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The political symbolism of colour

How can people be conservatives? Surely no right-thinking individual would admit to being part of this antiquated tribe?


Steve Latham


This is especially so during this recession, with conservative governments throughout the globe cutting back on welfare, and choosing policies which favour the rich over the poor.

But perhaps the language of polarity is outmoded today. Radical-Conservative. Progressive-Reactionary. Left-Right.

Do not these antinomies conceal as much as they reveal, about people’s real views? Labelling can short-circuit thought, replacing critical reflection with handy, but inaccurate, stereotypes.

The terminology of ‘left’ and ‘right’ is particularly questionable. This is lazy shorthand, the product of one specific historical moment, the French revolution.

Seated in an arc, the opposing factions then indeed sat at the left and right wings of the legislative assembly. But how relevant is that to us today, with other architectural seating arrangements?

Red and blue, as political colours, is another case in point. All over the world, red represents the socialist tendency, the ‘left’ we might say; and blue stands for the conservatives, the ‘right’.

But, as is well-known, in the United States, the colour symbolism is reversed. Red is the colour of the Republicans, and blue that of the Democrats.

The political symbolism of colour is therefore decidedly arbitrary. There is no ideological basis for an aesthetic programme of “colour me beautiful” self-improvements.

Take ecology, for example. Is it a left-wing or a right-wing issue?

Today, it is plainly of the left. But for years it was conservative country folk who opposed the depradations of development in their shires.

The Nazis were especially well-known for their green credentials. The common factor in all eco-movements, however, is hostility to the marketization of rural life, the destruction of habitats.

Cornel West, Afro-American philosopher, has written positively of conservatism; in the sense of ‘conserving’ what is good. For example, West advocates conserving non-market values, against the encroachment of profit as the only measure of worth, and the destruction of poor communities by so-called regeneration.

West and Slavoj Zizek, Slovenian critical theorist, turn traditionalism on its head, when they call for the preservation of European Christian traditions, of prophetic protest and radical critique.

The problem with our government, at the moment, is that the conservatives are not really conservative.

Instead they are libertarian capitalists, who support the abolition of all ancient traditions and practices, which restrict the free market. The National Health Service, education, the BBC, are institutions which must be swept away. They embody values other than those of laissez faire economics.

Conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton, observes that a conservative will refuse to impose full-scale, rapid, political change, because of the dangers from unintended consequences.

In attacking welfare, the government is not conserving anything, but destroying any basis of social solidarity.

As Marx wrote, capitalism rips the sacred halo away from every pre-existing social relation, and replaces it with the naked cash nexus.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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