‘The Right’ is useful and coherent idea, but it is not actually a real thing. I hate to go all jargon-y on you, but conceptions of The Right vary across time and space. It is a construct made up of a diverse people, groups, institutions, and traditions of thought.
The term ‘right-wing’ dates back to the French Revolution, when it referred to the seating arrangements in the Estates-General, a French legislative body from before the revolution. The representatives seated to the right supported meritocracy and private ownership (mostly for French men), and valued authority, order, hierarchy and duty (as men are often wont to do). Since then, the label of The Right has been self-selected by some, and imposed on many. Those who sat to the left had everything they owned in a box to the left.
The 21st century New Zealand Right is different to 20th century Japanese Right is different to the 19th century French Right. There isn’t a single ‘Right’. We should really be talking about rights, not ‘The Right’.’ But, the construct is important and widely believed, so we can discuss it as if it’s real. Typical leftie, right? You can always count on a leftist for a jargon-y prose style.
A guy named F. G. Castles wrote a well-received article on the nature of The Right and The Left, where he argued The Right is constructed on an ad hoc basis by elites (journalists, politicians, and academics), perhaps in conjunction with surveys. He makes a good point, but I would go further and add that the labelling of elites wouldn’t stick without acceptance from right-wing masses, and that both groups draw on a diverse tradition of right-wing thought. Either way, it’s entirely subjective.
In my mind, The Right as a political construct has three main elements:
- Right-wing Voters. Members of the voting public who self-identify as right-wing/centre-right. They empower the political right with their support. They shape and are shaped by the political right. They are minimally politically active and not actively affiliated with right-wing political organisations.
- The Political Right. These are politically active individuals, groups, and institutions that self-identify as right-wing/centre-right. This includes political elites, political activists, and political organisations. The political right shapes, and is shaped, by right-wing voters.
- Right-wing Thought. Schools of thought and values advocated by, or associated with, the political right/centre-right. These inform, and are informed, by right-wing voters and the political right.
This blog is mostly going to look at rightwing thought, as it has the most potential to be manipulated and exploited for left-wing purposes. Right-wing thought can be broken into a few main traditions: Traditionalist conservatism, New Right conservatism, Libertarianism, and arguably Fascism.
Right-wing thought is also home to some values, concerns, and policies that are frequently (but not exclusively) associated with The Right. These include: nationalism, aggressive foreign policy, free market economic policies, and religiously-derived social views (eg. on the family, gender roles, and sexual behaviour/identity).
While there is a lot of difference and knife-fighting within the main tribes on The Right, there are a few common concerns that bind them together. Almost all parts of The Right share a belief that certain forms of inequality/hierarchy (be they economic, social, political, or divine) are natural, good and/or best. Many forms of right-wing thought are skeptical towards intellectualism in general, and postmodernism in particular.
When it comes to achieving economic and social policy goals, The Right can take a conservative approach (let’s protect the status quo), a reactionary approach (let’s go back to an older, better status quo), or a radical approach (let’s create a new, better status quo).
We could go into a LOT of detail here, but that’ll do. In the next post I’ll go into right-wing thought in more detail, especially Conservatism. If you approach these ideas with an open mind, you can see that they can make a lot of sense and even be quite elegant…. while still being seriously flawed in practice.
But why bother to learn about right-wing thought and The Right in general? Because, I repeat, KNOW YOUR ENEMY. Once you know its internal tensions and structural weaknesses, you can refute them more easily or, even better, turn them against themselves.
- Heywood, A. (2007). Political Ideologies. A classic introduction.
- Castles, F. G. (1984). Left-Right Scales: Some ‘Expert’ Judgements. Google it.
- Proper citation can go to hell.