GSM London Economics Lecturer Anna Zimmerman talks political economics and the ‘muddying’ of political labels.
My mother and I are fond of a good rummage in a charity shop. Recently she brought home a framed copy of the front page of The Times from May 1941, bragging about the sinking of the German ship, the Bismarck (I have a hearty World War II obsession). There is a certain romance to the yellowing pages of yesteryear, but what really struck me was the sheer quantity of news crammed onto that front page. A serious perusal of a newspaper in 1940 would have left little time for the actual winning of the war.
The contrast with today’s relatively insubstantial coverage is fairly stark, but the comparison does not end there. We are used to self-congratulatory boasts about the vast quantity of information available in this so-called media age, but there has been a drift to providing opinion disguised as news, rather than news itself. This in itself is not a problem, if it is well explained and thoughtful, and explores the inevitable complications of policy. However much of it is flabby, contradictory, a-historical; reflecting at best sloppy thinking and at worst malice. Nowhere is this more the case than in the labels that are attached to policies and people.
‘Left’ and ‘right’ are most definitely the most common, often joined by the qualifier ‘hard’. ‘Conservative’, ‘Islamist’, ‘Marxist’, ‘Thatcherite’, ‘nationalist’, ‘Eurosceptic’, ‘radical’, ‘Shia’ and ‘Sunni’ are also widely used in British media coverage, recently joined by ‘anti/pro austerity’ (this one is at least more explicit about policy). Of course this is a global trend, rather than a purely British one, so each culture has its own colourful, but essentially vague and subjective jargon. I challenge anyone to give me a good definition of ‘Baathist’ which made a brief, but largely undefined appearance in British media vocabulary in the early 2000s. There are few Brits who would have even heard of ‘saltwater’ and ‘freshwater’ economists, terms that are common in the States. Similarly ‘progressive’ has more meaning in the US than over here, while ‘liberal’ has had umpteen different uses, depending on your location in space and time. This is a good example of how meanings can transmogrify, leading to much confusion. The interpretative slippage of ‘liberal’ is well known; what is very poorly understood is that the concept ‘free market’ has been completely transformed during the last two centuries. The classical political economist Adam Smith believed that freedom of markets meant using regulations and taxation to minimise economic rent, interest and monopoly power. In our times, ‘free market’ has come to mean quite the reverse – stripping out regulations and lowering taxes to allow monopolies to flourish (poor Adam Smith would be appalled by the policies espoused in his name).
Such labels are so ubiquitous that they slip stealthily past our mental radar, giving us a comfy vagueness of meaning, without having to bother with the hard graft of true understanding. Recently I had a vivid discussion with a dear friend, many years a Tory politician and easily the smartest person I have ever met, but even he was confused about the subtle differences between neoliberals, neoconservatives and the religious right. For those interested in the arcane world of Yankee political labels, a brief albeit cynical way of describing the difference might be that all three groups trumpet their hostility to Big Government, except in so far as it affects their own particular obsession. So the neoliberals want a heavy handed government to enforce private property rights, neocons like a strongly activist government with regard to foreign policy adventures and the religious right want a government crack down on moral reprobates like gays and feminists. Here I’m demonstrating that I’m quite capable of peddling my own caricatures, but my serious point is that we had not had this discussion before, despite debating American politics on numerous occasions. I had never realised how little common understanding we had about the true meaning of these terms.
All this matters because labels become a means of telegraphing acceptability and thus have a powerful deterrent effect for those seeking fresh ideas. There is a concept within political science of the ‘Overton window’, defined as the range of policy options that the public accept as viable. However there is a circularity here which can become stifling; what is acceptable is what is already acceptable, rather than what is wise or appropriate. It can take a severe crisis and/or a particularly brave individual to spring a community out of this mental prison, but sadly the end result is usually the imposition of a new one, every bit as limiting. Labels help to keep us there, because they are designed to trigger an emotional response (fear/comfort, bad/good), rather than an intellectual appraisal of policy details. Economic and social policy becomes more a matter of seizing the propaganda initiative to establish the desired Overton window rather than a reasoned response to circumstances. This is true of all parts of the political spectrum, the sole difference being that the self-styled ‘right’ have been considerably more successful in dominating the window in recent decades, forcing the ‘left’ to dance to their tune.
There is no obvious solution to the problem of the lazy application of labels, except to maintain a rigorous suspicion whenever they are used. It helps to remember when we ourselves have been the victim of them; I have had many students who baulk at the not-so-subtle conflation of ‘Islamist’ with ‘terrorist’ that has become so common. Even when labels are less omnipresent, we need to be on our guard. After all, there may have been a relative absence of labels in that old newspaper, but those that were present were the most trenchant and inflexible of all – the adequation of ‘British’ with ‘good’ and ‘German’ with ‘evil’.