Political Economy and Partisanship

Historical Perspective

With respect to political economy—the study of the economic and political activity of the citizens, subjects, and other residents of a given polity—authoritarian political movements of left and right are prey to a cult of personality, though in general the dynamic is different in each case. Movements of the right are the natural, national extension of the tribal, hierarchical organization of the hunt or the war party as a vital response to perceived or real survival concerns. They are thus ginned up by emotional appeals to fear of such natural perils, internal and external, and as an extension of hunting and war, are especially attractive to the males of the group. Because they tend to utilize the organizational patterns of the family, community, or tribe, they are familiar and identifiable to potential members and are not essentially threatening to existing elites, unless those elites happen to be targeted as scapegoats or come to resist the goals of the movement. 

In fact, authoritarian right wing movements are often initiated and lead by disaffected elites or elite wannabes. The existential identification of members with their leadership is essential for the success of an authoritarian movement, as it is necessary for the members to acquiesce individually, then cooperate enthusiastically and collectively with the shredding of established norms in the pursuit of the group goals. They must individually convince themselves, with the help of peer validation, that the actions of leadership are something they would do if they were in the same position, so it is equally necessary for the leadership to control the narrative of the group’s perceived existential peril in order to gain and maintain acquiescence and cooperation. The leadership may or may not share a genuine identification with the group and individual group members. It must maintain a semblance of such identity for long term success, however, and in the process some degree of genuine identification becomes likely. With this reciprocal identification comes a diminishing of the ability of an opposing group or faction within the group to portray the actions of the leadership as a manipulation of its members. Any failure of leadership skills is then viewed by the members as most tyros would first view a failure of their own skills, as the result of exogenous agency. 

Movements of the left are the natural extension of the tribal, collective organization of the communal harvest and other community group work in response to perceived unfairness and inefficiencies within the group, in the method of organization of work and the distribution of its production. Contrary to some Marxist dogma, the rank and file membership of leftist movements are not generally motivated by a craving for ownership of the means of production, i.e. capital, but rather by a desire for fairness and effectiveness in the organization of the workplace, in the distribution of goods and services, and the protection of their basic rights, particularly as these become subject to a perceived existential threat. These movements are not inherently national, arising as they do with the irritation of local conditions, but they are inherently against the status quo, which tends to identify nationally or internationally, and therefore they tend to evolve a national or international vision and scope of aspiration, if not operation. 

Leadership of left wing movements can come from those with the appropriate expertise from within the ranks, though it has historically, like the right, drawn heavily from disaffected elites, and also in no small measure from elite wannabes. Of course any individual’s rise to a position of leadership requires a self-understanding to go with a recognition of their expertise by the group, and for many, a certain amount of wannabe-the-leader. This latter fact of human psychodynamics is responsible for the emergence of anti-democratic tendencies among left wing movements whose stated democratic principles embrace the public good. 

Authoritarian leaders of the left must deal with the inherently anti-hierarchical principles which motivate their movement—principles of “unity, indivisibility…, liberty, equality, fraternity or death”—and thus must define an ideological framework necessitating their leadership in order to legitimize their control; the Leninist dictatorship of the party, mildly masquerading as the dictatorship of the proletariat is one such rationalization of the left. An emphasis on political correctness is an outgrowth of the resulting emphasis on ideological purity, and while such emphasis may arise spontaneously from the membership as they seek to identify themselves and affiliate for a common purpose, it is susceptible to manipulation by wannabe leaders. 

This does not mean that ideology is inherently oppressive; rather it indicates that any covenant, be it religious, political, economic, legal, academic, requires a faithful understanding of its motivations and structure on the part of its adherents and leaders, if it is to have any hope of maintaining effectiveness over the log run and not to fall subject to leadership abuse and subterfuge. 

Right wing movements and their leaders generally do not require an ideological framework other than tradition as they have only to appeal to their existential group identity and that group’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in order to maintain adherence to any leadership which echoes their concerns. Right wing movements are already okay with the concept of authoritarianism—though some of its members may require that it adhere to certain transcendent principles—as long as it is seen as furthering the interests, the rights, of their group. 

Left wing authoritarianism requires the seduction of the groups membership to sacrifice the collectivist principles of the group and their own rights ‘temporarily’ to the expediency and presumed efficiency of hierarchical control, and this generally means censorship and elimination of the opposition; so falls the head of Hebert, then of Danton, then of Robespierre; through the chaos of the Thermidorian Reaction and the Committee of Public Safety itself and the Directory; until as a result of this  left wing self immolation the only leader left to restore order is from the right . . . Bonaparte—a republican chameleon turned emperor.

