The moral basis of the Left

This essay is a response to a commenter who wanted me to write on something like the topic as set out above. I’m not quite happy with ‘the Left’ as the all-inclusive term. It seems to me that we all use a series of equivalents, that really aren’t equivalents, in trying to describe intellectual and moral world-views — how we see things. So I could have used, in addition to ‘Left’, or alongside it, words like progressive, radical, liberal and reformist. The words means slightly different things, and mean different things to different people, and in different countries. The terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ come from the seating at the National Assembly in France in 1789, where the most revolutionary delegates sat on the left of the President of the Assembly and the more conservative on his right. The other words all come from Latin, and you can see the shifts in meaning when you know the Latin origins. ‘Progressive’, for example, means ‘going forward’. ‘Radical’ means something that is pulled up by the roots (radix). Liberal means ‘free’ (as in liberate, to set free). ‘Reform’ means to reshape, or renovate.

These are all somewhat different aspects of what I think is the central unifying theme for those whose sympathies are of or toward the Left, the notion of human history having meaning in itself. The long journey of the human species, at least over the 10,000 years where we have some evidence for settled societies, is what sort of story? For those on the Left, it is the story of human progress. For Marx, and those who follow his ideas, it is the journey of humanity through a series of stages, each one somewhat better than the previous one, until humanity is ‘one’, there are no rulers, no classes, no rich, no poor — all are equal. The journey is unstoppable, though it will have known pauses and apparent halts. Something like this is part of all Left views of the world, that people are naturally equal, and the task of a good society is to get them back there again (as though they once were, or at least ought to be).

For those more interested in the question of ruling — who rules, and who are ruled — it is the story of political changes, moving from chiefs, kings, dictators to the representative and responsible  sorts of democracies that we are familiar with. Again, there is some kind of engine, or dynamic, that embodies the story and drives it on. Radicals see the need to remove completely institutions and structures that impede the story of progress, while reformers, more gently, want to change the way these structures and institutions are shaped, for the same purpose. Those of a scientific or technological bent are likely to see the story of human progress as based on science and technology, the real fruits of the Enlightenment. The effects of technology are to liberate us — all of us — from drudgery, and enable us to have enjoyable, rewarding lives. I have a bob each way on that one, though along with the technological goodies come also the H-bomb and its capacity for dreadful destruction, nerve gas, and other horrors.

What is common is the notion of a journey that has meaning, is in some way necessary, and in the case of Marxists, is inevitable. The ‘inevitable’ aspect of the story tends to blur the distinction between what is actually happening and what some think ought to happen. You see it in the notion of ‘rights’, for example. It has other consequences as well. One is a tendency to judge what happened in the past, and who did what, in terms of what is happening now, even though those who were thus engaged in the past could have had no idea of where we are now, and did not see themselves and what they were doing as part of what we might see as the human journey. The ‘Whig interpretation of history’, as the historians call it, the story of human progress, is relatively new. It was popular in the 19th century, went into the doldrums in the 1930s, and has had something of a revival in the last fifty years.

Another consequence of a belief in the story of progress is an easy move to see figures from the past in terms of good and bad, as heroes and villains. In British history King John is a baddie and King Richard the Lion-Hearted a goodie. Look them up, and you’ll find it’s all a lot more complex, neither king appearing as white or as black as you once thought. In American history, Abraham Lincoln is always a hero, because of the stand he took about slavery. His decisions led to the Civil War, and a death toll of around 750,000. How do you balance that? From the progressive perspective, the Lincoln stand against the evil of slavery is the important thing, not the deaths, because slavery had to end if progress were to continue. There will be others who argue that a slower end to slavery might have meant no Civil War and no such deaths at all. It was going to happen, I suspect, even without Lincoln. Of course judgments are involved in any work of history, even if it is only what to mention and what not to mention. Nonetheless, the notion that human history is a story of progress is a most powerful one, and it underpins a great deal of our politics in Australia, which is full of heroes and villains.

If you incline to this view, then you are likely to see human history in causal terms. That is, every important event is ‘important’ because it was a cause of something else which you see as ‘important’ in the story of human progress. I learned my English history almost entirely in these terms. If you read the same period as set out in, say, a book of economic history you will get a quite different impression of what was important. Another problem is what is sometimes called ‘presentism’ — the view that everything leads inevitably to the present, the most important time of all. If events seem to have no connection to what troubles us at the moment, then they are seen to be inconsequential, of no real interest.

In my experience, most of those who see themselves on the Left, or as progressives, or as radicals or reformers, have no firm sense of the ground on which they make their judgement. They know what we ought to do without having a real understanding of why they think so. The idea that things are supposed to get better is so deeply embedded in us all that it hardly seems necessary to examine it closely. But it is. There is no evidence to show the inevitability of either a Marxist view of the world or a technological one. And we probably no longer see our own democratic system as representing the absolute end of the story of human political progress.

Karl Popper, about whom I have written before, wrote a fine book about such world-views, called The Poverty of Historicism. He argued in it that the notion that there is somehow a ‘Destiny’ in the story of human life is a fundamental misconception, in part because we do not and cannot know everything. Further, he  defined ‘historicism’ as the view that historical prediction was the task of the social sciences, which he opposed. Much as I like the thought (and agree) that human progress is evident in the last couple of hundred years, I cannot go on from there to argue that it must continue to do so in the future. I recognise that many people feel a need to see a purpose in the journey of human lives, but I am not one of them. It seems to me that building better societies is a difficult business, and there are often steps backwards as well as steps forward. No matter, we have to do the best we can. But I do my part without any sense of inevitability, and with often a worrying sense that there is too little recognition of what can go wrong, even in prosperous ‘democratic’ societies like our own.

