24 April 2019

My Political Compass

As with other recent writing, this is an idea that is going to be a long read drawn out over several essays. In this essay, to start with, I want to talk about political vocabulary and how impoverished it has become, about how we can no longer describe the politics of our time with the vocabulary of another.

One of the central themes of my writing for some years now has been to emphasise the social and prosocial nature of humanity;  we live in groups and are adapted to and oriented towards our group in positive ways. I think I probably owe this to Lynn Margulis as much as anyone. It was reading her books that made me think about evolution in terms of symbiosis, cooperation, and communities. This was augmented by the work of Robin Dunbar on human social groups, by Jane Goodall's book In the Shadow of Man on the chimps at Gombe Stream National Park and, most recently, by Frans de Waal's work on emotions and social behaviour in primates. What all of these scientists have in common is that they highlight the social and prosocial aspects of social primates. They also see humans as part of a continuum of social mammals. 

I'm explicitly a fan of the Enlightenment, but I think the Enlightenment has also left us with a toxic legacy. We could sum this up in a single idea that human individuals are selfish. By this we mean that humans primarily, overridingly, pursue their individual interests without reference to family or community. This idea emerges from multiple sources, but generally speaking it has been the mainstream view since the time of Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832), Adam Smith  (1723-1790), and the next generation of British intellectuals such as John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873). We also have to keep in mind the role of religious narratives which depict humanity as "fallen". People are no good. 

The idea of a flawed and innately bad humanity has been part of the European psyche for at least 1500 years. However, scientists who study humans tell us that this characterisation is not even wrong. It is orthogonal to reality. Humans are certainly capable of acting selfishly and people who do seem to wield a disproportionate amount of power in the world, but what science shows is that we are fundamentally generous, empathic, and prosocial. There is a simple fact to keep in mind. We are social mammals. Like other social animals we evolved to live in small communities tied together by strong ties of mutual obligation forged from empathy and reciprocity. 

The other toxic legacy is that men are rational. Although this idea has now expanded to include women, it's apparent that it has not yet been fully internalised as women are routinely discriminated against. People with dark skin also were (and sometimes still are) thought of as being incapable of rationality. This idea of rationality is tied, in Liberalism, to the exercise of moral judgement and to notions of free will. And again this view is orthogonal to reality. The Enlightenment thinkers completely misunderstood reason, reasoning, and rationality. They misunderstood decision making. They misunderstood the idea of free will. 

I absolutely reject these exclusions. The exclusion of classes of people from the right to liberty is the most obvious flaw of Liberalism, because in itself it is irrational. It's quite obvious that with equal opportunities most differences that are related to gender or skin tone disappear. Liberties ought to be universal, not dependent on luck or hereditary privilege.

I wish to question, to examine, to ultimately reject and replace the whole current basis for how the children of the Enlightenment understand themselves. Crazy? Probably. Underqualified? Certainly. No one cares what I think? On the whole, sure. So why bother?

I can think and write and not much else. Sometimes things seem so clear and also so important that I cannot help but sit down at my computer, push through the pain, and write it all down. I'm not famous or influential and never will be. But I look at what public intellectuals who have the attention of the worlds are writing and, on one hand, I'm frustrated by the poor standards of their thinking and on the other I just feel that most of the time they are wrong. I think I can do better, so I have to try.

I will start with talking about the political language of the day. So many of the terms we use have become pejorative in the mouths of those who hold opposing views: liberal, conservative, left, right, socialist, neoliberal, and so on. I just sort of realised one day that I understood some of what was going on but that I could understand most of the words being used. There was a serious disconnect. For example, I was struck early on in my political awakening by the fact there is nothing very liberal about Neoliberalism. But this reflected a poor understanding of Liberalism. Neoliberalism is in fact Neoclassical Liberalism. It is liberal through and through. And so this series of essays is me trying to sort out what I think in terms that make better sense than what I read in the newspapers or hear in public discourse.

I didn't really start paying close attention to politics until I moved to the UK and discovered the far-right Conservative party had taken power and with that they had a good deal of control over my life and used it in a punitive way. 

