Co-Authored with “Porcupine” ヤマアラシ
In this time of global upheaval and crisis, it can be a struggle to make sense of the swirling chaos of ideas and ideologies that are competing for political power and influence. Many of the most common and widespread conventional framings of ideological struggle are too coarse and reductive to yield much insight.
Collapsing nuanced differences of thinking into a single axis, such as Left vs. Right, is a common mistake that has caused misunderstanding and confusion. This plays out with serious political consequences as elections and other aspects of public life become harder and harder to properly understand due to the error in framing.
We suggest that complexifying the way we describe and think about ideologies is a necessary step in order to properly understand the state of contemporary politics. The elegance of a simple model must be discarded in order to improve the accuracy of the model.
Towards this end we suggest viewing American politics along 4 independent axes, creating a kind of 4-dimensional “idea space” that can be used to characterize both individual actors as well as larger movements. Our model identifies these 4 dimensions as highly relevant:
- Left vs. Right
- Authoritarian vs. Libertarian
- Inside vs. Outside
- Individualist vs. Collectivist
Mapping political thought on these 4 dimensions clarifies the differences and similarities between political tendencies. With this clarity we hope to reduce confusion and a better ability to make predictions.
The distinction between Left and Right is a reflection of polarization within a political system, rather than ideas or core principles. There aren’t any core principles. We could just as easily call Left and Right +/-, or North/South, or Red/Blue.
Originally, these labels came from the National Assembly during the French Revolution. Anti-Monarchists sat on the left and Restorationists sat on the right. The fact that we still label political tendencies according to extinct ideologies from more than 200 years ago indicates an enormous amount of inertia in our political discourse.
In America, this divide is usually split between the two major political parties, the Democrats and Republicans. This divide also holds true in some other countries (e.g. the Labour vs. Conservative parties in Great Britain). Other systems are multi-party, and so the polarization takes the form of parliamentary coalitions or voting blocks.
All attempts to distill “core principles” out of the current sets of policy preferences of the Left or the Right are fundamentally misguided. Policy preferences arise from other dimensions of ideology, or arise from pragmatic concerns, and acquire their Left/Right polarity later as the political process agglomerates sets of policies around “attractors” at either pole.
The attractors at the poles are often related to things like cultural identification, geographical realpolitik, or coalition building quid-pro-quo agreements. Because of this process one can often find apparently contradictory policy stances within the Left pole or the Right pole. These significant disagreements are papered over by alliances of convenience that form within a polarized political dynamic.
This dimension represents a spectrum of preferences with respect to what the role (and scope) of institutional authority ought to be in society.
These labels have very different connotations. Very few people actively refer to themselves as authoritarian, yet most authoritarian-labeled ideologies will unequivocally endorse the view that strong authority from institutions is necessary. This preference is expressed euphemistically to avoid the negative connotations of the word authoritarian, which has been used to label some extremely unpopular historical examples, such as Stalinist Communism, Fascism, or Salafist Theocracy. In contemporary American politics, there are no mainstream movements that are as authoritarian as those examples (although there are fringe movements that actually are), so the version of it we see within the mainstream of American political culture should probably be labeled differently to distinguish it from the extreme historical cases that color the perception of the tendency.
An authoritarian stance is one that holds that the authority to control, to govern, is a moral imperative for a just society. This is a defensible position and finds significant representation in American politics among both major parties as well as among a broad sampling of the commentariat. There is a certain irony and tension in the tendency of each of the Republican and Democratic parties to want to be both Authoritarian and Libertarian at the same time (albeit on different issues). They invert and mirror each other in this tension, leading to further polarization in the left/right variety discussed above.
Authoritarian ideology carries with it an implicit assumption that control systems (i.e. governments) can make better decisions for people than the people can make for themselves. This is not a simple issue to resolve. It’s sometimes true and sometimes not true. Self-destructive tendencies that arise in people can be harmful to both that person and their community and there is a moral case for mitigating the damage through the use of government. Individuals may also act according to their own selfish interests with disregard to the potential harmful impact of their actions on others. Mitigating the harm caused by reckless selfishness is another aspect of the moral imperative of government.
