Sliding on the Political Spectrum
For most of my life, my vision of the political spectrum was, in a typically American fashion, woefully narrow. I was raised by conservatives and, for a long time, I thought the political world consisted of Republicans — who wanted the government out of their pocketbooks, but in (other people’s) bedrooms — and Democrats — who wanted the government out of their bedrooms, but in (other people’s) pocketbooks.
I went to a very conservative college where I studied political science. This was just after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” was all the rage. Liberal democracy had prevailed, said Fukuyama, and the age of ideological battles was over. (Boy, was he wrong!) In my political science classes, I was taught that fascism and communism were really the same thing, both forms of totalitarianism, to which liberal democracy was the answer. But while I accepted this at the time, I couldn’t reconcile the fact that communists and fascists historically have been bitter enemies.
After graduating, I began a gradually accelerating slide to the left, fueled by contact with people outside of my conservative bubble and seeing real economic misery in South America. I was learning that communism and capitalism weren’t what I had been taught. Sometime during Obama’s first term, I started to feel disillusioned with the Democratic Party. I realized that both American parties were just different faces of the same neoliberal coin. For the past decade or so, I’ve found myself consistently left of most Democrats, and shaking my head in wonder when centrist politicians like Biden and Harris get called “leftists” and “socialists” by people on the right trying to claim the moral center.
Increasingly, I struggle to communicate with my progressive friends — at least not without a lot of explanation — not to mention my more conservative relatives. And as I have grown more anarchist in my orientation, sometimes I even have trouble bridging the gap with socialist organizers and old guard communists. The label “extreme” is unavoidable for me, but I am comfortable with it, especially in the context of a spectrum where the “center” represents effective corporate slavery, war profiteering, and ecocide.
In an effort to explain myself to friends and family, I have looked for ways to visually represent my position in the political universe. Both the one-dimensional left-right spectrum, in terms of which American politics is usually described, and the two-dimensional, four-quadrant ideological maps, which have been popularized on the internet, can conceal as much as they reveal. The decision what each axis represents is itself an ideological choice, and one that is often unexamined.
“If You Go Far Enough Left …”
It was in the course of learning about different political maps that I came across the “horseshoe theory”, which is the idea that, at their extremes, the political left and the political right start to look a lot like each other. The theory that I was taught in school, that fascism and communism are the same thing, is a variation on the horseshoe theory. The horseshoe theory is really just another version of a single-dimension political spectrum, but literally bent into the shape of another single-dimension spectrum in a way which privileges (even more) the center.
The horseshoe theory isn’t completely useless. It does illustrate how different ends of the political spectrum may be reactions against the same self-identified “center”. For example, both the Bernie Sanders campaign and the Trump campaign were, in part, reactions against the bipartisan, neoliberal politics of the previous 35 years (the “Washington consensus”) embodied in the figure of H.R.C.
The horseshoe image creates the appearance of a proximity between the far left and far right which is discomfiting to those on the left end of the spectrum. I’ve experienced this discomfort in real life. One instance involved gun control. A few years back, in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, I organized a protest at a local gun fair. The irony was that, even then, my feelings about guns were evolving and I was ambivalent about the issue. But I agreed to organize the event because gun control was part of a constellation of ideas that were identified as “progressive”.
A few years later, I had moved more to the left and, in light of the increasingly realistic possibility of an armed insurrection by right-wing gun nuts, the thought of an unarmed left seemed short-sighted and naive to me — especially as my distrust of the police grew. So I got a gun permit. I lived the truth of the meme: “If you go far enough left, you get your guns back.” In some ways, I found myself agreeing with those gun nuts more than my progressive friends. Since then, I’ve discovered that there are actually quite a few progressives, not to mention a lot of leftists, who own guns — they’re just not obnoxiously public about it. There is a real difference, but I think it has less to do with actual gun ownership and more to do with the hyper-individualism and toxic masculinity behind the gun culture of the right.
