“For these reasons, I think it is not unreasonable to identify this nature-nurture or nature-history spectrum as the basic guiding principle behind the left-right spectrum.”
In my short time writing for an English-speaking audience, I have noticed a curious phenomenon. If I ever so much as dare to suggest someone might be a conservative or right-wing, there is a high probability that this will be characterized as a smear or an attack of some kind. Now, the simple explanation would be that when someone on the Left claims that someone else is on the Right, it must be to discredit them or to point out that they are wrong. We could simply trust Occam’s Razor and think nothing further of this. But I believe there are good reasons to believe this is evidence of something more complex. A while ago, a piece by Daniel Miessler came out with the intent of describing the positions of several members of the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW) on various key issues. These issues included immigration, universal public healthcare, and gay marriage, for instance. Looking at a diagram included in the piece, it is striking that most of the members of the IDW hold nominally left-wing views on most issues. Yet, most leftists tend to place the IDW squarely on the right, which—when it happens—will be dismissed as a smear. If the answer really is not the simplest one, this presents us with a host of questions. First, what needs to be answered is why this is seen as a smear. Second, is this a fair characterization? And third, most importantly, if it is fair to say that figures like these are on the Right, how should we decide what can be appropriately categorized as left-wing?
This is a useful tactic. The fact that someone on the Right would criticize the beliefs of the Left is to be expected, but claiming the “liberal label” makes the criticism more interesting—because it gives the appearance of dispassionate, objective analysis from inside the house, rather than a mere ideologically-motivated critique that would come with being a part of the Right.
This third question is, of course, highly contentious, so I have no illusions of saying the final word on it. Hopefully, however, it will at least be a question worth pondering. In order to do this, it will be useful to compare the distinct currents within the left, which were rather clearly contrasted during the famous Foucault-Chomsky debate. I believe a look at the similarities and differences between these two traditions, but, in particular, at some of Chomsky’s positions can help shed some light on this issue. First a few words should be dedicated to the other questions, as this will provide some context. Matt Jameson at Arc Digital recently took on the phenomenon that I described at the beginning. His piece explains in quite an entertaining way why is it that so many contemporary figures feel slighted when they are labeled as part of the Right—and why, despite their protests—they are, in fact, part of the Right. While he does not mention anyone by name, it is easy to imagine quite a few public intellectuals that fit the part.
These figures have made themselves known as critics of the many sins and excesses of the contemporary left. The twist is that they do this while claiming to be unjustly exiled liberals and leftists. As mentioned previously, many of them nominally support left-wing policies. This is a useful tactic. The fact that someone on the Right would criticize the beliefs of the Left is to be expected, but claiming the “liberal label” makes the criticism more interesting—because it gives the appearance of dispassionate, objective analysis from inside the house, rather than a mere ideologically-motivated critique that would come with being a part of the Right. But as Jameson correctly observers, whatever their private convictions are is largely irrelevant if the totality of their output (or close to it) is dedicated to pointing out that the Left is a lost cause, while the Right, on the other hand, should be afforded the benefit of the doubt. In other words, does it really matter if Jordan Peterson supports gay marriage, if he is more interested in providing intellectual support for conservative criticisms of the LGBT movement?
I think it is hard to argue with Jameson’s argument. Someone who speaks like a conservative and dedicates their time to advancing conservative or right-leaning causes is a part of the Right, even if they claim to hold private positions that would say otherwise. To this, I would only add one element, which will also serve as a stepping stone to answer the more fundamental question. Support for a particular set of policy positions can never be enough. Let us look at some examples of this. The most obvious is the fact that every major center-right party in Europe supports universal public healthcare. Another less evident one is gay marriage. However, David Cameron made an eloquent case for why conservatives should support gay marriage because of their conservatism, rather than in spite of it. His argument comes down to the fact that one of the core conservative values is seeking to preserve the commitments that bind us to each other. For Cameron, the gender of the individuals making that commitment should not matter. Finally, even something like support for the reduction of income inequality can come from a conservative standpoint. In one of his lectures, Jordan Peterson makes the case for why conservatives should be interested in reducing inequality, even if their instincts are usually against redistribution. His central claim is that income disparity is detrimental to social cohesion, as evidenced by the relationship between the Gini coefficient and societal violence. This, by the way, is an argument that more conservatives should pay attention to. I think it is largely valid, but what matters is that it is explicitly framed from a conservative point of view.