There is much else that could be added to this analysis, such as the role of Christianity, the notion of fairness, and the guilt that many feel in wealthy societies when they consider (as is so  easy to do today) the lives of those in poor countries. I have some of the sympathies of the Left, and have always had them,because of my own family’s history and my sense of the need to build good societies — the social task that we all have who live in democracies. But that feeling is tempered by what others call ‘conservatism’, or the views of the Right. In the next essay I will do my best to provide a similar account of the moral basis of conservatism. Then I’ll try to present the kind of rationale that works for me.




Join the discussion 89 Comments

  • Mike says:

    Good luck with that

  • Mike says:

    On reflection there is that cynical old remark attributed to Soviet times; “the future is certain, only the past is misunderstood”. It seems necessary these days to write a narrative considering reprehensible aspects of our history in isolation from a world context.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    A reader has tried to post the following comment. I’m doing it for him:

    Economists on the Left seem to have one thing in common

    They think redistribution has no cost

    which makes them Politicians

    since everything in economics has a cost


  • Alan Gould says:

    Yes, the bedrock consideration seems to be that, because we are self-conscious creatures, we possess the idea that there must be meaning in experience as part of our essential condition; we interpret because we cannot help it. So all things are, incipiently, signs.
    The problem arose when the same thing could mean more than one thing, indeed could embrace an opposite thing. Then consequence came into conflict with aspiration, and value became anxious.

  • For me, the essence of the post is:
    “In my experience, most of those who see themselves on the Left, or as progressives, or as radicals or reformers, have no firm sense of the ground on which they make their judgement. They know what we ought to do without having a real understanding of why they think so. ”
    This implies a disconnection from reality and an inability the engage in rational discussion.

    • Alan Gould says:

      I’m not sure this is true, Peter; It is easy to discredit any party where a broad expectation gets attached to anything they propose, harder to recover the basis of imagining and experience that impelled the resolution to press for change. Abject poverty, arbitrary rule, have a smell, a taste, a visual and aural impact on lives.
      One might examine where social reform has been successful, say in the provision of National Health Schemes, provision of Education, or democratic expression, the reformism of roughly 1832-1960. Why was it the fair thing to deem health, education and electoral choice proper, shared universal opportunities in 1960 but not so in 1760? One reason the “understanding” of 1760 was conflicted on the issue was because an old schema for the nature of reality – The Chain Of Being – still had potency as an explanation for how things were. Rank mattered, whereas rank had become depleted of meaning by 1960.
      But the old schema, in 1760, contained the germ of its own subversion. Sure, society existed from potentate to peasant, each accepting his place because order was a value. But the concept that each soul was equally valuable in the sight of God had been a cornerstone of spiritual teaching for centuries, and the Reformation had moved the authority for that teaching from the intercessionary priest to the individual conscience.
      A further factor seems to be that, within the Scheme Of Nature, the distress of individuals seems to cause distress in individuals who behold it. This has been observed broadly in lion prides, dolphin schools, and among birds (rosellas). The same is palpably true among humans. What is the basis of this shared distress? My own guess is that it cannot be reduced to the selfish – seeing one’s own disempowerment in the example of others. Our mental powers have a capacity to conceive the Other and this lies within the province of a complex, not simple, a dynamic not a settled calculation.

  • Neville says:

    From the French revolution to North Korea’s little monster the world seems to have seen a succession of psychopaths who cared little about ordinary people. The French killed their King and Queen but embraced a new Emperor after he seized power and gradually put his relatives and friends on the thrones of some of the conquered European countries.
    The Pope even agreed to come to Napoleon’s coronation after they patched up their differences.

    Lenin and Stalin distrusted one another and after Stalin took over he showed scant regard for the rights of anyone who got in his way. Millions of peasants died because of Stalin and he had many former friends executed or sent away to certain death in the Gulags. Mao was a heartless character and likewise killed millions of his countrymen after he seized power.

    Hitler was another psychopath and like Stalin had a hatred of Jews. Stalin actually called Hitler his friend and he couldn’t believe it when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941. At the outbreak of war in 1939 both Stalin and Hitler agreed to invade Poland and seek any advantage that came their way. Both of these dictators were the scum of the earth and yet we have people at universities today who favour a return to far left politics and some even think that democracy should be abandoned to “tackle climate change”.

    Today we have the OZ left returning to their hatred of Jews, particularly within the Labor and Greens parties. I suppose they are courting the Muslim vote and polling shows the majority of Muslims vote for Labor.

    • dlb says:

      I disagree, there has been plenty of dictatorships on the right, especially those espousing anti-communist agendas. Today we see Turkey sliding to a dictatorship with religion being a driving force. Describing the Australian Left to be hating Jews is an exaggeration, being critical of Israel may be a better description. Similarly I don’t think you could call Conservatives as hating Muslims, but definitely many are critical of Islamic practices.

  • PeterE says:

    I agree that ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are far too inexact for a sound analysis of what is to be done. A study of history does, though, reveal societies that are happy and prosperous and others that are miserable, murdering, abject times. The twentieth century gave us Hitler and Stalin and several ‘would-be’s’ such as Pol Pot and many more. Placing power in the hands of the population via free, universal, secret ballots has proven a highly successful formula along with free enterprise and a balance between government intervention and laissez faire. Ensuring that societies include all and treat all equally is also vital. Fools who see themselves as having the answer and use any means to arrange things as they would like without seeking a workable compromise are exceedingly dangerous, no matter how they label themselves.