Not All Extremists Are Equal
This brings me back to the problem of the appearance of an overlap between the far right and the far left. There’s always going to be “can’t-we-all-get-along” centrists who think the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and a $15 minimum wage are somehow comparable to the White supremacy, homophobia, and misogyny of Trump supporters. Lazy thinkers like that are never going to appreciate the difference between the more extreme ends of the political spectrum. Nevertheless, I think it behooves leftists to articulate in clear and concise terms what separates us from the the far right.
The problem with many representations of the political spectrum is that it’s not clear what is being measured. (For example, what does “economic” mean on the standard political compass?) On most political spectra though, you can find anarchism anarchism (and its siblings, anarcho-communism, autonomism, etc.) on the far left and fascism in its various forms on the far right. If we compare these two political philosophies, it can illuminate what is measured on the political spectrum.
Fascism is (1) characterized by rigid social hierarchies, (2) which are maintained by a strong state.* “Hierarchy” refers to structures of domination of one group of people by another group of people. This includes political authoritarianism of any stripe, classism, racism/White supremacy, xenophobia/nationalism, sexism/patriarchy, homo- & trans-phobia/hetero- & cis-normativity, and anthropocentrism/human supremacy. As Shane Burley has explained here, fascism requires:
“the belief that human beings are not equal for immutable reasons, such as intelligence, capacity, spiritual caste, etc. This inequality is not just fact, but it is a sacrament, meaning that society should be constructed with cleanly defined hierarchies, which are natural, and that society would then be healthier when those hierarchies are made explicit and enforced.”
— Shane Burley, “No, That’s Not What Fascism Is”
Under fascism, there may be hierarchies that are racist, nationalistic, sexist, etc., or a combination of multiple hierarchies. But it might not include all of them. This is where people often get confused about fascism. Fascism may or may not be racist. It may be capitalist or it may be anti-capitalist. In any case, one or more hierarchies will be idealized.
Under fascism, these hierarchies are reinforced and maintained by a state apparatus. The “state” refers to the consolidation of institutions which are created to govern (read control) people on a mass scale and which tends to take on a life of its own, independent of the will of the people being governed. This includes legislatures, bureaucracies, the police, the courts, and the military. The state is one of the means by which the social hierarchies described above are maintained. (Organized religion is another.) The state exploits the people at the bottom of the hierarchies for the benefit of those at the top.
The historical examples of fascism — early 20th century Germany, Italy, and Spain — were characterized by both rigid social hierarchies and a strong state. Examples of rigid hierarchies in historical fascism included nationalism, elitism, social Darwinism, racism, classism, sexism (traditional gender roles), homophobia, and ableism. Examples of strong state power in historical fascism included charismatic strong-man type leaders, centralized and authoritarian governments, religious-like devotion to the state, militarism, warmongering, oppressive police forces, and large state propaganda apparatuses.
Anarchism, in contrast, is (1) a rejection of social hierarchy and (2) a rejection of the state. Anarchism opposes all forms of social hierarchy and recognizes them as interconnected. Most people tend to reject hierarchy instinctually in some parts of their lives, while accepting it uncritically in others. Anarchists strive to eliminate all hierarchy, in every aspect of life, from government to religion, from work to family. This is called “total liberation”.
In place of the state, anarchists want small-scale direct/participatory democracy, which is the practical expression of a rejection of hierarchy. Everything between anarchism and fascism can be described in terms of weak or strong hierarchy and statism — from orthodox communism (which still sees a role for the state in the evolution toward statelessness)** on the left to the various authoritarianisms (which can create a virtual cult of the state) on the right.***
Redrawing the Political Spectrum
The role of the neoliberalism — which occupies the political center in the U.S. — is critical to understanding the difference between the far left and the far right. Although the popularity of both the Sanders campaign and the Trump campaign can be explained in part by a working class disillusionment with the Washington establishment, only one side of that equation was ever going to get the support of that establishment — and that was Trump. As Rhyd Wildermuth observed here recently, in times of crisis, capitalists will always side with the fascists against the left. This was true in the last two American elections, as well as in early 20th century examples:
“How can we explain the powerful communist movements that preceded the birth of the three really-existing fascist states in human history (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Spain under Franco)? In each of these fascisms, liberal-democratic politicians made choices to align with the fascists against the communists, oftentimes specifically aiding the fascists in hunting down and killing communist organizers, intellectuals, and leaders. … The state never sided with the leftists, but only ever with the fascists.”
