Part 3 in my series on rethinking the political spectrum.
In Part 1, I began to demythologize the political spectrum by re-rooting it in the struggle over power concentration. In Part 2, I debunked the libertarian marketing scheme of the dual axis political spectrum. Here in Part 3, I will deconstruct another myth about what “left” and “right” mean.
Previously, I touched on how much of the use of the terms “left” and “right” signal opposition to the other side. This is sensible to a point, because there is a real conflict between the left and right over the circulation of power. Again, the right wants power more concentrated in the hands of a few, and the left wants more power to be circulated among more people. Contrasting desires for how society ought to be structured will inescapably lead to conflict.
Quite often, however, feelings of antagonism toward the other side become so strong that the focus on opposition overshadows the positions of one’s own side. Overwhelmed with animosity for the other side, people lose touch with the positive values that they supposedly support. These people are not so much left or right as they are anti-right or anti-left respectively. These two groups make up most of what is termed the “far left” and the “far right.” These often extremist groups are self-defined by their negative rather than positive positions, as we shall see.
First, I need to address a common theory about the far left and far right. That will clear the way to view what the far left and far right actually are.
The idea of horseshoe theory is that the political spectrum curves back on itself such that the far left and far right of the spectrum converge into the same. The claim is that the far left and far right have more in common with each other than with the political center.
The theory originated with Jean-Pierre Faye as an attempt to explain how Stalin and Hitler could have agreed to invade and then divide Poland in 1939. Faye created a false dilemma by unreflexively adopting the fiction that Stalin was far left. As I pointed out in Part 1, there is zero reason to think Stalin was in any way left-wing, and understanding the right-wing as seeking greater concentrations of power places Stalin and his autocratic regime on the far right where it belongs, alongside Hitler’s fascism. No need to imagine a horseshoe to explain why they have similar ideologies.
Horseshoe theory is appealing to those who see themselves as centrists. The center can be portrayed as sensible compared to the alternatives on both extremes. The theory has also been appropriated by the right-wing to smear the left as being as bad as the right-wing fascists, if not actual fascists.
Horseshoe theory ignores several obvious facts. One is that the far left and far right oppose each other on policies. They have different approaches to the world and different goals. The far right seeks extreme power concentrations, exactly what the far left is trying to destroy. Their conflict is not a matter of two totalitarians fighting for land like Hitler and Stalin did. Again, understanding left and right in terms of power concentration resolves confusions about politics. The far left and far right share extremism and maybe even tactics, but that does not mean they are the same as horseshoe theory implies.
What are the Far left and Far right?
The simple answer is to say that they are extremes of the left and the right, but that is inadequate. There are individuals and groups who are firmly left or right, but there are others whose extreme political paradigms and actions are better understood as being outside of the political spectrum. Those groups usually thought of as being far left and far right are actually neither left nor right. This is because what they have in common is a relative lack of positive values, succumbing to fear of and hatred for those they see as their enemies.
Perhaps it is the case that an appropriate concentration of power would be good for a society, but far right groups aren’t advancing positive solutions for society as a whole. Instead, they are fixated on their antagonism for the evil leftists. Similarly, greater circulation of and inclusion in power is probably good for society, but far left groups aren’t advancing positive solutions. Instead, they are fixated on their antagonism for the evil right-wing.
These extremist individuals and groups will refer to themselves as either “left” or “right,” but they are more correctly considered to be anti-right and anti-left. Because they are characterized by their opposition rather than by positive actions, they are outside of the political spectrum. Horseshoe theory tries to reflect the shared oppositional politics in both the far left and far right. It is more accurate to think of both groups in terms of their central characteristic: their obsession with opposition.
The Anti-Left Reactionary Right
Those in the far right are not actually conservative but anti-left. By definition, the right, the conservatives, seek to concentrate power in the hands of a few. They act to conserve the power of the dominant sector of society. This inherently excludes certain people, but within the right-wing, there is, in general, a respect for the rule of law. There also is, again in general, a tendency toward propriety and order in personal behavior and social structure. Neither of these positive traits of the right are found in the extremist anti-left, who have perverted anything positive in the right-wing into a hostile reactionism to anything “left.” They hate what they perceive as “the left” more than they love their own community.
The anti-left are characterized by their reactionary fear of difference. This is a side effect of the right-wing’s desire for a concentration of power, which can be easily perverted into xenophobia and enmity for others. Animosities toward minorities, nonheternormative people, immigrants, and women are understandably connected with the right-wing in general. To be fair, these reactionary hostilities are more attributable to the anti-left, whose negative energies have been harnessed and exploited by the more mainstream right. Major parties that were center-right, such as the UK Conservative party and the US Republican party, harnessed the electoral power of the anti-left reactionary right, but have found their parties all but taken over by extremist views.