To be fair, this first reign of terror on the left—of the French Revolution—was in response to a real threat of foreign reaction and intervention; its excesses may truly have paled next to what was envisioned coming from that reaction. But the reaction of Thermidor coincided with success of the French armies against the First Coalition of surrounding nations and a turn toward moderation in the Committee; this was superseded by the an increasingly inept Directory and the eventual rise of the First French Empire under the charismatic if authoritarian rule of Napoleon Bonaparte.  While perhaps not the utopian state of “unity, indivisibility…, liberty, equality, fraternity” envisioned by the French Revolution, neither was it “death”, and by any reasonable study was a step up the evolutionary ladder of social justice from the kingdom of Louis XVI. Whatever disparagement may be made of Napoleon as authoritarian or for his failure to understand the Russian winter, he was not guilty of the excesses of the truly blood thirsty twentieth century terrors of the Eurasian twins Hitler and Stalin, both of whom were Thermidorian despots of their respective countries and right wing, regardless of the uncritical designation of right wing to Hitler and left wing to Stalin. 

Setting aside the matter of authoritarianism, the utopian vision of the left is for the future and relies on an articulation of that vision in order to motivate its followers, in contrast to the dystopian view of the present held by the reactionary right; the right in general requires only the embellishment of the past to motivate its membership. To gain appeal, garner support, and achieve long range implementation, articulation for the future requires a leadership with an understanding of technological innovation and its potential societal impact in addition to an ability to motivate the base to act on that articulation. 

This is no small requirement for a movement whose goal is to fashion a system which can actually insure and enhance the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness to the satisfaction of everyone; to achieve and retain power, the right wing opposition has only to convince enough people that those on the left claiming a restriction of their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness by the status quo, have only their own lack of initiative or ability to blame for their condition.

We have not discussed movements of the center or authoritarianism with respect to such movements. In effect the Rule of Law is authoritarian; it simply substitutes the authority of a rationalized, institutionalized legal system for the personalized and potentially arbitrary judgement of some factions leadership. Yet even a constitutional democracy relies on the personal decision-making of legislatures,  judges and juries for the meting out of justice and therefore is not without the potential for corruption. If it is transparent in its operation and accountable, it will be less likely to abuse the rights of the populace. It is in theory more likely to correct its most egregious errors over time if it sticks to its legal principles, but in the context of a polarized partisanship, it is capable of ineptitude and stagnation. 

The affiliations of partisan politics focus on identified common interests, and to the degree that they result in existential identification of the membership with the group and its leadership, work against transparency to the interests of other parties. It is the existential nature of the identification that counsels offense against other parties rights, particularly when the other parties’ rights are deemed to be less than existential by the offending party. Democracy, at least representative democracy, is designed to foster the institution of Law to mitigate such offenses by negotiation of compromise positions acceptable to all parties. Popular democracy, absent the constraints of respected tradition, is more likely to yield to the current passions of the most formidable parties; hence the dangers of populism.

This does not mean that an authoritarian might not be able to eschew the law and rule from the middle as a type of modern day Solomon; we might even imagine that any of a number of current regimes is an example of this approach to government were it not for their fondness to violently squelch dissent. On a manageable scale a wise autocrat is conceivable, but it would take a truly wise one to be effective and presents problems of scaleability of that wisdom for a large society, though this might be addressed with an eventual maturing of information technology; but then we have the problem of what to do when he or she is gone. The only successful example of codification of authoritarian rule that comes readily to mind is the durability of the Napoleonic Code, though this was broadly rooted in the popular developments of the French Revolution.

Anti-authoritarianism in the form of democratic decision making has risen, first economically and then politically, because centralized decision making, even if it is good, is cumbersome for a growing, widespread, and economically complex society. What we consider economic democracy is what we in the West call private enterprise, individual economic decision making grounded in the entitlement concept of private property. Economic democracy generally leads to political democracy, at least for those members of society with property, for the simple reason that ownership rights include the right to use, abuse, dispose of, or destroy such property as the owner sees fit, subject to any overriding governmental regulations; by extension, such private, individual rights extend to the polity, to interactions between and among individuals—to matters internal to their transactions. 

