I wrote this post https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2015/06/20/weird-interent-ideas-the-nazis-were-leftists-no-not-in-any-way-that-makes-sense/ in June 2015. At the time the rise of a quasi/neo/ohwhattheheckactual-fascists was mainly seen as a European thing and the US centre and right was still seeing US politics as naturally immune. In the meantime, the forces of the American right have decided to rally behind a demagogue who has surrounded himself with extreme nationalists with zero interest in quasi-libertarian window dressing.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, I was presented with a live example:
Libertarians have kind of liked this idea for a long time. I assume it germinated in to a truism sometime in the 1970s but as I pointed out in the earlier post, it probably dates back to Hayek in the 1940s.
Of course, you can align political movements and ideologies onto any axis which you can think of an ordinal variable to describe…but more government v less government simply doesn’t work as a way of describing how left-right spectrums work in 20th and 21st-century Western politics. You can use that spectrum if you like but it will fail as a predictive model in describing who aligns with who and it fails as a descriptive model of who aligned with who in history.
In the earlier post I concentrated specifically on the notion of the Hitler-era Nazis being leftists (this is also the context of the Tweet quoted above) but in the post I thought I’d spend a bit longer looking at this more/less government thing in general.
To do so, consider counter-examples. Which ideology would be at the furthest end of the more/less axis? Anarchists! Now anarchists aren’t one thing, there are many different flavours and most believe in some kind of social structure that provides cohesion independent of government e.g.
- anarcho-syndicalists believe in a society where trade-union like organisations provide the organising principle of society.
- anarcho-capitalists believe in a society where the free-market (and some protection of individual rights) provide the organising principle of society.
Anarcho-syndicalists have, historically, been part of left wing movements. Anarcho-capitalists have, historically, been part of movements associated with individualism – not necessarily right-wing but not obviously left-wing and often critical of the left’s anti-individualism.
Ah, yeah-but! The anarcho-capitalists are even MORE against the government than the anarcho-syndicalists! – says an imaginary person. Hmm, I’m not sure that is true and anarcho-capitalists never amounted to a significant movement whereas the anarcho-syndicalists do actually have a track record of literally fighting fascists but, whatever, let’s imagine that is the case:
Let’s throw in some other cases. Milton Friedman flavoured conservative-libertarians. Not as anti-government as your classic Libertarian but supposedly more anti-government than those nasty leftists.
Now, how about Margaret Thatcher? A vocal enemy of socialism who famously said that she would “roll back the frontiers of the state”, privatised several government-owned industries, was a believer in monetarism (at least nominally) but also increased centralisation of the British state, increased police powers, was militaristic, increased surveillance of citizens and attempted to enforce new government powers such as the “poll tax” (aka community charge). OK, we can still fit her into the scheme, just further along that whole more v less government thing:
And let’s add in Augusto Pinochet – a friend of Thatcher’s and an authoritarian military dictator. Not a totalitarian dictator so technically less government than say, Stalin or Mao but definitely way over on the ‘more government’ side of things.
I haven’t defined a centre, and it is only an ordinal axis, so I can’t say where the left half begins and the right half starts but I have a bunch of political positions listed below the line that cover a gamut of more (Pinochet) to less (anarcho-capitalists) government.
Let’s go above the line. How about, hmmm, George Orwell. A man with strong views on personal liberty, outspoken about excessive government control and, oh, a man who described himself as a socialist…Here maybe?
We are well into apples & oranges now. Arranging the people below the line was relatively easy because one principle was relatively fixed – each of the positions nominally accepted that a laissez-faire approach to the economy was correct. Given that it becomes easier to look at how each position differed in terms of other aspects of government.
However, there isn’t a simple way of comparing libertarian-conservatives with Orwell’s libertarian (in a different sense) socialism. Less of what kind of government are we talking about.
Let’s add some more confusion to the mix. The 1945 Labour government. The not-entirely-post WW2 government nationalised industries (or kept them nationalised as a consequence of the war effort) and famously introduced the National Health Service. It also pursued a policy of decolonisation essentially ending the British Empire. Now if we compare with Thatcher, she privatised industries but not the NHS (although I suspect she would have liked to). Is the 1945 Labour government further down the more government end that Thatch or the less government? No idea. This is a silly scheme which can only function by cherry picking. Still, I’ll throw in Hitler and Stalin for good measure and assume that AT THIS RESOLUTION we can’t spot the difference (Stalin probably more government than Hitler I guess for those playing at home).
The scheme does not help us sort left aligned positions from right ones but instead could be used for discriminating between different strands of left or right ideologies. How come? because more/less government is orthogonal to left-v-right as traditionally used.
Truth is we can make up all sorts of axes on our preferred issues. Take the issue of free trade unions. How might that look?
But left-v-right is never a single issue. Indeed if it was a single issue there would be no need for the notion of left-v-right. The whole point of the intuitive left-v-right model is to bundle multiple issues and alliances and trends together to work out rough correspondences on a wide range of issues that may even wander over time.
Oh, and Nazis? Still not socialists, and still not left wing.