In popular usage, ‘left and right’ have come to mean the same thing as ‘liberal and conservative,’ respectively. This is a critical mistake.
Founders vs Fundamentalists
The US Founders certainly used the words ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,’ although they had somewhat different meanings at the time. But in their deliberations of 1776, they would not have understood ‘left’ and ‘right.’ Those concepts only appeared during the French Revolution, some years after the U.S. Constitutional Convention. During the early French meetings leading up to the decapitation of the monarchy, in the ‘Estates General’ at Versailles, the nobility and clergy sat to the right of the presiding member; the upstart republicans sat to the left.
It is important to maintain the distinctions between liberal and left-wing, and conservative and right-wing, because we too quickly assume that the right represents conservative tradition. This approach misses the central significance of both the American and French Revolutions, and of modernity. The right represents authority; it represents the ‘noble’ class structure of history, with its exclusive, vertical hierarchy. The left, however, represents the inclusive, egalitarian approach of both revolutions. It is mobility vs the nobility.1)‘Mobility’ is derived from mobile vulgus, ‘the fickle crowd.’ With time, ‘mobility’ emerged to separate the commoners from the ‘nobility.’ Mobility was eventually shortened to ‘mob’.
Liberal and Conservative
In contrast to those terms, however, ‘conservative’ means to keep things the way the are, or to return them to how they recently were. ‘Liberal’ is derived from the Latin word for freedom; in this case, the liberal is free to experiment and change things.
The fact is, all of us must be overwhelmingly conservative. We do things the same way, across the globe, as people have done since the beginning of civilization, or even since the beginning of life. We eat, dress, sleep, and raise families in much the same way our ancestors did. We carry on banking and commerce as people have done for centuries. Most importantly, we look to our Constitution and other traditions for guidance about resolving modern political, social, and economic problems. Conservatism is essential for the continuity of life.
But ‘liberal’ is essential in the modern world. All progress is necessarily liberal, because progress requires the freedom to experiment, and the freedom to change. So the problem is not whether to be liberal or conservative, but when to be liberal or conservative. Regarded in this way, we can see the two positions are clearly unattached from any permanent positions.
For example, consider that today’s conservatives base many of their beliefs on the 18th century American Revolution, as do many liberals. But the men who carried out the Revolution were quite liberal, even radical, for their day. Similarly, modern Christians who proudly invoke the traditions of the Puritan Pilgrims would be viewed by those Pilgrims as anathema; and there are few conservatives today who would happily suffer the Pilgrims’ rigidity and intolerance.
That insight can be taken backward in jumps: the Pilgrims would have rejected the beliefs of the Inquisition; and the Christians of the Inquisition would have rejected the beliefs of the Christians before Constantine; and it is not clear how any of them would have felt about the Christian teachings before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE, because the ideological tensions between the early Apostles and Paul are not completely understood even today. On top of that, as conservative as the first Christians might appear to us today, they, like the U.S. founders, were quite liberal, even radical, when compared to their Jewish and pagan neighbors around the Mediterranean.
Lampooning Christian Orthodoxy
Dostoevsky pointedly lampoons these Christian inconsistencies in The Brothers Karamazov: Jesus returns during the Inquisition, and the Church authorities sentence him to death. The Grand Inquisitor then explains to Jesus why he is wrong.
If Doestoyevsky’s point sounds ludicrous, there are powerful people in religion and politics today who loudly and frequently, but dishonestly, boast of their Christianity. Their hypocrisy is easy to identify: they studiously avoid any teachings of Jesus which address Christian obligations to the weak and the poor, and ignore these humane concepts in their actions, public statements, and policy proposals.
These contradictory Christians also demonstrate the problems with ‘conservative Christians’ vs ‘right-wing Christians’. Much of Christianity is conservative, but none of it should be right-wing: Jesus taught a peaceful doctrine of inclusion, tolerance, and equality. Given that the right-wing hierarchy is built on exclusion, intolerance, and inequality, it is not clear how right-wing Christians can be Christian at all. So right-wing Christians are often necessarily hypocritical, because they are literally trying to serve two masters, an egalitarian God and an authoritarian leader. These two roughly correlate with Jesus’s teachings about ‘God and Mammon.’ The right-wing Christians cannot see this, of course; they are blinded by our 10,000 years of inherited oppression under king and conqueror.
We can see a similar conservative-to-liberal shift in politics. Consider that in the United States, Republicans frequently express their admiration for President Kennedy. While he was President, however, many conservatives loathed him. The fact is, Kennedy was liberal for the 1960’s, but his views have become conservative over the ensuing 60 years.
A salient example is the contemporary Republicans who proudly boast that they belong to the party of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, however, represented the liberal voices of his time, as Republicans were originally the liberals, and Democrats were the conservatives. That shift gives us a grating contradiction today: as we noted above, some of the Republicans who boast of their association with Lincoln, simultaneously work to block African-Americans from voting, and to suppress their participation in other ways. In essence, they work to return African-Americans to the political inequality of 1776, and force them back toward physical and economic servitude.
Communism also illustrates the problem of left, right vs liberal, conservative. In most Western countries, the communist is liberal, and the capitalist is conservative. In modernizing Russia, China, and other countries, the communist today may be the conservative, and the capitalist, the liberal.