Finding my Political Compass

Political Compass is a very significant resource for understanding ourselves and how our worldviews work. If you have not done their test and got your result, then I highly recommend that you stop reading now and do so. It will help.

The folks at PC became dissatisfied with the traditional division of politics into left and right. It seemed to lack nuance. The traditional right was conservative and patrician (centralising and controlling) while the traditional left was progressive and paternalistic (centralising and controlling). But this leaves out many coherent alternative political positions and ignores the obvious similarities between the traditions.

For example, anarchism has long been a political philosophy which espouses voluntary, decentralised, collectivism. The best the traditional left/right divide can do is say that this is far left but the most communist states in reality are highly controlling if not actually totalitarian. We can't accurately say that anarchism, socialism, and communism are all varieties of the same type of political philosophy. But the groups we call left-wing don't have much in common; and if some of the left are concerned with liberty and some with control then "left" seems to have lost any meaning. 

On the other end of the scale the mainstream political parties of most countries espouse free markets but increasingly surveil their citizens and curtail civil liberties. The UK has the highest rate of installation of CCTV cameras in the world. If you commit a crime anywhere, chances are you are on Candid Camera. But libertarians, especially the extreme kinds that we find in the finance industry, are also of the right. Meanwhile NeoNazi groups are called far right. But the Nazis combined a certain amount of privatisation with a centralised state, which really makes them economic centrists. I don't mean to be insensitive, but the Nazis also nationalised the wealth of certain citizens. Which is what we think of as a hard left economic policy. What do NeoNazis and Alan Greenspan have in common? 

You will see out there on the internet the argument that National Socialism is a form of socialism. But this is only true to the extent that the Democratic Republic of North Korea is democratic. By "socialism", Hitler meant that the individual should subjugate themselves to the state. This was an idea he got from German Idealist philosophers. And if they would not subjugate themselves, then the state would happily do violence to them. But then all states use violence in some form. 

So PC decided that we need at least two axes. On the horizontal axis we have economic policy. On the left is the highly centralised, planned economy. On the right the laissez-faire economy with small government and free trade. On the vertical axis we have social policies. At the bottom is the atomised society in which the individual makes all their own decisions and at the top the authoritarian society in which the state makes all our decisions for us. It looks like this diagram from the PC website:

I'm not entirely in agreement with the labels here, so let me outline how I would label the diagram. But first let me define some terms:
  • authoritarianism is a form of government in which the executive has very strong powers, though there is still a constitution and an elected parliament. Civil liberties are often curtailed. An example would be the USA in Donald Trump's presidency. 
  • dictatorship in which the executive rules directly. There may be a parliament but it has few powers. Civil liberties are usually suppressed. 
  • Absolutism which involves a hereditary ruler with unlimited power. An example being North Korea under Kim Jong-un.
I'll go around the diagram giving examples of representative ideas and those who held or promoted them.

At top-left we have Stalin, a left-wing authoritarian. Soviet Russia was a highly centralised state, with state ownership of more or less everything, and a centrally planned economy, that denied civil liberties and terrorised its own citizens. Stalin did not have unlimited powers, but neither the deputies nor the army could stop him doing what he wanted. North Korea is really off the chart here because it is beyond authoritarian and into absolutist territory.

At top centre are the Nazis. Under Hitler some state industries were privatised (right-wing), he professed a desire that Germany be self-sufficient (left-wing) and tariffs were imposed on imports (left-wing). He also created a centralised state (left-wing). So despite the popular narratives about the Nazis, they were economic centrists, preferring a mix of policies from the left and right. Where Hitler was extreme was in authoritarianism. He saw "socialism" as people serving the needs of the state. And of course he turned Germany into a war machine. Hitler was a centrist-authoritarian. I don't mean to be histrionic, but this is also where we would place the current US President, although I think the USA is moderately less authoritarian as the legislative and judicial branches of government (not to mention his own staffers) are acting to curtail Trump's attempts to exercise absolute power (as the Founding Fathers hoped they would).

