essentially following a second career until end of World War I. People were in it for the glory, for access to better contracts and for – of course – public service.

This changed during the dangerous years between the two world wars. The career politician, someone who did nothing else after leaving higher education, began to dawn. With it came the fact that power came from winning elections, and winning came from marketing and organisation, and not necessarily from ideas or sincerity. (This had always been true to some degree, but the relish with which what had formerly been shamed-face backroom events was taken up as armaments was indeed new.) The need to harness the media narrowed the focus on individuals and specific issues. Centralisation was set on a path which has led to almost autocratic rule around issues of the short term in many democracies. We have something closer to a Roman senate, but with but with a single consul, than we do the outcry and rhetoric of the agora.

Politicians with a desire to get themselves elected can, of course, politicise the colour of the sky. However, strictly political issues arise when there are issues for which an objective path to a solution does not exist. That is, either we do not know enough to arrive at a “scientific” answer – what is the best way to educate children, and about what? – or, more commonly, when there are groups which do not want a compromise or which do not share common premises on which a solution can be based. Religious objection to economically-advantageous processes is a good example of this last: what looks like and answer to one group looks like a restatement of the problem to another. There will always be an irreducible minimum of politics in the most Platonic of states, therefore, but we can also be sure that few party-dominated states will be governed with an eye to political minimalism.

Political movements (and the machinery of political power) are based on a strong assumption of geographical nationhood. That is, the people who happen to live in a patch of ground called “Kenya” or “Britain” are assumed to have solidarity in way which they are not supposed to have with peer groups elsewhere. Thus British professionals are assumed to show sympathy for the British poor, but to have not political interest in common with – for example – US professionals. It is regarded as reasonable to tax British professionals to keep the British claimants at a level of wealth that Kenyan professionals would envy, and to dispense aid to the Kenyan poor in droplets. Whilst this is understandable both from history and from the way that a democratic system operates, it would seem strange to a Martian visitor. It may well be challenged as geography becomes less important than other forms of alliance and alignment.

In summary

How we look at our world is endlessly reinvented to suit the needs of individuals, groups and the national collective. The bricks and mortar which they use for this are borrowed, but borrowed from increasingly disparate sources. People carry many models, some more thoroughly baked than others, and not necessarily in a form which is coherent, even in a single head. Nevertheless, this is how complexity is handled and it is the clay from which political edifices must be built.

The role of explicit analysis – as in the use of economics, for example – is challenging received wisdom. In addition, the richness of the options and information available to most individuals means that each will make use of a range of such interpretations, patched together as events demand. Such alternatives are often used as a means of avoiding closure, of being boxed in my moral imperatives or the views of others. In addition, the anonymity of modern life means that people can live explicitly multiple lives, and leave their mistakes behind them. Personal reputation is voluntary – save for the famous and the highly paid – and continuity of behaviour or neighbourly trust is not a required element for an economically or socially active life.

The state is now seen less as an overlord and more as a toolkit. The basic functional roles of the state are uncontentious and nearly universal in the West. The state must be capable of delivering sound public finances, for example, and public hygiene, security on the streets and predictable law. And so on: the list is long and mostly universal.

This said, political systems are set up to obfuscate. They and the media are largely motivated to increase contention and not to reduce it. The resulting mixture of unboxed values and innate complexity in wealthy societies, political information overload and boredom with the technical facts of running a state mean that they all get away with this more than they should. However, taken together, this means that the neat division of political life into parties is not easily tenable, and that the life of the career politician is not a happy one. They no longer have a coherent constituency to address, and many of the topics are either too technical or too contentious to address, let alone bundle up into a marketing brand. One can agree with a party about one issue – education, perhaps – but completely disagree on another. Nothing binds the issues together into something coherent, something that can be turned into a generic permission to act. Indeed, the only grounds on which parties can be distinguished are those of personality, style, a reputation for general competence and trustworthiness.

All of these are, of course, ephemera in the gale of media scrutiny. The British parliament has some six hundred and some seats, of which a majority party will hold around three hundred. From this, 150 officers of state are required to form an executive. and a generic approach to problem-solving. That is – save a few brave independent souls, newly arrived members of parliament and the like - anyone not actively mad, bad or incompetent will play a role in the executive. At least a few of these will be found to have skeletons under their bed in the lifetime of any government.

Europe and the USA

Europe and the USA

The existential questions which give rise to interpretation, values and action receive different answers in the US and in Europe. These differences may be increasingly important in the decades ahead, as these two powers are likely to represent the core of economic and technical progress, political weight and intellectual development.

