[Note: Since part 1 got quite a lot of hits I’ve become a bit self-conscious about the sweeping generalizations I’m about to make. I’m mostly thinking out loud.]
In part 1 I complained about the Political Compass. I said it doesn’t explain much and it’s quadrants aren’t particularly interesting or true to life, all in my opinion as a former professional 2-by-2 matrix maker. That post is somewhat required reading to properly understand this one, but since I can’t count on everybody doing that I’ll summarize it briefly.
I tried to reconstruct the political compass landscape from two new dimensions at 45 degree angles from the ones the political compass uses. The first draws on the “cognitive decoupling” idea, creating a spectrum between two visions of the ideal society — the decoupled and the coupled.
In the first, people are by default completely separate and all obligations are either formally defined in terms of rights or explicitly agreed to. Interactions with strangers are modeled on arms-length formal transactions, i.e. money and contracts.
In the second, people are by default connected and obligations to others and to society as a whole are open-ended and in theory unlimited. Interactions with strangers are modeled on personal relationships, i.e. empathy, loyalty and unquantifiable debts.
I lifted the other dimension straight from A Thrive-Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum. The “thrive” end are values suitable for safe, rich and comfortable societies where we don’t need to focus so much on making our living and can afford to be generous towards others, the weak, the irresponsible and the unproductive. Self-actualization is the ideal. The “survive” end are values suitable for rough, precarious situations where we do need everybody to be productive, orderly and well-behaved in order for everything to work out. Discipline is the ideal, while personal feelings and wants take a back seat.
I argue that none of these define the left and the right on their own, but put together they do so as well as anything else does. “Coupled” combined with “thrive” produce the quintessential left, while “decoupled” and “survive” does the same for the right:
Think of the combination “coupled” and “thrive”. We’ve got far-reaching, non-enumerated duties toward the common good and self-sacrifice as the solution to problems. We don’t need to be concerned with survival/productivity and therefore don’t need to be stingy towards the needy — especially since somebody’s problem is everybody’s problem. So we distribute the costs of individual weaknesses, mistakes and misfortunes throughout the population because we can afford to deal with them and nobody has the right to refuse.
This “we’re rich” plus “we’re in it together” produces a love for grand public works and programs meant to help and nurture the people in various ways. The fact that this requires taxation is not much of a problem since wealth is produced by the system as a whole anyway. The reason we’re not using our society’s wealth to satisfy everyone’s needs is that some are hogging more than their fair share. Restrictions on behavior is mostly in service of combating this. This is close to the essence of the modern political left.
Putting “decoupled” and “survive” together yields the right. Here everybody is responsible for themselves and their loved ones only. You have your list of rights and obligations but anything more is strictly over and above what is required. Civilization is kept running by the productive and thus being productive must be rewarded and being unproductive or even destructive must be punished or at the very least not supported or society will stagnate or worse. You’ll suffer the consequences of your own mistakes and misfortunes because you must learn to improve, be an example to others — and because nobody else is obligated to clean up after you.
“We’re not rich enough” plus “limited, enumerated obligations” produces a skepticism of social programs deemed overly ambitious, intrusive, coddling or frivolous. The solution to poverty is the production of more wealth, which requires incentivizing the productive — the disciplined, smart, self-sufficient and responsible — to do so. Restrictions on behavior is mostly in service of cultivating these traits.
In response to questions and criticism
The piece attracted a bit of attention (it was linked from Slate Star Codex among others) and with that some criticism, including some very insightful comments on the post itself. Part of it made me think it was a bad idea to split this post in two parts, since it made part 1 leave some things unclear. For example, some seem to have thought that my characterization of the essences of left and right ought to correspond to the two sides of the political landscape, either generally or specifically in the United States. That’s not the intention and I had hoped that the two blank quadrants left for part 2 would’ve made it clear enough that these are the “cores” of left and right and they’re joined by parts of the other quadrants to form full coalitions.
