Is politics now circular?

The traditional political model is a line with the far left at one end and the far right at the other. Parties occupy a range and may share some policies with parties that are usually positioned elsewhere and individuals may also support a range of policies from across the spectrum. Nevertheless, the model works fairly well to describe general baskets of attitudes so is a useful tool to save time when discussing baskets of policies and attitudes.

I think in recent years the situation has evolved somewhat, and I propose this circular model as more valid now in the UK, I haven’t considered the USA:Political spectrum


I am tempted to show another scale, with peace loving acceptance and tolerance towards the top and irate, intolerant, demonstrative attention seeking towards the bottom. Most of the chart as it is should be uncontroversial, showing a typical spread from old labour through to UKIP, though some may object to my filing the Lib Dems where I have. There has been migration and evolution of the parties certainly, but at least some of the old distinctions still generally apply. However, watching extremists from the hard left and right, it is often difficult to distinguish between them and that’s why I think it is appropriate to move to a circular model. Whereas the middle ground and both moderate wings share a reasonably sophisticated multidimensional view of the world and come to different conclusions mainly via application of different value sets, the extremes don’t conform to this. They extremes share a common overly simplistic and hardened attitude that often refuses engagement and discussion but loudly demands that everyone listens. A few cherry-picked facts is all they need to draw extreme conclusions. Differences in their reasoning are fairly minor compared to their overall behavioural type, so I draw them in close proximity.

I am fully open to debate on the merits and drawbacks of this model. If it is rubbish, I will happily change it. But please don’t just say it is rubbish, please explain why, and offer an improvement.


3 responses to “Is politics now circular?

  1. It is not rubbish but it may lack meaning. The best way to look at this circularity is in terms of three different political realities arising out of our psychology: relationship to the levers of power, authoritarian personality type and social isolation. They are all connected.

    The closer one is to the actual exercise of power (unless thrust from powerlessness to unaccountable power by revolutionary circumstances), then the more necessarily pragmatic one becomes by virtue of the system’s inherent complexity combined with the fact that (in non-revolutionary situations) someone gets to exercise power in the main system through learning how to manage the acquisition of power in sub-systems.

    Thus, Ernest Bevin became a pragmatic social democrat through the process of wielding power in creating a general workers union and then managing the union interest within the Labour Party. If it is not a matter of compromise through social institutions, then it is one of compromise through the management of the elites to which one belongs or aims to belong (as in the conservative side of the spectrum).

    Now, overlay this with the two other psychological factors. Since the majority of the population are not interested in the practice of politics for thoroughly pragmatic reasons – it is time-consuming and unprofitable to all except ideologues and the winners who take office – then those who are interested in politics but are not willing to play the existing game because of strongly-held beliefs are waiting on a revolution that may never come. They can only justify their engagement as a sort of intense enthusastic hobby in most cases and, having abandoned compromise (which should not be confused with a correct assessment of the situation), political organisation becomes isolated in pockets of enthusiasts where pragmatism is much harder work to espouse than it is where the actual possession of power requires it by the nature of things.

    Hence the fact that all relatively small ideological groupings will tend to be anti-pragmatic until they sniff the possibility of power (as in the Realo Fundi debate within the Greens) at which point they start to move away from fixed ideological positions. This does not mean that their initial assesments are wrong objectively speaking but only wrong within the system of power as it stands. The Soviet system might be regarded as a form of sclerotic bureaucratic pragmatism and liberal democracy as a form of sclerotic electoral pragmatism – neither seems to be administratively particularly effective.

    So we have the smaller groups at the bottom of your circle tending to be alike not because they are who they are in terms of actual belief but because of their relationship to power. You may observe the progressive ‘moderation’ of the Muslim Brotherhood as an example of what happens when a hardened ideological minority group sniffs the actual non-revolutionary acquisition and retention of power under conditions where other players hold some important cards (such as the military or a source of funds).

    Finally, on top of this relationship to power, we can overlay the authoritarian personality type. This type is rarely effective in pragmatic politics but their role in the system is assured by their functional inclusion in the State as the forces of order (police and military in particular). This is reversed at the bottom of your cycle because society operates ‘de facto’ in a loose and libertarian way so that, in order to maintain cohesion, the ideologue tends to be culturally authoritarian even when a libertarian. An example of this is the emergence of very anti-religious sentiment in secularists (otherwise libertarian) who have no real hold on the levers of power except through the fact that secularism appears normal. They become enraged when non-secular values take hold within the secularised system but they have nowhere to go because of the prevailing and more dominant culture of tolerance. Thus, they become ‘authoritarian’ in their aggression towards the ‘spiritual’ (perhaps not always without reason).

    The point is that anyone at the top of your cycle is not there because they are necessarily more competent intrinsically except to the degree perhaps that they are a cynic or an opportunist. A Cameronian one nation Tory, a Clegg liberal and a Miliband socialist-lite would re-cycle down to the bottom and become authoritarian, ideological and aggressive under an elected (I am presupposing a democratic and open constitution) competition between greens and nationalists who would have moderated and become pragmatic with power (as have the Welsh and Scots nationalists). The free business, anti-collectivist and labour union vote might all be marginalised into ‘extremism’ of a sort if their interests were significantly harmed. In a sense, realo Greens and UKIP represent attempts to move up the circle to the top and extreme nationalist Tories and socialists frequently threaten to drive their pragmatic parties down.

    But it is important to understand that being at the top is not a good and being at the bottom is not bad since anyone at the bottom may have equally valid values to anyone at the top and the compromises and pragmatisms at the top are the best of a bad job within a pre-fixed system of values that may be false or ineffective. And that any set of values at the bottom can be transformed into some kind of workability simply by rising to the top over time with effective political organisation where, of course, they are likely to become somewhat sclerotic and decadent in their turn (to oversimplify). And so it goes …


  2. Many thanks Tim, you make a convincing argument.


  3. Pingback: Independence Day 2017 | The more accurate guide to the future

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