Home > Economics - General > Converts, conversely

Converts, conversely

May 27th, 2012

Back in 2005, I wrote about the common experience of dealing with “ people who’ve shifted, politically, from positions well to my left to positions well to my right” (taking as an example, Nick Cohen). Paul Norton, about the same time, wrote along similar lines.

At the time, I mentioned that there weren’t many examples of people going in the opposite direction[1].  But as a commenter points out following this Ryan Cooper link to my last post on the collapse of the rightwing parallel universe, there are now lots of prominent US examples: David Frum, David Stockman, Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bartlett and just now Michael Fumento. I’m quite surprised by Fumento, who has always appeared to me as a stereotypical culture warrior.

Of course, there isn’t an exact symmetry here, essentially arising from the fact that, whereas most of the L-R conversions happened at a time when the left as a whole was conceding a lot of intellectual and political ground to the right, the current situation is one where the US conservative movement and their international offshoots have moved sharply to the right and remain politically potent. So, it’s much more plausible for those making the R-L shift to claim “I didn’t abandon the conservative movement, it abandoned me”.

Still, never having had such a conversion experience I find it fascinating to observe. Particularly striking is the fact that a sharp change in position doesn’t much change the confidence with which views are expressed. Someone who was cautious and sceptical before a change in view will remain so afterwards. More strikingly, converts who held their old views with absolute confidence, will be equally confident of their rightness in abandoning those views.

fn1. Some earlier examples that occur to me now (all US) are David Brock, Michael Lind and Kevin Phillips. No tendency of this kind is evident in Australia as yet – I’d be interested in views from other countries.

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  1. BilB
    May 27th, 2012 at 15:14 | #1

    It might have something to do with the fluoridation of our water, or rather when did they stop doing that? One possibility.

    Another is that there might be a link to bank balances. Maybe there is an account balance level that triggers a protective response in the male brain. It could be, JQ, that your balance level is not quite there yet. When do the royalties from “Zombies” begin to flow in?

  2. Greg Ransom
    May 27th, 2012 at 16:55 | #2

    You are wrong about Davod Stockman .. he’s moved repeatedly _closer_ to the positions of Hayek and Mises. Hayek rejected “supply side economics” without spending cuts before Stockman did. And on money, finance and macro Stockman has been radicalized by Hayekmand Mises.

    It took Bartlett 35 years, but he also moved to Hayek’s position on “supply side economics.”

    Sullivan is just an embarrassment.

  3. Greg Ransom
    May 27th, 2012 at 17:00 | #3

    You’ll note that most of the folks you mention we’re never classical liberals and none were very sophisticated as thinkers. Some have never been thinkers, and have revealed themselves to be very superficial intellects.

    Nothing like the movement of Max Eastman, Walter Lippman, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, and endless others from statism, socialism and the left toward markets and classical liberalism.

  4. Greg Ransom
    May 27th, 2012 at 17:11 | #4

    Do a NGRAM search and you’ll note the the modern use of “left” and “right” came out of the World War I period, indeed, out of Moscow. The divisions between “left” and “right” we’re divisions between rival factions of statists & syndicalists, etc., anyone opposing Moscow and the Comintern being of the “right” (e.g. Trostsky), and with _both_ “left” and “right” being hostile to classical liberalism and the market economy. The label “right” was later used to falsely smear classical liberals as racists and National Socialists / Italian Fascists (as CBS News did to Goldwater in 1964).

    Moving from “Left” to “Right” doesn’t take you to classical liberalism and the free market. It simply moves you away from the dominant and most fashionable version of statism among those dominating the conversation of intellectuals at the time. When eugenics and racism were fashionable, those were progressive and leftist initiatives, ditto with anti-semitism, e.g. in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. So the labels don’t clarify anything, they are intended to obscure and falsify, not inform.

  5. Jim Rose
    May 27th, 2012 at 17:57 | #5

    shifts from the far left to the far right and back can happen inside two weeks for many voters

    Working class French voters not attracted to the hard-left French parties were attracted to the patriotic messages of the Front National in the first round.

    In the second round, a certain percentage of these voters voted Socialist because the Socialist Party is closer to their thinking on issues like health care and housing

    Polls suggested that although half of the national front second round vote will go to Sarkozy in the second round, a third will go to Hollande see http://www.economist.com/node/21553456

    nationalism combined with anti-capitalism is a powerful brew.

  6. John Quiggin
    May 27th, 2012 at 18:11 | #6

    Greg, the terms “left” and “right” go back to the seating arrangements of the parties during the French Revolution. Moreover, Trotsky was the leader of the Left Opposition to Stalin – the Rightists were Bukharin, Tomsky and others. So, please, no more lectures on history of thought.

    More to the point, given that you don’t regard classical liberalism as being on a left-right spectrum and none of the people named were or are prominent as classical liberals, why are you even commenting here?

    I’m applying to both you and Jim Rose the restriction: one comment per thread per day. You’ve both used your quota for today, so please wait until (your local) tomorrow, before commenting again.

  7. Robert in UK
    May 27th, 2012 at 18:19 | #7

    Windschuttle is of course the paradigm Australian example of dogmatic leftist turned dogmatic rightist–from what I’ve come to understand, he was just as sloppy a scholar on the other side of the ideological divide.

  8. May 27th, 2012 at 18:25 | #8

    A Spanish philosopher once said that “I am me and my circumstances”. I believe he was onto something.

    To a certain degree, I see myself depicted in the group of those who had a Damascene moment. In my case, a shift towards the left.

    I don’t know whether this would be of interest (I’m neither a prominent guy, never was, and I don’t think I was really an extreme right kind of bloke, certainly not in cultural matters), but I was quite conservative in economic matters.

    I was also upper middle-class, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

    In my case, life forced me to lead a life that for me was unsuspected (perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I once could afford to ignore).

    At least in my case, the change did not happen overnight, but it was radical. And a change that, at my age and given my circumstances, seem irreversible.

    Poetic justice, if you like. But necessary, nonetheless.

  9. BilB
    May 27th, 2012 at 18:33 | #9

    I’m quite intrigued by this Keynes versus Hayek type argument, particularly when people are hanging their hat on one or the other, because to be one or the other is to completley ignore reality.