  • Boxer says:

    I may be repeating myself; I don’t recall what I have said in which forum.

    Jonathan Haidt is a social and cultural psychologist and one his books is The Righteous Mind; why good people are divided by politics and religion. He is an American academic who used to describe himself as a Democrat, but more recently seems to call himself a Centrist. As a layman I found the book to be revelation about the origins of morality and the puzzle as to why everyone (except psychopaths and sociopaths I suppose) has moral principles, but we don’t seem to be in agreement about what those all of those principles are.

    I can’t do the book justice, but Haidt and his colleagues have conducted substantial amounts of quantitative research to identify six moral foundations that have an evolutionary basis. Very briefly these are: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, liberty/oppression, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation. There is both overlap and conflict between them, but while this theory is very illuminating, it also is an example of how complex reality can be.

    Those of the left subscribe most strongly to the first two foundations, those of more conservative natures subscribe to all six. For a man of the centre left politically, this theory must put Haidt in a curious position. He has effectively described moral foundations that he does not place much emphasis upon in his own life, which to me illustrates Haidt’s capacity to be objective.

    Everyone feels the influence of all six foundations, but if you are most influenced by the first two, then you are relatively more compassionate and for example, you perhaps argue in favour of equality of outcomes for all, rather than just equality of opportunity for all. On the right, people tend to have a greater loathing of cheats and bludgers and see such behaviour as unfair to those who make a greater effort, those on the left tend to almost see bludgers as victims in need of greater support (a stronger influence of the compassion foundation). Those of the political right are commonly portrayed as being immoral, but in reality they subscribe to a wider range of moral foundations and so, for example, their sense of loyalty to their tribe/clan/nation will be balanced against their sense of compassion – so they have greater compassion for the children of their own tribe than for the children of another tribe. Everyone has great compassion for children; those of the right don’t hate anyone’s children, but when push comes to shove they can force themselves to lay another nation to waste, or exterminate a competing tribe, in defence of their own.

    To me this explains why many people move from the left to the right as they age; one’s appreciation of the importance of a successful, stable and orderly society increases and maintaining this is perceived increasingly as a difficult but necessary act of subconsciously balancing six moral foundations. These foundations, when applied in reality, often lead to significant inner conflict. It is easier, in my experience, to simply lean on the first two foundations and disregard the rest to a great extent. However this is not likely to be a successful strategy in evolutionary terms, and whether we like it or not, we are first and foremost a product of prehistoric experience.

    Which leads to our minds being described as a rider on an elephant. Our elephant is continuously and automatically balancing some or all of the moral foundations and the rider (our conscious mind) spends all day trying to justify decisions made by the elephant. This is discussed by Haidt as well, but you have to read the book.

  • Don Aitkin says:


    I think you have made these points here before, and I agree that Haidt’s suggestions are worth thinking about. I’ll probably come back to some of his points in my third piece, after conservatism. I am more interested than he is in how people come to have world-views that they don’t really examine, and the historic origins of these world-views.

    • margaret says:

      I find that aspect of the essay, the historic origins, interesting. I’m very glad I live in a messy democracy and I don’t feel bothered by Independents gaining power, unless the Independents are of right wing tea party persuasion. Who would have thought that Ricky Muir would turn out to be a thoughtful representative … but he was … and now we have the human headline in his place.

  • Ross says:

    Don. The opening sentence of your article.
    Come again?

    • margaret says:

      Ross, it may relate to a question along these lines that I asked of another commenter on one of Don’s essays. I can’t remember which one. That commenter didn’t answer but Don responded that what I had asked was too big a question to be answered in a comment.

  • Boxer says:

    I think that the rider and elephant are at the heart of the matter. The elephant is making decisions in response to incoming information, and does so in less than a second. Is that person a bludger or an unfortunate who made a few bad choices? Are spit hoods in juvenile detention a necessary part of work health and safety for the guards, or are we on a par morally with the worst authoritarian regimes on the planet? We all make these decisions immediately, assemble them into a sort of world view, and then our rider assembles the rational reasons to support the elephant’s snap responses.

    Was the systematic burning of German and Japanese cities justified? Conservatives – yes, reluctantly; progressive liberals – no, the bomber crews should have been prosecuted for war crimes. From this is “would we do it again?” “If we had to” from conservatives; “we are doing it now” from the green left, in ignorance of how stupendously appalling the bombing was for years before Hiroshima.

    There’s no thought put into any of it until after the decisions are made and riders focus upon the information that supports their elephant’s world view. As Haidt describes it, if the left steps forward with its left foot, most riders look left – it takes some conscious effort to look right and most of us follow the elephant’s lead. I agree with the view that history is the story told by the winners, while being grateful that I landed in a victors’ camp when I was born. Would we be living in some form of fascist society now if Hitler had been clever enough to listen to his generals? If so, most of our elephants would tune their use of the moral foundations so that the riders thought that was the natural order of things and we would now be a more conservative society as a result.

    Because the political left and liberal democracies are very recent developments, how this plays out is a work in progress. What will be the medium-long term consequences of the world’s universities becoming increasingly left wing? (seems to be the subject of Haidt’s more recent work). The same question applies to the media, which helps construct the important self-impressions and myths about our society. Will western democracies become more conservative as they come under pressure, or they will be overrun, unable to defend themselves because of our (over?)indulgence in compassion?

