A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Liberals, Conservatives, and Progressives, Oh My! #2: On Why the Left/Right Continuum Is Incoherent

"Ever since the French Revolution, politics has been seen in terms of a left-right spectrum. The further Left you go (it is assumed), the more you will favour forms constricting and aristocratic authority, loose structures, plenty of voting about everything and ultimately anarchy. The further Right you go (it is equally assumed), the more you will want a controlling government, producing law and order, proper and firm justice, plenty of people to tell you what to do and ultimately dictatorship.

Of course, pressed too far this doesn't work. When a left-wing government gets into power it quickly passes all kinds of laws to tell people very precisely what they may and may not do. When a right-wing government gets into power they may very well be under pressure to allow for a good measure of 'freedom' for the business community at least, and may want to reject 'big government', which often means government by interfering bureaucrats. Life is never quite as simple as we think" (N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 2, p. 166).

This quote from Tom Wright, opens as his commentary on Acts 23:1-11 where St. Paul is standing before an inquiry of the Sanhedrin and divides the council by appealing to his belief in the resurrection. Wright notes that New Testament scholars have tended to approach this passage as a right/left issue (more left he says since most scholars lean left), but Wright reminds us that this is a first-century text and so interpreting the passage in this way is not that simple.

It was my intention in this second post to speak about why the left/right continuum has become so normative for modern Christians, but I realize that before I venture into that quagmire, I need to address how the left/right continuum even came to be and why it is so problematic in general. In this post I am leaning most heavily on Crispin Sartwell's excellent essay, "The Left-Right Political Spectrum Is Bogus." Sartwell clarifies Wright's reference to the French Revolution:
Transcending partisanship is going to require what seems beyond the capacities of either side: thinking about the left-right spectrum rather than from it. The terminology arose in revolutionary France in 1789, where it referred to the seating of royalists and anti-royalists in the Assembly. It is plausible to think of the concept (if not the vocabulary) as emerging in pre-revolutionary figures such as Rousseau and Burke. The Oxford English Dictionary's first citation of "left" and "right" used in the political sense in English is in Thomas Carlyle's French Revolution in 1837, but the idea only crystallized fully with the emergence and under the aegis of Marxism, in the middle of the 19th century. It was not fully current in English-speaking countries until early in the 20th.
This is important because it means that the left/right way of looking at the world has not always been the way people have looked at the world, which one would not know by talking to many people on both sides who seem to view the left/right spectrum as essentially ontological. Of course, even if one acknowledges that the left/right continuum is context dependent, that does not necessarily mean that it is incoherent. Sartwell insists otherwise. "The arrangement of positions along the left-right axis-- progressive to reactionary, or conservative to liberal, communist to fascist, socialist to capitalist, or Democrat to Republican-- is conceptually confused, ideologically tendentious, and historically contingent. And any position anywhere along it is infested by contradictions."

Sartwell gives plenty of examples of why the left/right axis does not work, and I encourage everyone to read his piece before passing judgment on his argument. There is not enough space to go through his examples, but one extended quote will suffice.
The left-right spectrum is often characterized in terms of two extreme poles. One way to see that this is incoherent is that these poles can be defined in mutually incompatible ways. It’s awfully strange that Rand Paul and John McCain belong to the same political party and are generally held to be on the same end of the political spectrum. I'd say they each disagree more profoundly and substantially with the other than either disagrees with Barack Obama, for example. Some of the most historically salient "right-wing" movements are monarchism, fascism, fundamentalism, and libertarianism, which have nothing in common except that they all have reasons to oppose Marxist communism, and vice versa. Yet they also all have similar reasons to oppose one another. Toss in David Brooks Burkeans, security-state neocons, and so on, and you have a miscellany of unrelated positions.
The left pole, meanwhile, could be a stateless society of barter and localism; or a world of equality in which people are not subordinated by race, gender, and sexuality; or a pervasive welfare state; or a Khmer Rouge reeducation regime. The Nazi Party, Catholic Church, hereditary aristocracy, Ayn Rand capitalists, and redneck gun enthusiasts are all on the same side of the left-right spectrum. So are hacktivists, food-stamp officials, anti-globalization activists, anarcho-primitivists, and advocates of a world government. It would be hard to come up with a less coherent or less useful way of thinking about politics.
If Sartwell is right that the left/right spectrum is an incoherent way of thinking about politics (given our current state of dysfunctional government do we really wish to disagree?), I insist that it is also an incoherent way for Christians to think about theology and ethics. Why is it that for many Christians the liberal/conservative spectrum is of more significance than (for example) the Wesleyan/Calvinist axis? (There are other spectrums one can utilize in theological reflection.) Indeed, why is it that many Wesleyans and Calvinists view the Wesleyan and Calvinist traditions through the lens of the liberal/conservative spectrum, which I suggest distorts both? I am too often astounded (even though I no longer should be) by those trying to squeeze their Wesleyanism into their liberal or conservative mindset, putting Wesley in servitude to liberalism or conservatism. Why are the latter categories more determinative than the former for too many in the church?

That is the subject of my next post.
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Liberals, Conservatives, and Progressives, Oh My! #1: The Problem with the Left/Right Continuum


Richard H said...

The link to the Sartwell essay didn't work.

Allan R. Bevere said...


It's working now.