Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 16:06 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 16:06 | SYDNEY

Why 'left' and 'right' still matter


Sam Roggeveen


5 September 2008 10:56

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. (John Maynard Keynes)

In Canberra a few years ago, I attended a seminar by prominent Australian political and cultural critic Robert Manne. Near the end of the Q&A, a gentleman stood up and went into a short disquisition on the evils of multinational corporations and American cultural hegemony. I can't remember how he got around to it, but his question eventually boiled down to whether Manne agreed that the ideological categories of 'left' and 'right' were outdated and useless.

I'm paraphrasing from memory here, but Manne's reply was, 'No, because I  can identify which side of politics you come from merely by the tone of your question. And that's useful information.' Dead right. Someone please tell Minister for Small Business, Craig Emerson, author of this op-ed abut ideology in today's Australian.

As the Manne argument implies, Emerson is wrong on a practical level. Yes, the categories of 'left' and 'right' have limitations, and Emerson identifies some of them in his article. But they are useful shorthand, and if we didn't have them, we'd just have to invent equally imperfect substitutes. Besides, interrogating these categories to discover their limitations is itself informative: they are at their most interesting at the point where they start to break down.

But there's a deeper problem with the political worldview implied in Emerson's argument. Emerson situates himself in the sensible political centre, arguing that policy solutions can come from all parts of the political spectrum — what matters is not ideology, but doing what works. It's a beguiling idea, but it implies that government is merely a practical or technocratic task, and that surely sells political activity short. Politics is ultimately a moral concern, and the practical solutions we offer to policy problems are premised on our view of larger moral questions like the purpose of human existence and the nature of our obligations toward fellow people and the natural world.

In foreign policy, it is often realists who adopt this technocratic pose, arguing that the (amoral) purpose of foreign policy is to secure and advance the national interest. But of course, the composition of that national interest remains contested, as are the means by which we pursue it.