And at the top-right are right-wing authoritarians, who advocate a decentralised state or free market economy where no one tells business to stop polluting and causing climate change that will kill millions, but millions of people are put in jail for smoking a little weed. Control of the economy was more or less abandoned by the government except for attempts to control the money supply (monetarism). Thatcher and Reagan are the classic examples. Sometimes also called NeoConservatism, although since Thatcher undertook a massive program of reform she's not really a conservative by the conventional definition. Under these regimes, public assets were sold off in the UK; most public enterprises were privatised, except for some parts of education and the National Health System (which continues to be so wildly popular that no politician can afford to be openly against it); and labour unions were prevented from being effective by isolating them from each other and placing limitations on actions they could take. The classic right-wing strategy is divide and conquer.

On the far-right centre we have the current UK government which wants free markets for business, allows same-sex marriage, but locks people up for using drugs, and sees introducing choices for consumers as an ideal. A choice of schools and health care, for example, is the justification for the creeping privatisation of education and health (which even Thatcher did not consider). Some civil liberties have been extended, such as same-sex marriage and civil partnerships. but generally liberty has been curtailed. For example, police have new and extensive stop and search powers as well as some very extensive powers under terrorism laws.  

At the bottom left is what most people associate with libertarianism, i.e., the right-wing libertarians. In this view, the government cannot make economic policy, this is left to the markets; nor can they impose on citizens civil liberties. If we have government at all then it is limited to roles such as organising the defence forces. This is a theoretical position really only held by a few extremist economists such as Milton Friedman, some survivalists, and homegrown white-supremacist terrorists such as the mongrel Australian who shot and killed 50 people in Christchurch, New Zealand. Bitcoin and other so-called crypto-currencies are a manifestation of this ideology and mainly used for buying goods and services that are illegal via the dark web. This corner is very difficult to distinguish from anarchism.

I will return to the link between libertarianism and white supremacists in the future.

The bottom centre is a mixed state that I cannot think a real world example of. It would be a situation in which the government leaves decisions to individuals but pursues some centralised functions. The trouble is that centralisation of functions tends to mean that the government dictates access to those functions and thus moves north of libertarianism. In practice... 

The bottom left hand corner is where I would place anarchism as a socio-political theory: left-wing libertarians or Libertarian socialists. Voluntary collectivism, all decisions made by individuals or at least at a local level. By the way, we think of anarchy as "chaos" because early European Anarchists decided that assassinating heads of state would be a good way to demonstrate their rejection of the politics of the day. One of them managed, more or less by accident, to shoot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and set off World War I. 

And finally at the far-left middle is communism in which government is imposed, but it is collectivist and workers own the means of production. This is close to what Marx envisaged, but again I don't think there are examples of this in practice, at least not on a state scale.

Politics in Real Life

In real life there are few political parties or governments that are at the extremes, though some individual politicians stake out more marginal positions. I want to illustrate this with examples from the UK and USA. The diagrams below represent how Political Compass understood the political positions at recent elections. The first shows UK political parties at the time of the 2017 election. 

In the UK, the Conservative Party (Tories) are on the far-right (~8.5/10). Within the Tories are some very far right MPs who advocate neoclassical liberalism: free market economy but with corporations having the rights of individuals.

UKIP, a party formed on the premise of dragging the UK out of Europe and often characterised as right-wing, is to the left of the Conservative Party (~7.5/10). The German Alternative für Deutschland party is often characterised as far-right but, in fact, in another diagram, we see that like the Nazi's who inspre them, the AfD are economically center-right. Their extremism is in their Nationalism and Xenophobia, which is not covered by this diagram at all. These are nothing to do with the political right. If you look at definitions of fascism, then Mao's China, supposedly on the far-left, easily qualifies. 

Because we don't distinguish right-wing economics (free markets, small government, etc) from nationalism or authoritarianism, we cannot have a sensible discussion about the politics of our day. 

Between ca 1997-2010 the UK Labour party, an avowedly socialist party, took an dramatic lurch to the right economically and tried to combine both liberal economics (free markets and low taxation) and liberal social policies (government helping hands).