    Keynes is almost certainly more right that Hayek simply because he attempted to make order from chaos. Hayek believed in the magic wand approach, and the good nature of disgustingly rich people. And the whole debate completley ignores the logarithmic transition of civilisation on our finite world.

    US ideologues have failed to recognise that the time ……”It took Bartlett 35 years” ….to change his mind is just about how long it took the US’s passion for externalised labour to shift all of the nation’s wealth to the top of the pyramid and to gut out the US economy, and the Republicans, who benefit the most, want desperately to continue down that path and are prepared to twist their “philosophy” into whatever form it takes to achieve that goal. The few recent Republican “dropouts” are simply evidence that the ultra right wing elastic pholosophy is about to snap under the strain of endless self interest.

    With apologies to Keynes I say to hell with this whole argument. As our civilisation blasts blindly to the brink of resource collapse it is time for a new economic thinking that is able to manage economic and environmental failure. The world is desperately in need of new economic thinking that is not still struggling to make sense of the past, but is fully able to appreciate the present and forsee strategies for the future.

    No doubt Hayek thought that this is what he was doing, but IMO he wasn’t very good at it. At the very least Keynes was able to manage his present fairly well, but even from his time in history should have been able to see where the population trends were heading (but in fairness he did not have the benefit of google or digital achiving).

  10. John Quiggin
    May 27th, 2012 at 20:06 | #10

    @Robert in UK
    I thought WIndschuttle’s book on unemployment was pretty good back in the 1970s, but that was a long time ago. I was predisposed to agree with a lot of “The Killing of History” until he got to the bizarre point of calling Popper a relativist.

    But Windschuttle is indeed the paradigmatic L-R for Oz, but there are many others. The most prominent move in the other direction is probably Malcolm Fraser, but i think politicians post-retirement are a special case. I really can’t think of a prominent intellectual here who has made the R-L shift, but there surely must be some.

  11. Robert in UK
    May 27th, 2012 at 20:15 | #11

    @John Quiggin
    I think Robert Manne would argue he made the R-L shift, but he’s actually pretty hard to categorise ideologically. He’s always been a bit heterogeneous. I will have to keep thinking! Maybe Harry Clarke?

    An interesting feature of a lot of L-R shifts is that they often happen when old white men (as they invariably are–but perhaps this is a generational thing) go “emeritus” as you like to say. It’s an interesting cultural phenomenon that I’ve noticed but can’t quite explain. I’m sure they would put it down to wisdom, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that!

  12. Fran Barlow
    May 27th, 2012 at 20:46 | #12

    My first serious political consciousness was as a supporter of Jim Cairns (though to be fair, at the time, I knew very little about him politically — I was only 11). I became a strong Whitlam supporter, became disillusioned following 1975, became attracted to the Maoists (largely out of frustrated left populism), before becoming involved with the Trotskyist movement. I abandoned Trotskyism following 1991 and would now see myself as a kind of left-social democratic humanist. Quite a journey.

    I read Fumento yesterday PrQ. Now perhaps I have read you wrongly, but he is still quite clearly, a conservative — just not a completely loopy and obnoxious one. While he has left behind the strident culture warrior stuff and affects a kind of pluralistic broad church attitude to those he calls “liberals” (while figuratively holding his nose), I’d be surprised if he wouldn’t find almost anything you had to say on economics or social policy deeply radical, and not in a good way.

  13. paul walter
    May 27th, 2012 at 21:47 | #13

    Prof. Quiggin observes,” the conservative movement abandoned” (certain conservative thinkers) not they the conservative movement after the right took that sharp turn to the right.
    Julia Gillard embraced “conservatism” in time for the 2007 election, but like the conservatives alienated from todays brown shirt right, she’ll find history has passed her by.
    Koch bros capitalism is a far nastier species than Ted Turner capitalism, Turner was happy to have his media empire as a stall in the market place of ideas, earning a good living without needing to interfere with or control others, but the newer form cheerfully accepts collateral damage not as some thing unfortunate to be minimised, but almost some thing to be welcomed as evidence of gain coming their way.
    Grist for the mill, the wheels grind very slow.

  14. paul walter
    May 27th, 2012 at 21:54 | #14

    As for Manne, I’d agree he is close as it gets and he’s therefore a relative renaissance man in the barren terrain of oz pomo society.
    But he’s a bit like Philip Adams or Barry Humphries. He doesn’t come from the ruck of blue collar life and only with difficulty has lost his distaste for blue collar angloceltic culture.
    Everybody forgets how much they are formed by their own roots.

  15. May 27th, 2012 at 22:51 | #15

    Pr Q said:

    Of course, there isn’t an exact symmetry here, essentially arising from the fact that, whereas most of the L-R conversions happened at a time when the left as a whole was conceding a lot of intellectual and political ground to the right, the current situation is one where the US conservative movement and their international offshoots have moved sharply to the right and remain politically potent. So, it’s much more plausible for those making the R-L shift to claim “I didn’t abandon the conservative movement, it abandoned me”.

    The “they left me I didn’t leave them” line is pretty much the case for most contributors to the American Conservative*. Excepting the fact that they made this choice more than a decade ago, when the Right was even stronger (taking control of all three branches of government and riding the crest of a stock market boom).

    AmCon kicked off in OCT 2002 basically to oppose the Bush admins ill-starred misadventure into Mesopotamia. It was founded by a triumvirate – Scott McConnell, Patrick Buchanan and Taki Theodoracopulos – and is now published by Ron Unz. All needless to say, leading lights amongst conservative intellectuals, although all too iconoclastic to tow a party line.

    It’s got a pretty good record of social analysis, being thoroughly vindicated in its opposition to Bush’s Invade-the-World/Invite-the-World/Indebt-the-World globaloney strategy. His Iraq War-in-Error, Open Borders and Wall Street Debtquity/Mean Street Diversity-driven housing boom have all been unmitigated disasters.

    For the unpardonable sin of being right about the Right they were officially drummed out of the conservative movement, Frum going so far as to condemn them as “unpatriotic conservatives”! Just goes to show that no good deed goes unpunished.

    Unfortunately most of its good work has been completely by Mainstream Media-Academia complex, who can’t seem to compute the notion that a staunch Republican like Patrick Buchanan can oppose the Pentagon and Wall Street at the same time. The cognitive dissonance would apparently cause their heads to explode.