Another thing that appears to have been misunderstood is the meaning of “decoupling” transferred from ideas to people. I did say “special circumstances like friendship or family bonds don’t count since we’re talking about the macro scale” but perhaps I should have been clearer: it’s not meant to be about valuing social bonds. It’s about your relationship to strangers, or more accurately to the “generic other person”.
You have social bonds to some people like family and friends, which means you owe them to think of them in three full dimensions, to feel their pain, to come to their aid, and to not just respect their interests but make them your own on a deep, emotional level. If you treat them instrumentally, transactionally or in a blind, rule-based way you’ll damage the relationship.
The “coupled” view I’m referring to is the ideal that we treat everyone around us as if they were friends and family. It’s unattainable in practice but still something we’re supposed to try to do if asked, and in any case not explicitly. It means that a competitive, transaction-based market society where it’s acceptable to model unseen strangers as objects — as means and not ends that you interact with indirectly through a law-contracts-and-currency interface — instead of fully-fledged fellow human beings you interact with through caring relationships is on some level deeply wrong. Given this, we get a moral-political vision that is what I described: there’s no clear end to our obligations to think of others. This description of utopian communities is what I mean by seriously extreme coupling.
Decoupling is an explicit rejection of this overwhelming implied duty in the form of demarcation. You have open-ended obligations towards people you have personal relationships with and clearly defined obligations like “respect rights and agreements” toward others, but not open-ended obligations to people in general than can be invoked and/or expanded at any time. “Nobody owes you anything” is a decoupler’s response to perceived overentitlement. It is typically not meant to refer to family and friends.
I might also not have been clear about how the two dimensions interact: they affect each other’s expression. The decoupling property “comes out” differently in the Thrive vs. Survive condition. At the far Thrive end we get something like “the expanding circle” or “a brotherhood of man”: in the limit a duty to feel empathy and personal relationship-like concern for literally everyone. Survive means scarcity mindset, which requires the expansion of concern to have some limit by sheer necessity. Sometimes the limit setting is relatively benign like with civic nationalism but can become increasingly nasty and dangerous when clan, tribe, language, class, religion or race becomes the criterion. In any case the duty extends further than your personal relationships, which is the defining factor.
Overall, I’m still unsure about how robust an idea this is, but I’m certain there something I’m grasping for.
Part 2: Up and Down
Now, this is where we left off.
There are two more quadrants to discuss. Lets look at the bottom one first. It’s the combination of “decoupled” and “thrive”, which is the view that society is stable and wealthy enough for us to demand much less discipline and conformity in service of productive organization and risk management than we used to, but that us breaking free from restrictions imposed by our need to weather the slings and arrows of ordinary fortune ought not to be replaced by restrictions in the form of a general duty to serve the interests of others.
For all the problems with the word, this is liberalism as described by me in I, LPC.
To be liberal is to be live and let live. It means acceptance of difference and of pluralism of thought, feeling and action as legitimate and not as a problem to be suppressed. It means tolerance in its classical meaning: accepting the existence of what you’d rather see gone.
Liberalism stands opposed to authoritarianism, naturally. But not just that. It also opposes a communitarianism where your individual needs, wants and rights are subordinate not to the duties attached to your place in a hierarchy, but to the needs and wants of the rest of the community. To be liberal is to strive for everyone’s self-authorship, self-determination and freedom from involuntary obligations, towards either the better off or the worse off.
That opens up a lot of questions about priorities, but this brand of liberalism is less of a full political philosophy than an attitude: profound skepticism towards all restrictions of individual autonomy, whether in the service of stability, efficiency, safety, harmony or equality.
For example, a certain level of fighting poverty through government action is fine, but for liberals, as opposed to leftists, it’s for “thrive reasons”: it increases self-determination on the whole and in a wealthy society we can afford it without imposing too much of a burden on people (especially if the duties are clearly circumscribed and as unintrusive and impersonal as possible). It’s not because we’re fundamentally obligated to make substantial sacrifices for strangers, i.e. “coupled reasons”. In this view, a social safety net is not a right, it’s a privilege — but a privilege we ought to be generous about granting when we’re lucky enough to live in a fabulously wealthy society.