  • Boxer says:

    “the left steps forward with its left foot”
    Geez, too much editing going on here.
    I meant “the elephant steps forward”

  • margaret says:

    I look forward to your essay on the moral basis of the right Don, then perhaps I can determine why I lean left. I agree with the two Peters points. First, that as you stated, Left and Right aren’t adequate descriptions of world views because like black and white, good and bad they are binary opposites that don’t allow for us having some of each in our thinking and political positions. Last night on the SBS program on Pauline Hanson we were shown how a person with total self belief and narrow black and white views was/is able to tap into that part of humanity that is tribal, by using a combination of brittle physical attractiveness, opportunistic spin doctoring, and whining about her fears of ‘the other’.
    If the left have ‘no real understanding of why they believe what they believe’ (paraphrasing and simplifying), I’m interested in what underpins the thinking and beliefs of the right. Do they, unlike the left have real understanding of whatever it is that makes them right-thinking?
    If the left believe in evolving humanity, psychologically, physically, technologically as all part of progress, then does the right believe in humanity as the same as it has ever been (une loved) and security comes from the the institutions of authority and legality which exist to keep basic unruly instincts from being out of control. Just a question to anyone …
    The Jonathan Haidt book sounds interesting.

    • spangled drongo says:

      “If the left believe in evolving humanity, psychologically, physically, technologically as all part of progress, then does the right believe in humanity as the same as it has ever been (une loved) and security comes from the the institutions of authority and legality which exist to keep basic unruly instincts from being out of control. Just a question to anyone …”

      Well. Marg, maybe the right isn’t always as fully “evolved” as the left:

    • Boxer says:

      Margaret, it is difficult for anyone from the left or the right to really appreciate the motivations of other side, though I think it helps if you change from one side of the spectrum to the other during the course of your life. In such a case, at least you have a single person longitudinal study to think about.
      I don’t think it is valid to say the right has an unevolved perspective, and that progress is the domain of the left. Most of the claims by the left about being progressive, more intelligent and so on seem be based upon misunderstanding of the right, and an assimption that modernity is superior. Much of modernity is fashionable and transient. My concern is that if the contemporary experiment with liberal democracy is not balanced and rational, it will be lost. As a conservative, that concerns me.
      I think you would find Haidt interesting. He is not a conservative but seeks to understand conservatives.

      • margaret says:

        But why is it that people who do change from one side of the spectrum to the other during the course of their life seem to always change to being conservative?
        Then again, maybe that is a male gender inclination. Women, may become more radical through the course of their life.
        in the past men (alpha males particularly, but it was expected of men in general), charged forward carving their careers and having a help-mate/lover in form of woman/wife who, in the past had few alternatives than to ‘make a (hopefully good) match’ and have a family, or be ‘left on the shelf.’
        Twenty or thirty years on, alpha male has ‘made it’ and begins to regret/triumph his success and pull up the castle gates, while his wife either ‘settles’ for the comforts or realises she has unfulfilled dreams and potential not completed by child-raising.
        They were the societal mores of caapitalism in the C20th.

        • Boxer says:

          Those who change from left to conservative do appear to be more common. Churchill made a frequently quoted comment about it, so it’s an observation made for several decades at least.

          I perceive the weakness of the left’s position is that it is based upon a belief that we are truly progressing at a fundamental psychological level, when in fact we are hard-wired by a million years of evolution. All we are doing is applying the same instinctive patterns of thought to the contemporary world, and I think the present (transient?) result in a liberal democracy is really very good. I am sure it can be improved, but most of what passes for progressive thinking is mere fashionable dinner party chat and makes virtually no difference to the human animal.

          I think your characterisation of white men who swing from left to right as being alpha males is a little wide of the mark. Reality is much more complex. My observation is that many alpha males are conservative from their twenties, and some alpha males climb to the top and then become green-left to atone for their past behaviour.

  • margaret says:

    That’s not unloved, that’s un-evolved 🙂 …

    • margaret says:

      … Pauline Hanson is a perfect example of an unevolved human. I think it’s perfectly fine, even admirable to run your business and be proud of your hard-working ethic but why think that because you do that you are somehow both better than others because of this and also hard done by because you work so hard and others don’t ‘get off their butts and do what I did’ so to speak. And then, people who admire you say ‘you should go into politics Pauline! We’ll vote for you!’ And then … along come …
      “a bigger danger than Hanson was the team of white middle-aged men advising her: John Pasquarelli, David Oldfield and David Ettridge.”
      And then, John Howard just takes his time, using the political advantage of the groundswell of support for an uneducated, hare-brain for his own gain.

    • Ross says:

      Could be both, Margaret.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    The motives of both sides are easily understood. One will sacrifice society for the benefit of the individual; the other will sacrifice the individual for the benefit of society.
    An unbridgeable dichotomy. You pays your money…

  • Ross says:

    What’s the difference between conservative and right wing?

    • gnome says:

      I’m right wing, but no way conservative. Happy to see the whole lot shattered to bits and then remoulded nearer to my heart’s desire (as Fitzgerald put it in his interpretive translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam).

      The left wing want us all to emulate the bee, either workers, drones or the queen. The right wants the product of the workers’ labour to go to the worker, not to the drones or the queen. Conservative right-wingers want to control all activity to ensure compliance with social goals (just like the left) but liberals want each worker to establish hir own social goals.

