Mapping the Spectrum: Problems we Face

Written and re-written, drafted and re-drafted, and ultimately repurposed, this is my essay on the various ways commentators have tried to sort out the chaos of political systems, and why they have not succeeded. It was as much my own attempt to understand as it was a lesson to other people.

I recently read a longer essay on the Orwell Project called “Notes on Nationalism”. The man wrote some wonderful things, if I do say so — wonderful — and I think it’s a shame that of his six novels and three non-fiction books only two have become wildly popular, and his prolific essay-writing, for which he was most known throughout his own life, is largely forgotten. Think of how much Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm gave to the world — warned of for the good of the world — and think how that is only the small ending section of a large, mostly untapped bibliography enjoyed only by enthusiasts, of which there are fortunately a good number. It is a sad situation, one I fear now being repeated with Christopher Hitchens, who is only really known by those who became aware of him after his death for God is not Great, in spite of his long journalistic career. I advise all of you to browse the archive occasionally when you get bored; print off if the formatting annoys you.

“Notes on Nationalism” was an attempt by Orwell to understand the fixation people have with certain power groups. He noticed that many people were blindly obsessed with their own unit, which may or may not be a nation, and may or may not even exist, and were gripped by hatred of some opposing side. Where possible they would write, speak and think of nothing else, and interpret all historical and contemporary issues in the context of their struggle, even where it made no sense. Writing in 1945, he covers everything from the White Race to its fledgling (at the time) contrast, “Colour-Feeling”, as he called it, everything from Trotskyism to Celtic Nationalism and Anglophobia, from political Catholicism to Neo-Toryism. He saw that nationalism, as he was defining it, could be unstable — that there can be English Russophiles, as well as extremely fast conversions from Communism to Fascism. And it got me thinking about political conflict, ideology, in-groups, zeitgeist. It is a difficult task to lay out the political map of the modern world, or even, simply, the political map of Britain or the United States. Where are the borders? Where is there conflict? Are these groups the same thing, or has the zeitgeist merely brought them together against a common enemy? Are our names correct?

The most simple and simplistic guide we have is the Left/Right dichotomy, which I personally disavow and stipulate is literally impossible to use without grossly over-generalising, a tirade being near the start of this here for those who look.  Another mainstream concept is that of ideologies — visions of a perfect world that lay the foundations for a principled, consistent political program — which I think are good for defining beliefs, as long as they are recognised as being prescriptive: it doesn’t matter how many self-described liberals don’t understand liberalism, or conservatives conservatism — they will not change the definition. This too is a common problem. The old issue of arbitrary and conflicted meanings that has made Left and Right useless is now doing the same to other labels. Affirmative action, that forceful way of ensuring proportional representation of different groups in the upper crust of society, may well solve real problems; but it is also highly illiberal, in the old sense of the word, for it judges people not for the content of their character but the colour of their skin. It is a collectivist, therefore socialist, idea, that boxes people up into categories at the expense of their agency; and that self-described liberals advocated for it during the Johnson Administration is astounding. Is your purpose to free the Black Race from the shackles of oppression, or many black people? Finding those terms synonymous is an example of the intellectual laziness that has made organisation of the spectrum nearly impossible. Try to think not of policies and programs, but of the founding principles and logics of the beliefs. Understand them at their purest level. Order? Equity? Equality?  Individuals now may be described in a single day as liberals, communists, conservatives and, finally that most infectious cliché, fascists. We must be very careful as we categorise along such lines.

As an alternative but confusingly overlapping theory, some have brought social behaviour into it. Most people on the part of the Internet I frequent are aware of the phrase “identity politics”; combine that idea with the wink-wink concept of “virtue-signalling” (I have seen it spelt with and without the hyphen) to assure one’s peers of continuing allegiance, and we have a plausible theory of what essentially amounts to political cultism. Certainly there is a cult of personality around Jeremy Corbyn, and the Labour Party has descended into a puritanical civil war because of him and because of the things he believes. This is not entirely ideological, and Donald Trump and the Republican Party could be described similarly. People enjoy being part of an in-group. They like surrounding themselves with others who share their biases and prejudices, sometimes because they are simply easier to talk to about politics. We have only our partisan human nature to blame there.

Groups must be reconciled with ideologies, and this is not easy either. The days are long past where liberals, conservatives and socialists had their own parties to flock to that would work for them, which partially explains the lack of interest in traditional politics and partisan dealignment we have seen since the 1970s; we must accept the new reality that our personal beliefs, no matter how consistent or principled they are, will never again be fully and comprehensively represented by any one unit, if they ever were. This is a general feeling few argue with after I have identified it, and it is fuelling single-issue voting.

