Sunday, 19 October 2014

The right and its (many) literatures

Edward Ashbee considers the politics of 'the right' and its expressions through academic literature.

This is an extended abstract of my paper at the British Politics Group’s conference held in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday August 27th. I am very grateful to Janet Laible for her comments and observations. 

Like almost academic disciplines, the study of politics has been subject to processes of fragmentation. Countless sub-fields have established themselves each with a small academic toehold, the occasional conference and a journal or two to its name. There are often substantial overlaps as researchers address issues that seem to be unexplored academic territory but are in reality very well-trodden paths for those working in other, parallel sub-fields.

Furthermore, different countries (and certainly different continents) have their own established traditions and frameworks. “Political studies” in the UK has long had a close relationship with contemporary history.”Political science” in the US has instead focused on the application and use of quantitative techniques so as to establish the nature of the relationships between different variables, (that “false scientism” as Bernard Crick bitterly dismissed it). In continental  Europe, there has been much more of an emphasis upon the application and exploration of particular theoretical frameworks. Papers (or for that matter student essays) that do not analyse events and development through theoretical perspectives would not be considered credible.

The  study of the contemporary right in the “Anglosphere”, principally Britain and the US, is certainly no exception to all of this. There are different approaches  in different countries and a range of sub-fields that directly or indirectly consider the development of the right over recent decades. There  is however little or no communication between them. Indeed, researchers are often oblivious to those working in those other sub-fields.

Within Britain, scholarly projects have drawn upon contemporary history and have for the most part been structured around surveys of party and government elites. In recent years, some projects have made use of data and employed quantitative techniques and this has begun to  tilt studies away from elites and towards mass politics. Nonetheless, the UK still remains a distant methodological laggard when set against research work in the US.

In the US the more extensive, indeed institutionalized, use of quantitative methodologies as well as the existence of legions of commentators occupying a swathe of territory somewhere between political science and journalism has led towards a focus upon broad political and demographic constituencies. Much recent literature has for example considered the processes of partisan realignment as white southerners and evangelicals increasingly embraced Republicanism.

These are not however the only literatures. During the early days of Mrs Thatcher’s governments, polemics around the changing character of bourgeois hegemony and the ways in which the authoritarian populism that defined Thatcherism had captured hearts and minds focused attention on ideational variables and drew accounts away from narrower definitions of the “political”.

The logic of “neoliberalism” and the ways, in its embedded forms, that it has reconfigured economic and political processes has also been subject to study over three decades. Michel Foucault’s 1978 – 1979 lectures which were published as The Birth of Biopolitics are invariably invoked. In more recent years, historical institutionalism has considered the limited character of reforms during the Thatcher and Reagan eras and the ways in which path dependence allowed much of the post-war social settlement to survive thereby frustrating the ambitions of the neoliberal right.

All these literatures capture the thinking, activity and logic of the contemporary right at a particular level. Each, in other words, can be regarded as a distinct but overlapping “order”. A comprehensive portrait of the right has to incorporate insights from all these “orders”.

So far, so good. Few would I suspect dissent. Systematic analysis has however to go beyond calls that we should all listen to each other. We need to think carefully about the types of “listening” processes and the forms of analytical accommodation between the different “orders” that are required.

At this point, there is a case for turning towards the study of American Political Development (APD), an important sub-field within US political science. In contrast with those who emphasize institutional and ideational fits or complementarities within and between different orders APD suggests that polities are invariably defined by profound and intense discomplementarities as different orders chafe and abrade against each other. The process is described in some APD literature as “intercurrence”. Efforts to ameliorate such chafing and abrasion require the creative efforts of actors.

In short, if the approaches associated with APD are adopted, the study of the right should indeed move onwards and outwards from the different sub-fields that it now inhabits but there is little to be gained from simply talking outside our customary comfort zones. We should instead focus our attention upon the processes of abrasion between the different orders that constitute contemporary conservative politics (as well as the impact of broader economic and social shifts). It is those tensions and stresses that shape the overall character of the right and bring forth the shifts and changes that we collectively seek to depict and understand. 

I discuss these themes more fully in my forthcoming book, The Right and the Recession, (Manchester University Press, 2015). 

Edward Ashbee is an associate professor at the Copenhagen Business School. He manages a blog here.


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