Politics isn’t a spectrum, it’s triangular

by | 7 Jan 2022

To understand the world we don't need to give up on seeing the difference between right and left, we just need to add another reference point

To start the year I want to explain one of the key ways that I look at politics (wherever I look at it) because I think it will be helpful in understanding some of what I want to write in the near future. I want to explain why I don’t think we can understand what is ahead through a simple left/right analysis.

You will be very aware of the basic framework where there is a left that wants to redistribute and protect civil liberties, a right that wants to protect property and individual liberties and a centre which is half way between the two. It is this last point that causes all the problems – because what we call ‘centrism’ is absolutely not ‘a bit left, a bit right’.

Then again, the left is not all left or only one kind of left and neither is the right. It’s just too simplistic a framework to be useful. So what would be more useful?

It really starts with that question of ‘what is centrism?’. We think we know but if we try and describe it as a midway point between left and right and then try and describe that without reference to what it isn’t (i.e. properly left or properly right) we quickly see the weakness.

So what is centrism? What are its primary characteristics? The words that we usually reach for are things like ‘moderate’ or ‘meritocratic’ or ‘technocratic’. But centrism is not only not in the centre, it is regularly anything but moderate (austerity was a cross-party moderate position with Labour’s centrists backing it just like the Tories with only minor questions of degree separating them).

God knows centrism isn’t meritocratic given that centrists almost without exception always fail upwards and centrism shuts out a lot of very talented people.

Where we reach much firmer ground is in describing centrism as technocratic, a believe system which assumes there is a technical set of ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ and that the primary purpose of society is to use that technical knowledge to ‘do what needs to be done’.

But what is the underpinning of that technical set of ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’? It is here that the fundamental characteristic of centrism emerges – that technical guide is defined by the powerful because the powerful are powerful for a reason (the theory goes).

In fact what centrists believe above all things is that people should ‘know their place’. If you’re a bog-standard punter your place is to vote when told and otherwise obey the rules. If you’re one of the powerful it is accepted that your place is sometimes to break the rules because it is necessary to the project.

Which is to say centrism has nothing to do with being half way between right and left and has much more to do with fundamental belief in hierarchy and the imposition of stability and order on others. You always know its centrism when the key phrases are things like ‘follow the rules’, ‘stability first’, ‘do what works’ and ‘there is no alternative’.

‘Centrism’ has nothing to do with being half way between right and left and has much more to do with fundamental belief in hierarchy and the imposition of stability and order on others

What this in turn does is reveal that no-one isn’t a bit ‘centrist’ (most of us recognise that without rules things fall apart). And when you realise that you also realise that ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’ aren’t things you are but things you do. None of us isn’t all of them to some degree.

It’s not a political spectrum it’s a political triangle with three points between which we position ourselves. Each of these points represents a view of how social progress is achieved.

At the bottom left is what we’d usually call ‘left’. That philosophy of progress is based on the concept of cooperation and its practical manifestation is ‘sharing’. This is the belief that ‘to build more we must share more’, both in terms or resources and power.

At the bottom right is what we’d usually call ‘right’. That philosophy of progress is based on the concept of ‘competition’ (or conflict) and it’s practical manifestation is ‘win or lose’. This is the believe that conflict or competition reveals ‘who and what is best’ and so maximising competition maximises successful outcomes.

And at the top of our triangle is the philosophy which currently calls itself ‘centrism’. That philosophy of change is based on the concept of ‘order’ and its practical manifestation is to ‘obey’. This is the belief that things are as they are for a reason and only minor changes are either possible or desirable at any one time.

Let me be absolutely clear, I’ve never met anyone who does not believe that all three of the points on this triangle are necessary for social change. The right loves cooperation when it comes to taxing people to form a military, the left recognises that there is such a thing as a ‘bad idea’ and they need to fail and everyone knows that there needs to be some kind of order to society.

The point is all about the balance of these things. Everyone exists somewhere in this triangle and it is that positioning that we need to understand.

Let me give some examples. Monarchy is centrism every bit as much as meritocracy, with the difference being only about how much cooperation is necessary to create consent for meritocracy or how much conflict is necessary to impose monarchy by force. But both are dominantly order-based belief systems – what you see out your window is the result of a natural order (apparently).

But there is a strong case to be made that Stalinism also has a lot more to do with imposing order and obedience than with cooperation and sharing (most certainly of power) and actually relied on a large amount of conflict. So yes, I’m arguing that Stalin was basically an authoritarian centrist.

I’d make the same argument of the British Empire. This was clearly not an entirely ideology-free enterprise (the skin colour of the populations of the nations colonised and the monarchical underpinning are not incidental). But fundamentally the British Emprise was a cynical (and brutal) bureaucracy which was seen as the most efficient way to enrich its own powerful players.

The welfare state is very clearly cooperation based, but hardly lacks its own reliance on bureaucracy and order. Likewise the neoliberals and the libertarians are very clearly heavily competition and conflict based but equally expect adherence to the ‘rule of law’.

This counterrevolution is shading everything you see in the world, a naked attempt to restore the status quo ante of the powerful in full control with no challenge to their power

You can do this with any political figure or movement – though it is very much an art rather than a science. None of us are going to disagree that Blair is primarily a centrist (when Blair offers paid PR advice to a murderous autocrat his pitch is ‘say stability before reform’) but what about the Latin American leftist leaders of the 2000s? More about order and suppression or more about sharing? (I clearly take the latter position but that is hardly unchallenged).

Once you free yourself from trying to work out how left or right something or someone is and start looking at it in these terms it becomes much easier to make sense of what is going on.

For example, the current cry of ‘listen to the experts’ needs to be seen not as a statement of fact but as a centrist ideology. They absolutely do not mean listen to all the experts (say those on poverty or climate crisis) but only the experts they themselves select. It’s a form of ‘know your place’.

(Again, that couldn’t be further from saying ‘don’t listen to experts’, just that that is only the starting point.)

The technocratic order-based elitism of the last 30 years (Thatcher was clearly right wing but once she created her new reality the centrists protected it with all their energy) failed badly. Really badly – the list is too long but climate change, massive inequality and rampant corporate fraud are at the top. So there was anger towards and a challenge to the centrists, Farage or Trump at one side, Sanders or Corbyn at the other.

What we are living through is the centrist counterrevolution (though following the above argument all centrism is basically a permanent counterrevolution). The powerful (in politics, in business, in the media, in the legal establishment) put aside their differences to unite in restoring order. Corbyn was destroyed so Mandelson could take over again, Brexit was reluctantly embraced to ensure that it was the establishment which ‘took back control’.

This counterrevolution is shading everything you see in the world, a naked attempt to restore the status quo ante of the powerful in full control with no challenge to their power. It’s not ‘conservative’ in that things must change to stay the same. But it’s certainly winning.

My firm belief is that it is much easier to understand everything from Sturgeon’s all-consuming authoritarian streak to Keir Starmer’s obsequious crawling to Europe’s turmoil to American dysfunction to identity politics (if it’s so ‘left’, how come the centrists embrace it so hard?) to Covid policy to the ‘Don’t Look Up’ approach to climate change if we stop seeing the world only as a battle between a right and a left.

In fact it is a battle between those who wish to protect the status quo and those who want to change it, with the people who want to change it believing that should be done in different ways. And the battle lines aren’t clearly drawn – the centrists routinely pretend to be either left or right because no-one really wants to say ‘leave my power alone pleb’ (or at least not too loudly).

I have been using this triangular model of understanding the world for a long time now. It has helped me greatly. I hope it may help explain some of the arguments I want to put forward about the way forward over the coming months.

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