    * Excluding the present commenter and occasional AmCon contributor, whose attitude towards political movements follows Groucho Marx’s attitude towards country clubs.

  16. Greg Ransom
    May 28th, 2012 at 03:09 | #16

    @John Quiggin

    John, Do an NGRAM search using the terms “leftist” and “rightist”. You won’t find evidence that “Left” and “Right” were live terms in English for over a hundred — but they you will find powerful evidence that they came to life around 1918-1920. Hmmmm.

    I’m well aware of the seating arrangements in France in the 18th century, and the language used at that time in the 18th century by some in France.

    The literature simply does not sustain the notion that this language used in France in the 18th century was anything but completely _dead_ in English, until this language became a live thing in Moscow in the 20th century.

    Read David Hull’s _Science as a Process_ for an account of the life & evolution of words / concept.

    You have two unconnected “organisms” or word replicators here.

  17. Greg Ransom
    May 28th, 2012 at 03:25 | #17

    @John Quiggin

    The key thing is that the battles between “left” and “right” — and the use of this language, was CENTRAL to the battle within Russia & the international Comintern — and deviations from the party line were marginalized using these terms.

    And when Stalin & his Comintern eventually went after Trotsky, he identified Trotsky as “rightist”.

    The Trotskyites, of course, flipped the labels — Trotsky was a “good guy” on the left, and Stalin was the right winger.


  18. Greg Ransom
    May 28th, 2012 at 03:28 | #18

    @John Quiggin

    The key thing is that the battles between “left” and “right” — and the use of this language, was CENTRAL to the battle within Russia & the international Comintern — and deviations from the party line were marginalized using these terms.

    And when Stalin & his Comintern eventually went after Trotsky, he identified Trotsky as “rightist”.

    The Trotskyites, of course, flipped the labels — Trotsky was a “good guy” on the left, and Stalin was the right winger.


  19. Greg Ransom
    May 28th, 2012 at 03:32 | #19

    John, do the NGRAM search, use “leftist”, “leftwing”, “leftwinger”, and the opposite.

    Data is your friend.

    With the facts on hand, then we can discuss this.

  20. Greg Ransom
    May 28th, 2012 at 03:36 | #20

    @John Quiggin

    Less speech, restricted speech, is better than more speech.

    “Shut up,” he explained.

    So may of you can’t argue the facts, and can’t argue the theory, so you argue “shut up.”

    Both Mises and Hayek wrote books on how both left and right were enemies of classical liberalism — this isn’t controversial stuff.

  21. May 28th, 2012 at 04:30 | #21

    Greg Ransom, you are talking complete tosh. Here’s an actual link to ngram for use of “left wing” and “right wing”. http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=left+wing%2C+right+wing&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3 Observe carefully the complete lack of any change around 1917.

    The terms “leftist” and “rightist” are indeed communist in origin, but have only ever been niche terms.

  22. May 28th, 2012 at 05:08 | #22

    The use of “right wing” or “left wing” referring to birds or planes (or military formations) is sufficiently rare compared to the political use to be just noise on the scale of the ngram chart I linked to.

  23. May 28th, 2012 at 05:13 | #23

    @Greg Ransom


    Why don’t you do like Danny did and post your own version of the search? This way we know for sure that your search was properly done and learn from it.

    It’s not just “Data is Your Friend”, it’s “Transparency is Your Friend”.

  24. May 28th, 2012 at 05:15 | #24

    Pr Q said:

    I really can’t think of a prominent intellectual here who has made the R-L shift, but there surely must be some.

    AUS is a pretty secular society, intellectuals here are a godless bunch. By contrast there are plenty of unabashedly religious intellectuals in the US. So AUS does not get the religious de-conversion syndrome that happens in the US, where a secular revelation and conversion to militant atheism is commonly associated with a pronounced lurch from Right to Left.

    Santamaria is sometimes identified as a R-L converter. But in reality he was a conservative social-democrat from Day 1.

    The world shifted during his long career, whilst he stayed the same. His militant Right-wing anti-communism eventually was originally the Centrist CW, then became unfashionably Right-wing and finally became the Centrist CW again. Whilst his ferocious anti-bank denunciations and dogged loyalty to the trade union movement, which were the Centrist CW back in the day, for a long time seemed archaic Leftism but now seem unusually prescient. His cultural conservatism was always considered Right-wing and will always be considered thus, but the status-anxious culturati can have it no other way.

    If you hang around long enough you can find yourself at different parts of the ideological spectrum, given the vagaries of political fashion.

  25. John Quiggin
    May 28th, 2012 at 05:26 | #25

    Greg Ransom, since you ignored my request to limit posting, you’re permanently banned from commenting here, or at any thread of mine on Crooked Timber. I’m always stunned by the lack of respect for other people’s property rights that is characteristic of internet propertarians.

    No further replies to this thread derailment please.

  26. Paul Norton
    May 28th, 2012 at 07:10 | #26

    An interesting thread!

    Manne is an interesting case because, to simplify, he made the left to right shift as a young man and then made the return journey later in life.

    In his youth Manne was, in his own words, a social democrat or democratic socialist who came under the influence of the anti-communist social democratic intellectual Frank Knopfelmacher, who in turn had been influenced by the Menshevik-Bundist emigre socialists and their western counterparts like the Marxist philosopher Sydney Hook who had come to be appalled by the reality of Leninist-Stalinist communism on the basis of the same democratic and humanistic convictions which led them to become socialists in the first place. The socialist reaction against communism was at its most intense at the time of, and in response to, the High Stalinism of the 1930s and 1940s through to 1956, a key part of which was the persecution and extermination of dissident socialists and leftists by Stalinist regimes, and gross sectarianism by Stalinists in the West towards others on the Left.

    When the Cold War ended Manne was young enough to return to his social democratic roots in his thinking about post-Cold War Australian and international developments, and also managed to extricate himself from the contemporary Right’s tribal hostility to issues which feminists, environmentalists, indigenous rights campaigners, etc., have put on the agenda, and which have important dimensions which don’t neatly fit older notions of Left and Right. I think it’s also fair to say that Manne was thrust further along the leftward road by the illiberal, vergng on barking mad, reaction of the QuadRANT old guard to his opening up of that journal to various heresies under his editorship.

