Beyond Left and Right 1

A large amount of political discourse and commentary is dominated by the categorization of views and perspectives as either left wing or right wing (or left leaning or right leaning). What do people really mean by these labels? In my experience if you ask most people this question they will come up with a list of policy examples that they think typify each stance. For example they might say that a belief in the free market is right wing or that a belief in the welfare state is left wing. People typically struggle to generalise and come up with a coherent general definition. If pushed people often come out with some version of:

‘left wingers are kind and caring and right wingers are really selfish’ (from a left winger!)

‘left wingers are fluffy dreamers and right wingers are realistic and practical’ (from a right winger!)

neither of these positions give much credit to the alternative view and it is little wonder that dialogue and mutual understanding is so difficult with these attitudes.

Ken Wilber and the Integral approach seeks, no surprise, to find a way to reconcile and integrate these two perspectives.  We must start with a more precise way of understanding what is meant by these concepts.

Firstly what is politics all about? At its most fundamental it is an attempt to make people in society less miserable. It asks the question: Why do people suffer and what can we do about it?

The pure right wing thinker may answer: people suffer because they lack the personal qualities of endeavour, hard work and motivation, ‘they suffer because they are lazy’.

The pure left wing thinker may answer: people suffer because they are oppressed, marginalised and persecuted, ‘they suffer because they are victims’.

We can note then that the right wingers tend to see the causation of suffering as interior to the individual and left wingers see the causation of suffering to be exterior to the individual. As Ken Wilber puts it:

Thus the liberal recommends exterior social interventions: redistribute the wealth, change social institutions so that they produce fairer outcomes, evenly slice the economic pie, aim for equality for all. The typical conservative recommends that we instil family values, demand that individuals assume more responsibility for themselves, tighten up slack moral standards (often by embracing traditional religious values), encouraging a work ethic, reward achievement and so on…

Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything

(Note that liberal and conservative is the same as left and right for the purpose of this analysis)

Now I would like to think that, given these definitions, most sensible people would say: Of course, the cause of most problems is a combination of these factors, we can see that difficult exterior circumstances could make someone lack confidence and motivation. Likewise someone’s personal inadequacy could make their life situation miserable despite a very benign and supportive exterior environment.

What I think happens however, in most political debates that polarise around these issues, is that people differ on which aspect of causation needs emphasising in any given situation. It is the legitimacy of the emphasis on interior/exterior factors that is often questioned. These types of arguments often descend into interminable rounds of whataboutery!

We can see that a more integral approach would be to recognize that in most real life policy debates there are both interior and exterior factors at play. Which factors are the most pressing and need to be focussed on and solved is what any mature debate should be about. (Of course we need to trust one another that we are all trying to make society less miserable and not scheming to further the interests of a special group).

When people get very attached to an identity of being either a liberal or a conservative they become unable to objectively assess these factors. They habitually emphasise their preferred side of the argument and thus render true dialogue extremely difficult.

To finish this introductory post it should be noted that this division of the interior consciousness of the individual vs the exterior objective environment is a really key concept in the Integral approach. These two dimensions of existence co-exist and co-evolve together, mutually interacting with and enacting one another.