Absolute vs relative understandings of ideology

One of the reasons Waleed Aly’s ‘Future of Conservatism’ essay goes wrong is that he thinks of political ideologies in absolute rather than relative terms.

To think of an ideology in absolute terms is to take a principle or idea its adherents support and make that its foundational principle or idea, from which all else must derive or be deemed philosophically inconsistent.

To think of an ideology in relative term, by contrast, considers these principles and ideas relative to the status quo and other political ideologies.

So relative to the status quo and social democracy, ‘neoliberalism’ could be considered the ideology of markets. ‘Absolute’ opposition to any other organising institution than markets is a non-existent political force in Australia. But compared to where we are, the ‘neoliberals’ are those most in favour of using markets more.

People on the left are most sensitive to ‘neoliberalism’, because ‘neoliberals’ target the left’s relative priority – increased use of state powers of taxation and regulation to create a ‘fairer’ society.

Conservative clashes with the left are more common than conservative clashes with ‘neoliberalism’ not because markets can’t have destabilising effects, but because left and conservative relative priorities cover more of the same territory of identity politics, which lends itself to anxiety and anger.

Relative to the current feelings of leftists and some members of ethnic minorities, conservatives are not sufficiently enthused by cultural diversity. In absolute language, Aly converts this to support for ‘monocultralism’. But in absolute terms that isn’t the case. Compared to Australia’s past, the past of Australian conservatives, and the status quo in other countries, Australian conservatives are tolerant multiculturalists.

By thinking of Australian politics in relative rather than absolute terms we can focus on areas of actual disagreement, rather than arguing about contested definitions. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that liberals, social democrats and conservatives in Australia are really part of the one Australian political tradition looked at from different angles. All three emphasise different things, but none are fundamentally against markets, a large state by historical standards, or ‘traditional’ institutions such as the family. The relative differences that spur debate hide the similarities and continuities behind them.

15 thoughts on “Absolute vs relative understandings of ideology

  1. Whoa – talk about disagreeing on this one! It reads like “yeah, while we all have our differences, we’re not all that different – group hug time!’
    Let’s talk markets. Neo liberals aren’t for or against markets. In fact you can’t be for or against markets – they just are. Even in communist Russia there were markets. No, neo-liberals don’t want to use market more, rather, they want FREE markets. There’s a difference. And while neo liberals want freer markets, I would also go on to say that want substantively freer markets than current and that this IS an absolute. That is, they want MUCH, MUCH less government intervention.
    Same with conservatives, many want to wind the clock back on many social issues. In fact, I remember once speaking with the CIS founder – forgotten his name. One of his interesting points was that he saw his role to deliberately take extreme views, so as to normalise right wing positions that were slightly less confronting.

    And it’s not a like this is a right wing thing either. How many times do we hear the left scream “revolution”. In other words, they want significant change too. Bob Brown and the Greens (sounds like Bill Haley and the comments) take extreme positions. Indeed, policies that they advocated 20 years ago that we deemed absurd then are run of the mill stuff now.
    For another example, check out the US and health insurance – the left want to totally change the playing field – and ole A-nort wants us to take a slightly right of centre position and tinker at the edges. No thanks!

    For my take, I think you need to be absolute – if not, you’re sitting on the fence. That said, I am absolute in private only -and staying relative to achieve absolute goals! (thus leaving other idelogical comrades to be the necessary cannon fodder). I think they call this logical incremenalism.


  2. It is no secret that the swear-word “neoliberalism” was invented by Marxists. The reason is very telling. Marxism was born as a reaction against liberalism.

    After WWI, the growing haters of liberalism split into two groups – marxist socialism and national socialism; the latter substituted the Volk or “the nation” for the proletariat.

    Once western Leftists knew the game was up, they turned from their positive politics of actually fighting for and working towards something (no matter how half-baked) to projecting their ressentiment onto their old foe, whose resilience they both resented and silently admired.

    But they could never cede history to ‘liberalism,’ as that would mean that their leftist/socialist glory days were just an historical blip, until the REAL progressive force – liberalism – reasserted its reality as the historical engine-driver.

    The people born after liberalism’s reassertion never got to experience the ‘positive’ Left, and so think that being “left-wing” means nothing more than hating liberals and conservatives.