Left and Right
So conservative and liberal are not a set of core ideas, but moving targets and fluid political positions; because, of course, with time some of what is new and suspect today, will become old and trusted tomorrow. And as progress accelerates, liberal and conservative will become even more unstable and inconsistent.
In comparison, however, the egalitarian ideals of the left, and the hierarchical oppression of the right, are constant, consistent, and durable. We are either a nation of equals, or of authoritarians; we either think for ourselves, or we submit to someone who thinks for us.
And if everyone thinks the same way, who’s thinking?
The Mythical ‘Left-Wing Authoritarian’
These distinctions take us back to an interesting problem in political discussions, that of the so-called ‘left-wing authoritarians.’ The phrase is an oxymoron; to be left-wing is, by definition, to be anti-authoritarian. As for ‘right-wing authoritarians,’ that is a redundancy. From that insight we can see that there can be be right-wing egalitarians; and ‘left-wing egalitarians’ is yet another redundancy.
There can, however, be liberal or conservative authoritarians, and liberal or conservative egalitarians. Fascists are conservative authoritarians, but modern communists can be liberal authoritarians.2)Consider that Das Kapital was published in the late 19th century, and the October Revolution was in 1917, both over a century ago. So in Russia or China, communism is the way things have been done, and is conservative. In the United States, communism would be a significant change, and so it is liberal. Liberal egalitarians, are simply those who accept ideas from almost anyone. Conservative egalitarians might represent something like the Dutch: they might be personally conservative and resistant to change, but tolerant of those who think otherwise. And the fully egalitarian conservative might be a Burkean: when Edmund Burke first proposed conservatism, he did not describe the fierce reactionary recalcitrance we often encounter today. Instead, he was advising people to take a pragmatic, skeptical, test-it-first approach to new political ideas.
Conservatism is Essential, Rightism is Anathema
The central conclusion, however, is that within modern democracies—which means within the modern world itself—conservatism is essential, but there is simply no place for the right. There is no place for someone who defers to others, who blindly follows a more powerful leader, and who then compels others to follow as well. The modern world is based on equality, inclusion, and independence of thought. Without those, progress and modernity itself disappear.
As for the liberal authoritarians, we find that they are really not all that different from the conservative authoritarians. If we view liberal vs conservative as a bell curve, what we find is that the tails strongly resemble one another. Authoritarianism trumps all policy preferences. To adapt from John M. Barry, “When you mix progress with authoritarianism, you get authoritarianism.”3)“When you mix religion and politics, you get politics.”4)John M. Barry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty. Which should be no great surprise; the point of authoritarianism is that no one thinks but the authoritarian leader; the noble and the clergy think for everyone.
The Football Game
Liberal and conservative right-wingers only disagree about which authority will be blindly followed. At the political extremes, adherents of either position tend to be inflexible, intolerant, militant, and in our key diagnostic, humorless.((In this metaphor, the ‘left’ wing oddly ends up in the middle of the liberal-conservative bell curve. This is not surprising: if the left is maximally, or at least optimally, inclusive, then it will embrace the middle, and much of the two tails. The left wing also sits there with the ‘middle’ class morality of cooperation and accountability. It the zero-sum football mentality: it doesn’t matter who wins, the game never changes.
Radicals on the left and right both pursue similar tactics and goals. Both engage in clever sophistry in an attempt to oppress, embarrass, and coerce the other. They both insist that their freedom of speech permits them to gag the other. They argue that a ‘fair’ government should crush the rights of the other. They rationalize that democratic inclusion should limit, or even exclude, the other. Both use modern protections as convenient paths to eliminating modernity itself. It gives a new insight to the term ‘polemic.’
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These ideas are incorporated into my book, Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths: From Alexander to Hitler to the Corporation, available from the University of Louisiana Press and Amazon.
Photograph of the Liberty Bell courtesy of The U.S. National Park Service.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||‘Mobility’ is derived from mobile vulgus, ‘the fickle crowd.’ With time, ‘mobility’ emerged to separate the commoners from the ‘nobility.’ Mobility was eventually shortened to ‘mob’.|
|2.||↑||Consider that Das Kapital was published in the late 19th century, and the October Revolution was in 1917, both over a century ago. So in Russia or China, communism is the way things have been done, and is conservative. In the United States, communism would be a significant change, and so it is liberal.|
|3.||↑||“When you mix religion and politics, you get politics.”((John M. Barry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.|
|4.||↑||John M. Barry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty. Which should be no great surprise; the point of authoritarianism is that no one thinks but the authoritarian leader; the noble and the clergy think for everyone.
The Football Game
Liberal and conservative right-wingers only disagree about which authority will be blindly followed. At the political extremes, adherents of either position tend to be inflexible, intolerant, militant, and in our key diagnostic, humorless.((In this metaphor, the ‘left’ wing oddly ends up in the middle of the liberal-conservative bell curve. This is not surprising: if the left is maximally, or at least optimally, inclusive, then it will embrace the middle, and much of the two tails. The left wing also sits there with the ‘middle’ class morality of cooperation and accountability.