  • Don Aitkin says:


    Leaving Pauline Hanson aside, the attitude she expresses has been about for a long time. Governments encourage us to be thrifty and provident and ensure that we will have a comfortable retirement. So lots of people do just that, and are irritated when the security blanket that they have worked for is provided gratis to those who have not done so. There’s no right or wrong here, just different concerns at different times. You want a difficult job? Try being a social services Minister…

    • margaret says:

      “I recognise that many people feel a need to see a purpose in the journey of human lives, but I am not one of them. It seems to me that building better societies is a difficult business, and there are often steps backwards as well as steps forward. No matter, we have to do the best we can. But I do my part without any sense of inevitability…”
      Except death and taxes and wealth creation? DO governments encourage us to be thrifty and provident and ensure we will have a comfortable retirements? I’ve not been conscious over my lifetime of any government with that overt message and they certainly don’t set a very good example themselves. The small business people on whom we rely for our fish ‘n chips are duped if they think the government is there to help them create wealth for retirement.
      The Edo period of Japan was very open to gender fluidity apparently… before Victorian Christian values instilled guilt.

      • spangled drongo says:

        “The small business people on whom we rely for our fish ‘n chips are duped if they think the government is there to help them create wealth for retirement.”

        Marg, ya don’t possibly think that when running a household, a fish ‘n chip business or a govt we need to ensure that income at least equals if not exceeds expenditure if we intend to survive in comfort into the future?

        Have you noticed which govts have traditionally balanced the books more than others?

        And that Pauline might be aware of this simple but devastating problem?

        And then consider those other simple but devastating probs Pauline is also very aware of.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Of course they do. The whole superannuation argument is based on just such an initiative, which Keating was advocating thirty years ago and help to introduce. There is abundant advice for people who wish to do so, and almost a moral imperative to do it, as well. Putting money into super is to deny oneself the capacity to spend it now, whether sensibly or wastefully is not the issue.

    • margaret says:

      Why then , does the average Australian have less than 300K in superannuation savings at retirement? I doubt it is due to profligacy.

      • margaret says:

        I doubt that there are many Australians, despite the best of intentions and good habits are able to save sufficient money from their wages to fund a comfortable retirement.

        • margaret says:

          My own parents are examples of a couple who tried valiantly to do this. The special generation.

        • Bryan Roberts says:

          margaret, 2-300k is enough to fund years of comfortable retirement, and figures suggest that sum is within reach of many, if not most Australians. The problem is that most retirees regard that as their children’s, and are quite happy to survive on the public purse. I suspect imposition of death duties would see a significant change in behaviour.

          • margaret says:

            I think that your first sentence is correct Bryan, if one retires mortgage free at the age at which one can eventually supplement the amount with part/full age pension. For one reason or another (job redundancy or ill health), many people don’t make the target of working in a satisfying capacity until say, 65. Most jobs these days really don’t suit 65 plus employees either.

        • margaret says:

          Comfortable – as opposed to modest/basic. So, that’s just the way it is, and to my mind the moral basis of the left is summed up in a quote from Wayne Swan.

          ” … the truth at the core of our labour movement is that the wealth of our country is created by every Australian. You can create wealth by owning a business, but you can also create wealth by working for a business. You can create wealth by working on the top floor of an office tower, but you also create wealth working down a mine, in a factory, in a shop, in a hospital, in a music studio, a kindergarten, a school, a TAFE college and a university.

          ”We are all wealth creators, and the inference that small business owners, union members, the low-paid, the poor, the old and the ill have no legitimate voice in our economic debates, and have no right to share in our national wealth, is one that I’ll fight to my last breath. I’ll keep up this fight because I believe with deep conviction that you can’t treat the creation and the distribution of wealth as two separate matters.”
          Good for him.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        Margaret, the point is slipping away. It is this: many people try hard to insure for their later years. Some do well, some do less well. The point is that they do it. Then some discover that they are now regarded as too comfortably off to be given the old age pension, because the rules have been changed. These were not the rules when they began to save, and not spend. And that causes great irritation. Tony Crosland, a Labour Minister in the UK, wrote an excellent book about this called Left Luggage. What should governments do? They are always tinkering, and thereby causing trouble.

        I guess the truth is that no policy has a long and sensible life. I have been conscious of this myself as a former policymaker. Some of the things I put in place I now think should have been stopped a decade or more ago..

        • spangled drongo says:

          Yes, Don, many tears ago I was initially considered by the govt as not well enough off with my hard-won savings and was able to claim the OAP.

          And what a great lot of fringe benefits I also got in those days!

          It didn’t last long though before I was told I had to provide for myself and have ever since. But it’s doable and there is a certain self satisfaction in knowing that the “entitled” are living so much better because of SFRs like me.

          It’s amazing what you can do without in life and not even feel envious.

          Even though all my lefty relos who preach “sustainability” till the cows come home are in the trough boots n’ all.

          Oh, the irony!

        • JimboR says:

          And more recently, spare a thought for the victims of ScoMo’s super changes. No doubt inspired by Costello’s promise of a tax-free lifestyle once they reached 60, they lived so frugally they managed to save millions away in their super accounts, only to learn now that they’ll only be permitted to move 1.6 million into a tax-free draw down account.

        • margaret says:

          “Old age pension” – when does one actually become “old”? Is it at 60, 70 or 80?

  • spangled drongo says:

    Did I say tears? Maybe I meant years.

  • margaret says:

    If only governments didn’t rely on their head kickers…

    • spangled drongo says:

      If only our darling ABC was even handed enough to treat allegations of Pell’s paedophilia of 40 years ago similarly to the allegations of Shorten’s rape of 30 years ago.

      As well as every item they address.