    To disguise the tedious atavism that is the post 1970s Left, they had to restyle their old foes as “neoliberals” and “neoconservatives.”


  3. Baz I think you have a good point about the ideological cannon fodder. e.g. Hanson provided cover for Howard to shift to the right. But at the same time there was also a rejection of some of Keating’s push for closer ties to Asia.

    But I think Andrew is correct up front. Very few people actually hold a pure and extreme ideological position to its full extent. Most people just want to nudge the current system 5-25% in one particular direction.

    e.g. Not many people want to sub-contract out national defense to mercenary contractors (just overseas adventures).

    e.g. Not many people want government price controls on everything. Just essentials like water, electricity and credit card charges.


  4. Baz – Yes, freer markets (eg no or lower barriers to entry, no price control, no government preference) where markets exist already. But I am not saying that politics is a hugfest; clearly it isn’t and shouldn’t be. There is a role for radicals, but Australian ‘neoliberals’ haven’t made a case for the kinds of things Aly is talking about.

    M- I don’t think there is any price control on credit cards or on electricity in Victoria. Basic water supply is provided by corporatised government monopolies which have seriously underpriced water for political reasons – so perhaps a market would have been better, given the shortages we have experienced.

    BTW, I think you are mistaken about Howard and Hanson.


  5. Andrew my point on credit cards is that there are people who advocate controls on this, but not necessarily on other items. On electricity the price is set in other states (for residential but not industrial), whereas Vic which has no controls. WA is having to raise electricity prices dramatically because by under-pricing they were facing shortages.

    What I was getting at was that those on the left who advocate price controls for these essentials, don’t advocate price control for everything (e.g. cars or food).


  6. M – I think it is more the nature of market power in the industry than how essential something is that drives arguments for price control – people want non-essential credit cards regulated, but not essential food.

    Politically the history of regulation in the industry creates some path dependency – as other countries have found when they try to deregulate for example bread prices.


  7. I believe that Andrew is making a good point.

    He stresses, as I did in my earlier piece on “choosing between classical libaralism and social liberalism” in Vol 25 No. 2 of Policy, that while there are a few extremists around in Australia (e.g. libertarians and those who actively upport state paternalism), they are relatively few in number. The great majority belong somewhere in the middle – they are often at variance on the degree of government involement: how much to spend on social welfare, the promotion of equal opportunity and government intervention.


  8. What this seems to imply is that we are all Conservatives of subtly different flavours, in the final analysis – quelle horreur!.

    Incidentally, credit cards are becoming an essential good to participate in society. New cash denominations aren’t being issued to keep up with inflation – we’re several years overdue for the introduction of $200 note. This is making it progressively harder to purchase high-value goods with cash.


  9. I’ve used ATMs that dispense $100 notes (they’re common near casinos, oddly enough… ;), and the very same ones that are now dispensing $20s and $50s once dispensed $10s. There’s no technical barrier here – the ATMs are completely reprogrammable for different notes. And “never” is a long time – the inevitable march of inflation continues.


  10. New cash denominations aren’t being issued to keep up with inflation – we’re several years overdue for the introduction of $200 note.

    $100s are underused anyway, why would they want to bother with $200s? The difficulty in being able to get $100s exactly when you want them, and the ease of using credit cards, means that there’s no real demand for them. (But I’m willing to head the anti-5c coin campaign; and wouldn’t object to a $5 coin either.)


  11. There are 500 euro notes. Which when the exchange rate was at 2:1 meant they were worth close to $1000 AU.

    In general I think cash is just not used for large transactions. People just aren’t that comfortable carrying $1K+ in cash.

    I’m not that happy about credit card security. I say they need fingerprint verification, not a signature which is written on the card.


  12. I agree with Andrew. Clearly, most people use a “relativist” approach to politics. 40 years ago, people advocating that the commonwealth government tax should be 22% of GDP were leftists… whereas now somebody would be called a “radical neo-liberal” for taking the same position. Obviously, the idea hasn’t changed.

    This leads to the amuzing position were if somebody said “the tax take should be the same as under Whitlam” they would be pursuing a “radical free-market” agenda. lol


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