— Rhyd Wildermuth, “Mission Creep: Exorcising the ‘Antifascism’ of Alexander Reid Ross”
From this angle, fascism can be seen as just an extension of capitalism. The “fishhook theory” illustrates this relationship between the neoliberal center and the fascist far right. Both fascism and liberal democracy are tools of capitalists. Capitalists use liberal democracy during times of relative consensus and embrace fascism in times of threat to the capitalist order. Just consider how centrists tried to extort the left into voting for Biden in the last election. In the end, the fascist threat of another Trump presidency just served to restore and reinforce the neoliberal status quo.
The purported proximity of the far right and far left is more superficial than substantive. It only really exists from the perspective of neoliberal centrists. The far right may sometimes appropriate language from the far left. (The Nazi movement’s official name was the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party”.) This is common in any political struggle, as both sides try to define the terms of the argument. But while the two sides may sometimes use similar concepts to critique the center, the critiques lead in opposite directions. Anarchists (and the anarchist-aligned) could not be more different from fascists. In fact, they are defined in opposition to one another.
Because the prevailing political spectrum (in the U.S.) doesn’t measure hierarchicalism or statism, fascism is reduced to historical anomaly, either empty of meaning or a repository of rejected ideas, and anarchism is seen as an aberration, synonymous with mere chaos. As a result, those in the so-called “center” cannot see the difference — or they intentionally obscure it, as in the case of the speech of Trump (our most fascist-apologist president) in front of Mount Rushmore (that symbol of American colonialism) on July 3, 2020 (on the eve of our national-ist holiday), declaring that the U.S. was under siege from “far-left fascism”. In so doing, “Trump echoed a classic technique of past fascist leaders,” writes Federico Finchelstein, “fascists always deny what they are and ascribe their own features and their own totalitarian politics to their enemies.”
We have witnessed the creep (and sometimes the sprint) of fascism in recent years into the center of American political life, and yet most people still have no idea what fascism is — much less its opposite, anarchism. (Even some on the left are confused.) Fascism will continue to shape our political future in the coming decades, so we need to educate people, in terms that they can understand, without the jargon or theoretical minutiae, about hierarchy and the state, and the possibility of a world without either. This is the lesson I learned after having my work co-opted by fascists: It is not enough to articulate a critique of capitalism; if we do not also clearly distinguish ourselves from the fascists, then we will end up losing the debate to both.
*The typical method of defining fascism is with a list of attributes based off the commonalities of historic examples. The problem with this “quacks like a duck” method of defining fascism is that it tends to include characteristics which are incidental and not defining. This is how leftists sometimes get looped into over-broad definitions of fascism.
** The challenge of distinguishing communism from fascism arises from the discrepancy between the theory and practice of communism. In theory, communism strives to break down hierarchies, especially class (also gender), and is supposed to result in a stateless society. In these ways, theoretical communism is close to anarchism and very clearly distinguishable from fascism. In practice though, Soviet-style communism maintained certain hierarchies, including the party hierarchy (which was actually a kind of classism) as well as ethnic hierarchies (which led to numerous genocides). In reality, many communist governments were actually fascistic to the extent that they involved a strong state maintaining rigid social hierarchies. From the perspective of anarchists, the similarities between historical fascism and Soviet-style communism may be more important than their differences.
*** One commenter raised the question about where Bernie Sanders (democratic socialism) and American-style libertarianism would fall on this spectrum. Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism would be center-left (as it would be on European polical spectra). Democratic socialism would require a big state to administrate, but not go nearly as far as fascism, because socialists are generally anti-hierarchical. American libertarianism, on the other hand, is not as far right some people think, because they do want little to no government. However, American libertarians continue to perpetuate hierarchicalism, especially capitalism — so they remain firmly on the right.