I said that one of the reasons I don’t like the standard political compass is that it doesn’t give me a proper identity. I end up on the border between two things I don’t particularly identify with:
But now, look! In the tilted version I have a home!
(This has almost not everything to do with why this model appeals to me.)
Varieties of slicing (part 1)
Liberalism is distinct from the right and the left, and has tended to side with the weaker of the two against the stronger. Forcing it into a pure left-right model therefore results in confusion. The differences between the US and Sweden is instructive. In the US, the right is comparatively strong and the left weak, so the political landscape gets cut like this (for two roughly equal coalitions):
This makes Americans feel like the “thrive-survive” dimension is more indicative of left vs. right, and the American labels for the two sides — liberal and conservative — reflect this cutting.
In Europe in general and Sweden in particular the left has been stronger and the political landscape got cut this way:
This makes the coupled-decoupled dimension more indicative of left vs. right and Swedish coalitional labels reflect this: socialist and bourgeois parties are distinguished primarily by their differing attitudes towards public vs. private ownership and management of the economy.
Naturally the American use of “liberal” for “left” drives me up the wall — as a Swedish liberal the difference is rather essential, thank you very much. The phrase “economically liberal” is especially nuts, as it apparently means the exact opposite of economically liberal (laissez-faire).
Interestingly, I think I see the difference between leftists and liberals become more important for Americans as well — at least among the coastal, educated middle classes where outright conservatives are rare enough to make the other two turn on each other in fits of online culture warring, just like game theory would predict. In a pure Thrive environment the ways leftists and liberals agree become nothing more than background scenery and the divisions start to stand out.
This has lead to a game of linguistic musical treadmills where liberals try to claim an identity apart from the left without joining the right, while leftists try to prevent them from doing so. Some liberals choose to adopt the “classical liberal” label but I think that has certain problems. It’s not new, for one. It traditionally separates the very decoupled liberals from the moderately so, rather than separate liberals from the left, and using it amounts to ceding the territory around the plain “liberal” label — home soil!  That seems unwise to me. If we’re looking for a label that makes a distinction while keeping the claim to the core territory I’d go with “Actual Liberal”. Just the right amount of on-the-nose.
The Problem Child
Neat. But aren’t the pictures above missing something? Something big? Like a top quadrant? Yes and there are reasons for that, as we shall see.
While liberalism is easy to identify I struggle with what to call this. I rejected “authoritarianism” as a label in part 1 because hardly anybody is “authoritarian” for its own sake, and I stand by that. Let’s see what else we can get.
“Coupled” and “survive” certainly paints a picture. The world is a tough, unforgiving place and we need discipline to navigate it. Open-ended obligations means you can expect to be helped and supported by everyone else — as long as you contribute and conform. We’re a team and you’re a team player. That’s important, because supporting that kind of cohesion on a large scale requires constant work towards unity. Not surprisingly, this quadrant contains a lot of rhetoric comparing the state to a family, evoking feelings of unbounded support, loyalty and duty.
By serendipity I happen to be reading Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy as I’m writing this, and I note that the description of ancient Sparta is a perfect match for the top corner — especially the way it’s neither left nor right. Sparta was militaristic, extraordinarily tough-minded, masculine and with an oppressed serf class, but they also insisted on equality among citizens (and somewhat between the sexes), they hated money, trade and consumerism and aggressively fought accumulation of wealth, and even separated families to practice collective child rearing. Spartan politics were clearly coherent — as coherent as liberalism — but not an extreme endpoint on a left-right spectrum.
There have been versions of “Spartanism”, but the pure form only really came back in full force in the West with modernity and mass society, after industrialization, urbanization and World War I showed what performance civilization-as-fossil-powered-machine is really capable of. That was fascism, which could have worked as a descriptor for this quadrant had it not been turned into a contentless term of abuse. The real, historical fascists believed in something like Spartanism. Internal order was paramount and everyone’s duty towards the collective and its institutionalized form (the state) was essentially limitless. They also thought of themselves, justifiably, as an economic “third way” beyond left and right.
