I am no longer sure where I fit upon the political spectrum anymore.
I wish I could be as righteously anarchic as some of my Libertarian friends, but I like the rule of law too much. I am also known to display certain hippyish tendencies that preclude the possibility of ever being seriously considered a conservative.
In fact, I’m not sure I have ever firmly defined myself as either ‘right’ or ‘left’. I suppose I’ve always entertained myself with the (admittedly, pretentious) notion that I’m more interested in ideas than political gangs. And, believe me, political discourse is dominated by a gang mentality.
I have often seen perfectly civil discussions (inevitably) descend into shouting matches between those who self-identify as either left or right-wing who view each other as evil. Many a main course has been consumed amidst icy silences, tightly clasped cutlery, and dagger-like glances, when these two factions meet.
This unhappy dynamic is replicated in public discourse. I’m not so sure, but I think you may be in the desert of ideas when your best response to an opponent is: “You’re stupid”, à la George Monbiot. Without a doubt, there will be those who see this as confirmation of my own right-wing tendencies; in turn, I could not ask for better affirmation of the point I am trying to make.
In order to find fault with Monbiot’s line of reasoning, do I need to inhabit the opposing pole of political space? Does it also mean that I don’t agree with other things he may have said? For the more subtly minded, this point will seem either trivial or obvious, but for those who apply the broad- brush strokes of ideology, it is less clear.
It’s not always so easy to challenge the mushy contentment of the tribe’s ‘consensus.’ A notable example of this is the late Christopher Hitchens’ very public falling out with the British Left after voicing his support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Along with others, such as Nick Cohen, who dared to suppose that George Bush might be something other than a hopeless buffoon, he was called a ‘traitor’, a ‘neo-con’, a ‘hypocrite’, a ‘complete and utter b*****d’, ‘the devil incarnate’, and other more colourful, exclamatory expletives.
Yet through it all, both Hitchens and Cohen, felt they were standing up for the values of the Left, and it was the others who had lost their way.
What this demonstrates is that political space, or rather, the language of political space can and does shift. Tony Blair too was accused of betraying the values of the British Labour Party with the invasion of Iraq. Although it would seem that he had begun to test those boundaries long before in his quest to make the Labour Party electable again. The old British Labour Party underwent a complete transformation under the guidance of Blair and his newfangled ‘Third Way’. Clause IV of the party’s constitution was promptly revised, the favour of the private sector was lovingly courted, and Blair himself even dared admit that he admired Margaret Thatcher.
A transformation indeed! And it worked. The Labour Party under Tony Blair won three consecutive election victories. They also presided over the worst financial crisis since the 1929 stock market crash. Failing to regulate is not something the Labour party of old would have been accused of.
Believe me, I say none of this in an accusatory sense. It is more of an observation that perhaps even the staunchest ‘man of the left’ (or right) may have lost sight of how such a stance may have changed over the years, or how easily it is manipulated by wily politicians.
Personal change over a lifetime is a good thing anyway. I would encourage it. Otherwise we too easily become prisoners of our own convictions. Keep thinking I say. As long as it is you that is doing the thinking of course.
And perhaps we all have far more in common than we actually realize.
For instance: I’ll take egalitarianism over hierarchy, ability over authority, and freedom over restraint any day. But could these preferences be placed within any one particular paradigm? They seem present all along the political spectrum? Most reasonable people abhor authoritarianism and dictatorship, irrespective of political affiliation.
Oh yes, reasonableness. Another concept entirely.
And let’s not get too nicey nice, as old Hitch (the hero of this piece) would say whenever real differences were glossed over at the end of a debate: “You can’t build a bridge to the middle and you’d be a fool to try. The dialectic is the only way you’re ever going to learn anything.”
After all a shift in perspective does not imply an absence of belief in anything, but a move towards something else. Just because a position cannot be neatly situated within the prejudices of either the right or the left does not mean that it inhabits ‘non-space’ as it were.
An easy mistake to make in a world where if one is not black, then one must be white, with very little allowance for grey.
The real dialectical process is perhaps not even with others, but mostly with yourself.
I used to think such mutability signified weakness or confusion, but perhaps it points to sharper clarity of focus, and strength: the strength to stand alone. The fundamentalist needs the reassurance of his fanaticism, but wisdom knows that no such certainty really exists.