Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Left and Right, and the Anti-war movement

A virtual friend recently asked me if I was indeed, a conservative. Apparently, since his blog and mine tend to focus on Zionism, and the new imperialism (which seems to have developed in its wake), and since we tend to agree on those issues, he was somewhat surprised to see that we come from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

It is, of course, somewhat ironic that my friend, a British Jewish leftist, and I, an American Christian right-winger, would find so much common ground, but the phenomenon is by no means unusual. In fact, I thought it such an interesting anomaly, that it was worth analyzing.

During the run up to war in 2003, George Will wrote an article in which he sought to denigrate the case against the war by making lots of absurd accusations against those who were opposed to it. Virtually all of the claims on which he based his accusations, turned out to be wrong. But beyond this, he concluded his article by ascribing the basest, and most ethno-centric motivations to the groups opposing the war.
Conservative isolationism--America is too good for the world--is long dead. Liberal isolationism--the world is too good for America--is flourishing.

Of course, no liberal or conservative ever voiced their opposition in those terms, and I would imagine that most conservatives, as well as liberals would have responded (just as I did) that theirs is a more middle position – not that America is too good or too bad to intervene in the affairs of other countries, but simply that it would be better to let Iraqis handle their own affairs, and that by invading Iraq, we weren’t really doing them any favors. Just as patriotic Americans would prefer that other countries not interfere in our affairs, so we should not really interfere in theirs.

Mr. Will was using the classic straw man argument, project a false argument, and then refute it, (or in this case, simply attack the motivations of ones opponents, in order to dismiss them out of hand). And of course, it is not really valid. However, in all of Mr. Will’s faulty arguments and absurd slander, he does seem to have touched upon the intriguing phenomenon, which had taken my (virtual) friend aback. Namely, that those who would be considered far right, or far left are more likely to be opposed to the war, than those who would be considered center left or center right.

Of course, people like George Will would try and make the argument that their opponents are just extremists, and this might serve their interest, but it doesn’t really explain it. Why would the far left and the far right agree on an issue against the center? It certainly can’t be ascribed to the machinations of a cabal of political rivals. This is a broad trend, which is far more perceptible among the general population than the political elites. And of course, in general, the far left tends to agree with the center-left far more than with the right on most issues, and vice versa – why should this one be so different?

Perhaps the formulation of reducing the dispute between far right and far left on one hand, and the center right and center left on the other, misses the point. Perhaps the real dispute is between the apparatchiks on the one side and the hard-core ideologues on the other, and that the same forces are prevalent in each grouping.

The term apparatchik is, of course, a Russian word, and is usually used in the context of the peculiar system of the old Soviet Union, but it is a term which also means a zealous functionary whose position in the apparatus drives him to support the policy of the party to which he belongs.

Of course, Republicans and Democrats in the US don’t really have extensive party apparatuses. But, like all ruling groups, they do have various organizations, (in this case - think tanks, foundations, political action committees, as well as relatively unimportant party apparatuses) which are used to execute, or more precisely, promote, their policies. But beyond the functionaries of the dominant ruling parties, there are the various hangers on, as well as those whose level of political interest is limited to a mere identification with one or the other major party.

They are to be contrasted with the hard-core ideologues, the true believers, of whichever faction, who support the left or right only because those parties stand for the same things that they do. Their positions on particular issues usually have to square with their ideological principles, and if they can not be made to do so, these ideologues generally become dissidents. Toeing the party line is most often left to the apparatchiks.

It stands to reason that those who are a part of the ruling group, or groups, are far too concerned with their positions to take the risk of being seen as radicals or dissidents. This same principle applies to a slightly lesser extent, to those who merely identify with the governing parties or groups. This is part of the process of political socialization. To be taken seriously, as a member (or potential member) of the ruling group, one has to accept and follow the party line, even if that party line conflicts with one’s broad generally accepted principles.

Under no circumstances can someone in that position afford to be seen as “outside the mainstream”. In modern American political parlance, that accusation is the equivalent of anathematizing someone in the Catholic Church. Virtually, every political debate between candidates for office in the US involves this charge being made by one side against the other, since that is seen as the quickest, surest way to dispatch one’s rival. And, just as political debate on television, or in print, is usually an attempt to resonate with the general population, the general population often mimics the political debate which they see conducted by the elites on television.

Obviously those ideologues who are considered hard right or hard left are more accustomed to being called “outside the mainstream”, and have long since lost any sensitivity to the label. Likewise, they are largely immune to the other pressures of political socialization. (Some would say that their cantankerousness creates a reverse process of political anti-socialization, and there may be an element of truth to this.) Consequently, although most of the politicians in congress would willingly authorize a war of aggression, either out of support for their leader or out of fear of having their patriotism questioned, those who are already outside the mainstream feel no need to do so.

They, the extremists (if one prefers that term), can simply stand on principle. If there is no logical justification for the war, then they feel no inhibitions about opposing it. After all, only a lunatic would believe that the decision to go to war is one that can be made without a sound reason, and support for a sitting president and/or congress doesn’t get it – at least not for those who are inclined toward more independent thinking, or those who stand on first principles.

This is true of those whose ideological orientation is toward the left or the right. After all, the traditional Christian approach to just war doctrine, is consistent with the definition of ”Crimes against Peace” in the Nuremberg principles, the requirements of Article 2 of the UN charter, and the Kellogg Briand Pact.

Some issues, like war and peace, simply transcend the traditional left-right divide.

Some thoughts:

Extremists are not only of the left/right spectrum. There are a large number of ways one can be an extremist. Using your thesis, it might be better to look at politics as extremist/conformist. Liberals then, can be extremist depending on how they approach being a liberal. One might then expect that someone who calls themselves a militant liberal would stand on principle much more so than those who are conformist. It can be stretched further. Substitute the word individual for extremist and there are a number of groups that promote individual analysis/thought. These groups can be quite cohesive, and yet quite resistant to the "apparatchik" mentality.

When you call yourself an American Christian right-winger it provides an image. At the same time it defines a very large empty space, one with considerable overlap with those who would call themselves British Jewish Leftist. As they say, the devil is in the details.

At one point our Conservative Party had a faction known as "Red Tories" (Red as in communist – Fiscally conservative, socially progressive.)
Greg, please keep posting on your Blog. You have no idea how many people actually read and spread your word. You have helped so many, please don't stop. From your friend.
I think both of these are interesting questions Greg. I agree with you regarding the significance of the "apparatchiks" - but from an embarrassingly uninformed perspective, on my part, I am afraid.

Under the American system, the President can appoint the key office holders -( the "Cabinet" in the Westminster system); and furthermore, is able to do so without much interference from Congress?

If this is so, a new Administration can quite easily have a homogeneous ideological position at variance in important details from not only the broader positions of the party support base, but as well from the horse-trading which is the bread and butter of the Congress.

But in the present Administration, which is strongly neoliberal , the apparatchiks have not only believed in the free market unhindered by "Big Government", but have run the Administration as though the State was itself a sort of holding company. I would say it arises from the "new economy" of globalisation, not from some ivory tower of ex-leftists. It is the every day ideology of the modern market - so familiar as to pass unnoticed - this was how the war was sold.

And so foreign policy is tendered out to think tanks and in particular the neocons; the Army is given a Business Management restructure, domestic politics is a matter of public relations, market strategies and brand loyalty .( It seems to me to be a significant mistake to confuse brand loyalty with patriotism.)

One can oppose the fruits of this from any number of directions - from a conservative view of the nature of the State and "Public Service"; from the left as representing a more virulent development of Capitalism; or even from the ruling class itself, on the basis that it hasn't worked.
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