  27. BilB
    May 28th, 2012 at 07:38 | #27

    Ernestine Gross on another thread has layed a path to the work of Tim Jackson


    who has reasonably well defined the challenge for present day economists. In so doing he has also made it very clear that economics of the future will bear little resemblence to that of the past. There exists an urgent need for brilliance of mind to frame a new economic understanding that casts off the economic ghosts of the past and anihilates the Zombie theories that have built the disaster that we are living through. We desperately need breed of economists who are able to analyse the world economy’s current dilema and define a robust economic methodology for our otherwise civilisation devatating immediate future.

    And once such greatness of mind has presented itself we may then be able to reflect on just how far wide of the mark the present “left” “right” economic ideologies have been.

  28. rog
    May 28th, 2012 at 08:04 | #28

    Did the loss of the family seat of Nareen (ostensibly to pay debts to Lloyd’s) have much influence on Malcolm Fraser?

    He once famously advised voters that under Labor your money was better hidden under the bed only to literally lose the farm to a risky investment.

  29. Paul Norton
    May 28th, 2012 at 08:57 | #29

    Jack Strocchi @24:

    “Santamaria is sometimes identified as a R-L converter. But in reality he was a conservative social-democrat from Day 1.”

    I wouldn’t use the term “social democrat” to describe Santa. I’d say his Catholic social philosophy was more a mixture of Rerum Novarum labourism, Chesterton-style distributism and continental organic conservatism. As such, whilst it included a strong anti-capitalist element which reemerged later in his life after the Cold War ended, it also included an anti-modernity element which is generally not present in social democracy. As an illustration, the social democrat Knopfelmacher was comfortable with feminism, whereas Santamaria was not.

  30. Paul Norton
    May 28th, 2012 at 09:00 | #30

    To correct myself slightly, Santamaria’s anti-capitalist sentiments were never far away even during the Cold War. For example, he understood, in ways that most Anglosphere right-wingers did not, the fundamental tension between the dynamics of contemporary capitalism and the survival of the traditional male-breadwinner nuclear family. This was an insight he shared, in certain respects, with feminists such as Marilyn Lake, Lois Bryson and Anne Manne, whilst having a different view about the appropriate policy responses.

  31. Greg Ransom
    May 28th, 2012 at 09:14 | #31

    @John Quiggin

    John, I’d posted the comments before I’d read all the way down to your restrictions on my speech.

    Of course, I’m not surprised by your behavior.

  32. Chris Warren
    May 28th, 2012 at 09:44 | #32

    @Paul Norton

    More “Stalinesque” diatribes here. Paul’s so-called ‘gross sectarianism … in the West towards others on the Left’ existed long before Stalinism and was in evidence even as Marx and Engels drafted the communist Manifesto. Today the real ‘gross sectarians’ are all the various trot and anarchist splinters and fragments using such Stalinesque diatribes to further albatross real peoples movments.

  33. Chris Warren
    May 28th, 2012 at 10:11 | #33

    It is possible that overt badge-wearing, bumper-sticker, Leftism based on ‘welfare state pallatives’ has exhausted itself. Probably, it has been damaged by various enthusiastic excesses by particular strata such as H.E. graduates. It may also have been damaged by unrealsitic expectations on so-called ‘new social movments’ and associated misunderstandings over how justice was actually distributed in a capitalist society.

    The real flaw in Leftism, is that it looks for a better, fairer capitalism, and collects together all those who suffer such dreams, to then stand apart from the rest of society, sending off words of advice.

  34. Paul Norton
    May 28th, 2012 at 10:21 | #34

    Chris Warren can never be accused of having moved from left to right. 🙂

  35. Chris Warren
    May 28th, 2012 at 10:32 | #35

    @Paul Norton

    Karl Marx can never be accused of having moved from left to right.

  36. John Quiggin
    May 28th, 2012 at 11:05 | #36


    In that case, a simple apology would have sufficed. Since I got abuse instead, I’m confirmed in my view. Any further breach of the rules will earn you the same treatment you got from Henry at Crooked Timber for the same offence.

    To add to my previous observation about propertarians lack of respect for other people’s property rights, I guess this is a corollary of their lack of respect for other people in general. At least on the Internet, propertarians seem to be the kids who never got over the discovery that they were smarter than some of their teachers.

  37. Paul Norton
    May 28th, 2012 at 11:10 | #37

    Another interesting dimension of the left-right-left phenomenon is they way in which positions on particular issues become shibboleths for contending camps of Left and Right on a tribal basis rather than on the basis of a working through of one’s position on the basis of first principles. The Israel/Palestine conflict is such a shibboleth (parden the choice of word). In internal ALP politics, support for Israel is a tribal shibboleth for the Right whilst support for the Palestinians and denunciation of “the bloody Zionists” is de rigeur for the Left (especially the hard Left). Likewise, university students who become involved with the Liberal students on the Right, or various Trotskyist/Marxist-Leninist groups on the far Left, quickly learn that it is part of their tribal duty to be barrackers, not just for the State of Israel but for the Likud government if they are Liberals, and not just for the Palestinians but for the Islamists, ultra-nationalists and BDS campaigners if they are far Leftists. As the Melbourne University Liberal Club’s submission to the Senate Inquiry on Academic Freedom showed, this sort of tribal partisanship need not be based on an informed understanding of the politics and history of the region.

  38. Paul Norton
    May 28th, 2012 at 11:14 | #38

    As a person who identifies as a democratic leftist and a Green, I long ago decided that a negotiated two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, with the pre-1967 borders as the starting point for negotiations, was the solution most compatible with my political principles and with a historically informed analysis of the conflict.

  39. Chris Warren
    May 28th, 2012 at 13:10 | #39

    Paul Norton has got this mostly right. However why vaguely tag elements as ‘far left’? Presumably these are the trots and Maoists who organise as satellites of other Left initiatives. In their predictable errors they, nonetheless, are a legitimate part of the Left. Or does this label only apply to anarchists?

    The “starting point” of “pre-1967 borders” is a centrist position. If “as a leftist” this is his perspective, then maybe he has moved to the right. His tagging of anti-Zionism as ‘hard Left’, on this evidence, demonstrates a drift to the right. Opposition to Zionism and support for the original inhabitants, is based on general principles – not specifically ‘hard Left’ politics.