The US Republicans emphasise national solidarity, the Democrats that of class; Republicans tend to wrap themselves in godliness, the Democrats with the ideals of the Enlightenment and the “shining city on the hill”: clarity, reform, enquiry, probity, fairness. However, there is vast overlap between the parties and foreigners often cannot tell them apart by their policies. Where they do differ, however, is in the kinds of people who enter the winning administration, where quite different styles of idealism express themselves and which appear more closely to mirror the differences outlined above.

European political parties are much more plural and so admit to less generalisation. There are “values” parties in the Catholic countries, for example. The late arrival of full adult franchise means that there is a traditional of upheaval and struggle within nations which is simply absent in the US. Perhaps as a result, a European labour-based faction has a quite different approach to the US Democrats. Specifically, the one sees business as parasitic and the existence of the rich as a symptom of political failure. Public goods – health care, education, clean air – have to be won by the “people” from business, and the state is the defender and guarantee of the advances so gained.

The US, by contrast, tends to see business as central to jobs, prosperity and personal advancement, and the rich as a symptom of economic health and a beacon of aspiration. It acknowledges that business needs social goods just as much as do individuals. Indeed, it is the state which is seen as interfering and predatory. (One should also note that the US places one of the heaviest regulatory burdens on its business of any nation n Earth, and invented the idea of anti-trust, cartel and monopoly dispersal. Co-existence with commerce is not the same as seduction by it.)

The European traditions founded in the struggles of organised labour (and the continental wars) are weakening as new generations forget, white collars replace blue and prosperity offers new options. What replaces it is, however, something of a vacuum. There are real differences between the nations of Europe in respect of values and ethos. The value-based model of what it is to be a European peon is different from and less powerful than that which pertains in the US. Further, Europe is anyway far more plural that the US – half of the people living in London are not of foreign extraction, for example. Over a third of Germans see the political process and law as inadequate and support an NGO to advance special issues to which they subscribe. Half this supporter base say that they would be prepared to take extra-legal direct action if called upon to do so. Whatever the realities of this, it is plain that there are no core values on “what it is to be a European” which match the strength and unity of those found in the USA.

If Europe has core values, then they revolve around the legacy of the labour entitlement movement, with its trappings of centrism and universal care. This can be seen in the proportion of GNP spent by the state, and by the way in which it is spent. It is also evident in the way in which the state distances itself from commerce, as a necessary but impure graft on the body politic. One has the impression that the happiest EU state would be one which could somehow survive without the need for an economy, such that it could dedicate itself whole-heartedly to the direction of its citizen’s lives for their betterment.

However, wealth generation is needed if societies are to thrive. Political parties in continental Europe are at last grasping the depth of the challenge to their former preponderance from new economies, better communications, technological change and the facts of demographics. The response has, for the most part, been mercantile, with the French in particular seeking to block the impact of “globalisation” through trade barriers.

History anyway means it is hard to be a business-friendly political party in Europe, as the assumptions from which the electorate listen are strong and negative. Those who want to drive a positive response to economic events are, therefore, forced to focus on abstract tools, such as “market forces.” Indeed, a strong element of debate is less about goals than about the tools to be used to pursue them. Massive public services are good; but should they be delivered by a state mechanism, or by subsidised by privately-owned agencies? The question is, of course, familiar.

US political values tend to drift around the issue of whether the citizens feel confident enough to acknowledge pluralism, or whether they wish to police core values and punish defectors from them. Periods of diffusion coincide with international tranquillity and economic buoyancy; and periods of focus follow economic difficulties, international turmoil and frightening events. The turn of the millennium offered economic malfunction, the collapse of and asset price bubble, corporate malfeasance and terrorism. The result has been a growth of normative values, and an intolerance of difference.

European political values are, on the surface, extremely plural but, under the surface, deeply focused on finding a safe and comfortable way to live. Europe has been torn apart twice in a hundred years, and it knows about massacre, mass destruction and terror first hand. The barriers against social equality were slow to fall, and the attitudes which this engendered remain strong. For example, the US, Australia or Canada would see health care as the fruit of technology, of the expansion of wealth and of individual and corporate effort. It is a good like any other, to be used when needed. European populations, by contrast, tends to see health care in a much more numinous light, as something sacred, won from privileged hands by suffering, holy Promethean fire. Education, too, is seen less as a tool than as a hard-won prize, against which the defeated enemy somehow still struggles.