Libertarianism is the counterpart to Authoritarianism. It arises from a nuanced disagreement about the strength of the moral imperative to mitigate harm from the bad decisions made by individuals. The core difference is that a Libertarian has little confidence in the government’s judgment and competence. When government agents have misjudged the situation, their use of authority (i.e. implicit or explicit violence) is a very serious form of injustice that in many cases can be justifiably called tyranny. Misjudgment is a terribly common problem.
In the absence of trustworthy government agents who demonstrate good judgment, the moral imperative to avoid harm through tyranny becomes the primary concern. The Libertarian position is that while granting individuals the liberty to make their own decisions will inevitably result in some individuals making bad decisions (and harm resulting from that), it is preferable to allow that rather than to endure tyranny.
There are clear problems with naive libertarianism. Bad decisions of individuals can result in the harm of innocent people who did not make those decisions for themself. That’s essentially a different form of tyranny, through negligence rather than through misjudgment of government agents. This problem is widely recognized within libertarian ideologies, though, and a very common expression of libertarian thinking is “the freedom to do whatever you want as long as it does not explicitly harm another person.”
This is a reasonable, nuanced position for most situations, but it, too, is not without flaws. It also requires trustworthy actors with good judgment, becausing understanding the potential for harming others through second-order consequences is a complicated and error-prone problem. If insufficient attention and care is given to this problem, it produces an inhumane, callous libertarianism where “every person for themself” starts to take over and the benefits of social living are eroded.
This distinction comes to us from Ben Landau-Taylor, analyst at Bismarck Analysis. Ben tentatively defined these as “reflexively identifies with the central institutions” (inside) vs “reflexively distrusts the central institutions” (outside).
This dimension is about institutional structure and the distribution of power. It is much less concerned about explicit beliefs, policy programs, or outcomes – excepting perhaps the outcome of “cui bono”.
Institutional insiders are by definition in a privileged position, with a disproportionate amount of power. This is an intrinsic feature of power itself, and not necessarily a “bug” or problem, unless the power is being misused, abused, or mismanaged.
If the insiders are coordinating effectively to solve their society’s problems, if they are viewed as legitimate, then this inequality of power is not problematic. However, if they are less effective, dissent spreads quickly, and the inside group can swiftly be perceived as illegitimate or even corrupt.
Therefore, the primary concern of insiders is narrative control for the purpose of maintaining the appearance of legitimacy. Narrative control is primarily accomplished through influence of the media.
When narratives spiral out of control, we see problems like those in current American politics, where the media has fractured into competing polarized narratives that are mutually exclusive. In fact, these narratives are mutually incomprehensible or irreconcilable at times (which is by design, as it furthers polarization). The heat of the Culture War is in no small part due to the intensity of elite insider struggle to maintain the appearance of legitimacy.
Outsider movements have been ascendant in American politics since about 2006 (public consensus shifting against Iraq occupation, despite elite opinion still supporting it), and very rapidly accelerated in 2008 (financial crisis resulting eventually in launch of “tea party” movement, a direct precursor to Trumpism). The 2016 presidential election was fundamentally about Insider (Hillary Clinton, the most inside insider possible) vs. Outsider (Donald Trump, an outsider demagogue).
This dimension is concerned with differing beliefs about where a human being begins and ends.
Individualists see the individual as a cohesive unit whose autonomy should be protected and preserved as a fundamental right. Collectivists recognize the connections between humans, and evaluate the impact of policies on groups rather than specific individuals. Shared cultures, norms, values, habits are normalized and enforced for the benefit of the whole, even if that is sometimes or often at the expense of particular individuals.
The 20th Century saw the rise of the twin headed monster of Fascism and Communism, both of which are forms of collectivism. While Communism and Fascism have differences, they are both fundamentally collectivist ideologies that seek to unify masses of people under a monolithic state with supreme power. The form of that monolithic state differs between the two of them, but it’s a deeply similar vision when viewed from a high level.