Up until this point, I have only made arguments about what are not useful tools for categorizing what constitutes left or right-leaning thought. Certainly, self-identification should not be enough, but I explained why I believe support for a particular set of policies should not be either. Instead, I think a more correct approach is to identify what is the general worldview that motivates support for such policies. This should not be controversial. As we saw earlier, there can even be conservative arguments for gay marriage and income inequality. Moreover, the status of particular policies as part of a left-wing or right-wing program is highly contextual—and sensitive to both geography and history. Instead, it should be possible to find some kind of broad organizing principle for each side of the political spectrum. I am fully aware that any attempt to do this can result in nothing more than a highly idealized picture that will—no doubt—miss many of the more nuanced aspects of ideology and reality. I still believe this is a worthwhile task because, despite its many criticisms, the left-right dichotomy is still the most common ideological heuristic. It is, by no means, perfect, but ideology is not going away, and I see no use in trying to fight that fact. Moreover, I think finding a more or less accurate—even if idealized—explanation of the dichotomy would help address some of its criticisms. It would also, I believe, help explain why people on each side of the spectrum may feel closer affinity with others on the same side even if, in principle, there are some people on the other side of the spectrum who are theoretically more closely aligned.
One possibility—and I think it is a possibility that is intuitively assumed by many people—is that the basic organizing principles of Left and Right are “nature” and “nurture”—or biological determinism vs social construction. Left-wing commentator and podcast host Michael Brooks has explicitly made a very similar argument (and, in fact, that is the subject of his upcoming book with Zero Books). In his view, the project of the Right is to explain away perceived injustices of the status quo by appealing to the natural. In contrast, the Left should always try to historicize those injustices to explain why they are not a necessary fact of life. There are, of course, examples to support this claim. Two of the most obvious ones are slavery and a woman’s right to participate fully in public affairs. In both cases, the status quo was defended by claiming it was all in accordance with nature, i.e. the alleged inferiority of Africans as compared to Europeans—or the fundamentally different mental capacities of women with respect to men. Today, arguments similar to these are put forward to explain wealth inequality or the wealth income gap between men and women. For these reasons, I think it is not unreasonable to identify this nature-nurture or nature-history spectrum as the basic guiding principle behind the left-right spectrum. But I believe this ultimately hides a more fundamental underlying issue.
This is where Chomsky’s thought is relevant. The Foucault-Chomsky debate—I think—is a particularly useful starting point because it was, to a great extent, centered around the question of human nature. This again is something that can be mapped to the nature vs. nurture debate, with the Left usually being skeptic about there being a single human nature at all. In fact, conservatives and libertarians repeat ad nauseam the (tired) argument that socialism does not work because it is incompatible with human nature. During the debate, Foucault expressed this same kind of skepticism of human nature. Yet, Chomsky’s views present us with a radically different perspective on the situation. As a linguist, Chomsky is interested in how humans are able to process, understand, and finally, create language. While he also expresses skepticism about finding a full picture of what “human nature” means, he is very clear that there are some minimal things we can discover about it—and humans’ capacity for language provides important insights into this. The fact that humans are able to do this, Chomsky says, is evidence that humans share a minimal mental structure that is primed for this kind of function. This cognitive structure makes humans essentially creative beings. The concept of ‘creativity’ here should not be understood exclusively as the positive and rather unique quality of some individuals like great artists and scientists—but rather as a more general and neutral capacity to literally create intelligible speech acts and other forms of language, including art and science in exceptional cases.
The reason all of these aspects of Chomsky’s work on linguistics matter is because his politics take these insights as their starting point. He lays this out in full in his essay “Language and Freedom,” though he also talks about this during the debate. His moral position is that society should allow for human flourishing. Given that the nature of humans is fundamentally creative, all forms of creation and repression should be progressively pushed back. Chomsky is a rather unorthodox anarchist. While he explicitly describes himself as an anarcho-syndicalist or a libertarian socialist, his way of arriving at these conclusions is quite different from that of other anarchists. While he does incorporate some traditional Marxist concepts such as exploitation, his influences come primarily from the 18th century originators of classical liberalism, perhaps most notably, Wilhelm von Humboldt, as opposed to traditional anarchist thinkers like Pyotr Kropotkin or Mikhail Bakunin.
Chomsky observes that because classical liberalism was fully formed by the end of the 18th century, its originators, such as von Humboldt, theorized before industrial capitalism developed. As such, they were understandably ignorant about its excesses and about the concentration of power in private hands or in corporations, as opposed to the state. But the effects of coercion and exploitation on human creativity are no different if they come from the state or from private hands. He, therefore, sees anarcho-syndicalism as the true heir of the enlightenment and classical liberalism. Its original goal was to promote human flourishing, but in the context of industrial capitalism, it is no longer possible to ignore private coercion and domination. Therefore, the spirit of classical liberalism does not point towards capitalist orthodoxy. It does not point either towards Soviet-style state socialism. It instead orients itself towards workers’ councils or cooperatives, which preserve the creative impetus of the market but do away with the concentration of power in private hands.
