Oikos vs polis: a new (but old) axis on the political map

17.53, Thursday 13 May 2021

Here’s an exchange on Twitter that illustrates the new schism in politics, from May 2020:

  • Michael Gove, UK government minister: Caring for your wife and child is not a crime. (On the topic of an advisor breaking the law on lockdown.)
  • Commentary from John Holbo, philosophy professor: It really is astonishing how true it is. Conservatism says the law protects in-group members without binding them; while binding out-group members, not protecting them. Mafia logic all the way up and down.

Is it ok to put your family, or your tribe, above the law?

Unlike Holbo, I don’t believe that answering “yes” to that question is a particular conservative or right wing trait. It’s a question that different people will answer differently; it’s a new axis on the political map. Perhaps it’s the new axis.

(Cory Doctorow has more comments on the exchange here, again from May 2020, where he relates it to pluralism vs elitism. Have a read – I’m going in a similar-ish direction.)

The existing axes are “social” and “economic” and they no longer make sense

The Political Compass has been a pretty good model as long as I’ve been politically aware.

(Caveats: I’ve only been paying attention to politics since the early 1990s. And when I look back to say, the 1960s, before the free market ideology took hold, the right seemed way happier to promote state intervention. So I don’t know how it felt back then.)

There are two axes, and you can take a test and end up somewhere on this grid:

  • Social: authoritarian vs libertarian
  • Economic: left vs right

But this implies that there’s a kind of universality to policy: it presupposes that everyone is treated the same.

What if that no longer holds true?

Oikos vs polis: blood vs state

The term oikos has framed my thinking for a while. A few years back I read Benjamin Peter’s How Not to Network a Nation which is a great look at why there was never a successful Soviet internet, despite many attempts between 1959 and 1989. From the blurb on the back, the book argues that the American ARPANET took shape thanks to well-managed state subsidies and collaborative research environments, while the Soviet network projects stumbled because of unregulated competition among self-interested institutions, bureaucrats, and others.

Here’s the passage that grabbed my attention (p194 of my edition).

Consider the language of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition - a landmark work of political theory that introduces its disenchantment with normative liberal values with a discussion of Sputnik and the nuclear age, the two ingredients that, once combined, could spell instantaneous planetary annihilation. For Arendt, the distinction between the public and the private is not the liberal economic opposition of the public state and the private market but a classical (Aristotelian) distinction between the public as an expression of the polis (where actors gather “to speak and act together”) and the private as an expression of the oikos (Greek for household and the root of the word economy) (where actors inhabit a domain of animal necessity and are compelled to pursue their own interests for their survival).

So this stuck in my head, and here’s my crude, way-over-simplified way of thinking about it as a framework:

  • an oikos view is: it’s morally preferable to favour “people like me”
  • a polis view is: it’s morally preferable to treat everyone equally

Oikos politics can be wielded for good and ill

I was initially baffled when, in 2019, the Brexit Party announced its only non-Brexit political policy: the abolition of inheritance tax. (See the announcement on Twitter.)

Why should this be sole additional policy? Why not remain silent? The oikos vs polis framework helped me. “Brexit” is a classic oikos preference: this country matters more than this bigger union, it says. And if Brexit is the macro, then removing inheritance tax is the micro: tribe over state.

But I want to be clear: oikos is not bad. Like any political preference, it can be wielded for good and ill.

Community is an oikos value! Neighbourhood is an oikos value! Closing the streets to city traffic so kids can play, that’s an oikos value! Mutuality and cooperative organisations… traditionally left wing, but elements of oikos there. EastEnders, the long-running British TV soap about fierce family loyalties: oikos.

The old English aristocracy: that’s oikos all over. As The Institutional Revolution points out (I read this in December 2020), the aristocracy was an economic adaption to a world without reliable communications or measurement. To function, that world required high trust relationships and ways to bind people into high trust relationships. The aristocracy met that challenge for 300 years – and its values of loyalty, honour, family, and so on are oikos values: trust and defend my group over any other allegiance.

Now the right wing ruling class of the UK is closely connected with those old aristocratic families. Is it any wonder they continue to display oikos culture?

Anyway, my conclusion was that oikos is independent of left vs right; independent of owner class vs labour class; independent of being socially liberal or authoritarian.

This super insightful tweet is, to my mind, about the same thing:

I have a hunch the next important political divide won’t be right/left or remain/Brexit - It will be between those who, in the face of climate crisis, choose self-interest (the Doomers, Preppers) and those who choose solidarity (XR, transition towns).

Self-interest: oikos. Solidarity: polis. (Though it strikes me that fighting the climate crisis will require framing the solution in terms of self-interest too.)

The explanatory use of this framework…

I usually try to avoid talking about day to day politics, but I need to for a second. Before I do, I want to reinforce this point: Oikos is not a bad thing. If I say someone is strongly on the oikos end of the spectrum, that is in no way a value judgement.

Boris Johnson is on the oikos end of the spectrum. For him, his family comes first. His business relationships and financial wellbeing comes first, above his duty to the country and perhaps even the spirit of the law. AND YET, in recent elections, this has done him no harm.

Why? My feeling is that it’s because a lot of people in the country respect his approach. Actually – they do the same. They care about their family, and would put in a good word for them if it meant they would get a job, or tell a white lie to the police if it got them out of a speeding ticket. They don’t see anything wrong with campaigning hard for their town, or their football team, because there is nothing wrong with these things!

And what Johnson is doing is progressing an oikos culture which means that other strongly oikos people are in common cause with him. Sure, they’re not favoured by Johnson personally, and actually they might be slightly damaged by his actions, but that’s not the point: in a wider sense, they’re on the same side.

They’re on the same side regardless of where they were on the old political map.

For me, this helps explain the recent election results (where the Tory party was not punished for Johnson’s self-interest) and also the coalition of wealthy elite and working class that carried the “Leave” vote for Brexit.

Being able to say: “aha, that is an example of oikos common cause” has been enormously illuminating to me. It has never been about populism or nationalism, or right and left; those are just symptoms.

…and how having this framework has affected my views.

So there’s no point in attacking politicians for displaying oikos values. What some people see as selfish, others see as upstanding.

Perhaps the value of the polis needs to be shored up. Solidarity, equality in the eyes of the law, utilitarianism: these are ideas that need to be re-established.

The right has claimed oikos for its own. That makes sense: it’s a natural fit for neoliberalism (free market economics), and also for small government (because you should look after your own). But I don’t believe this necessarily has to be the case. What should the left fight for in an oikos world? A vital question.

More posts tagged:
Follow-up posts:

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.