The result of Neoliberalism and the deregulation of the finance industry, which no one really talks about, was the largest accumulation of private sector debt in history. Private debt soared to 500% of GDP. Then the subprime mortgage scam hit the fan and all that debt suddenly started defaulting, leaving the banks with cashflow problems and facing bankruptcy. Government stepped in and spent £1.5 trillion (= 100% of GDP) nationalising three banks so that the whole finance sector did not collapse. Something similar happened all over the world, even where countries that had had very low government debt before 2007, like Spain, suddenly had to borrow vast amounts. Then, high government debt was blamed for the problem in a bizarre a post hoc fallacy. What happened was that we turned finance into a free market with no controls or oversight and it rapidly descended into criminal activity on a vast scale. Some investigations are still pending because prosecutors don't have the resources.

When I get more into the history of liberalism in future essays, we will see that this modern breakdown caused by so-called "free markets" was entirely predictable. We have been here before. 

Note that the Green Party are only 3.5 left - we'd have to say center-left moderate-libertarian. And that mainly because they want to impose environmental controls on business to stop them polluting the air, water, and land with toxic and carcinogenic compounds that kill and maim hundreds of thousands of people each year. Tens of thousands die from air pollution in the UK alone. If 10 people die from a new party drug there are outraged editorials across the press. Cities with illegal and dangerous levels of air pollution seem killing 90-100 people every day seem to be fine.

Now look at the USA at the time of the 2016 election:

Corruption allegations notwithstanding, there are some striking things here. Firstly, Hillary Clinton is clearly to the right of Donald Trump. That's right, Clinton was more right-wing than Trump. Clinton is, like most presidents in recent times, a Neoliberal. Trump was moderately right wing, but since the election he has lurched violently to the left by introducing protectionism, a classic hard left policy. This is why we place him with Hitler - he's another centre-right authoritarian.

In terms of this discussion the other thing that distinguishes the two candidates is that Trump is significantly more authoritarian than Clinton. Trump wanted government to have more say over people's lives and to take decisions away from them.

But the criticism that you hear of Clinton was that she was a leftist or "a liberal". Ironically, she is only a liberal in the economic sense of being in favour of free markets. Socially she is still an authoritarian. I sometimes see people saying that the left have a lot to answer for in the USA. But there have never been any leftists in the White House in modern times. Bill Clinton campaigned center-right, but then adopted Alan Greenspan as his Secretary of the Treasury. Greenspan was famously a direct disciples of the dangerous extremist Ayn Rand who advocated self-interest above all. She made Adam Smith look like a bleeding heart liberal.

Of course Bernie Sanders does describe himself as a socialist, which you would think puts him on the left of the midline. But as PC say:
"It remains a mystery to us why Sanders chose to describe himself — incorrectly — as a socialist, and in America of all countries. His position is that of a mainstream social democrat... In this most paradox-packed electoral circus, some of Trump’s professed economic positions are actually closer to Bernie’s than to Hillary’s." 
And in the end, Sanders endorsed Clinton, the most right-wing candidate on the ballet. The US Green Party is a left of centre moderately libertarian group. The Greens are more libertarian than either the Republicans or the Democrats. As with the UK their "leftness" is mainly because want to stop degradation of the environment. Pollution can be seen to restrict an individual's constitutional right to life, for example, since it kills people. So it could well be seen as a libertarian issue. But Americans vote for the polluters and howl if anyone tries to stop them polluting. 

Buddhist Politics?

We sometimes see trendy academics and intellectuals touting something they call "Buddhist Economics". To me this is completely bogus. Firstly, when you read these tracts they contain almost no economic thinking and what economic thinking they do manage all seems to happen on the micro-level. It's all about consuming less and thinking small. It's not about macroeconomics. They have nothing to say about fiscal or monetary policy. They don't have a position on whether to aim for full employment or low inflation. They do not advocate a particular role for central banks or have a theory of money creation. In short, they know almost nothing about political economics and have no contribution to make to the subject.