      Don, have you ever done a post on ABC bias?

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        Yesterday, some clever, and I presume now ex-employee of the ABC, added the running head to the interview with a climate disaster advocate from the UNSW, the note that 2015 was the ‘hottest year in history’ by a whopping one tenth of a Centigrade degree.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Try this one, SD, and use the links therein for more.

    • spangled drongo says:

      Spot on, Don!

      Interesting that Spigelman can be so “educated” yet have such a closed mind. Not that it’s necessary with the consensual ABC. They are and have been on left wing, anticon auto pilot for such a long, long time that with the on going blancmange supervision of MT and Fifield are not likely to change any time soon.

  • margaret says:

    For Don and poetry lovers.

    Notes on the Capitalist Persuasion
    John Haines

    “Everything is connected to everything . . .”

    So runs the executive saw,
    cutting both ways
    on the theme of all improvement:
    Your string is my string
    when I pull it my way.

    In my detachment is your dependency.

    In your small and backward nation
    some minor wealth still beckons –
    was it lumber, gas, or only sugar?
    Thus by its imperial logic,
    with carefully aimed negotiation,
    my increase is your poverty.

    When the mortgage payments falter,
    then in fair market exchange
    your account is my account,
    your savings become my bonus,
    your home my house to sell.

    In my approval is your dispossession.


    Often in distress all social bonds
    are broken. Your wife may then
    be my wife, your children
    my dependents – if I want them.

    So, too, our intellectual custom:
    Your ideas are my ideas
    when I choose to take them.
    Your book is my book,
    your title mine to steal,
    your poem mine to publish.

    In my acclaim is your remaindering.

    Suppose I sit in an oval office:
    the public polls are sliding,
    and to prove I am still in command
    I begin a distant war. Then,
    in obedience to reciprocal fate,
    by which everything is connected,
    my war is your war,
    my adventure your misfortune.

    As when the dead come home,
    and we are still connected,
    my truce is your surrender,
    my triumph your despair.

  • JAC says:

    Well, I seem to have come late to the party. If I am not too late, I would like to throw this into the ring.
    On the derivation of the terms Left and Right, it was my perception that those citizens of the National Assembly in 1789 who congregated on the left were out for revenge, and couldn’t wait to see heads roll while those on the right were concerned that some of those heads might better serve the rise of the Republic, and were best left in place. It may appear a trite observation, but it seems to me to define the underlying distinction between Left and Right. To me this is characterised as an emotive response on the one hand and a deductive response on the other. I avoided using “reasoned” or “rational” because those words could be seen to be judgemental. It is difficult to describe the sentiment in neutral terms. Basically I believe it is possible for people to have a common goal and differ only in the way of achieving it, and it is this that creates the tension between factions.
    That brings me to the term “conservative”. Perhaps because of its association with the British political party, it has become to mean a political view. I think it is more descriptive of a state of mind, not an ideology. The sense is that conservatives want to impose rules while the progressives are more accepting and inclusive. The reality to me is that the left are most inclined to impose controls on society to achieve outcomes and the further left they are , the closer to a totalitarian state they are. The opposite to this is a libertarian, not a conservative, yet the American Left call themselves “liberals” . Debate over the classification of Fascists is ongoing, but basically they are authoritarians who put the State before the individual, so it is hard to see them as anything other than hard Left. Conservatives have to be seen as centrists, if only because they are moderates. It is the caution that this engenders which defines the position. The further you move from the centre in any direction the more extreme, and isolated, the position becomes. A bell curve defines it statistically while the ripples from a stone thrown in a pond illustrate it. I prefer to think of it as something similar to gravity. Everything is drawn to the centre unless a stronger force acts to move a single entity in any direction away from the centre. Conservatives generally agree on many things but on a particular matter may have strong views which will draw them in any direction putting them at odds with the others who are not as engaged in that cause.

    At our base level we are a herd species and like any herd we have leaders and followers. What often disguises the nature of our instincts is the complexity of our herd. It is relatively simple for a dairy cow to work out who they should follow through a gate, or a bird to know where to be in the flock when it takes off, but for us it is more complicated. Some of us may well be driven in every decision by ethical considerations, but most look to others for a lead on what position to take. In addition to our instinctive behaviour, we are tribal, which is a conscious decision. To fit in we adopt the persona or manner of a tribe.
    The sport we follow, the team and the support for individual members of that team all are important defining feature of some people. For others it fashion, or entertainment ( culture to some) . Even the contrarians who style themselves as being non conformists are subscribing to the well established rituals of that tribe. I think adopting the beliefs of a particular tribe is the most influential feature of the political positioning of most people today and it is driven by the dominant voice – the leader of the pack- in the media.
    To add to this we have the personality of the individual. We all have traits which affect our behaviour. A family friend who was a practising psychiatrist responded, when I described my aunt as a suitable case for treatment, that we are all on the same path and differ only in how far down it we have travelled.
    His view was that clinical intervention was only necessary when the behaviour prevented the person from living the life they chose. He maintained all our behaviour is driven by reward even those involved in self harm or social isolation. It is hard to believe that the most repellent, repugnant or self destructive acts can give a person gratification, but he insisted that it was so.
    That’s a concept that explains a lot of the political behaviour we see today.

  • Don Aitkin says:


    Interesting stuff, and it bears on Monday’s essay as well as this one.

