It’s become trendy on both the “left” and the “right” to point out that the Left-Right political scale is obsolete. Rejoice! Society has finally woken up to the fact that the public debate is all too often predicated on a reductionist and stultifying abstraction dating all the way back to the French Revolution.
Part of this so-called awakening is the result of left-wing media and academic elites trying to rebrand themselves, now that the jig is up and all of the socialist experiments have failed. Part of it is delusions from the dissident right and Bilderberg neoliberals. And part of it may be a legitimate political realignment as we start to see political parties with bizarre mixes of far-left and far-right platforms.
Unfortunately, pundits writing about this resort to equally reductionist rhetoric. It’s really authoritarian vs. libertarian, you see; or nationalism vs. globalism or pro-white vs. anti-white. It’s always some new binary to replace the old binary, often cribbed from the awful political compass that turned so many previously-reliable conservatives into
cucks social liberals.
(Aspiring demagogues, take note: if you want to amass the largest possible following, pick something that roughly half of all people disagree on and then become absolutely fanatical about one side or the other. The late 21st century will be punctuated by a major world war between the Bitcoinites and the Monerians.)
If any of these new paradigms were useful as more than divide-and-conquer rhetorical devices, then in practice we shouldn’t be able to distinguish National Socialism from National Capitalism, or Monarchy from Communist dictatorship. Obviously, any model suffering from this deficiency of nuance is hilariously incompetent. There have been some attempts at better ones, but any model that considers Hoppean libertarianism to be equivalent to Neo-Conservatism probably needs some work – although they deserve credit for trying.
Let’s attempt an improvement, based on a realistic examination of existing ideologies.
Civics 201: The Sequel
A useful model of anything (civics included) should provide enough variables to describe the whole system, without adding anything that’s unnecessary or redundant. All of the factors below vary independently; for any combination representing an “ideology”, we can find a relatively large group of people who agree with all but one.
Obviously we could add an infinite number of other factors such as the “soy-meat axis” or the “lifting-not lifting axis”, but this list isn’t arbitrary. It’s intended for sober analysis, not entertainment. Each measure is both (a) not dependent on any other measure, and (b) important enough for civilizations to have gone to war over.
If you’re looking for an easy good-vs-evil, heroes-vs-villains solution, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you’re interested in understanding the nuances of political philosophy and why existing low-fi tools are so very bad at it, this will help.
The 9 Dimensions
Each of these will be described in more detail farther down; this is a quick overview and reference for looking up later:
- Commons vs. Private Property
- Uniformity vs. Diversity
- Hierarchy vs. Egalitarianism
- Naturalism vs. Constructionism
- Authority vs. Consensus
- Coercion vs. Voluntarism
- Expansionism vs. Protectionism
- Militarism vs. Pacifism
- Identity vs. Ideology
If any seem redundant or confusing, read on to find out why they’re included.
1. Commons vs. Private Property
The single most important “question” in politics is still the EQ – the Economic Question. Who owns what, and what does that ownership imply?
At one extreme, we have communal ownership (commons): no one may claim any exclusive control over any property, including their own person. At the other extreme, everything is private property; there can be no “public spaces” or state-owned land, and whomever owns some property can do what they please with it, subject to the constraints of the local laws and compacts.
This is what most people mean when they talk about left vs. right, but it is neither the authentic original definition nor is it a universally-accepted definition. It’s just one question – albeit a very important one – that we try to answer about how society should run. Most western countries today, despite claiming to be “capitalist”, confiscate more than 50% of private wealth for use and/or redistribution by the state, which makes them center-commons or center-“left”.
2. Uniformity vs. Diversity
We could alternatively call this Homogeneity vs. Heterogeneity, or Social Trust vs. Social Inclusion. Is it better to have groups (including nations or civilizations) whose members are mostly very similar to each other, or should we prefer or even demand high demographic variation?
At one extreme, all clearly-identifiable groups must be physically segregated from each other to avoid conflict. At the other extreme, it is never acceptable to segregate (or “discriminate”) based on group membership. Note that “group” can be anything; sex or race are obvious examples but segregation may also be related to body type, religion, birthplace, income class, promiscuity, etc. The trend toward hyperinclusion in the 21st-century is clear (fat-positivity, interfaith churches, Hart-Cellar, means-tested benefits, anti-“slut shaming”, etc.).
Position on this axis determines Nationalism vs. Globalism. It is no coincidence that the same multinational institutions obsessed with Diversity & Inclusion are also pushing for open borders. These ideas are one and the same; if all segregation is evil, and borders are a form of segregation, then borders are evil and must be abolished.
