Categories are useful, which is why humans have been using labels for people and things since the dawn of time. Using generalizations for people, events and things is a handy way of communicating important things efficiently. The political terms Left and Right have been with us since the 18th century for that reason. They are broadly useful in describing people and ideas. In the particular they are often confusing, but when it comes to the big categories, they work.
In 18th and 19th century Europe, the Right was those on the side of the old aristocratic order, while the Left represented some form of liberal alternative. The Right defended the rights of the crown against the demands of the crowd. The Left advocated the rights of the people against the traditions of the crown. The Left was coming at politics from an empirical perspective. They talked about rational government. The Right were traditionalist, often rooting their position in religion.
In the 19th and 20th century, especially in America, the terms Right and Left were redefined around economic concepts. The Left were socialists, embracing Marxist arguments, to one degree or another, about economics and history. The Right was the defender of markets and free enterprise. Those old class concepts, king and peasant, inevitably were incorporated. The Left was on the side of the working people, the new peasants, while the Right was on the side of business.
The limits of this new economically based politics are obvious when looking at the early 20th century, particularly the interwar years. Fascism is considered to be right-wing, even though all of them embraced socialism. They also championed the workers in their organizing and rhetoric. Communism was much more popular with the upper classes than the working classes. Look at 20th century communism and what you see is academics and the scions of the upper classes.
Lost in all of this is the term liberalism. In the 19th century, liberal meant rational government rooted in natural law. The Founders were liberals. They sought to create a political order that reflected the people and history of the new country. They were not basing their arguments in religion or tradition. They were debating the most rational form of government for a land populated as it was at the time. Into the 20th century, liberal was a fairly good stand in for reason.
Fast forward to the middle of the last century and the term liberal had been conflated with the term progressive. They had become synonyms. Progressivism was anything but liberal in the traditional sense of the word. The progressives rooted their ideology in New England public Protestantism and oogily-boogily borrowed from European intellectuals of the Hegelian tradition. Regardless of it claims, Progressivism has always been in opposition to empiricism.
This redefinition of the word liberal is just one example of the larger assault on the common language. It has reached the point today where no reasonable person accepts anything said by the upper classes at face value. The reason is they no longer use the language as defined by the dictionary. The most recent example is the phrase “the science has changed” which has nothing to do with science. In fact, the only thing we can know for sure from that statement is the science has not changed.
The assault on cognitive meaning in the language and the rise of emotional language in public discourse is part of a larger dynamic in American political discourse that has come to redefine Left and Right. To be on the Left is to embrace an ideology rooted in your emotions about the topic and the people involved in the topic. To be on the Right is to engage rationally with a topic. Liberalism has become an assault on reason, while illiberalism is the defense of reality.
In his book After Liberalism, Paul Gottfried points out that what masquerades as liberalism in America is post-liberal. Things like pluralism and democracy are not part of the liberal tradition. 19th century liberals understood that not all men were invested in society, so not all men warranted the franchise. Similarly, they understood that all ideas were not equal or deserving of equal consideration. By extension, the people behind those ideas were not deserving of equal consideration.
Gottfried does not address it in his book, but one could argue that managerialism in America is a response to the collapse of reason in the political order. The formation of the administrative state and the concept of managerialism were the response to the collapse of the old constitutional order in the 19th century. These are not based in reason, but a practical necessity. The labyrinth of bureaucracy, private and public, that control public life exist to provide stability.
What this means is that the terms Left and Right have to reconsidered to fit the reality of the present age. The Left is illiberal, emotional and irrational. It is the rejection of the human condition, not in a spiritual sense, but in an empirical sense. It is not an accident that the people most into life-extension technology and various forms of virtual and hyper reality are on the Left. They seek to transcend human biology by living on forever in a new world created for them on-line.
This is why the term right-wing is cognitively meaningless. Those holding to the old economic definition are culturally and politically irrelevant. They oppose a political force that no longer exists. The traditionalists have a similar problem, because much of what can be defined as American tradition has been defined by the Left. Since Gettysburg, the Left has controlled the culture. So much so that things like abortion have a greater claim to tradition than opposition to it.
The greatest trick of radicalism has been to slowly lay claim to irrationality, things like tradition, emotion and spirituality, incorporating them into their theories of history and human organization. Their opposition has been left with sterile facts and figures or claims to tradition that no longer have emotional energy. The American Left is irrationality in the guise of science, emotion draped in the garb of reason, illiberalism wearing the costume of liberal governance.
Getting back to the terms Right and Left, the great crisis on the Right is rooted in the fact that the Right does not exist. It does not exist because it does not understand what it opposes or even if it opposes the Left. Until people desiring an alternative to the prevailing orthodoxy come to terms with the moral and linguistic reality of the prevailing orthodoxy, there can be no cognitive opposition. You have to know what you oppose, before you can explain why you oppose it.
As a practical matter, the West is now in a pre-Enlightenment period. This is why our age looks so much like late feudalism with better stuff. In 17th century France, there was no Right because there was no Left. There were just the way things were. Today, there is no Left or Right for the same reason. There is the prevailing orthodoxy with its established hierarchy and a bunch of disaffected peasants. The Right-Left dichotomy no longer exists practically or theoretically.
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