  40. John quiggin
    May 28th, 2012 at 13:24 | #40

    Please no discussion of Israel / Palestine. It’s a guaranteed thread derailment

  41. may
    May 28th, 2012 at 13:49 | #41

    the ideological switcheroo sometimes seen ,seems to look more like a rejuvenation move by those with careers in the doldrums.
    “he/she said WHAT?”

    for the tiny mind i possess,the sight of ideologists damaging our political process by digging into a host subject like ticks on steroids,no matter what other business needs to be attended to,takes more of my attention.

  42. Freelander
    May 28th, 2012 at 17:35 | #42

    Movement from one (apparently) polar extreme to another, without consideration of (apparent) intermediate positions is probably a consequence of a style of thinking where everything is cut and dried, there is no subtlety, and therefore rarely need to reconsider or modify views, or even contemplate that one may be wrong.

    What a tranquil world to live in? Thinking is so rarely required and most, if not all, responses can be formulaic.

    What must be convenient for those making the switch is that they usually would already know their previous arch enemies’ spiel down pat.

  43. Donald Oats
    May 28th, 2012 at 18:53 | #43

    My mental depiction of the left-wing to right-wing spectrum is not as a straight line, but as a circle: the extreme left and the extreme right are next-door neighbours on that circle, which allows a short-cut, if you will, from one extreme to the other.

    The salient feature of either form of extremism is that the holders of said idealogies are principally dogmatic and unabashedly assertive (aggressive?) in the “correctness” of their ideological positions.

    Someone who holds to an ideology through dogmatism, rather than through a carefully introspective examination, is in my opinion ripe for the switcheroo; typically the switcheroo happens when a jarring factoid invades their opinion-space, refusing to be shook out of the dogmatist’s head-space.

    Something similar is observable in other great debates, such as—I only raise it for illustration, not for further discussion—anthropogenic global warming, or the lack thereof. One fictoid which has switched a number of people from believing that AGW is real to disbelieving anything that intellectually capable climate scientists say, is the occurrence of periods in the paleoclimate record where CO2 growth in the atmosphere (seemingly) preceded periods of global warming, etc.

    I’ve seen this switcheroo, due to this (apparently) jarring fact, turning a strident belief to a strident dis-belief, without an intervening period of reflection about the data, or on models that might explain such data. Even without consideration that the measurements themselves might not be the whole picture. It is fairly typical in reality-based science for an initial set of measurements, based upon newer techniques made possible by technological advances, to be revised as the newer techniques are better understood, and their limitations better appreciated. Certainly that has been the case with ice-core data, tree-ring data, etc.

    I’ve always been bemused at how a single—possibly mis-understood—factoid can turn some people from one fixed position, to another equally fixed position, as though a dichotomy is the only possibility. Same goes for extreme leftwing and extreme rightwing, I suppose.

    Anyway, thanks for the blog site: I always appreciate reading it, as well as the usually very thoughtul contributions of the readers. Good stuff.

  44. paul walter
    May 29th, 2012 at 00:24 | #44

    Am enjoying the thread as well, including the efforts by Paul Norton, Chris Warren and others to unpack and explain the beast.
    What has got me intrigued is the comment from Chris Warren, I think, examining the dichotomy involving real socialism and social democracy, but it’s understandable that many might think that fine tuning (getting rid of the ASIO and sedition laws, Fair Work Australia, rightist control and censorship of msm, etc), might get society back to some sort of functioning entity that serves the species rather than a few corporate outsiders.
    There has been a big failure in the ALP, whether some lefties want to acknowledge it or
    not, to do with labor dereg, abandonment of ecological science and rationalism in various fields of endeavour, a perverse attachment to neolib nostrums, and increased lack of willingness to see social problems as an offshoot of capitalism itself, rather than the victims it spat out after sucking them dry.
    Despite two decades of the public yelling ’till its blue in the face that it doesn’t want “market rebalancing” of an already skewed distribution of wealth and opportunity and the end of a notion of the ALP as a people’s bulwark, paid for by the common efforts and accumulated contributions of the many, against the greed of the few.
    The Labor right has angrily shoved against people trying to keep a democratic society viable, who want accountability in tax payer money use, effective media and education, and proper FOI to investigate dodgy deals and so forth. NSW, Costa and so forth- that’s where where you ‘ll find the genesis for the modern betrayal.
    Wasn’t this the impression you had of Anna Bligh by the time she was booted?
    Social progress and welfare observed more in the breach than observation, more deals done dirt cheap behind closed doors, and finally the unforgivable; the grubby privatisation proposals that had the public turn, en masse, against her in shocked complete contempt.
    We’d thought she was being pushed, that deep down she was labor, too- true colours would show in the heat of battle, and in a way that scabs like Costa could never do, but in the end she had no more idea of what it was to be Labor than the fire hydrant fifty yards up the street from my home.
    Same with Gillard for dropping her knickers for Rinehart, on imported sweated labor while so many are out of work still here. Someone on 4 Corners called it right last night, the current agenda is solely about union busting leading to neo feudalism and nothing about labor shortages.

  45. May 29th, 2012 at 04:55 | #45

    A slightly surreal aspect of the Left-Right debate is that it is all conducted entirely within the bounds of establishment (post-modern) liberalism, which is currently in the latter stages of decomposition. This looks to me very much like crewmen shuffling deck-chairs on the Titanic.

    By post-modern liberalism I mean liberalism which has thrown overboard its religious moral compass and cut loose its scientific anchor. In major domains of political conflict post-modern liberalism looks on the nose, whether it be:

    – epistemic liberalism (social constructivist “knowledges” and “truths”)
    – economic liberalism (zombie financial markets),
    – ethnic liberalism (multicultural enclavism and gangsta ghettos),
    – esthetic liberalism (charlatans like Koons and Hirst being feted at auction),
    – ecologic liberalism (hydro-carbon free-for-all),
    – ethical liberalism (do your own thing, no duty towards ancestors, descendants or fellows)

    Thus political debate appears to be utterly stalled by competing claims of individual rights and policy action thwarted by well-organized interest groups. Nothing ever gets done, unless and until some utter crisis forces the government’s hand.

    Meanwhile North East Asians, who retain a sense of community obligation, are streaking ahead and probably regard these kinds of debate with amused contempt. They get things done there because they still have the concept of team work, based on a shared identity of Asian race, Confucian religion and Communist ruler.