One can overstate this difference, but the emotional weight that the US gives to liberty and enterprise is, in European, given to the “fruits of victory”, embodied in public social services. A rhetoric which assumes this has grown up, making it hard to debate the effectiveness with which these fruits are actually plucked. Indeed, attempts at debate is frequently pictured as an attack by the old, dark forces.

The demographics of much of continental Europe are such that there will be much more claimancy, and claimancy that is increasingly ill-funded. The likely political response will be to blame, rather than to attempt to increase wealth generation. Those blamed will include international commerce, low-wage areas, immigrants and other forces for economic progress. The US is likely to be directly opposed to such views, and the issue needs extremely careful handling.

Underlying dimensions

These surface differences can be seen as the result of similar dynamics working under different start conditions. We noted such a shift in the US, between phases of tolerance for difference and the policing of core values when general levels of security change.

If we return to the three existential questions, we can see that the outcome of asking these leads people to perceive themselves as being embedded in a system. There are, essentially, two outcomes to such questions.

These interpretations are superficially similar but in fact quite distinct from each other. Plainly, however, if the system is seen to be hapless, then few are going to be positive about their own lives. The reality of this is all too evident in developing countries, where the system is normally inscrutable, or where evident, evidently corrupt.

Europe tends to be politically obsessed with the first of the two questions. That is, it feel that the system which it has created is both a success and a burden, that it could be run to the same goals by better means, that it will in the medium term be unable to fulfil its goals and – a question that cannot be spoken in public, whether the burden is in fact greater than the benefit, and whether the goals are the right ones. Japan, not much discussed so far, has similar but more acute worries.

The US is inclined to worry about both of these issues. When times are challenging, then fears about the system tend to crystallise into moral panic about national values. However, cadres of society can feel enabled and empowered during this phase – what has been called the “homeland crowd” – whilst other groups are enthused by its opposite. Arts, technological creativity and social entrepreneurialism all flourish during the anti-phase, when the heartland is content and the reins are loosened.

These are, then, two axes that create a surface across which political centres of weight can be plotted. The axes are, essentially:

The socio-economic system has proved itself to be benevolent, and the mechanisms that we have for managing it are adequate. The system must be managed with a light hand. Minimal intervention is best. Major and chronic distortions are to be undertaken only with great care and insight.

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The economic system is essentially destructive unless managed with a firm hand by socially-aware people. Light intervention will not work, and command mechanisms are required. If intervention causes unexpected consequences, then these must be blocked or countered by, for example, subsidy.

People are able to make their own futures, and they have to take responsibility for the outcome. Not all people are the same, so there needs to be tolerance for different objectives. However, there are still clear measures of adequate and failed outcomes. Failures need to be assisted to succeed in their own way, but only if they make an effort.

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People are the product of their environment, and they can make only limited difference to their lives on their own. Poor social conditions predetermine failure in life, and so social justice demands equality of opportunity. However, to rank people by their success is to insult the majority. Individual progress is more important than absolute success. People who do not progress need support, not blame.

Exploring the two axes

Exploring the two axes

We will revisit the axes in a few paragraphs, as their importance is such that they need to be explored from a number of directions. Before we do this, however, we need to note an important distinction. We have seen – at length – that policy issues do not bundle around a neat polarity of left and right; and at even greater length that populations do not polarize in this manner either. We should expect to find that there are “left” and “right” ways of occupying the same spot on the space spanned by these axes, and this is exactly what we shall find. This is yet another reason why parties are in such difficulties: not only can they not find a heartland, but they overlap in everything but interpretation on measures of fundamental values.

What is it that remains, therefore, of political differentiation when the ephemera of branding and presentation are forgotten with the convention balloons? Essentially, the two axes, expressed differently and pointing to different styles and balances of intervention. Let us return to these axes.

One group of opinions sees the overall system as a largely benign phenomenon, one which adjusts itself to challenge and which needs minimal intervention. Naturally, the system is a human creation and working for human ends, so it is unnatural and a made thing. This implies at least some governance, but all manner of invisible hands are at work, balancing systems. Intervention is carried out within the compass of the system itself, using it as a tool. For example, sulphur emissions from combustion are undesirable; so use the market mechanism to price and so constrain such pollution.