It makes sense to put them directly opposite liberalism and between left and right because much of their ideology was a direct rejection of liberal principles but has clear points of contact with both leftism and rightism. Fascism as far-rightism is well-trodden ground. They both agree that competition and the cultivation of competence and strength are absolutely essential for the health of society, making them suspicious of anything that sounds weak, whiny or trivial. With the left they share a distaste for selfishness, instrumentality and the quasi-sociopathic virtuelessness of the market, and agree that it is everyone’s duty think more of the whole than to satisy their own personal desires.
Hardly anybody calls themselves a fascist today, obviously. Part of the reason is likely that actual, capital-F Fascism was soundly defeated and that the nature of its crimes (particularly the Nazi variety) contaminated the whole quadrant to this day, making any settlements there impossible, even at a safe distance from the extreme corner.
That leaves an “identity vacuum” in the moderate north-of-center area. That’s no law of nature; I can imagine a world where it wasn’t the case. Any ideology is bad in the extreme, but it could be normal, theoretically, to be “fascist-leaning” in the way it’s normal now to be a social democrat with socialist sympathies and not want to seize the means of production and shoot all the kulaks, or to be liberal and not want to privatize roads and the justice system, or to be conservative and not want to be ruled by church and crown.
But it is the case: there’s no “mild and respectable” version of fascism.
However, no big settlements doesn’t mean the area close to the center but above it isn’t populated. Oh no. There are plenty of people there, plenty of people who don’t want to be too generous or forgiving towards the undeserving, and also believe in a society where we all owe each other support and sacrifice when we fall on hard times. Who are they?
They tend to be upset at perceived erosion of social trust and believe that it’s because we don’t prioritize rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior enough. They’re weary of immigration partly because of its effect on social cohesion — which is considered necessary to maintain fragile, society-wide economic solidarity — and because they suspect some immigrants to not live up to standards of good behavior, especially if they come from countries low on social trust and can be expected to bring such attitudes with them.
They’re suspicious of free trade, transnational corporations and organizations like the EU, partly for rational reasons: globalization’s been good for richer people in the first world and poorer people in the third but not as good for the working class in the first world or for the cultural and economic solidarity that supported them.
There’s a sensitivity to threats to economic safety and social stability like rampant inequality (a leftist fear, historically not great for stability) and loss of work ethic and trust (a rightist fear, not great for stability either). For leftists and rightists these are separate things, and you worry about one more than the other, but for this quadrant the two are merged into one large sense that the social fabric is deteriorating.
Near the center it isn’t Sparta by any means, but considerably closer to it than, say, the political center of gravity at your average upper middle class dinner party.
Up is on the up
The Up quadrant is gaining in political power throughout the western world. It’s often called “populism”, but I don’t exactly want to call it that because I think the populism is incidental. It’s a contingent result of elites not taking their concerns seriously, resulting in anti-elite sentiment. In essence, they’re angry at ruling elites for not showing them the loyalty they think they’re entitled to.
This anger’s been ignored and disdained by the right and the left — understandably because given any of their worldviews it’s illegitimate. From the perspective of the comparatively thrive-y left — in whose world we treat everyone with equal compassion because we can afford it — expecting such loyalty (preferential treatment, really) looks like xenophobic stinginess. From the right it looks like a demand for a sacrifice of aggregate economic growth in the name of loyalty (preferential treatment, really) that they have no right to make in the first place: “Can’t compete? Nobody’s problem but yours.”
The dismissal has backfired, to put it mildly. Britain is leaving the EU, Donald Trump is the President of the United States, France is teeming with yellow vests, and the Sweden Democrats have 62 seats in the parliament building ten minutes’ walk from this café.
