Before I go on about this, if you haven't taken the Political Compass test, by all means please take the test before you read on. Find out where you place on the compass dial before you become tainted by anything I might have to say here. Thank you!
I was reading the end of a novel this morning, Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver and at the same time listening to a call-in program on WERU radio from East Orland, Maine when this topic popped back into my head with a potential answer to some of my earlier questions. To refresh, the Political Compass broadens the perspective on the very limited one-dimensional political spectrum of left, center, and right by plotting a two-dimensional x/y axis where left is left, right or "conservative" is right, authoritarian is up, and libertarian is down.
Horizontal - the axis of humanity
When Marx proposed that the bourgeoisie class be eliminated he was expressing an ideology that I think expresses the main idea of what the political compass plots to the left. By that I mean what left represents on the political compass is a society without a class structure. By that measure, the right on that compass represents the belief in class structure in society. In other words, the further you are to the right, the more you believe that class structure should be fostered, preserved, and protected. I have often wondered what possible connection there is between the right and the term "conservative." Just what is it that the right wants to conserve? If right represents class structure in society, conservatives want to conserve class boundaries.
The opposite of wanting to preserve class structures is wanting to form society in such a way that there are no class boundaries. All men are created equal.
Vertical - the axis of power
It's only when the vertical axis is integrated into the perspective that we can begin to make sense of politics, though. On the Political Compass, the libertarian notion that all people have individual liberties that should not be put under the control of government authority is plotted as down on the compass dial. The opposite of that is that government should have authority over individuals. Authoritarian political belief is plotted as up on the Political Compass.
So the political compass dial is divided into four distinct quadrants.
Upper Right - authoritarianism conservatism
Upper Left - authoritarian socialism
Lower Left - libertarian socialism
Lower Right - libertarian conservatism
Maybe all men are created equal but even if they are, it is the responsibility of government to ensure that we don't spend our lives living that way.
In the upper right quadrant the prevailing political philosophy is that government power should be used to foster, preserve, and protect class structure. Government power should focus on promoting the class notion that the rich should become richer at the expense of the labor of the poor. In most "democracies" most of the already-seated politicians fall into this quadrant. Voters respond to political spending and that money for the most part comes from the wealthy class of society who believe that government power should protect their interests.
Whether or not all men are created equal, government exists to ensure that all men live as equals.
The upper left quadrant of the compass represents those who believe that government power should be used to limit or even eliminate class structure. Governments should actively and forcefully spread the wealth around. Workers should reap the wealth generated by their labors but that can't happen unless government authority is used to overcome the power of the wealthy upper class. Communism started out from this political quadrant but its downfall came in part because there was no way to ensure that government authorities didn't abuse their power to enrich themselves. Communism drifted to the right as can so clearly be seen now in China's embrace of wealth and class structure.
All men are equal despite the government.
Any form of libertarian politics faces a serious problem, government power and authority. Libertarian philosophies stand opposed to government authority. Libertarian socialism suggests that it is the power of government that allows the wealthy to hold onto wealth. Without that authority, people would on their own work to form societies in which the worth of each individual is recognized as equal with that of every other individual in society.
Every man should be free to rise above the mundane.
This is not an easy quadrant to describe because in actual political practice it is rarely represented. The best representation is probably the "libertarian" philosophy but in practice, libertarians tend to elevate themselves above the x-axis. They want government authority to maintain and protect their liberty. Possibly the best representatives of this quadrant are the classic 19th Century "liberals" or "free trade" advocates, the industrialists who could see that conservative government authority was being used to limit the growth of this new form of industrial wealth and influence. Classic liberals were industrialists and investors who wanted government to get off their backs so these new entrepreneurs could maximize their wealth.
In my February 2006 post I concluded with these questions. "So why is it that authoritarianism is oriented on the positive Y-axis on the political compass? And why is it that both on that axis and in our own heads, libertarian is negative?"
Perhaps what is really going on with the political compass is that the axes represent absolute deviation from two ideals. The horizontal axis measures deviation from the concept that everyone is equal. Increasing belief in class structure is measured as increasing deviation to the right. The vertical axis represents deviation from the concept that everybody is free. Increasing belief in the authority to limit freedom is represented as upward deviation.
Looking at the spectrum from this perspective shows the x/y crossover point not as a zero point with positive and negative deviation but rather as a somewhat random consensus point, a central or moderate political consensus point. The real measure of the compass is how far we deviate from the two ideals that one, we are all created equal and two, we should remain free to stay that way.