The Left-Right Political Spectrum Is Bogus

It might be a division between social identities based on class or region or race or gender, but it is certainly not a clash between different ideas.
The French Estates-General in 1789 (Isidore-Stanislaus Helman via Wikimedia Commons)

Americans are more divided than ever by political ideology, as a recent Pew Research Center study makes clear. About a third of people on each side say of the other that its proponents "are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being." They're both right about that.

My prescription isn't civility or dialogue, which though admirable are boring and in this case evidently impossible. Rather, my approach is “philosophical”: to try to confront both sides with the fact that their positions are incoherent. The left-right divide might be a division between social identities based on class or region or race or gender, but it is certainly not a clash between different political ideas.

The arrangement of positions along the left-right axis—progressive to reactionary, or conservative to liberal, communist to fascist, socialist to capitalist, or Democrat to Republican—is conceptually confused, ideologically tendentious, and historically contingent. And any position anywhere along it is infested by contradictions.

Transcending partisanship is going to require what seems beyond the capacities of either side: thinking about the left-right spectrum rather than from it. The terminology arose in revolutionary France in 1789, where it referred to the seating of royalists and anti-royalists in the Assembly. It is plausible to think of the concept (if not the vocabulary) as emerging in pre-revolutionary figures such as Rousseau and Burke. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of “left” and “right” used in the political sense in English is in Thomas Carlyle's French Revolution in 1837, but the idea only crystallized fully with the emergence and under the aegis of Marxism, in the middle of the 19th century. It was not fully current in English-speaking countries until early in the 20th.

Before that, and outside of the West, there have been many intellectual structures for defining and arranging political positions. To take one example, the radical and egalitarian reform movements of the early and mid-19th century in the U.S.—such as abolitionism, feminism, and pacifism—were by and large evangelical Christian, and were radically individualist and anti-statist. I have in mind such figures as Lucretia Mott, Henry David Thoreau, and William Lloyd Garrison, who articulated perfectly coherent positions that cannot possibly be characterized as on the left or the right.

The most common way that the left-right spectrum is conceived—and the basic way it is characterized in the Pew survey—is as state against capital.* Democrats insist that government makes many positive contributions to our lives, while Republicans argue that it is a barrier to the prosperity created by free markets. On the outer ends we might pit Chairman Mao against Ayn Rand in a cage match of state communism against laissez-faire capitalism.

The basic set of distinctions on both sides rests on the idea that state and corporation, or political and economic power, can be pulled apart and set against each other. This is, I propose, obviously false, because hierarchies tend to coincide. Let's call that PHC, or Principle of Hierarchical Coincidence. A corollary of PHC is that resources flow toward political power, and political power flows toward resources; or, the power of state and of capital typically appear in conjunction and are mutually reinforcing. 

I'd say it's obvious that PHC is true, and that everyone knows it to be true. A white-supremacist polity in which black people were wealthier than white people, for example, would be extremely surprising. It would be no less surprising if regulatory capture were not pervasive. You could keep trying to institute reforms to pull economic and political power apart, but this would be counter-productive, because when you beef up the state to control capital, you only succeed in making capital more monolithic, more concentrated, and more able to exercise a wider variety of powers. (Consider the relation of Goldman Sachs to the Treasury Department over the last several decades, or Halliburton and the Pentagon, or various communications and Internet concerns and NSA. The distinction between "public" and "private" is rather abstract in relation to the on-the-ground overlap.)

State and economy are merged in different permutations in Iran and Egypt, in China and Russia, in the U.S. and the E.U. We might say that the current Chinese state combines the most salient features of Maoism and corporate capitalism: It's all devoted to generating maximum cash and putting it on a barge—destination: the very top of the hierarchy. And yet it also attempts to bestride the earth with the iron boot of collectivist totalitarianism. Now, that appears incoherent if you are trapped in the spectrum. A conventional political scientist associates capitalism with John Locke and Adam Smith and democracy (“liberalism,” I suppose). On the other hand, since socialists reject free enterprise and propose grand redistributionist schemes, they require a big, powerful state. For a long time, people thought of the Chinese system as combining opposed or contradictory elements.

I'd say no one is so sure anymore. We should think instead of the Chinese state as a provisional culmination of both state socialism and corporate capitalism. In ideology, they are opposites. But we don't live in the textbook on political ideologies. We live in a world where corporate capitalism has always completely depended on state power, and the basic practical thrust of left statism has always been annexation of the economy. The Soviet Union was a variety of monopoly capitalism, and the modern American state is a variety of state socialism.

Our mistake was that we believed the account these ideologies gave of themselves. But that scrim was always thin. There are capitalist theoreticians who have fantasized and recommended stateless free markets, and there are communist theorists who have fantasized no markets at all, always glossing over the fact that what they actually meant was the permeation of every aspect of life, including markets, by the state. These were fantasies. What these people wanted appeared to be entirely opposed, but they were each devoted to their own sort of hierarchy, and hierarchies tend to coincide.

Presented by

Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College. He writes regularly at Eye of the Storm and is the author of the forthcoming collection How to Escape.

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