These all make more sense as “up vs. down” than “left vs. right” conflicts and the left-right system isn’t well equipped to deal with that. Part of the problem is that a one-dimensional spectrum focused on left and right with liberals in the middle will result in Up being assigned a role of endpoint, obscuring its coherence and making it seem extremist and fringe even when not very far from the center in absolute terms.
Varieties of slicing (part 2)
To very specifically hammer at a point I want to make to Americans who consider the small-town, patriotic conservative the essence of the right: this “Up” group is not essentially left-wing or right-wing as I conceive of them. To me, the central example of a right-wing politician isn’t Donald Trump but Margaret Thatcher, and she didn’t exactly appeal to coal miners.
On which side the Ups end up depends, just like their opposites the liberals, on the particular time and place. In America I think it’s the low base level of national cohesion and long history of self-sufficiency that has made political history take a somewhat different turn compared to in Europe.
Let’s look at that compass again, now without a big hole up top. If we draw the whole line we get a division I think makes sense for the United States:
The landscape is sliced mostly along the Thrive-Survive divide, putting the top quadrant mostly on the right, emphasizing their conservative (“survive”) aspect.
In Sweden we don’t have the same strong relationship between “left vs. right” and urban vs. rural/suburban the US has and the archetypical salt-of-the-Earth type working class voter who values honest work and national solidarity is, historically, not a rightist but a social democrat. This is the full slicing I’m more used to:
In other words, the temperament and values often called “small-town conservatism” — in Big Five terms low openness to experience, preference for clear answers etc. — isn’t essentially right wing; it exists in considerable tension with free-market capitalism and its associated “rootless creative destruction ethos” and this aspect can sometimes dominate.
The astute observer may object that I’ve simply declared the essence of left and right to be whatever is common to the left and right in Sweden and the United States. They’d be kind of right but I’m not sure it’s much of a problem, given that I think most other western countries are somewhere in between (I wouldn’t extend this model outside that group).
Is this a better model than the political compass? I don’t know. The quadrants form more natural categories to me, although I recognize that people might have different opinions on that. I wrote these posts because I thought the compass was all wrong not in content but in format. It’s inside out. It has what’s to be explained as its inputs and the underlying dimensions as its outputs, possibly because we’re more used to the outputs and therefore think they’re “simpler”. I don’t think they are.
Of course I should also fess up to being highly motivated to articulate the to me very distinct difference between leftists and liberals that tend to disappear in US-dominated online discourse.
I’m half-regretting getting caught up in all this. Usually I try to say something newish, and this topic has been dissected and mulled over so much by so many political scientists, philosophers and bloggers that I don’t have that much to add other than some half-baked speculation of limited novelty.
Hell, my model — even the tiltedness — comes up if you look up “political spectrum” on Wikipedia.
It’s got the same quadrants but gets them using the boring “economic” and inadequate “cultural” axis I was trying to get away from. But since the resulting landscape is the same I’m not sure I’ve accomplished much.
I’ve spent far too much time writing, editing, re-editing, erasing, re-writing and re-erasing various ways to make sense of this model, when all I really wanted was to use the coupled-decoupled approach to politics I thought was neat. The thrive-survive thing wasn’t even my idea at all. I just thought it happened to perfectly complement my axis and voilà! — there was a simple model. I didn’t mean to write 8000 words on it (with another 3000 or so discarded), it just happened. “This will be easy and quick” I thought, before getting lost at the deep end of the pool looking for the best way to justify why the populist left and the populist right are more the same region of a square than the opposite ends of a spectrum, all without saying something obviously dumb.
A learning experience — I’d think if I didn’t I know I’ve done this before and still can’t control it.
• • •
Say, more like taxes than detailed regulations or restrictive norms regarding how selfless you’re required to be. For a personal example, I very much see the problems with drug and gambling addiction and have quite a powerful distaste for the advertising and business practices of online gambling companies, but I also very much resist having any of it banned. I would much prefer — even it if would be less efficient — using large amounts of public funds to help people escape destructive behaviors.