Members of the anti-left focus more on social issues than economic issues. Other right-wing groups such as libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and corporatists seek concentration of power into economic entities and their owners. The anti-left, because they are focused more on their opposition to others than advancing a positivist agenda, are fixated more on taking away power from other groups, such as minorities, nonheternormative people, immigrants, and women. That fixation extends to hostility toward anyone on the left who seeks to circulate more power to those subaltern groups.
A long-time example of this fixation has been the anti-left’s contradictory opposition to abortion rights. As I mentioned in Part 1, if the right truly believed in personal freedom as they claim, they would support a woman’s right to control her own body. Instead, driven by the anti-left’s fear of and animosity toward women’s power, they seek laws that prohibit a woman from having an abortion. Granted, the right-wing in general is patriarchal. Their position is that the government should interfere in individuals’ lives and control women’s bodies. Ironically, taking away women’s power over their bodies and lives and concentrating it in the government is an example of what being right-wing is truly about.
The anti-left has an intense despair over the present social situation of increasing diversity and equality. They contrast what they believe to be social degradation with their image of a previous golden age. Of course, this glorified past was a time when power was concentrated in the dominant classes, and many people were shut out from full participation in society. It seems that a return to this bygone era of social exclusion is the ultimate goal of the anti-left.
Because they seek to concentrate power into their own social group to the exclusion of other social groups, the anti-left are similar to the right-wing. However, because their agenda is reactionary—anti-left more than pro-right—they are in a sense not within the ordinary right-wing side of the political spectrum. They are reactionaries—emotionally opposed to progress, diversity, and civil discourse about society and power.
The Anti-Right Fake Left
Those in the far left is not actually liberal but anti-right. Animosity for others is not restricted to the far right and some people are so full of hatred for the right-wing that that opposition is their focus rather than positive action to increase the circulation of power. The left, by definition, is about increasing the circulation of power, increasing the number of people who are included within society and social institutions, and building community. None of the positive traits of the left are found in the anti-right, who, being a mirror image of the anti-left, have perverted anything positive in the left-wing into a hostile reactionism to anything “right.” They hate what they perceive as “the right” more than they love their own community.
The anti-right is characterized by bitterness toward people and institutions with power. The feeling comes from an honest place in that excessive concentrations of power are harmful to society, and historically, most concentrations of power have come about because of abuse and exploitation of others. Certainly, dismantling unjust power structures is essential to increasing the circulation of power and by extension, justice. However, the anti-right are fixated with the destruction of power and in their opposition to what they perceive as “the right.” They are more interested in taking away power from other groups than in building up power for the groups they claim to support. They claim to be of the left, but think and behave more like the right. They are the fake left.
The fixation with opposition leads the anti-right into contradictory rather than honest response to abuses of power. A stunning recent example of this fixation is the fake left’s tacit support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The anti-right claim to be leftists who are against war and against imperialism but when a very clearly imperialist war breaks out, they aren’t against it. Instead, because they are so fixated on opposition, they can only repeat their animosity toward the U.S. government and their conspiracy theories that most everything wrong with the world is caused by the U.S., and they therefore blame Putin’s war on the U.S. rather than on Putin. The authentic left is about supporting peace and increasing power for the oppressed. The fake left are not, fixated as they are on opposition and even more, opposition only to particular institutions.
The fake left are so blinded by their animosity that they are more anti-right than pro-left. They are in a sense not within the ordinary left-wing side of the political spectrum. They, like the anti-left, are emotionally opposed to progress and diversity, and civil discourse about society and power.
The Anti-Politics of Extremism
Much, much more could be said about the extremists in the two camps of the anti-left and anti-right. Hopefully, I have communicated the basic idea in this short introductory article. The main takeaway from this discussion is that rather than seeing extremists as being at the end of the political spectrum, it is better to see those extremists as outside of it. Politics is about community, an idea that goes back to Ancient Greeks. The word “politics” comes from the Greek word, “polis,” meaning the city community. People on the left or right can have different opinions but still all be primarily interested in bettering their community. The anti-left and anti-right are not. Theirs is an anti-politics—a drive to divide the community by excluding and otherwise harming others.
The problem for politics and for society is that the loudest voices are the most heard. Many people are turned off by politics because the political realm had become dominated by the loud animosity of the anti-left and anti-right. It helps to understand that those fixated on opposition are intruding into and trying to hijack the political conversation. The anti-left and anti-right are trying to drown out other voices. The difficult task for the rest of us is to not let them. We need to continue to try to engage with each other.