    We shall see which world-view prevails as the nationalistic PRC continues on its relentless drive for dominance. Whilst the narcissistic-individualistic citizens of the EU/US continue to squabble amongst themselves and blow their ancestors inheritances for a pocket-full of mumbles.

  46. May 29th, 2012 at 05:17 | #46

    I don’t necessarily think the Big Debate of the future will be between (progressive) Left-liberals and (regressive) Right-liberals. Of more interest and greater import is the debate between (post-modernist) globalised elites and the (modernist) nationalised populus.

    Elites tend to be liberal-minded whereas the populus care about their national community, since it is the only one they have.

    We are seeing this now in Greece where the extreme Left and extreme Right are joined forces to oppose the Centrist liberal economic policy. I expect more of this both extremes against the Centrre paradigm.

    In many ways John Gray has been the most interesting and prescient thinker of the past decade or so. He, like me FWIW, began his study of political philosophy through a thesis on Hayek. But he has long since waved goodbye to a dogmatic commitment to global liberalism, in its many shapes and forms.

    Liberals need to take a break from their incessant petty squabbling and pay heed to where their philosophy is taking them. Liberalism needs a pretty thorough re-construction, particularly in the light of institutional and instrumental developments. If not it will be heading towards irrelevance if not the Dustbin of History.

  47. Chris Warren
    May 29th, 2012 at 08:49 | #47

    @Jack Strocchi

    Liberalism, based on capitalism, is liberalism for the few and (in essence) is weakened by its hankering for monarchy. In the long-run, your Liberalism is destroyed by monopoly and various forms of Thatcherism.

    How extreme do you have to be to force families out of their jobs and out of their homes. How extreme do you have to be to ensure that everyone has a decent secure job and affordable housing in a viable community? Or is this just for the rich?

    Your so-called Centre paradigm has destroyed Europe and threatens Australia if China slows and the uglies (Abbott’s clique) gain Government.

    Liberalism is what you get when you have lost both your property and your democracy. Liberalism for Capital means slavery for humanity.

  48. Tom
    May 29th, 2012 at 09:48 | #48

    @Jack Strocchi

    A majority of the population in China especially in the major cities such as GuangZhou, Shanghai, Beijing etc has already lost the Confucius values or I should say caring for others. If you have a friend that knows what the people in China is like in the recent decade, you should of known this. The intense competitive society might be one of the reason why people had changed. Quite a few high school close friends who grown up in China told me literally, you won’t be saying a lot of private things or completely trust any friends post primary school.

    The other thing is that the Communist Party is not Communist but capitalist in nature with dictatorship power. Indeed China used to be like a communist country, with the majority of the corporations government owned (still is though) and housing and meals provided by the companies to it’s workers (not thesedays). My mother who worked in the 1970s-80s said literally her whole month salary can be saved if she wants to since there isn’t really any need of expenditure. But that was back then, now life in China is no different to of Australia or the US except that the government is much more powerful. As a matter of fact, inequality is huge and social welfare is worse compare to ours and even the US.

  49. Paul Norton
    May 29th, 2012 at 10:01 | #49

    Back on the topic of why people convert from Left to Right or vice-versa, it’s long been my view that such shifts usually don’t involve simply “selling out” or renegadism and that other motives are almost always present.

    It’s interesting to note that in 1998, Manne described is own position as “a breaking of ranks with the Right” but not an embrace of the Left, and that he believed it was necessary to embrace a politics beyond Left and Right. Yet a few years later he was comfortable describing himself as a person of the Left. What was going on in Manne’s mind during this period can perhaps be intuited by his comments on Noel Pearson in 2007:

    “In ideological politics, activists are invariably more hostile to the camp from which they have defected than they are to the camp of the former enemy, even when they keep their distance from it. Although Pearson was theoretically opposed to the Right, he was far more emotionally engaged in his conflict with the Left.” (Manne, 2007, “Pearson’s Gamble, Stanner’s Dream” in Making Trouble: Essays Against the New Australian Complacency, Black Ink: Collingwood, 2011).

    I believe that this idea of the power of the emotions associated with the renunciation of previous strongly held positions and the straining of relations with erstwhile close friends and comrades, to drive someone over the fence rather than staying balanced upon it, has considerable explanatory force. I feel it myself in relation to the emotional content of my more recent responses to a cause I was strongly associated with as a very young man, and to the cause and people I regarded at that time as “the enemy”. Out of respect for John’s wishes I am not going to name the causes in question.

  50. Paul Norton
    May 29th, 2012 at 10:02 | #50

    Should have written “Manne described his own position”.

  51. Paul Norton
    May 29th, 2012 at 10:24 | #51

    Interesting comments from Jack Strocchi and Tom about China. I’ve almost finished reading “When China Rules the World” by Martin Jacques, which points to the continuities between the communist-capitalist hybrid which has emerged in China and the Confucian and imperial traditions. However, this is probably a topic for another thread.

  52. John Quiggin
    May 29th, 2012 at 10:42 | #52

    I don’t know China well, but my impressions are the same as Tom’s. Communist rule destroyed most of the pre-existing Confucian basis for ethics, and now that communism itself is discredited, it’s everyone for the themselves, and the devil take the hindmost.

  53. BilB
    May 29th, 2012 at 10:51 | #53

    I think, Paul Norton, that an interesting case study might be Arnold Schwarzenegger. This guy goes from being a humanity busting cyborg to a compassionate Republican govenor, to a foolishly honest husband, and then back to the humanity busting bit. I think that it will be interesting to monitor the hue of his blue as he settles back into protecting his 800 million from the internal revenue service and his Democrat ex wife, and could be a litmus test for my original assertion, “does the money play a role in strength of conviction”.

  54. J-D
    May 29th, 2012 at 11:10 | #54

    John Quiggin :
    @Robert in UK
    I thought WIndschuttle’s book on unemployment was pretty good back in the 1970s, but that was a long time ago. I was predisposed to agree with a lot of “The Killing of History” until he got to the bizarre point of calling Popper a relativist.
    But Windschuttle is indeed the paradigmatic L-R for Oz, but there are many others. The most prominent move in the other direction is probably Malcolm Fraser, but i think politicians post-retirement are a special case. I really can’t think of a prominent intellectual here who has made the R-L shift, but there surely must be some.