These collectivist movements were paired with violent, authoritarian ideologies that eventually engulfed the entire world in the most destructive war in the history of humanity. Fascism was defeated as a global movement in 1945 but Communism was not. It continued to cause widespread suffering for decades, and in many respects is still causing widespread suffering in the form of China’s current regime.
Collectivism on the smaller scale has been a repeated success story throughout human history. It’s baked into our language’s aphorisms, such as “It takes a village to raise a child” and “many hands make light work.” We are a social animal, and our greatest power and advantage is the force multiplication we get from working together. Collectivism seems like a no-brainer and easy win all the way up until it’s not, when it becomes a monster.
Any discussion of collectivism needs to address this tragic failure mode. Why does collectivism, with a relatively good track record when used at small scales (workers co-ops, monasteries, farming collectives, even labor unions), have an abysmal track record at larger scales?
How can collectives be scaled up without resorting to a tyrannical state entity as the central coordinating entity? In other words, how does one solve the coordination problem at sufficiently large scale without creating an inhumane monster in the process?
Individualism is a kind of reaction of the modern era against the historical, tyrannical collectivisms of our civilizational history. It’s almost nonsensical to talk about pre-modern individualism – there was no such thing. Modern Individualism should really be viewed as a kind of outgrowth of the development of the bourgeoisie and the capability to use market economics and commerce/trade to implicitly solve the otherwise very hard coordination problems that prevent traditional collectivist solutions from succeeding at large scale.
The concept of Homo economicus is a central idea in Modern era Individualist ideology.
It proposes that individual people act as rational economic actors motivated by their self-interest. Individualist politics is an outgrowth from the premise that rational selfish economic behavior is actually beneficial. In practice, ample evidence suggests that individuals can’t actually be relied upon to think or act rationally.
Individualism also has clear problems, such as atomization. The dissolution of traditional social bonds leaves individuals deeply isolated, lonely, and vulnerable. Atomized people are cut off from access to the super-power of the human species. They’re asked to try and make it on their own when no person can ever really do that – “No man is an island.” Isolation takes a huge psychological toll, leading to anxiety, depression, and all kinds of miseries of the mind. It also renders people dependent on their own individual economic success in order to survive. The failures of individualism and atomization have required concessions to collectivist policies in the form of social welfare programs.
Despite these problems there is something really valuable in this Modern ideology of Individualism. It has succeeded in creating enormous quantities of productivity and wealth, and has created a very powerful incentive to break down barriers across the world to allow trade to become the primary way people in different nations relate to each other, rather than war. This has the potential to secure peace in a deeply meaningful and strongly reinforced way.
Individualism also can be empowering to people in ways that collectivist organizations struggle with. Simply put, tolerance of deviations from collective norms is a really important outcome. Collectivist organizations really struggle with this and can be brutal and oppressive to those who deviate. Individualist societies are much better at making room for deviation. This is valuable for many reasons, not the least of which is the acceleration of the rate of innovation that comes from having more deviations in society. It’s also humane and relieves the suffering of those who would find themselves oppressed in collectivist institutions.
A more complex model of political ideology requires more effort to understand and also, helpfully, makes it harder to collapse context and lose the plot when trying to classify trends in the Discourse and the political movements behind them. With four dimensions to consider it becomes possible to distinguish between apparently contradictory groupings, and to disaggregate ideas that have distinct historical and contemporary meanings.
Spending time to update our mental models of the political landscape and classify things with greater accuracy is extra effort compared to accepting conventional media narratives but it’s a very worthwhile effort for the goal of clarity and accuracy. We hope that this expanded model will be helpful in understanding trends in contemporary politics.
- The Political Spectrum by Darren Allen
If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing to my newsletter, my YouTube channel, or following me on Twitter to get updates on my new blog posts and current projects. You can also support my work and writing on Patreon.