I think it would be next to impossible to argue that Chomsky (or anyone who shares his views) is not a leftist. But the whole basis for his argument is naturalistic. This means that, as I said earlier, even when the nature-nurture spectrum does map correctly to the left-right one, it is because it hides something more fundamental. An easy way to see what this is—is to find what someone like Chomsky shares with someone who is more skeptical of claims about human nature. Fortunately, this is clear in the exchange between Chomsky and Foucault. After Chomsky explains how his linguistics background and his conception of human nature lead him to the particular kind of politics already described, Foucault agrees with much of the diagnosis, but his remarks are worth analyzing more closely:
“I don’t have the least belief that one could consider our society democratic. If one understands by democracy the effective exercise of power by a population which is neither divided nor hierarchically ordered in classes, it is quite clear that we are very far from democracy. It is only too clear that we are living under a regime of a dictatorship of class, of a power of class which imposes itself by violence,” he says.
Foucault then acknowledges that, unlike Chomsky, he does not have an ideal model to propose for the functioning of society. He also says, however, that he considers it an essential task to show the ways in which relations of political power are able to repress the social body. Moreover, it should also be acknowledged that the traditional conception of power as an exclusive instrument of the state is misguided, and we should identify how it is transmitted through institutions that appear wholly apolitical.
The spectrum that most closely maps to the left-right dichotomy, then, is that of equality. Not equality, however, as the opposite of inequality, but as the opposite of hierarchy, and this distinction is fundamental. This might seem like nothing more than a semantic game, but it is not; so I will explain exactly what I mean. The concepts of “inequality” and “hierarchy” clearly share some similarities and, in fact, are often correlated in practice. But that does not mean we cannot find some fundamental distinctions between them.
The subject matter of inequality is goods, broadly defined. That is—they could be resources, opportunities, welfare, etc. Hierarchy, on the other hand, is about social standing. One way to illustrate the relations between these two concepts is to think about legally established hierarchies, such as the feudal system. It is true that, in general, the noble classes generally were also the wealthiest of society. But, as industrial capitalism began to emerge, many commoners began to acquire more wealth. Sometimes their wealth was enough to rival that of the nobles. At the same time, nobles could always spend all of their wealth and be left with nothing but their titles. This creates a situation in which the contrast between inequality and hierarchy becomes clear. Hypothetically, we can imagine a state of affairs in which wealth becomes evenly distributed but the privileges of the nobility remain. Inequality would have largely disappeared, but nobles would still have social precedence over commoners and would, therefore, also have the right to effectively exercise domination over them. This would even be true if all the nobles were poorer than the commoners. That is hierarchy. Of course, this example is highly unrealistic, but it serves to illustrate the conceptual difference.
However small or theoretical, the difference is highly relevant. Note, for example, that while both Chomsky and Foucault appeal to egalitarian principles, they never address inequality in the sense that I just described. That is because their primary concern is not inequality in terms of goods but rather hierarchies that result in oppression and domination. Foucault even mentions this directly. To further illustrate this point, let us go back to the idea of the support for specific policies and the motivations for it. One of the examples I gave was Jordan Peterson’s support for the reduction of income inequality from a conservative viewpoint. We could take his line of reasoning even further. While it is not fully explicit, that same lecture does hint at the following reasoning: a society organized around hierarchies of competence is bound to create income inequality because it means that the most competent individuals will rise to the top and thus be better compensated. This income inequality, however, is required because it is the driving incentive for those individuals to aim for their full potential (this is an argument he makes elsewhere, but it is relevant).
Now, this is still consistent with his argument that there can be such a thing as too much income inequality, specifically when it starts to lead to the breakdown of social cohesion. This could also be interpreted as the breakdown of the social hierarchies that he considers justifiable. In the lecture where the argument against inequality is made, he does point out that violence is often the way that young men climb the social ladder when the lawful means become inaccessible because of crippling income inequality. But this effectively means that the reduction of inequality is being advocated in the name of the preservation of social hierarchy, which is why this is an eminently conservative position, and why—once again—the support for specific policies can never be a complete indicator of ideology.
Nothing, I believe, could be rightly called “left-wing” unless it is tied to a structural critique of hierarchical structures. How much of the social hierarchical structure should be dismantled will, of course, depend on which ones are considered unfair—or how far left a particular ideological program is. Note that I used the adjective “unfair,” which means that it is possible that some are not so. Does this mean that, then, the right is ultimately correct? I do not believe so. In fact, if I try to be as dispassionate and charitable as possible to both sides, I would characterize the left-right divide in the following way: in a context in which it is acknowledged that hierarchies can be just and unjust, the Right is concerned with identifying and defending the just ones, while the Left deals in critiquing and dismantling those that are unjust.
Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nestor_d