The Left-Right Political Spectrum Is Bogus

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.

The familiar notion is that when you reduce the power of the state, you increase the power of capital, and vice versa. To put it mildly, this claim is non-empirical. The rise of capital, its consolidation into a few hands, and the enduring structures of monopoly or gigantism to which it gives rise are inconceivable without the state.


Michel Beaud, in his History of Capitalism, is one of many historians who have found the state connection criterial: "What one in any case should remember is the importance of the state in the birth, the first beginnings of capitalism .... The primary transforming factor is the state. National unity, currency standardization, juridical coherence, military strength and the beginnings of a national economy: all these were created and developed by the state, or with the state as organizing principle."

Capital accumulations on the vast scales we see today are not possible in the absence of pervasive domestic policing and the ability to project military power. The British colonial economy—one capitalist apogee—would have been impossible without a huge state. The American robber-baron period is often held to have been to have led to hyper-concentration of wealth in a few private hands and to have been constrained ultimately by the state. If you look at the actual procedures employed by a Vanderbilt, a Rockefeller, a Carnegie, you see that they depended fundamentally on state sponsorship and state violence, which such men were in a position to command in virtue of their wealth. This underwent various adjustments in the so-called Progressive Era, but though specific cartels and fortunes were compromised, the consolidation in the long run continued, as the government became the central bank (more or less merging with J.P. Morgan) and the modern bureaucratic corporation emerged.

Consider by way of comparison the Soviet system. Nationalizing industry and imposing five-year plans didn’t make society more equal; it just made the Communist Party a committee of capitalists. Communist totalitarianism was a particular and particularly extreme form of the merger of state and capital, but that merger is everywhere. If one thought a bit, for example, about the way that government energy policies and private energy concerns are interlocked, one would see less and less sense of distinction. Regulators and corporate lobbyists and congressional staffers are all the same people.

The idea that free markets are historically distinguished from large, powerful states is an ahistorical ideology shared by the capitalist right and the communist left. We might think of the left-right spectrum as a single ideology rather than a taxonomy of opposites. Thus, the left/right or Democrat/Republican split—which turns American politics into a hyper-repetitive, mechanical set of partisan bromides about free markets versus government programs with egalitarian results—depends on a historical mistake.

The left-right spectrum is often characterized in terms of two extreme poles. One way to see that this is incoherent is that these poles can be defined in mutually incompatible ways. It’s awfully strange that Rand Paul and John McCain belong to the same political party and are generally held to be on the same end of the political spectrum. I'd say they each disagree more profoundly and substantially with the other than either disagrees with Barack Obama, for example. Some of the most historically salient “right-wing” movements are monarchism, fascism, fundamentalism, and libertarianism, which have nothing in common except that they all have reasons to oppose Marxist communism, and vice versa. Yet they also all have similar reasons to oppose one another. Toss in David Brooks Burkeans, security-state neocons, and so on, and you have a miscellany of unrelated positions.

The left pole, meanwhile, could be a stateless society of barter and localism; or a world of equality in which people are not subordinated by race, gender, and sexuality; or a pervasive welfare state; or a Khmer Rouge reeducation regime. The Nazi Party, Catholic Church, hereditary aristocracy, Ayn Rand capitalists, and redneck gun enthusiasts are all on the same side of the left-right spectrum. So are hacktivists, food-stamp officials, anti-globalization activists, anarcho-primitivists, and advocates of a world government. It would be hard to come up with a less coherent or less useful way of thinking about politics.

Examining another familiar opposition, between “equality” and “liberty,” produces another cluster of contradictions. The left holds up “equality” as a fundamental value. The means leftists propose to increase economic equality almost always increase political inequality, because these means consist of larger state programs: more resources and rules, coercion and surveillance in the hands of officials or state contractors, including in welfare-type programs. The welfare state is more pervasive now than it was a century ago, and we now have institutions like compulsory public education. These are achievements of the left, programs they are still trying enhance, but have they actually resulted in more equal societies? Quite the contrary, I believe: They have led to ever-more-frozen hierarchies. The mainstream left is a technocratic elite, with a cult of science and expertise and an ear for the unanimous catchphrase. This is anything but a meritocracy; it an entrenched intergenerational class hierarchy.


Whatever the right is, it runs aground in contradiction similarly in its treatment of its own sacred concept “liberty,” which is hard to hold in solution with opposing gay marriage or marijuana legalization, or with a thousand dimensions of the contemporary surveillance/security state.

Milton Friedman and Vlad Lenin, Ho Chi Minh and Barry Goldwater, Barack Obama and Rand Paul, Francois Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Fidel Castro, Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Piketty, Paul Krugman and Augusto Pinochet: They may well have disagreed about this and that. But they have agreed, or said they did, that the state was a force that was historically pitted against private capital. To reduce one was to increase the other and vice versa. They vary inversely and the balance between them that you recommend constitutes the fundamental way of characterizing your political position.

This spectrum stretches from authoritarianism on the one end to authoritarianism on the other, with authoritarianism in between. It makes anything that is not that incomprehensible. It narrows all alternatives to variations on hierarchy, structures of inequality, or profoundly unjust distributions of power and wealth. There are alternatives, and the one I would suggest is this: We should arrange political positions according to whether they propose to increase hierarchy or to dismantle it. Instead of left and right, we should be thinking about vertical versus horizontal arrangements of power and wealth.


* Another way people talk about left and right is in terms of time. Progressives want time to continue to move forward or even want to accelerate it, taking us into a future bright with promise, while conservatives want time to stand still or even run backward to a golden age. Either approach appears to depend on a conception of time as extremely malleable, its pace and direction depending on the outcome of the next election. Putting it gently, the idea that one can retard or accelerate time has a certain ... psychotic quality. Ted Cruz and Rafael Correa, the Taliban and Beyoncé, the “Stone Age” Suruwaha people of the Amazon, and the primetime hosts of MSNBC coincide in time, all moving temporally in the same direction at the same rate, contemporaneously. Among others, they all exist precisely at this moment.

Perhaps progressives (and real reactionaries, if there are any) would say that the idea of halting or hastening time is a sort of shorthand or metaphor. But I think the matter is more complicated. Both sides of the American political spectrum are continuously appealing to American traditions and principles. And one typically "makes progress," to whatever extent one does, by revivifying or reinterpreting existing traditions. Barack Obama engages in this rhetoric no less than Rand Paul. It's never a matter of simply starting afresh, employing no assumptions; both sides are engaged in interpreting and re-applying existing traditions, and both sides are doing that under constantly mutating conditions, so that each reapplication is a new and potentially controversial interpretation. Time is relentless in that sense too.

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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