The opposing interpretation sees the underlying system as essentially dysfunctional, or functioning but in ways which are innately exploitative or destructive. The system needs to be torn down – in extreme interpretations - or blocked from functioning in certain ways. At the very least, it must be tamed. Taming is done in isolated blocks, insofar as the system itself cannot be relied upon to carry change across its internal boundaries. Sulphur emissions, to re-use that example in this new light, are to be banned; but where this causes job losses, subsidies are called for to maintain ‘social justice’.

Readers should note that “the system” can be read to mean the economy, company management and trades unions; institutions and politics - such as extreme political movements, corrupt politicians or an obdurate bureaucracy – or other people in society, such as criminals, fringe groups, “young people today” and anyone else with whom the interlocutor does not agree.

Educated individuals tend to take more of the “systems” view, whilst the least educated tend to view problems in their lives as the product of isolated instances, or malignant agencies. The society in which they live is anyway an overly-abstract concept to this group, who prefer to deal in pragmatic and concrete things such as possessions, family ties and reciprocal agreements. Where these fail, the state is to be the universal solution.

The analogy with attitudes to nature is irresistible. The first group would see natural systems as powerful, and to be harnessed with minimal intervention. The second group have no single perception of nature. Where it is pretty, it is the object of much sentiment. Where it is a problem – where Bambi spreads Lyme disease - then it is to be conquered, or else smashed.

One group sees individuals as the chief arbiter of their fate. They are confronted with challenge and opportunity, and endless tool kit with which they can undertake all manner of positive enterprises if they so choose. There is no single right way and no single set of goals – each must find out what they want and then strive towards it. There are, however, distinctly bad goals – such as crime – and decidedly bad outcomes, where the individual fails. Society has something of a duty to these people, but it is a duty to put them back on track: to heal them if they are sick and unable to help themselves, to educate them if they lack a skill and the means to fill the gap. However, it is also the duty of society to provide a spur to achievement, and an overly-kind environment will not challenge people.

Society should also be careful not to put disincentives in the path of initiative, either through over-regulation, information opacity, cartelisation by the state or private companies, taxation or other means.

The second group believe in two parallel truths.

First, they feel that individual striving is as nothing compared to the context in which an individual lives. If someone is disadvantaged at birth, then they will be at a disadvantage in life. If someone fails during their life, then they should be supported so as to feel comfortable. Social policy should aim for equality of opportunity. In addition, social policy should aim to manage the major determinants of the average life – health and diet, education and insight, employment and pay, entertainment and aspirations – so as to offer the easiest road possible for the least able. Those unable to help themselves – due to individual circumstances or due to collective issues, such as structural change in the economy – must be ‘taken under management’.

Second, it is felt that it is more important that people should feel good about themselves than that they should achieve better performance than others. A few unquestioned achievements does not pay for the lack of self esteem of those who do not achieve. Societies should strive to be comfortable for all their members, not place burdens on these which discomfort them and force them to strive for goals which – for example – lead to better overall economic performance.

There are two kinds of mapping which are supported by these axes. One is to place the political left and right onto them. The other is to map the rather similar attitude clusters which characterise all of the developed societies. As we set out to consider the left and the right, we will begin with this.

The terminology needs to be explained. The Old and New EU consensus refer to the core continental countries – France, Germany, Italy – and the much wider group of Scandinavian, formerly communist and English-speaking countries.

The business consensus reflects the views of commerce and economic issues, both as to how economies do function and as to how they function best. “Best” is laden with assumptions, but implying that fast economic growth and frictionless performance is preferable to the opposite.

The US consensus has already been explored, in the previous section. In the event that times become difficult, substantial fractions of the US population move to the “anxious” consensus. Strikingly, the (old) Europeans tend to react to harder times by reducing trust both in their system and in their fellows: the move is to increase social envelopment and to create yet-stronger interventions into the working of an apparently malign system.

Two things should be noted in respect of this figure.

First, the economic consensus and the various institutional centres of weight do not coincide. It is obvious, although not yet shown, that clusters of individuals will also be scattered all over this figure. There is reason to think that these various forms of disjoint may grow.

Second, consider the following reproduction of the figure. Blue areas represent political patterns which are normally thought of as being “right”, pink areas as those thought of as being “left”. On this basis, the whole of old Europe and the whole of the US drop into the core value version of 'left' and 'right', respectively. "Business" and "Europe" have no point where core values overlap. “Anxious” US opinion is as far as it is possible to get from “new” Europe. And so forth.

