Useful idiocy: The concepts of Left and Right

If politics is the interaction of people and power, and if power is worth having, then politics will tend towards division. For and against. Friends and enemies. Right and wrong. But perhaps more than any other, Left and Right.

But this division makes sense, right? The ideas of Left and Right make it easier to understand political complexity. This division is fine, as long as we remember that Left and Right are total constructs. Useful constructs, but constructs nonetheless.

Politics is a range of people/groups/institutions having a range of opinions, on a range of issues, for a range of reasons. Politics is made of nationalists, libertarians, liberals, socialists, conservatives, queer activists, multiculturalists, ecologists, feminists, religious zealots, communitarians and, above all, people who don’t give a shit about politics. Throw in human stupidity and the randomness of life, and you have something too complex to grasp. So we shoe-horn it all into Left and Right.

This is understandable. The pursuit of power (or resistance to power, which is itself a form of pursuit) requires conflict, and effective conflict requires strength. But how do we get political strength? By drawing in the power of others and forming a bloc. If we want to appear formidable, we need to make ourselves into a monolith.

I could have gone with the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this seemed more appropriate

I could have gone with the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this seemed more appropriate

In creating these monoliths, we paper over rich intellectual difference and create a simple Left-Right split. This split makes us worse at understanding social and economic complexity, and less decent to other human beings. And the competition between monoliths draws our attention towards conflict for power (politics as sport), rather than effective use of power (policy and governance).

But what’s the alternative? Dismantle our monolith and divide, while the other teams stays united and strong? Is it better to be honest and weak, or false and strong?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against using Left and Right. I care about the Left. ‘The Left’ is a great organising principle. There are people who think like me, and I want them to have power (because I think I am right about everything). I see enough overlap with other strategic groups to form a bloc. Together, we can get shit done. Left and Right may be wrong and stupid, but that doesn’t make them irrelevant or useless. ‘The Left’ is very useful idiocy.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Left and Right are incoherent and they make us worse at understanding stuff. But they help us achieve stuff, especially if we understand what they are. We can and should can unite as a bloc to achieve our shared goals. But we should also understand the other bloc, so we can learn its strengths and weaknesses, and know what to exploit.

Now it seems appropriate. Behold, the monolith. It bestows knowledge, which we will use to vanquish enemies with bones

Now it seems appropriate. Behold, the monolith. It bestows knowledge, which we will use to hit the other apes with big-ass bones

The problem is that much of the Left doesn’t really understand the Right. In the next few blogs, I’ll outline some core components of the political Right in New Zealand. A lot of this will be self-plagiarised from stuff I did as part of my Masters, so forgive the jargon.

This blog is the second in a series about the Right in New Zealand. The first post is about political cleavage, and can be viewed here.


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