Fascist! The Left-Right Spectrum Is Bogus
It's the insult that's separated enough from "Nazi!" that it remains popular on blogs, in columns, and even within books claiming to be scholarly. Books claim to identify liberal fascism, conservative fascism, and I am fairly certain there must be a book about moderate fascism.
The problem is that left-right political dichotomies fail to appreciate that political theories and governmental systems overlap and intertwine. American liberals and progressives point to the nationalistic and "traditional values" of Italian Fascism to claim all fascists are of the right. American conservatives and libertarians emphasize the origins of the Italian fascist movement from within unions and socialist organizations to claim all fascists are of the left.
As professor Crispin Sartwell writes:
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.Reducing this down to the (relatively) minor differences between the two major parties in the United States, they are both statist parties interested telling citizens how to live via federal laws, regulations, and the tax code. For the progressives, it's okay to regulate my food, my car, my healthcare, and other aspects of life that I can't be trusted to choose wisely. For the conservatives, it's equally okay to dictate what I can watch (and when) and what secrets I can keep from prying eyes. Statism is simply a matter of kind.
Both parties talk about life, liberty, equality, and freedom. (I'm not sure either mentions the pursuit of happiness anymore). The talking heads and pundits, especially the loudest voices, quickly point to the "fascism" of one side or the other. And we wonder why so many people reject the parties and don't vote.
The United States political parties are both corporatists. But wait, that's a trait of fascism, right? Yes, and no. It's a trait of any political system in the era of corporations. (Public companies didn't exist in current form before the Industrial Revolution, but mercantile companies did exist, and national leaders pandered to those.) For the Democrats, tax breaks to "green" companies and "socially responsible" companies is good, and tax breaks for carbon energy companies is bad. For Republicans, military research funding is good, while tax breaks to green companies is "picking winners and losers" via centralized social engineering.
My point should be clear by now: our parties both pick winner and losers, with close ties to corporations that align with their political and philosophical visions of what is "good" for the nation. And both parties appeal to patriotism, "equality" (at least of opportunity), and other sources of nationalist pride. Both parties talk about small business, working people, and so on, and so on.
Are they both fascists? No. Neither major party is anything close to Italian Fascism. (Colleagues on left and right will argue with my assertion by finding outliers on the fringes.)
In practice, fascism was both anti-liberal and anti-conservative, seeking to transcend class while opposing communism and neoliberalism. It is, at best, a complex rejection of pretty much everything except what the fascists decided was good. Read the books by Roger Griffin on the topic of fascism and the problems with left-right divisions become even more clear (or less clear). Complicating the left-right model, every government claiming to be fascist has also claimed to be socialist in some way. Yet, fascists oppose communism and models of egalitarian equality.
Historians have built careers on claiming Fascists and National Socialists are of the right, including Roderick Stackelberg. Because Stackelberg offers a simple, comfortable, and (at least for progressives) morally clear definition of "left" as supporting equality among people, thereby suggesting the "right" not only accepts but celebrates inequality, his version of left-right is popular on left-leaning websites and in politically progressive books. Apparently, we can ignore the "Fascist Left" that gave rise to Benito Mussolini and the German socialists who initially supported Adolf Hitler. Yes, there was a left-right within Fascism, too.
(I've noticed that people feel superior after telling us that nobody is superior. Maybe that's the hallmark of political rhetoric: accidental superiority through seeing the "obvious" that other, less enlightened citizens cannot see. )
Things are simply not so simple.
There are radicals from the left and right who consider themselves libertarian, something few people seem to know or appreciate. There are conservative communitarians (the Amish certainly fit this model, as do some Orthodox Jews). Theoretical and implemented political structures get blurry.
A year ago, Sartwell addressed the problems of the left-right divide for The Atlantic. You should read the entire article, with which I'm certain most of my colleagues will disagree — since many have told me so. ("I have nothing in common with the right! Nothing!" Yes, because that's how we should start academic queries into serious questions of dichotomy.)
The Left-Right Political Spectrum Is BogusOnly someone with no knowledge of United States history could deny that the Democrats and Republicans, and earlier parties, swapped positions and geographic power-centers every three to four generations. Today's parties are "flipped" versions of their nineteenth-century ancestors.
by Crispin Sartwell
June 20, 2014
Note: Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College. He is the author of the collection How to Escape.
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.
Conservative Richard Nixon might be among the most progressive, centralized presidents in U.S. history. Certainly Abraham Lincoln was a unionist, a federalist of the most dedicated variety. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were vehement individualists, opposed to large organizations and central powers.