Readers may feel that this is an artefact of the way in which the chart has been drawn. If so, they should try to re-draw the chart to their satisfaction. Doing so in any other way is hard to achieve. It is instructive to place individual countries (or political parties) on this chart. Try France, for example, or Britain.

Here, then, is something rather important. The fundamental structures which define Left and Right are not the same in Europe, the US and probably elsewhere. Politics are played out in a circumscribed area which feels as though it spans policy possibilities, but which does not do so. At least one reason why politics feel gutless is that politicians and pollsters have been so effective in reading the public mind that the resulting ‘Hotelling’ process has removed all options from the agenda. We are left with medium dry, flavourless cider always aimed to please the middle ground and actively offend nobody.

Where is this going? The US has its “homeland” brake, and the driver of education and practical experience. These pull in rather different directions. The centre of weight in the US is, however, moving to the left of the diagram, whatever its travels in the vertical dimension. Administrations will be valued for their ability to tune the grand system to deliver smooth and shock-free performance. Trust in individuals and their ability to create opportunities and new options is unlikely to be lessened in the US.

The European dimension is very different. New Europe is likely to learn from the US lesson, and also to take active note of the lack of alternatives in a world in which standards of excellence in economic performance are converging. Old Europe – and particularly the nations with welfare, demographic and budgetary problems, such as France, Germany and Italy – are much more likely to seek a comforting, protected heartland. On this basis, the European enterprise has an extremely difficult set of hurdles to jump if it is to remain anything but a customs union. By no means do the values of Old Europe translate to the new members, to Britain or Ireland. The Scandinavian countries are currently recoiling from the Old heartland values, but not recoiling very hard.

Fundamentally, whilst European nations share some very bad historical experiences, and value social infrastructure above competitive excellence, they share less and less in common as the attractions of other alternative value models prove themselves. It is for the politicians of Europe to create a coherent heartland, or admit to the current fact that what pleases France cannot be directly transplanted to younger nations, or to other nations. If this proves to be so, and if a coherent heartland cannot be created, then the nature of the European enterprise has to be set within powerful political and aspirational limits.

Summary the second: what’s left, what’s right?

Representative democracies need formalism if they are to work, and the one which we have adopted is that of the executive and chamber or chambers of representatives, founded on a system of party-based elections. This worked well in an age of extremes of wealth, poor transport and low standards of general education. It works less well today and, for a wide range of reasons, will work worse in any future in which we retain it.

Nevertheless, parties are hardy perennials; and if they are weeds, they are also gardeners. It is for parties alone to change or eradicate a party-based system, which is hard to envisage outside of a major crisis. We may be stuck with a weakening system until some brave small country shows us the way to something new.

If we are to have parties, then we will be fixed on one of three ways in which political brands can be distinguished for each other in educated, informed societies.

The first of these is around substantive policy differences, either those of style (markets versus intervention, for example) or substance. Differences of substance are likely to be small, comprising shifts in an existing portfolio of spending rather than anything sharply new.

The second form of branding revolves around issues of personality and competence, and particularly the personality of the leader and the style of operation of the executive. If the electorate are ready for a dashing war hero to have adventures overseas, then a brand may appeal to this for as long as the mood persists and the executive performs. This is as fragile a form of positioning as any other aspect of showbiz.

The third form of branding appeals to heartland values and to consumer types. As we have seen, European nations tend to have heartland values which are much more easily polarised than does the US; but the USA has more defined consumer groups than does Europe. Americans permit themselves to be, for example, unembarrassed consumers, patriots or religious enthusiasts in a way that Europeans cannot. Europe blushes at commitment. Consequently, political styles differ in this domain.

In times when political temperatures are low, the first set of issues is unlikely to make much headway, save in the big headline questions of health, crime, taxation and the quality of public infrastructure. However, essentially everyone is “for” most of these, and the only big card to play is tax cuts versus ‘investment’ in public services. This card trick has been attempted so often, and to so little effect, that it has lost its ability to hold attention.

The second and third packages are, therefore, key to general party political advancement. This means that public politics is not about policy but confined to personality and vague appeals to general values. As reputations of elected officials tarnish in the sulphurous air or power, the lasting force in political branding is the field of heartland values.

