Nowadays it seems that extremist political ideologies are on the rise on the Western World (Europe and Americas). Popularized by populist tactics like a discourse against the corrupt and treasonous elite, demagoguery, appeals to passion in the population they are becoming more and more influential, even seizing power and control of the government in many countries. However, are they really that extreme?
Political ideologies are a complicated business. A political ideology is a set of ideas on what society should become and how to achieve that goal. There are many different ideologies, many times with opposing ideals for society. Due to the incredible diversity of thoughts, status, identity and life experiences of people, it was inevitable that many different ideas for how to run society would appear. A good way to explain ideologies is to create a spectrum with one or more dimensions and try to classify, the simplest one is left vs right.
The idea of leftwing and rightwing politics comes from the French Revolution. Commoners railed against the disproportionate power of the clergy, nobility and the King, and wanted to create a more democratic system where most people could influence and control their nation’s government. Revolutionaries and liberals (workers and businessmen) against the conservative clergy and nobility sat on the left and right respectively of the assembly relatively to the speaker perspective.
There was a coalition of very different people on the left of that parliament, from poor peasants to rich members of the bourgeoise. They were united in that they wanted to shift the balance of power from the Church and from nobles, and create a more democratic, republican, liberal society, with no one above or below the law, a fairer law, political and taxation system. Liberalism was a leftwing movement and conservativism rightwing.
That liberal society ought to be based on liberalism, an ideology originated mainly in Europe against the norms of hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy, the divine right of kings and traditional conservatism, for representative democracy and the rule of law. They were pro free-trade and free markets. Nowadays that liberalism is called classical liberalism, especially in the United States, where mainstream liberalism became supportive of moderate to sizable state intervention in the economy and society to reduce inequalities of all kinds.
As societies become republican, or at least more democratic, law and justice systems stopped favoring the traditional ruling classes, and capitalism rose with the industrial revolution, a new liberal status quo emerged in the mid to late 19th century. Businessman benefited tremendously from these changes, while most working people’s life quality barely improved or even worsened. The new conservatism now defended the preservation of this political order, and people who wanted to go back the ancient regime could be considered reactionaries.
Through those tumultuous changes in the society and politics of the 19th century, conservatism established itself, not as a clear set of ideas of what society should be, but as more of an attitude of resisting radical change to society and the natural order of things. Conservatism promotes or accepts traditional institutions, tradition, hierarchy, human imperfection, authority and property rights. So mainstream conservatism accepted representative democracy and modern capitalism. Liberalism would also mutate, as classical liberalism was becoming rightwing, or at best, centrist or moderate, and wasn’t promoting the interests of the disadvantaged masses as well as it should.
After all, for many society hadn’t improved enough even with all the technological and economical advances. Even with fair courts and men’s suffrage, property rights, constitutional limits on rulers’ power among others, many people were still living miserable lives and inequality arguably rose with the emergence of a capitalistic (where capital accumulation was the goal) industrial society. Most people worked long hours poorly paid, had little protection in disease, old age, unemployment… Children still had to work, economical and real political power was still reserved to a minority. The left stopped being the coalition of diverse groups and interests opposed to the traditional ruling classes and become more radical in response to the changes and possibilities afforded by the industrial revolution. Leftists intellectuals and many poorer people saw the enormous wealth that was being created but were deeply frustrated and angered that not enough was reaching them. Philosophers like Marx and Engel argued that workers would be forever increasingly exploited by the bourgeoise which would get ever richer and more powerful. Unless they took action and seized the means of production, meaning they would have to take control of government, installing a proletariat (working class) dictatorship to ultimately reach a much more equal society, not just in opportunity or before the law, but in outcome, where “from each according to its ability and to each according to his need”. The goal was a state free society (anarchist) where people worked together and land’s resources and capital are collectively owned. This ideal state is communism, and the intermediate condition is socialism. (Continues on page two)