There is an element of gaslighting about this focus on consumerism. Oil companies, especially, have tried to promote this idea that climate change is caused by consumerism and that it's up to individuals to change their habits. It draws attention away from the real culprits in climate change. The world currently burns 93 million barrels of oil per day and that figure goes up day by day. But 80% of greenhouse gases are from industry and government. And, anyway, they have arranged it so that the alternatives are much more expensive and then driven down wages so that we cannot afford to change. 

This focus on the individual is characteristic of liberalism. Socialists seek collectivist solutions to social ills. I want to tackle this at some point, but it's a huge subject. Here I just want to make a few remarks about what Buddhism or Buddhists might contribute to this discussion. 

I have noted many times now that when we look at nominally Buddhist countries they mostly seem to have abhorrent forms of government. They lean towards dictatorship and militarism. They have nothing to teach anyone about  democracy, for example. There are two social models that pervade Buddhist ideologies: firstly, the guru/chela relationship which is a master/servant situation. This can hardly be appropriate in the modern world. Indeed, I don't know anyone who takes this seriously on a personal level, let alone as a guide to politics. 

And then there is the monastic Sangha. In practice, the Sangha ought to work on consensus, with everyone having a say, but with the acknowledgement of a hierarchy of experience. This seems like an admirable aim. But in practice these Buddhist religious organisations are deeply hierarchical, oppressive towards women and minorities, exclusive and elitist, and a burden on the people. Monks are parasites nine times out of ten. That figure drops amongst "Western" monks. Still, they are, on the whole, deeply conservative religieux who promote surveillance on the thoughts and emotions as the way to promote good society. I deal with this more in the next essay.

So I don't see that Buddhism in its traditional forms has much to offer. Where Buddhists make individual contributions that break this mould, what they talk about, as long since observed by David Chapman, is the post-war social democratic consensus with some Green politics thrown in (Buddhists are Bernie Sanders - about the same age as well). Buddhists don't have a political position of their own. That said, I have seen Buddhist advocate all kinds of political  positions from left to right and top to bottom. As with most things, there isn't a coherent Buddhist politics because Buddhism is not a coherent worldview: it is a highly pluralistic set of worldviews which are frequently mutually exclusive. 


I should note that I agree that consumerism is a bad thing. But it can't be solved by individuals, at least not alone. There is a vast system dedicated to creating and sustaining consumerism and to deal with it we have to change that system. 

In order to change the system we have to first understand the worldview behind it. We have to understand and, at least to some extent, to empathise with that worldview. We at least have to understand why it appeals to so many people when it is so obviously harmful to them. This is also my approach to understanding religion and the persistence of supernatural beliefs.

In fact, this apparent paradox of adopting beliefs that seem broadly harmful leads us into the heart of the matter. We are expected to be rational in the classical sense, but we are not. No one is. That view of humanity, which has stood for millennia, is fundamentally wrong and yet it is a cornerstone of our worldview. Trying to understand how we actually make decisions and choices is very helpful in trying to rebuild the cathedral of self-knowledge on the species level. This has been a major theme in my writing over the last ten years. 

Similarly, consumerism is not an isolated phenomenon. It accompanies the continuing atomisation of society and the breakdown of communities and support mechanism. As social animals we now routinely live in isolation with just a small group of friends, but surrounded by thousands or millions or strangers to whom we have no social connection and feel no social obligation. Can there be a social contract under these conditions? Without a sense of belonging a social primate suffers an unbearable pain and this is just one reason that nationalism keeps coming up. 

A small group of people, over all recorded time there are probably only a few hundred of them, have exploited humanity's weaknesses, primarily through the maxim of divide and conquer. And they have duly conquered us. The really vile trick is to make us believe that it is in our best interests to be conquered and remain subjugated. 

To this end I'm thinking a lot about Liberalism at the moment -- when I'm not watching the Extinction Rebellion in London and around the world. I agree with both their aims and their methods. But they also highlight, for me at least, a deeper failure of our intelligentsia to help us understand the world and our place in it. Scientists provide useful facts but fail to adequately contextualise them and show how they affect our belief systems; while philosophers seem mainly concerned with picayune details of abstractions and trying to undermine the very idea of objectivity. 


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