Maybe it’s a march, maybe it’s a dance, but the so-called Right and the so-called Left seem locked in step with one another where one leads the other follows and vice versa.
It is a habit of mine to try to imagine what it would be like not to believe what I believe, what it would be like to see the world from a different paradigm. I’m not sure I am remotely successful at it, but it seems important at least to try. Never to try, to believe that those who see things differently are just wicked or stupid, or both, is dangerous. It can lead us to hate and to underestimate those we see as our opponents.
Before I begin to explore some of the patterns I have seen emerging on my little flights of fancy, I must declare my own starting point. I am an archetypal product of my time, my education and my class. I am a White, middle-aged, middle class, small ‘l’ liberal, secular humanist, feminist female. In modern vernacular, therefore, I am a classic chardonnay-sipping, latté-guzzling, cheese-eating (according to a recent letter in the Sydney Morning Herald), do-gooding, bleeding heart, elitist, woolly minded, doctor’s wife (actually, he’s in the wine industry).
Indeed, one of the things that characterises most political and ideological debate these days (maybe always) is the ability of each side to call the other names, and to make sweeping generalisations and assumptions about the motives and abilities of those who think differently.
Here is a simple example. Broadly speaking, those on the Right regard the Left as stupid, and those on the Left regard the Right as wicked. Yet, many on the Right are also religious and many on the Left are secular, and in that context, their views of one another are neatly reversed. The secular regard the religious as stupid and the religious regard the secular as wicked.
This odd mirroring goes on as you analyse the positions that generally characterise a person as a member of the Left or the Right. By the way, I am acutely aware that I am generalising, shockingly so, but hopefully for a purpose. So here goes, anyway:
On abortion, those on the Left support a woman’s right to choose; on the Right, they support the State’s right to protect the foetus’s right to life.
On euthanasia, the Left support an individual’s right to choose the time of their going; the Right implacably oppose it.
On capital punishment, the Right support the State’s right to take life; the Left implacably oppose it.
On censorship, pornography, homosexual rights, prostitution, drug law reform, etc., the Left are generally more laissez faire; and the Right more regulatory.
On social issues, therefore, the Right are generally in favour of government control and legislation; and the Left in favour of individual rights and freedoms.
Yet, when it comes to the on-going battle between capital and labour (to use an unfashionable Marxist paradigm), again, each side’s point of view becomes neatly reversed. Here the Left are the ones in favour of regulation and State control; and the Right are for individual rights and freedoms.
On health, education and welfare, the Left want government regulation; the Right prefer individual choice and responsibility.
On industrial relations, workers versus bosses, globalisation, foreign trade, the environment, the Left want governments to regulate and control; the Right want government’s kept out of it.
In areas like anti-terrorism, migration policy, refugees and multiculturalism, the Right often revert to protectionism and control; the Left want a more compassionate and individual approach.
So, it is not true that the Left favour monolithic State control whereas the Right favour individual liberty. They both favour both. It is not the solution that either side chooses that defines them; it is the issues they choose to apply it to.
And politics and ideology are not the only areas where this odd dance goes on. There is a similar action and reaction that operates between the private sector and the public sector between business and government.
It has long been understood by business analysts that there is a kind of in-and-out rhythm that characterises management in almost any organisation. Employees who have spent any length of time with the same employer will often roll their eyes and groan as they watch yet another gung-ho, new managing director arrive with plans to change the balance.
If a company is highly centralised and decision making occurs mostly at head office, the new manager will start to furiously decentralise, setting up systems that allow decisions to be taken at the coalface. After a few years of this, when, as is common, the new guy moves on, his successor will often do the opposite and bring everything back to the centre.
The same exhaling and inhaling also goes on between government and industry. At the moment, the fashion in business, particularly in large, global companies, is to be heavily centralised. Everything — finance, products, r&d, strategy, marketing, advertising, corporate relations and philosophy — is run on a trans-national basis, tightly controlled by head office in the US, Japan or Europe.
In government, the opposite is true. The fashion amongst Western governments at the moment is to push more and more responsibility onto the private sector and community. Tunnels, roads, jails, detention centres, schools, hospitals, telecommunications, you name it; governments want to get out of it.
As has been said before, when a government operates in surplus, as ours is currently doing, the community is operating in deficit. We are dancing with one another.
But what is behind this constant movement in and out, from centralised control to individual responsibility? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Will it ever stop?
Maybe these are the wrong questions to be asking. Maybe it is the movement itself that matters, the constant, creative tension that is the inevitable result of there being no perfect place to be.
Maybe the dances we do with our opposite numbers, the way we move in and out from each other, really are as natural to us as breathing. The rhythm of life, perhaps.
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