Is the left-right spectrum the only way of defining our primary political differences? Could we, for instance, see a realignment around liberal and authoritarian positions on social issues? Or centralised versus localised distributions of power?
It seems unlikely. In almost every developed democratic nation, politics is firmly organised along familiar left-right lines. There are a few exceptions – such as Turkey, where the most important division is between Islamism and secularism – but in most systems the main rivalries are based on economic interests.
In a thought-provoking article for Aeon, Steve Fuller foresees a future in which is this is no longer the case:
“The ideological dichotomy of ‘Right-’ and ‘Left-wing’ has had a good run. The ‘wing’ metaphor itself dates from the seating arrangements in the postrevolutionary French National Assembly, where supporters of King Louis XVI gathered to sit on the president’s right side and revolutionaries sat on his left.”
In the 1970s, a political theorist by the name of FM Esfandiary had a radically different vision:
“More than 30 years ago, a jet-setting Iranian playboy, transhumanist author and corporate consultant argued that this divide was due for a 90-degree rotation… [He] predicted an axial shift to ‘up-wing’ and ‘down-wing’ political priorities. The directional associations in this new scheme were quite literal: ‘up‑wing’ meant looking toward the heavens, and ‘down-wing’ was looking toward the Earth.”
It is a system of politics where the spectrum is defined not by economics, but by technology. ‘Upwingers’ believe in maximising technological progress, seeking always to move beyond the natural limits of human existence. ‘Downwingers’ are more cautious – seeing danger in transgressing these boundaries, which they regard as defining our humanity, not constraining it.
It is a political spectrum that comes with its own colour scheme. Instead of the red and blue of left and right, there is the black and green of up and down. The green is fairly self-explanatory (though in this context it’s not just about environmental issues), the black however needs a bit more explanation:
“Nowadays, down-wingers proudly self-identify as ‘Greens’. As for the up‑wingers, they have begun to be colour-coded as ‘Blacks’ — and not simply because of their 1980s dress sense. The phrase ‘Black Sky Thinking’ was coined in a 2004 study by the centre-left UK think-thank Demos, and over the past decade it has increasingly been used to refer to schemes to make the whole inky expanse of the universe fit for human habitation.”
Is this just another way of describing the difference between libertarians and those of a more conservative frame of mind? No, because optimism about technology doesn’t necessarily imply pessimism about the state:
“…unlike libertarians, [upwingers] also generally believe in grand ‘technological fixes’ for the world’s problems… In this guise… Black-siders look less like Friedrich Hayek-style Right-wingers and more like social engineers in the 19th-century socialist tradition of Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte.”
“…up-winging Blacks combine the old libertarian Right and the old technocratic Left, while the down-winging Greens bring together elements of the old conservative Right and the old communitarian Left.”
In other words, upwingers can be leftwingers (or, as Lenin once said, “Communism equals Soviet Power plus electrification”).
Is there any evidence that differences over technology may become more important that those over economics? Well, we do see some odd alliances on niche issues like GM crops, where a free marketer might have more in common with a lefty technocrat than a Tory traditionalist.
However, there may come a time when the implications of a new technology are so profound that it becomes the defining issue of the age. For example, it could be the genetic modification of humans that realigns the political spectrum.
On one side of the argument there will be those who see our chance to become superhuman, while the other side will say, ‘we’ve been here before’ and do everything in their power to keep humanity as it is.
Which side will you take?