A major concern of government is the adjudication of internal disputes via civil law, a public intercession in private matters that would otherwise be beyond such public purview. Thus property rights—entitlements in general—have no purchase unless the property owner has a say in the formulation and adjudication of the laws of the state governing that property; unless the owner has political rights. If private transactions entailed only internal costs and produced only internal disputes, the subject of political democracy would be much simplified, contained within the domain of economic democracy. But private transactions not uncommonly involve external costs or externalities—to use one of the more clinically sanitized terms in the field of economics—that is, social costs, a transfer of costs of an economic transaction to parties outside the transaction, to other private individuals and to the public-at-large, said public being comprised entirely of other private individuals. This means that a portion of such external costs will be borne by parties that are disenfranchised or have never been franchised, as historically was the case in the US for enslaved individuals and women. It remains the case for children too young to vote, even though they as well are generally regarded as having certain inalienable rights to Life, and subject to legal restrictions on their minority, to Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness according to the Declaration of Independence.  

To the degree that it is able to provide for the basic needs and rights of the citizenry, political democracy of varying degree of suffrage can be successful, but when its economic benefits and their equitable distribution begin to falter, the pressure from the left and right to find alternatives to the existing democratic framework is bound to rise. In the midst of a struggle for dominance between the extremes, as long as the immediate interests of a given side are considered protected, concern for the implications of a given course of action on the long term, democratic functioning of the political system will be jeopardized.

Generally, the left is seen by the right as antithetical to economic democracy—to the right of private enterprise and thus to the liberty and the pursuit of happiness of those exercising that right—due to the perceived propensity of the left to view expropriation of the financial and productive capital of owners or controllers of private enterprise as the principle means of economic restitution; due to the perceived ineptitude of public enterprise to contribute to the productive capacity of the political economy; due to the perceived arrogance of those entrusted with supervision of the public good in their lack of appreciation and respect for the value of the individual’s investment in skills and effort necessary for the productivity of the overall economy. 

From this perspective, the right is motivated by an understanding of the importance of individual initiative, along with commensurate compensation, for learning the skills, employing the resources, and maintaining the capital, physical and financial, required to produced the goods and services demanded and consumed by the populace; and by the fear of the ultimate expropriation of the private sector by the public in the quest for a public—be it socialist, communist, communalist—utopia. 

Contrast this with the left wing lack of appreciation of the legitimate value added to economic production by private risk initiative and entrepreneurship; by the assumption that accumulation of wealth is principally motivated by and the result of the greed of private enterprise rather than of its business acumen in offering to the marketplace a product or service that a multitude of consumers find of value.

The right is seen by the left as antithetical to political democracy—to the entitlement of the public to these same freedoms, including life itself, with just compensation for the burden of any externalities imposed on the public by private transactions—due to the perceived tendency of the private sector, both enterprises and individuals, to ignore responsibility for such externalities; due to the perceived unwillingness of the private sector to police itself with respect to financial abuse and corruption; due to the perceived capacity of private individuals and institutions to structure and control the monetary system to best suit their own interests and needs; due to the perceived failure of the owners of financial and productive capital to recognize the value of human capital, which is the basis of all capital. 

From this perspective, the left is motivated by an understanding of the innate tendency of competitive market participants to seek out opportunities to reduce costs and increase productivity by outsourcing labor and insourcing technology—by commoditization of the former and specialization and/or entitlement protection of the latter—without regard to the effects of such rationalization of the production and distribution process on the polity as a whole and to the detriment of the human capital of that polity; and by the fear that the ultimate desire of the private sector is the expropriation of the public sector and the pruning of the political rights of the populace other than those of private property owners. The extreme conclusion of this scenario feared by the left would be a single automated private entity owning all capital property and producing all the goods and services of the economy for a market of renters and consumer who by virtue of a lack of employment, do not have the money required for their rents or purchases. 

Contrast this with the right wing presumption that ‘free’ market transactions are inherently fair to all parties—including external parties who are presumed to benefit from the resulting general rise in the economy; that financial success or failure is a meritorious and faithful reflection of the business aptitude of the owners—or divine wish—in which chance and malfeasance play no significant part; that economic and financial misfortune is always and essentially a private matter with no element of public concern or requirement for public redress; that government, and thereby the public sector, is essentially a non-productive impediment to the optimum functioning of the private sector.

Of course such logical conclusions of left and right will never be fully achieved, and the reality of political economy will always be found between the extremes. The terms left and right were first used in the French Revolution in referring to the seating positions in the French Estates Generals of the primary political factions, republican and monarchist respectively. They also had relevance with respect to the general theological—therefore cultural—positions of those factions, against the influence of the Catholic Church, even secular or atheistic, on the part of the republicans and with support of that institution by the monarchists. The economic positions of the republicans ran the gamut from the abolition of tithes and feudal taxes to expropriation of church and some royalist and feudal properties, but were generally against the established interests and entitlements of the crown, the aristocracy, and the church. The monarchist of the right supported incremental changes to the status quo of the Ancien Régime. 