What is, then, left or right? The answer is innately different in the US and in Europe, for the reasons outlined earlier. Europe, however, has heartland values that are different from those of the US. It has no sense of cultural or political unity at the aggregate level, and where these values are powerful in nation states, they are hedged around with memories of the disastrous consequences of over-enthusiastic nationalism. What Europe has in abundance is a sense of having won “social justice” from the oligarchs, and an anxiety that the ground that has so gained will be lost. Whatever the historical truths behind this, it is a current illusion which stands in the way of effective public finances and services. Although some nations are closer to the US model, and some groups spread across Europe are sympathetic to an economic rationalist cause, the political centre of weight in Old Europe is inevitably far removed from this. New Europe and the offshore islands have a distinct pattern, but are still much more likely to appeal to great institutions for guidance and solutions than is the US population.

The key difference between the US and Europe lies in the scale at which they think in blocks. That is, Europe tends to think in terms of classes and ethnicity, whilst the US tends to focus its identity and social awareness on the nation as a whole, individuals and small communities.

The areas not so scrutinised will, of course, tend to become under-managed. In Europe, the national and supranational big systems (competitiveness, innovation, knowledge, security) tend to get no political air time at all. By contrast, US middle level social systems and corporate controls tend to suffer from neglect or maladministration.

Can political parties regenerate themselves in either of these environments, excluding convenient crisis? The answer is probably that they cannot, or certainly cannot along current lines of left and right. The demographic axis may produce a party of claimancy, opposition to fast change and mercantilism; and may oppose this with a party of youth, wealth generation, efficiency, pluralism and trade. In Britain, for example, one could see a happy marriage between aspects of the old Labour and Conservative parties; and a related wedding of modernisers and internationalists. However, this is little more than re-arrangement of the seating, as the substantive issues remain the same: dull, complex, pre-determined.

Appendix: what next?

What may come to replace parties? One cannot know, but one can identify some important elements. The key issues are that the state needs to change at least as fast as commerce and society are themselves changing; and that the state needs to harness the complexity which the modern economy and society are creating. It is unlikely that tinkering with century-old agencies and forms will deliver this. A range of new things will (may? ought to?) supplement these. Here are three thoughts on how complexity can be harnessed, knowledge deployed towards solutions to complicated problems, understanding created and consent won.

First, existing systems are absurdly centralised. There are issues which need central determination and issues which are subsidiary to this. The principle of subsidiarity, adopted but not enforced in the European Union, nevertheless seems correct. This suggests that choice should be exercised at the most local geographical or operational level possible: essentially, choices should be exercised as close to the stakeholders in those problems as is feasible, given other constraints. To do this requires an elaborate and formal system of level determination, which the civil service tradition of passing the “difficult ones” upwards is not sufficient. Issue planning, issue analysis and communication, issue management and resolution need to be professionalized.

Second, the relationship between the representative chambers is not clear – and invariably bemired in party considerations – and the role of the individual chambers is usually vague. The relationship between these and the executive in not constructive. Further, the connection between the executive and the operational aspects of government, including the policy process, is usually conducted at the wrong level of detail, the wrong time frame and in frankly amateur ways. This occurs because the politicians in charge have other motives – such as their careers, their relations with their peers and the like – which are wholly inappropriate to the task which they have to undertake.

What is needed is, perhaps, one chamber which has a mission to explain and to set in context broad issues to which government has to respond, and one which is more concerned with criticising the executive, managing relations with other tiers of government and the like. The first is responsible for policy integration (and for explaining to the public) and the second with oversight on daily affairs, the local and the international. Each needs permission from the other. The executive are responsible to both, but in different ways reflecting these roles. At least some of the people – such as regulators – who the executive task should be seated in the “policy” chamber, and their mandate as representatives should depend on their track record and their stakeholders.

Third, the policy process is almost universally weak. Ideas are generated by a few inexpert heads and then spun for public consumption. Practically, the professional running of public services creates huge amounts of expertise. Harnessing this in the policy process is essential, perhaps through the “policy” chamber mentioned above. Large organisations tend to resist change, communicate badly both internally and amongst themselves. This needs to be changed.

Such processes always look like organisational loops, where information flows in two directions and choices are informed by what has already been learned. Once ideas are flowing in this way, options for improvement will emerge, just as they do in companies. It is at this point that better political governance and stakeholder interactions should take a hold. The consequence is a two-way flow, with policy options being presented to a “board” for selection, and enforced change dynamics flowing down from an informed governance. Some bits of his happen in some countries, but nowhere is it done well.

Where are parties in this? Diluted, struggling, increasing irrelevant. The party system will remain strong in the simpler economies, but if it does so in the complex ones, it will be for unhealthy reasons and against the needs of the times.

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