3. Hierarchy vs. Egalitarianism
Hierarchy is commonly and incorrectly associated with authoritarianism or state power, but these ideas are independent. Authority and government can be organized in a hierarchical fashion, but so can many other things including wealth, infrastructure, and even information. Likewise, authority does not require hierarchy; a project team may have several Subject-Matter Experts who have the final say in various areas (either by fiat or by mutual agreement), but all are considered to occupy the same position in the hierarchy.
Without resorting to the neologism cholarchy, the ideological concept most clearly positioned against hierarchy is egalitarianism, which has as its precept the idea that all people within society, or any other group, have equal stature and deserve equal treatment. Egalitarianism can be applied to individuals and also groups; in the latter case it is generally called relativism (i.e. all forms of culture, morality, intellect, etc. are of equal value). At the extreme, we have equalism or “equity egalitarianism” – that is, a near-total fixation on statistical disparities and how to resolve them, without any consideration given to the idea that said disparities might be inevitable or even good.
Hierarchies can be natural or man-made. If the idea of a sexual dominance hierarchy offends you, or you’re annoyed by your employer having too many layers of management (regardless of how they manage), or you think Trello is weird and confusing and would rather just dump all your ideas into Notepad, then you lean toward egalitarianism (or cholarchy).
A concrete, easily-observable example of the divide is in religion. Most religions are hierarchical, putting one God at the top and perhaps lesser holy or divine entities above mortal humans. Deeply religious people, having been fully immersed in a spiritual hierarchy, are generally comfortable with a moral and cultural hierarchy as well. Atheists are inherently relativistic (all religions are equally wrong/bad), and correspondingly less tolerant of other types of hierarchy, often gravitating toward moral and cultural relativism.
4. Naturalism vs. Constructionism
Arguably the biggest rift in politics is also the biggest rift in academia: Is there a natural order, and if so, to what extent does it influence our choices and outcomes? In laymen’s terms, this is Nature vs. Nurture.
The edges of this are essentialism (or “genetic determinism”) on the naturalist side, and critical theory or “blank-slate theory” on the social-constructionist side. Politically speaking, a naturalist believes that society should be organized based on the patterns we observe, whereas a constructionist believes that social organization creates the patterns and should therefore reflect our best ideals.
Very few people believe in the extremes, i.e. that we are genetically programmed automatons with no free will, or that there is no such thing as a heritable trait. However, parts of the modern “left” movement are very close to the constructionist extreme, e.g. believing that IQ tests are merely a reflection of cultural bias.
Constructionism is different from egalitarianism or relativism. An egalitarian might believe that men and women are equally qualified to do most activities despite their biological and psychological differences, or at least deserve an equal “opportunity” to do them. A constructionist would instead assert that there are no biological or psychological differences, and any differences that appear to emerge are the result of current social structures.
5. Authority vs. Consensus
Authoritarianism and libertarianism are not opposites, because authority and liberty are not answers to the same question. Liberty is a state of being, whereas authority is a method of resolving disputes. The correct opposite of authority is consensus.
In an authority-based system, disputes between individuals are resolved by a designated authority (who may or may not be involved in the dispute) having the final say. In a consensus-based system, everybody must agree; competition and dissent are seen as threats to the social order, and if a compromise (preferred resolution) is not possible then generally one of the individuals must be manipulated, ostracized, or cast out in order to maintain the consensus.
Authority does not necessarily imply totalitarian micromanagement. Common Law is a system of authority but is also entirely reactive. Authority is also neither inherently coercive nor hierarchical; another form of authority is arbitration, in which both sides of a dispute voluntarily and temporarily agree to submit to the decision of a third party. More generally, children tend to accept adults, especially their parents, as authority figures because it is in their nature to do so.
As systems of governance, monarchy and dictatorship are both authoritarian; direct democracy is consensus-based and representative democracy (or republicanism) is somewhere in between.
6. Coercion vs. Voluntarism
What is the individual’s relationship with authority, and can an individual be compelled by force to transact with another individual?
A perfectly ideal voluntary system would require ideal cooperative actors who never defect. Real-world systems will always involve some coercion, even if it is not by a state actor or legitimate authority (e.g. mob rule). Typically, coercion is used to prevent more severe and undesirable forms of coercion. In other words: Law Enforcement protects property and contracts.