    Has Malcolm Fraser really moved from right to left?

    My impression is that perception of him as being on the right during his active political life is based on his positions on one set of issues (because those issues were politically important at the time), while perception of him as being more to the left since his political retirement has been based on his positions on a different set of issues (because they, and not the former set of issues, are the ones he now likes to talk about). I haven’t seen clear evidence that he’s actually shifted his positions substantially on either set of issues.

  55. Doug
    May 29th, 2012 at 11:34 | #55

    On China what needs to be noted is the potential impact of the substantial spread of Christianity in the business and technology sectors, now around 8% of the population nationally and up to 20% in part of the south-east of the country. Part of the appeal seems to be the provision of an ethical framework that is consistent with elements of what Weber, [perhaps inaccurately)y described as the Protestant work ethic.

  56. Paul Norton
    May 29th, 2012 at 11:54 | #56

    I’ve re-read John’s post and the comments thread from 2005, and found that on that thread I described Paul Gilding as someone who had moved away from the environmentalist convictions of his youth. This was and is clearly wrong, and I unreservedly withdraw that imputation and apologise to Paul Gilding.

  57. BilB
    May 29th, 2012 at 12:40 | #57

    I think from my reading of him, what Paul Gilding has said is that he has moved passed his grieving for the world and is in the territory of doing whatever we can to improve the situation and adapt to the inevitable changing environment. Hence his “Great Disruption” theme. And I agree with him fully as should be obvious from my argument that current economic thinking, while being modularly solid, is drawing the wrong conclusions leading to failed government policies. Environmental Economics is in its infancy and is still an annoying appendage of economic science rather than a structural core element….for both Left and Right. Social inclusion is also treated as being an expendable option for half of the argument, IMO.

  58. May 29th, 2012 at 12:44 | #58

    Sorry if this seems off-topic, but today happens to be JFK’s 95th birthday. Reading Alistair Horne’s “A savage war of Peace” of 1977 about the Algerian War of independence shows that in the 1950’s Senator Kennedy was an outspoken supporter of the Algerian Independence and was able to shift US policy from supporting French colonialism to neutrality even before he was elected to the office of President. Reading these excerpts show that it is not possible to exaggerate the good intentions and greatness of JFK. His example leaves to shame most of today’s warmongering world ‘leaders’.

  59. Fran Barlow
    May 29th, 2012 at 13:25 | #59


    Reading these excerpts show that it is not possible to exaggerate the good intentions and greatness of JFK. His example leaves to shame most of today’s warmongering world ‘leaders’.


    1. Responsible for isolation of Cuba; numerous assasination plots against Castro, attempted disruption of Cuban economy through industrial and agricultural sabotage, swine flu etc ..
    2. Responsible for October missile crisis through positioning of missiles in Turkey. Had the USSR not backed down, a nuclear exchange might have occurred
    3. Responsible for support of Ngo Dinh Diem and then murderous coup against him in Vietnam; began escalation that led to Vietnam War

    Like Obama, he was very intelligent, and on the surface, a genial fellow, but he was driven by exactly the same thing that all US imperialist leaders are driven by, and acted accordingly. Had he lived long enough, he’d not have acted much differently from LBJ.

  60. Paul Norton
    May 29th, 2012 at 14:11 | #60

    Fran, Diane Kunz has argued that on aspects of domestic policy such as the civil rights struggle JFK would not have behaved as well as LBJ. She argues that the Kennedy clan saw the civil rights movement as a politically inconvenient phenomenon which could cost them votes, whereas Johnson actually had some decent convictions on the issue.

  61. Chris Warren
    May 29th, 2012 at 14:29 | #61

    @Fran Barlow

    The USSR did not back down. Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba in exchange for the removal of US missiles from Turkey and for guarantees of Cuban sovereignty. This was 100% of USSR and Cuban objectives. There was no other demand.

  62. Fran Barlow
    May 29th, 2012 at 17:03 | #62

    @Paul Norton

    [whereas Johnson actually had some decent convictions on the issue.]

    Hmm I’m not sure about how those convictions translated in practice and especially during the 1950s over Brown b Board of Education, he had a pretty spotty record, letting the Southern states legilatively off the hook. He certainly didn’t see conscription as any kind of civil rights issue. In any event, my point was against Kennedy rather than LBJ.

  63. rog
    May 29th, 2012 at 17:28 | #63

    BilB :
    “does the money play a role in strength of conviction”.

    As the (Russian?) saying goes, when poverty walks through the door love flies out the window.

  64. paul walter
    May 29th, 2012 at 19:00 | #64

    Re Fran Barlow, it’s often remarked that for all his flaws, Nixon got it right on China and I understand, also had a more advanced outlook on economics and ecology than neolib politicians forty years down the line.
    Is it politicians who have moved to the right or just the politics? Would Nixon be todays version of Rick Perry, given that he was an opportunist, or is it true that Nixon would have abhorred the antics of the Goldman Sachs T Party Right, given the type of policy issues he was interested in.
    Politicians have been sold on the twin towers of Huntingdonism, cultural/racial superiority and arbitrary warfare and war against restrainton behalf of that residual cathedral of the ego, neoliberalism. Since Nixon’s era, the aim has been to dismember Settlement society, not work to make it work, because capitalism found successful ways of throwing off the constraints enacted for the good of the community in the cause of its own little self understood drive for control and wealth.
    The rupture of the two thousands has been a multi trillion dollar rupture and things will get worse from now on, not better, for most and youve only got to look at the likes of Murdoch, Koch Bros and Rinehart to realise that the infestation could kill the patient.
    There has been a rupture, no one is in charge of the runaway train

  65. May 29th, 2012 at 21:09 | #65

    @Fran Barlow

    Fran Barlow, the issues you raise are far too complex for me to fully respond to
    here (although you are welcome to discuss them on the page I linked to above).

  66. rog
    May 30th, 2012 at 07:25 | #66

    Slightly OT, a study into evidence vs cultural beliefs.


  67. Jim Birch
    May 30th, 2012 at 09:17 | #67

    Pretty well right on topic for any political discussion. If you can’t deal with systematic biases in thinking it’s hardly retional to argue about the facts.