  • margaret says:

    “The effects of technology are to liberate us — all of us — from drudgery, and enable us to have enjoyable, rewarding lives. I have a bob each way on that one, though along with the technological goodies come also the H-bomb and its capacity for dreadful destruction, nerve gas, and other horrors.”
    August 6th – the day Little Boy was dropped on the city of Hiroshima – 9 days later Fat Man was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. Enjoyable, rewarding lives are dependent on the masters of war.

    • spangled drongo says:

      And who were the “masters”, Marg? How many more hundreds of thousands of lives would have been lost on both sides in a non-nuclear determination?

      Many, many more people died in non-nuclear bombing than in the “final message” that has prevented world war ever since.

      The effects of that technology did liberate us.

      • spangled drongo says:

        And of course modern nuclear energy technology would liberate us enormously from the mindlessness of “renewables” also, if it wasn’t for the “moral” basis of the left.

      • margaret says:

        ‘You’re a bun-headed old optimist,’ said the Puddin’ rudely. ‘Puddin’-thieves never suffer from remorse. They only suffer from blighted hopes and suppressed activity.’

        • spangled drongo says:

          Sorry Marg, that was written at the end of WW1, not WW2.

          Get your mind [and your technology] right.

      • margaret says:

        The masters of war were still the masters of “peace” at Treaty time in Versailles.

        “At the Paris Peace Conference, Japan had tried to include a clause on racial equality, but leaders of the western powers at Paris, Wilson among them, were unwilling to support such a declaration. Colonialism was still dependent upon the notion of superiority of the white race and rather than move to end imperialism the creators of the peace treaty supported its perpetuation.”

  • margaret says:

    I know when The Magic Pudding was written Spangled. I read it to my son when he was young.He loved it.
    The facts on Hiroshima, which I’ve visited and found so sad, innocent civilians treated in such a calculated callous way – like looking down from the Ferris wheel in the Third Man.!August-6-1945/cu6k/57a4c31d0cf294fcccb55024

    It doesn’t matter what your comeback is, it will be pointless for me.

    • spangled drongo says:

      I didn’t have the luxury of “the Magic Pudding” Marg, possibly because my parents were very involved in the war.

      What I do remember very vividly is August 15, just 9 days after Hiroshima, telling a US skipper of a torpedo boat who came alongside the Woody Point jetty in Moreton Bay, that the Japanese had surrendered and the war was over.

      He hadn’t heard and the incredible look of relief on his face I can still see.

      • margaret says:

        My family were a bit tied up “in the war” also – both the “Great” one, that one that was supposed to be the war that ended all war but I think the Treaty of Versailles might have set that proclamation on a rocky path and so we then got the second one which the next generation was the perfect age for.
        So let’s just concentrate on the one that ended with not Hiroshima, no no let’s prove the point let’s drop another one on Nagasaki nine days later – (a vengeful act showing huge disrespect for another race of people that didn’t ask their God-like emperor to get them into a war).

        So my father being genetically a bit of a “chip off the old block” he joined the Australian Navy at 17 and his stores carrier had tales that would curl your hair as it carried supplies to Milne Bay and back to Townsville – his youth got him into a bit of strife and Holsworthy was where he was when it took its last journey and sank without trace with all hands somewhere in the Coral Sea – a bit of survivor guilt for the rest of his life as he had good mates on board some of whom were Buka boys (little recognition of their service).

        Of course, if he had been on board my son would never have had the “luxury” of The Magic Pudding read to him would he?

        Meanwhile, my husband’s father served in the Australian army in Greece, Crete and then New Guinea, his wife in the WAAF, her 3 brothers, one RAAF, two in the Middle East in the army, one was killed, one captured somewhere famous and became POW – came home and his wife asked what he’d like for dinner and he said ‘have you got any turnip soup?’ (great vittles in those stalags). Oh yes, and my own uncle joined the RAAF but I think he was too young to see much more than Tocumwal before the war ended (and no, no thanks to Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
        Meanwhile there’s a funny anecdote about a soldier returning to his town in Tasmania after the war and one of the locals after enquiring after his absence and health said “Oh Jack, it’s been pretty crook here – tea was rationed!”

        • spangled drongo says:

          “let’s drop another one on Nagasaki nine days later”

          Please, Marg, don’t push your disingenuity beyond reasonable bounds.

          Perhaps you might recall that when the Japanese commanders realised that it was not the bottom of the arsenal bag they surrendered immediately.

          And that saved millions of lives.

          Spare us the morality of one who wasn’t even born then. If you had been present in a family torn apart by it all you may have a more realistic outlook.

          • margaret says:

            Actually I’m wrong – Emperor Hirohito unconditionally surrendered on the 15th August seventy one years ago. Nagasaki was bombed on the 9th.
            Hirohito took a while to realise finally that indeed he was not a god.

  • spangled drongo says:

    ” innocent civilians treated in such a calculated callous way ”

    It’s called WAR, Marg.

    If you start one, it’s bound to bite you.

    And when you start one without justification [as Japan did] and you moralise about it, you are just being disingenuous.

  • Neville says:

    SD don’t waste your time on Margaret, data and evidence is lost on her. And ditto for some others who sometimes haunt this blog. Btw I think JAC describes the political landscape very well. Fascists/Nazis will always honour the state before the individual and they do believe in far left totalitarianism.

    • spangled drongo says:

      So true, sadly, Neville. And it does illustrate Don’s point very well.

      • margaret says:

        And Don’s point is?

        Don what is your point?

        • Don Aitkin says:

          I’m not sure.

        • spangled drongo says:

          “And Don’s point is? ”

          Don said above: “In my experience, most of those who see themselves on the Left, or as progressives, or as radicals or reformers, have no firm sense of the ground on which they make their judgement.”