Some systems seek to minimize coercion, while others have a much greater tolerance for it. This is often referred to as “moral policing”. Indecency laws, eugenics programs, and anti-trust and anti-gouging regulations are all obvious examples of coercion above and beyond the basic level required to protect voluntary transactions.
Voluntarism is not consensus, and coercion is not authority. Coercing another individual does not require them to recognize your authority as legitimate, only to view you as a potential threat (they may try to take revenge later). Voluntarism does not require consensus between two individuals, because either individual is free to refuse the transaction regardless of what the other desires.
A simple litmus test for coercion-affinity would be: is it acceptable for a parent to use any amount of physical violence or verbal abuse (including spanking or yelling) to discipline a misbehaving child? Many “small-government” types would say yes, which likely indicates they are not opposed to coercion as a principle, but are only concerned with who gets to use it and when.
7. Expansionism vs. Protectionism
One very important trait of an ideology is its survival strategy – whether it is primarily protectionist (inward-looking, focused on stability) or expansionist (outward-looking, seeks to convert others to its principles).
Expansionism on a national scale is imperialism, which can have several forms: military, treaty, cultural, etc. It does not necessarily seek to abolish national identity or borders, but does seek to impose its ideas on others. Protectionism on a national scale might take the form of trade protections, speech/content regulations, defensive weapons or nuclear deterrence.
The Roman Empire and Ottoman Empire were both violently expansionist; the Christian religion is (mostly) peacefully expansionist. American black nationalism has historically been violently protectionist, and Judaism is (mostly) peacefully protectionist. These examples merely serve to illustrate how the axis is independent of militarism, nationalism, etc.
8. Militarism vs. Pacifism
Human history has unarguably been extremely violent. A militarist believes that some (and perhaps all) social problems can only be resolved through violence, and that all other forms of dispute resolution (such as voting) are merely proxies for violence. Pacifists believe that there is a peaceful resolution to every dispute, that violence is never necessary and therefore the threat of violence does not need to be implicit in any enforcement mechanism.
Pacifists believe that “soft power” exists. Militarists do not. This is one of the primary drivers of foreign and domestic law-and-order policy. Canada, the USA and Israel all have similar systems of government, but Canada is pacifistic (strict gun control), the USA is somewhat militaristic (second amendment), and Israel is highly militaristic (all citizens must be trained in the use of weapons).
Militarism does not necessarily imply conquest or interventionism; that is only the case when combined with an expansionist tendency. Given tendencies toward uniformity and protectionism, we end up simply with a militaristic nation-state (i.e. defensive/retaliatory violence).
9. Identity vs. Ideology
This is a new but important axis that has emerged in many different regions of the political spectrum. Can ideology be the basis for identity, or does identity always determine ideology?
What we call “identity politics” (i.e. based on race, ethnicity, gender, etc.) has been a bedrock of the American progressive movement for a long time. Many still lament the fact that the Democratic party “pushes” identity politics. Others – especially the Alt-Right – believe that identity politics are simply the inevitable result of our demographics, and can never be trumped by ideology.
If we consider the influence on nationalism, for example: an identitarian would lean toward ethnic nationalism, whereas an ideologue would choose civic nationalism.
A more interesting example of ideology-first philosophy is religion. Both the Jewish and Christian religions have survived for thousands of years, largely unchanged in their core beliefs, and have large numbers of adherents who consider their religion to be their principal identity. Islam, on the other hand, has a long track record of sectarian violence, and secular civic nationalism has largely failed. It is possible that ideology can only form the basis of identity when other aspects of identity (e.g. race) are already homogeneous, but this remains an open question for debate, and where you fall on this axis has very significant implications for which political movements you might be attracted to today.
While 9 dimensions might be somewhat hard to internalize – and definitely hard to plot – the definitions of “left” and “right” in political discourse are so skewed by now that we really need a better system.
There’s a fairly plausible hypothesis that each dimension has an affinity with a particular personality facet, of which there are 10 – five main categories and two facets in each. However, this would be hard to prove without a large study, and at this point it’s best to avoid making such claims without evidence.
Instead, we’ll stick to the descriptive. Expect a follow-up post mapping the various dimensions to well-known political ideologies, which will cover the subject matter of a few heated debates over recent weeks.
P.S. This taxonomy is a work in progress. I’ve “tested” it on several different well-known ideologies and it appears to be both useful and self-consistent. If you spot any obvious inconsistencies, or if I’ve missed some crucial axis that has a profound effect on social organization, let me know in the comments.