  68. derrida derider
    May 30th, 2012 at 14:32 | #68

    @John Quiggin

    Ooh no, mainland Chinese are big on family and friends – that they often have no sense of duty to wider institutions does not make them selfish egoists. Nepotism is chinese family values.

  69. derrida derider
    May 30th, 2012 at 14:36 | #69


    Yes, Malcolm Fraser always had strong anti-racist and anti-colonialist views – they even got him into trouble in his own party when he was PM. A pity he was, and maybe still is, pretty much a reactionary on most other issues.

  70. derrida derider
    May 30th, 2012 at 14:41 | #70

    @paul walter
    Paul, I think in later years Nixon would have been as sold on neoliberalism as Thatcher was, and by exactly the same sales pitch – it destroys old-money elites. Bitter resentment of the East Coast establishment (in one case) or the Tory grandees (in the other) was a powerul part of their psyche.

  71. Tom
    May 30th, 2012 at 15:49 | #71

    @derrida derider

    I kind of don’t want to derail the thread again, but “mainland Chinese are big on family and friends” is not a very accurate claim. I like a lot other Chinese have a very large extended family in China and yes the family meet up once or twice a year whenever the situtation allows the members to do so (e.g. not sick or too busy). So yes, it does appear that the family members of the extended family have close links to each other and are indeed quite friendly and offers you the best help when they can; but not when it comes to financial issues, you can have somebody in the extended family that is a multi-billionaire boss but another living in a slump long term unemployed, and that situtation is unfortunately not uncommon.

    The second thing is how close of a friend you are to someone, in Mainland Chinese, especially the recent decade or two. People are living in an extremely competitive society and as such, “using your friend” to gain benefits is very common. Especially, that they don’t really care if there will be any consequences inflicted on you (e.g. asking you to be a loan guarantor and then “vanish” with the money). Chinese people knows this and as such they have different groups of friends and they interact differently to each group. Back in the 60-70s, people trust most of their friends in their student age even upto university friends. When you are considered as a close and trustworthy friend, they will give you all sorts of advises and helps if they can. However, I have a number of Chinese friends (currently in their 20s, fulltime employed in China) told me that you can’t really trust any friends, even school friends post primary school unless you really know them. You don’t need to be a genius to wonder what this means and why this is the case.

  72. paul walter
    May 30th, 2012 at 21:56 | #72

    Thanks, DD, will never resent background info offered in good faith.

  73. May 31st, 2012 at 00:44 | #73

    I don’t think there is much symmetry between those moving from left to right and those going from right to left.

    The shifts from left to right are almost all cases of people who are given to seeing the world in very stark terms, with everyone who does not agree with them utterly beyond the pale. They are also frequently bullies, whichever side of the fence they are on, and simply reverse their positions.

    I’m not familiar with some of those you refer to shifting from right to left, but those I am seem far more part of a drift towards more sophisticated thinking, moving towards the centre in the process. There is plenty of this on the left, but it doesn’t draw much comment when socialists turn into social democrats. It’s usually a case of people holding onto the same basic goals, but both becoming more patient about achieving them and realising the world is more complex than they thought and calls for more subtlety than they had realised.

    I’ve noted this before when the topic comes up, but the shift from dogmatic left to dogmatic right doesn’t seem to have occurred much amongst those referred to as Gen X and Y. I know our host doesn’t place much store in these generational things, but if you look at the boomers, plenty had crossed before they were 40. On the other hand the only examples I can think of amongst Gen X are David Penberthy and arguably Paul Howes and Joe Hildebrand. I can’t think of anyone famous, but I know quite a few people my age and younger who were in the right at university, but have shifted to the moderate left. In some cases this was about becoming comfortable with their sexuality, in others about disgust with the simplicity and dishonesty that characterises most of the right these days.

  74. Paul Norton
    May 31st, 2012 at 07:29 | #74

    Stephen @23:

    “The shifts from left to right are almost all cases of people who are given to seeing the world in very stark terms, with everyone who does not agree with them utterly beyond the pale. They are also frequently bullies, whichever side of the fence they are on, and simply reverse their positions.”

    This brings to mind those student Maoists from the 1960s and 1970s who have become right-wingers of the QuadRANT school in recent decades. They have gone from believing that you had to be a Stalinist in order to be a leftist to believing that, if you are a leftist, you must be a Stalinist.

  75. June 3rd, 2012 at 01:21 | #75

    You should read of the popular unrest in Quebec led by the courageous students against their tyrannical provincial government and brutal police force. Presumably many who are now fighting in the streets against the Quebec government voted for them at the last elections.

    The Quebec Government is attempting to do to their Universities, what Hawke and Keating started in 1986 when they introduced the so-called “Higher Education Contribution Scheme” (HECS). As a consequence of the ‘contribution’ asked of students been raised repeatedly by Hawke, Keating and then Howard, Australian Universities have become globalised with many Australians unable to afford the fees. Consequently native Australians form only a small minority of students on many Australian campuses.

  76. HowardK
    June 10th, 2012 at 01:28 | #76

    I think the shift that John is referring to is considerably more nuanced than his blog would suggest. For one, many of the original US neocons were east coast progressives — some of them Jewish like Frum — and largely secular. While Reagan was in bed with the Christian fundamentalists, he managed to leave some space for the secular neocons, especially since the issues were largely economic (i.e., supply side theories) with a sideshow around school prayer, abortion rights, etc.

    The last Bush administration focused on tax cuts and prosecuting two wars, again leaving some space for secular fiscal conservatives and hawks like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams and others. While the culture wars and the Christian fundamentalist part was omnipresent, it was relegated to a corner — albeit an important one — in the Bush administration.

    The new conservatism in evidence in the 2011/2012 Republican presidential race is an altogether different animal. In this conservatism, the centrepiece is Christian fundamentalism and conservative cultural values, which leaves no room whatsoever for the secularists who, unlike their Tea Party and fundamentalist counterparts, are not medieval in their social views on abortion, gay rights, contraception, etc. This new brand of conservatism leaves no room for non-believers, including Jews and other non-Christian groups. Issues around the economy and war that traditionally rally neocons is secondary to firmly establishing America as a Christian nation. This vision not only excludes non-Christian neocons, but it also scares the hell out of them. Be careful what you wish for.

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