          And that describes your claims of US cruelty in using A bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to a “T”.

          Have you ever asked your uncle what he thought of the “advantage” of years of hand to hand fighting similar to what killed so many in WW1, rather than nuking a couple of cities, to get Japan to surrender?

          Don also said: “It seems to me that building better societies is a difficult business, and there are often steps backwards as well as steps forward.”

          Our lefty influenced and operated UN, supports Palestinians in the new Islamic State of Gaza, ever crying out for more aid from the United Nations, to carry on like this:

          And nobody says a word, other than Israel, but they don’t count.

    • Ross says:

      Neville; Uh huh. Which is why Australian Communists and Socialists went to fight German and Spanish fascists in Spain prior to WW 2. Right?
      Talk us through it Nev. Supply us with the ‘data’.
      I think your comments insult every man and woman who fought and died trying to protect us from fascism.
      Think again Neville. And this time, think harder. A lot harder!

  • Don Aitkin says:

    But your war stories remind me of one from the Great War, where whole villages of men joined up to be in their local regiment together. One such company was wiped out in the Somme, with only one survivor, who returned to his village broken by the conflict, to be greeted by the mother of three boys, all of whom had been killed in the same battle. She looked at him. ‘Why you?’ she cried. ‘Why you?’ He had no answer, but a ton of unnecessary guilt.

    • margaret says:

      Hmmm, a little like the person (often women whose sons were already serving), who placed a white feather in my grandfather’s letterbox at the home he lived in with his mother.

      • margaret says:

        “They do not tell their stories to promote Japan’s victimization, or to minimize the attack on Pearl Harbor, or the suffering and deaths of Asian civilians and Allied military personnel at the hands of brutal Japanese soldiers. Rather, they speak to eliminate ignorance about the realities of nuclear war and to eradicate nuclear stockpiles across the globe.”

        • spangled drongo says:

          Another lefty hyperbolic opinion piece on a subject that has literally hundreds of much more factual reports.

          Margaret, find out what your heavily involved in WW2 family members felt about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time and get back to me.

          But you must agree that it is wonderful to have the luxury of judging others who pulled your chestnuts from the fire, 71 years on.

          • margaret says:

            They have all died. My father had the opportunity to become part of the allied occupation of Japan but he wanted to return to Sydney and court my mother who he had met at Lugar Brae church.
            Many years later they visited Japan. They were impressed and entranced. My father spent a couple of years studying the language and the culture when they came back.
            You are a tough man Spangled.
            I believe that the personal is political and not in feminist terms – for all of us who live in ‘society’, our political stance is largely determined by our personal experience.

          • margaret says:

            Studs Terkel interview with pilot of Enola Gay:

            Studs Terkel: Why did they drop the second one, the Bockscar [bomb] on Nagasaki?
            Paul Tibbets: Unknown to anybody else – I knew it, but nobody else knew – there was a third one. See, the first bomb went off and they didn’t hear anything out of the Japanese for two or three days. The second bomb was dropped and again they were silent for another couple of days. Then I got aphone call from General Curtis LeMay [chief of staff of the strategic air forces in the Pacific]. He said, “You got another one of those damn things?” I said, “Yes sir.” He said, “Where is it?” I said, “Over in Utah.” He said, “Get it out here. You and your crew are going to fly it.” I said, “Yes sir.” I sent word back and the crew loaded it on an airplane and we headed back to bring it right on out to Tinian and when they got it to California debarkation point, the war was over.
            Studs Terkel: What did General LeMay have in mind with the third one?
            Paul Tibbets: Nobody knows.

          • margaret says:

            Masters of War.

  • […] is the sister essay to last week’s on the moral basis of the Left, and the subject is more difficult, because the words we use here are both more numerous and […]

    • spangled drongo says:

      Yes, most of them are now dead but in my lifetime I associated with many war veterans going back to the Boer War [most of my teachers were war vets and war philosophy was well and truly analysed] and I never once heard a doubtful murmur from any of them about the necessity to nuke H&N.

      BTW, do you remember this:

      My grandmother wore one with only 5 stars.

      • margaret says:

        That poor woman – Mrs Hutchins – no dinky medal could ever make up for her loss. In When Blackbirds Sing by Martin Boyd the protagonist throws his WWI medal into the dam.

        • spangled drongo says:

          They weren’t killed, Marg, only on active service. They were worn with pride.

          • margaret says:

            “For years the Hutchins family knew little of the fates of the four brothers until in 1946 when four telegrams arrived within days of each other confirming the deaths of David, Alan, Fred and Eric. According to the Hutchins family and their descendants, Mrs Hutchins never wore her Mothers and Widows badge, nor did she ever speak about her grief of losing four of her sons. Yet she wore her Female Relative Badge (REL46813.001) every day for the rest of her life.”

        • margaret says:

          Boyd writes in his biography: “horrors beyond imagining outside the range of any crimes of history have been inflicted on humanity by its rulers, and what I say would be negligible in comparison. . . . I have put most of it into When Blackbirds Sing” (Boyd 1965, 53). Serving as a subaltern on the Western Front, Dominic is joyous at first, feeling he has found the acceptance in military sociality and regimental brotherhood. Yet Dominic’s time on the front takes a toll on his psyche. He shoots and kills a young and nameless German conscript in a night time attack, spurred on by Colonel Rogers’ indoctrination and glorification of violence and military combat as “the orgasm of killing…Pierce another man with a sword. Don’t release the seed of life, but the blood of death”

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