It is tempting to align the right with the notion of private property and the left with the notion of public entitlements, but this is a simplification. In an absolute monarchy there are no public OR private rights, only a sovereign, one who reigns over the rest of the people or public, and subjects, those who are placed beneath the sovereign. To validate absolute sovereignty in the minds of the public, such sovereign is generally held to be a temporal representative—if not the embodiment—of a divine principal or God; all rights, public and private, are those by divine right of the monarch, whose title may reflect something of the order of “The King and the Land are One”. Thus any notion of what we might call ownership of property, public or private, is that it is this One’s own, that is everything belongs to the monarch (and by virtue of divine right, to God). It will be of interest that the Greek for one’s own (here without the capital), is idios, from which comes the Greek idiotes, or layman, an individual lacking professional skill—in turn from which the English term idiot is derived. In the Greek, it does not have the derisive, derivative connotation of lack of intelligence or innate ability found in the English. We will discuss the wisdom of use of this term later.

Even if the vast majority of the public believe in the validity of these divine rights, there are generally a few individuals who work closely with the sovereign who think and perhaps know otherwise; if the sovereign has doubts or happens to take the divine mantle seriously and to be of a magnanimous frame of mind, he or she may entitlesuch individual associates to a fief or portion of the realm as a proxy for the monarch in return for their continued loyalty or filial piety, for the life of the individual or in perpetuity for the life of the fief lord’s progeny if it so suits the monarch. The lord’s title and the title of the land are essentially one and the same, such as a Duke and Duchy, so that a reference in medieval England to Cornwall indicated both the Duchy lands with the improvements thereon and the Duke who was its lord—a title that now indicates the Prince of Wales.

In the process of the devolution of the divine entitlement of the sovereign to fiefs, the populace remained subject to—the public property of—the sovereign and the fief lords, but over time portions were given elevation in status of varying degrees of entitlement, starting with that of knighthood, in return for specialization of their abilities beyond that of the basic agricultural subsistence skills of the serf, who remained essentially a slave of the fief. These knights were thereby entitled to own and convey to others various types of personal and eventually real property. Thus over time certain public property of the sovereign was distributed through the process of entitlement, that is privatized, literally taken away from, the sovereign’s public sphere and given to entitled individuals—these might be knights; guild members or freemen; burgers or townsfolk; and from the beginning, members of the clergy. With the abolition of serfdom and other forms of slavery, including indentured servitude other than the involuntary type due to conscription or penalization, entitlement to private property became universal with the remaining public property being the right of the sovereign and his surrogates; the right to freedom from service to other individuals becomes the public right to pursue the same acquisitions of private property other than human. 

As stated, in France the political process of the devolution of the divine rights of kings was represented in the seating of the French Estates General during the revolution as progressing from the right side of the assembly hall to the left; from the concentration of political control of access to public wealth by the first and second estates on the right to the disseminated private use of property and control of government by the re-publican third estate on the left; from the conservative and eventual reactionary power of the Crown, aristocracy and Church on the right to the initial progressive, liberal democratic and finally revolutionary power of the bourgeoisie and workers of the left; from the voices of elite interests on the right to the voices of the citizens for the universal rights of all people regardless of class, caste, or status on the left.

The terms left and right as currently used in the United States are a bit of a scramble in terms of this history. The power of the Church or in this case churches span the spectrum as does that of industrial and business concerns. The voices for cultural elitism (though neither see themselves as such, both feeling the victim), of a theological world view divorced form scientific verification—that of biblicist, anti-environmental, and within certain extents anti-abortion—and of unique identity deserving of special consideration—that of racial and sexual identification and political correctness—man the bulwark extremes against the rationale of universal entitlement. Political partisans whose chief interest is financial gain, stir the pot from any vantage they happen to find expedient in order to enhance their chosen position. The right bemoans the advent of socialism, but constantly seeks to enhance the most successful socialist organization in the history of the planet, the United States military—socialism as defined by Friedrich Engels as from each according to his ability, to each according to his merit. The leaders of the left are generally more consistent, but still berate the profit mongers of business on whose revenues they rely for funding of their social programs. While there are vocal minorities that feel differently, there is no creditable movement on the right to institute a dictatorship or a return to monarchy or on the left to institute a people’s republic (and a left-wing dictatorship); there is, I believe, a legitimate desire by members of both sides to establish an equitable and just financial and monetary system, a free entrepreneurial environment, and an accessible social safety net. This is a subject which we will investigate.