What about religion? Aren't the Evangelicals in the Republican Party trying to control everyone? That's a bit more complex than this moment in time suggests. As Sartwell writes:
…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 idea that the individual is sovereign is the key to libertarian, classical liberalism as developed by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. To implement and protect these personal freedoms, Republicans turned to federal powers. Negative rights, protections from encroachment on liberty, still had to be codified.
It was the Republican "Federalists" who used federal law, and Constitutional Amendments, to expand the right to vote and other protections to women and minorities. The GOP used federal power to tell states what was and was not acceptable. Curiously, the GOP also argued in favor of states' rights to decide issues of slavery, because the North wanted to ignore federal rulings that support the notion slaves were property. See how messy even "states' rights" can get? For them until you're against them. Marijuana legalization is an example of this "states' rights" argument flipping from right to left.
If we return to fiscal capital, instead of human capital and freedom, surely there is a clear difference between left and right? Isn't the real battle among political and economic ideologies about the state versus private capital? Sort of…
As Sartwell writes, that's the easy left-right discussion, and one both sides in the United States (and elsewhere) seem to accept. As I wrote in the opening, the United States' political parties are both corporatists.
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.We do love our cage matches. And, from the left, all one has to do is scream "Ayn Rand! The right loves Ayn Rand!" and the cheers of support will ring out through the blogosphere. (Che was much worse, someone who ordered and watched executions — despite some glossy and romanticized biographies — but Rand… she's a louse and a louse associated with libertarians and the right. Every side as its flawed champions.)
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.
People fight, literally killing each other, over which side is "better" than the other. Capitalists versus communists. Fascists versus everyone. And in the end, everyone is really fighting versions of themselves. Why is that? Because the communists are now capitalists. The capitalists are now socialists. The genuine fascists… are still confused.
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.Yes, Sartwell is correct, we are all everything and entirely confused. But that won't stop us from fighting over the details of the balance (or imbalance) among all the various positions. We have our tribes and are going to stick with them.
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.
How did the tribes get so much power? Because they told creation myths that fed into their versions of right versus wrong. Ideology is rarely logical, but we convince ourselves that ours happens to be logical and natural. Or, as Marx claimed, scientific!
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.We're all heading in the same direction, but our stories claim otherwise. Stateless markets? Marketless states? Doubt anyone could tell the difference. Maybe I'm just as guilty of cultural and ideological blindness as everyone else Sartwell describes. My faith in markets is based on a distrust of government, but in the end power exists somewhere.
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.Another indication that the divisions of left-right are artificial and confusing is that most of us agree with some people and positions from across the supposed political spectrum. Until the last decade, I've never understood how the two political parties were defined, with moderates from the two parties more alike than members of their respective parties. (That's no longer the case, since it is hard to locate moderates.)
As an agnostic libertarian dedicated to equal rights and opposed to corporatism, I don't "fit" with either party — but I agree with many voters I've met on many issues. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, "libertarians" are grouped with social conservatives, corporatists, and supply-side monetarists. Seriously? Where do my ideals fit within the Republican Party? They don't. Not even close.
I'm not part of any political party, and politicians in the two major parties might want to reconsider their own associations. The parties are incoherent and internally divided by conflicting interests.
Business leaders don't want Republicans talking about social issues. Manufacturing union leaders don't appreciate Democrats talking about environmental policies. The interests of constituents in the parties don't align. Should police (law and order supported by Republicans) follow their union leaders (labor supported by Democrats)? Parties offer confusing delineations. Agreeing with "enough" of a party's platform, or having a historical bond to the party seems sufficient for many people.
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.Our fear of the "fascists" of the other side, the party we know will increase concentrated power… leads us to concentrate power, simply in the other direction. We become the thing we feared, but of course our centralized power won't be problem. With our side (whichever that is) now in power, equality and justice can prevail! Until they don't.
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 re-education 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.
Sartwell uses the progressive, scientific and bureaucratic left as an example of the best plans not meeting expectations.
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.What seems to astonish Sartwell is that the "sides" at battle agree on the nature of the conflict. Why do we agree on this capital versus the state definition of political disputes? And isn't this something of a modern invention? Until the Italian banking system emerged thanks to the House of Medici, economics and politics were pretty simple: monarchs ruled, everyone else did as told — or plotted to kill the monarch to install a new monarch.
History aside, we've decided this capitalism-state balance debate is the stuff of real and intellectual wars. That conflict is the outline of modern history since the nineteenth century.
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.I doubt Sartwell would agree, since he suggests authoritarianism also dominates in the middle, but it seems that a "balanced" private-public, individual-group dynamic gets closer to some sort of less centralized power. Or maybe not.
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.
I was hoping we wouldn't find those moderate fascists.