This is part of the reason I’m skeptical of political taxonomies based explicitly on what policies you support. As mentioned in The Signal and the Corrective, people often support similar policies for different reasons.
I saw a similar example in the wild recently. I listened to Joe Rogan’s podcast where we was talking to independent journalist Tim Pool and Twitter representatives Jack Dorsey and Vijaya Gadde. Tim commented that Joe was close to socialist politically and he answers that he’s not, but “very liberal” except for on the second amendment where he disagrees with liberals. I had to do a double take there but I understand it to mean he’s pretty consistently liberal since the left-wing position on the second amendment isn’t liberal.
The other popular choice, “centrist”, has similar issues.
Born in a city state with the necessary population density early in history
So did 1990’s liberals like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, showing that both the Up and Down quadrants can be “centrist” on a left-right scale while having opposing visions for society
In further support I’d point out that actually existing communist societies looked pretty similar to fascist ones, despite serious ideological differences. How come? I think that can be resolved by saying that communist societies are in the far left corner in theory; to work they have to be so rich that they can adopt perfect Thrive thinking together with their extreme coupling. But when they aren’t post-scarcity they slide toward a fascist-like structure because they’re confronted with a reality that requires more of a Survive mindset than a “good” version of communism can handle. In other words, fascism is intentionally in the top corner, while communism collapses into it upon contact with scarcity.
The reason the “horseshoe” is open upwards instead of downwards is partly because of “fascism fallout” as described, partly because it tends ot be a response to threat and crisis which creates an aura of “extremeness”, and finally partly because the chattering class that disproportionally determine public discourse and collective consciousness are significantly more Down than Up, making Down a high-pressure zone as opposed to the vacuum on the other side. Note for example how the phrase “fiscal conservative, social liberal” is common in the US, meaning essentially Down (perhaps close to the right border). However, while the opposite phrase is less known, the actual position is more common.
When I wrote and rewrote this description I kept worrying that it was either too charitable or too uncharitable. I guess when I worry about both it’s probably alright
You could call the top and bottom quadrants Open and Closed, where Open is another word for liberalism and Closed for the last quadrant. I don’t intend for it to be insulting, it’s just that what it values can be reasonably summarized as such: predictability, stability, control, cohesion and balance. The Open quadrant values dynamism, difference, creative destruction and disruption, decentralization, speed and excitement — which is great fun when you’re not threatened by any of it. Both Left and Right are semi-closed and semi-open because they favor certain kinds of restrictions and not others, in the left’s case to prevent people from hogging more than their fair share of existing resources, in the right’s case to prevent people from being a drain on the prosperity creation process.
The liberal camp right across tend to engage in both criticisms plus a few measures of disbelief, confusion or pity. Personally I’ve made efforts to understand their point of view and become far less dismissive than I would’ve been, say, ten years ago when I viewed them with outright disdain. It no longer looks like either entitlement or xenophobia, but more like tragedy. I sympathize, but there’s just no way to accomplish what they want with acceptable means, or even get the desired results.
Most cities are pretty representative of the country as a whole when it comes to left and right. The most you can say is that wealthy suburbs vote more right (but not “up”) and small industrial towns and the sparsely populated north vote more left (but not “down”).
For now at least, because the Swedish political landscape is shifting as well. After several months of post-election deadlock, two liberal parties reluctantly agreed this January to leave their former coalition partners on the right to support a social democratic government in return for pro-market reforms. The rise of the Sweden Democrats necessitated the change.
For instance, I think studies about the ideological lopsidedness of US universities miss the mark when they cite the huge difference in representation between “liberals” and “conservatives”. Yes there are very few conservatives, which is an issue. The much discussed censorious PC and activism culture however, isn’t caused by that as much as by an imbalance between leftists and liberals. Such deas are, virtually by definition, pushed by the former and not the latter.
This episode of the Intellectual Explorers Podcast with Bret Weinstein has some discussion of this, referencing known right-wing pundit Tucker Carlson’s apparent embrace of some pretty far-lefty ideas.