“Notes on Nationalism” I think unites what we have discussed so far, imperfectly, though it focusses on a very narrow and radical minority. Orwell only notes towards the end that all of us are infected by biases, and that they can flare up into the nationalism he described by circumstance (a normal Scot listening to an Englishman bash his country, for instance). I am interested in the entire map as it gently ticks over and shifts, day-to-day. Furthermore, we must also bring zeitgeist into it. Already in the new millennium we have seen the rise of the Internet, and it has created a wholly divergent political culture. Online blogs, forums, YouTube, and here the issues of the day are different. Gender relations, race relations, Islamic fundamentalism, offence culture: topics that are cripplingly taboo in traditional discourse are feasted on in this new environment, perhaps for the better or perhaps not, while the standard concerns of the economy, social security, constitutional reform and so on are pushed into the background. The new world sprang from the old, but is now very different and has a very different zeitgeist — atmosphere. Sometimes they overlap, as they did often in 2016 through the EU referendum and US election. Immigration is a point of mutual concern, though not the only one. Neither is a monolith: to claim the entire alternative media is the Alt-Right would be to exclude Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post, to start with, as well as the larger part of the third-wave feminist movement, and all those who oppose it who are most certainly not Alt-Right, as well as the factions within it. It would be to label the entirety of U.K. politics the domain of the Cameron-flavoured Conservative Party. My point is, before we even draw the map we must bear in mind some people live far, far away from others. I think this is a key point almost all political commentators miss. It explains why some people who call themselves liberals or conservatives are so, so different from others.

Take as a case study the Internet group principally known for opposing third-wave feminism, which I have observed for a term of years with many different, changing and often conflicting emotions, and you will find, far from the stereotype, disagreement and factionalism on almost all subjects excepting the mentioned, and a few other principles tangentially related to it. In the last year its mainstream media exposure has been smothered by the relatively new Alt-Right, which shares the opposition to what has become pejoratively known as “social justice”, but I do not even feel comfortable including the Alt-Right as part of the same group. The first is diverse and from all walks of life, and includes prominent members who have together ticked almost every box on the ballot. It holds old and young, minorities, Republicans and Democrats, allied unconventionally and unpredictably against the natural comrades of many of them. Its origins were in the old atheist Internet movement of the naughties, but it has morphed, evolved and grown since then, through the #GamerGate controversy, the re-igninting of student university protest and the new terrorist threat in Europe. It is about as large as the Alt-Right and slightly older, if quieter, and it can be found on any website that allows forums, in any way, though the bulk is on YouTube. If anything can be said to unite it that is positive, and not merely opposition to another group, it is the will to preserve free expression and discussion against a creeping offence culture, that has attracted potentially (there is no way of knowing) millions of members from across the traditionally-defined political spectrum — perhaps because they feel they will not be able to argue with each other. That is not my attempt to “sell” the group, but my honest summary. No one can quite tell where to draw the line with the Alt-Right, but it exists. They have a sort of non-aggression pact, which now appears to be breaking down. There are many such groups, and I only go on a disquisition about that one because I am familiar with it. The question must be asked: does anyone in the world know enough to properly define current political conflict?

How can we lay it all out clearly? How are the thoughts and allegiances of the great mass of the public to be understood, or even the thoughts and allegiances of intellectuals? I think Orwell glanced the nail; but his theory needs to be widened to encompass all thought, and it needs to be distilled down from the intelligentsia to the great silent majority. “If there is hope, it lies in the Proles”, so the quotation goes. Even the most simple and non-interested in politics have political ideas — they must do, for politics is the debate about how to govern the land, which impacts everyone, and can be informed by almost any value or prejudice, held by the poorest dunce. But, while Nixon’s great silent majority is affected by the debate, and can tip it by massive voting power, it is, we must remember, mostly uninterested. Very few of us are actually politically aware and engaged on a regular basis, in either online or traditional discussion, or where they cross; and is that minority that propels most of the arguments. How many regular readers of political blogs do you think there are, really? How many party members? How much influence do you think trusted journalists have? Precisely. For the most part this is a game few play. The sleeping giant is terrifying, but you have to wake it up. This is why I brought zeitgeist into the essay. The culture that moves the demos to action is created by a very small group. How many people were there that drove the current focal shift on to fundamentalist Islam? How many people actually had to talk about it to get it into the heads of the rest? Politics leaves no one alone, but most people are happy to ignore it anyway.

It is in everyone’s interest to find a way of mapping the political spectrum, but all who have tried have failed. I think it is possible, and we should keep working to identity where changes need to be made to create order out of the chaos. I have failed and given up, but I have tried at least to explain why. These are the problems we face.



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