There’s a simple-but-effective “political compass” used by many people I know. “Compass” has always seemed like a misnomer, and I prefer the word “map.” This map has two axes: left/right economics and libertarian/authoritarian structure. The idea is that individuals, groups, and societies can be placed on the map so that they can be understood in relation to one another.
It’s a good starting point. I’d like to expound upon it by recalibrating it and providing further subdivisions.
Cooperative vs. Competitive Economics
More useful and exact than “left” vs. “right,” this map measures “cooperative” vs. “competitive” economics. At its simplest, one might say that the left half of the map represents socialism and the right half represents capitalism. There are a lot of competing definitions of both those economic concepts, of course, but here is the one I’m using: the dividing line between cooperative and competitive economics is the concept of wage labor.
The Wage Labor Line
In a society that relies on wage labor, there is the division between the owning class and the working class. The owning class makes its money by owning the means of production (factories, stores, farmland, equipment for rent, etc.) and the working class makes its money by operating those means of production. Workers are paid a wage, which is traditionally less than the economic value their labor produces. The excess value constitutes the owner’s profit. The things that are owned by the owning class are referred to as “capital.” The ability to leverage one’s capital for private gain is a (the?) foundation of capitalism.
It’s possible that this line would be better referred to as the “capital” line, but I find that wage labor is a useful and more specific metric by which to judge an economic theory.
The Market Line
The cooperative economic half of the map is further subdivided by the market line. A society with markets allows for individual ownership of the means of production and allows for goods to be traded. There are numerous economic theories that advocate for both socialism and markets — most notably might be Proudhon’s concept of mutualism. Further left of the market line are societies that operate without markets, in which the means of production are held cooperatively. Rather than a market determining to where resources are allocated, the community or government does. This can be called communism.
The Inequity Line
The competitive economic half of the map is further divided into societies that promote economic inequity and those that don’t. Theories to the right of the inequity line believe that inequity is either desirable or unavoidable and are likely to have few, if any, checks and balances in place to prevent capital from accumulating within a few hands. Those to the left of the inequity line advocate for various means to prevent this centralization. The current left/right economic struggle within mainstream US politics is essentially the struggle over which side of this line society ought to be on.
Authoritarian vs. Libertarian Structure
Authoritarian societies are those in which the individual will is subsumed under the will of those who hold political power. Libertarian societies are those in which the individual is not. Obviously, this is not a binary distinction, in which a society is either authoritarian or libertarian, but instead a gradient with many shades of gray.
The State Line
The central division between authoritarian and libertarian societies on this map is whether or not the society is, or desires to be, a state. There are many different definitions of what constitutes a state, but let’s go with: a territory with fixed boundaries that is governed by a single political form. States also tend to have formal citizenship that distinguishes those who are considered part of the structure from those who are considered outside of it.
The designation of the state as the central line along the authoritarian/libertarian line is probably the most major re-calibration I’m making to the traditional political map. It is my belief that the complexity, validity, and variety of anti-state ideologies requires the state as a center point.
The Democracy Line
The upper (authoritarian) half of the political map is further subdivided by the democracy line. Democracy, in this context, can be understood roughly as “rule by the people.” Societies above the democracy line are ruled by those other than the people of the society. For the sake of being able to present a comprehensible map, I am consciously choosing to include as democracies those societies that consider themselves democracies which are probably closer to oligarchies (such as the United States and most “democratic” nations around the world, in which the ultra-wealthy have vastly disproportionate political power).
The Law Line
The lower (anti-authoritarian) half of the political map is further subdivided by the law line. Above this line are societies that enforce specific and codified laws onto those participating in their society. Societies below the line make use of guidelines — flexible, situational, and informal — instead. There are numerous societies — historical, hypothetical, and existent — that have formal legal structures despite not forming what could be traditionally understood as a state.
A Third Axis
As soon as my friends and I began to populate this two-axis map, we ran into complications and began to explore potential third axes. The one that stood out as the most useful immediately was “Identity Tolerance.”
While the USSR and Nazi Germany are both examples of extreme authoritarianism, the way in which they engaged in ethnic discrimination was notably different. Both governments killed millions of people of specific ethnicities, but the USSR seemed to have focused on killing people for ostensibly political reasons rather than ethnic ones. Nazi Germany killed millions of people for political reasons as well as directly for ethnic and sexual identity reasons. Essentially, Nazi Germany was less identity tolerant than the USSR. (The USSR’s stance on homosexuality was originally more lenient than that of Tsarist Russia, but Stalin reintroduced laws against male homosexuality during his reign.)
The axis of identity tolerance is also a useful one to distinguish between anarchists (who are not faultless, historically, but have long included in their ranks some of the most outspoken advocates against racism, sexism, and homophobia) and “nationalist anarchists” who, while anti-state and anti-capitalist, espouse a level of identity intolerance that clearly distinguishes them from anarchists.
I’ve never been 100% comfortable calling myself a leftist, because the overwhelming majority of what is presented as leftism in mainstream politics is explicitly authoritarian and is understandably reviled by many — myself included. By the same token, I’m nervous to lead any conversation about politics with my anti-government beliefs: many people have only been exposed to rightwing, capitalist libertarianism.
“Leftist” is far too vague of a term to be useful when describing my politics. Anarchist is far more exact. But there is an appeal to using a broader term, an umbrella that encompasses a wider breadth of potentials. The most appropriate term for that umbrella might be “lower leftist.”
A lower leftist is anyone whose politics fall into the anti-authoritarian, cooperative quadrant of the political map. It includes anarchists, Zapatistas, anti-state Marxists, democratic confederalists, libertarian municipalists, and a large number of traditional societies from across the globe… any society that does not desire a state and does desire economic cooperation. (While we’re at it, let’s throw in that we’re only talking about identity-tolerant societies, because regardless of how “anti-state” they claim to be, a society that persecutes people for ethnic, sexual, gender, or ability reasons is just as authoritarian in practice as any formal governmental society.)
A Quadrant of Solidarity
The lower left quadrant of the political map is unique in its potential for internal solidarity. A lower-leftist society does not need to necessarily find itself at odds with any other lower-leftist society, because there are no borders to police and no economic monopoly to defend. Because of the potential for cooperation between lower-leftist societies, we are natural allies with one another. Our goals, while different, are not in conflict with one another.
A statist society (the upper left and right quadrants) cannot co-exist with another state in the same territory. Any statist institution, in a revolutionary situation, will eventually find themselves at odds with any other statist institution that is vying for the same power. Statists can only be allies if they are making claim to different territories — unlikely in a revolutionary situation.
I suspect that any anti-state capitalist society would also be at odds with any another anti-state capitalist society, because capitalism tends to accumulate resources into a few hands. A society that does not believe in cooperation or solidarity will accumulate resources that are desired by — or necessary to the survival of — another society and will find itself in conflict. It’s possible that I am wrong, and that the lower right has a potential for internal solidarity.
When considering strategic allies (in contrast to the natural allies to be found in the lower left quadrant), my suggestion is that we ought not prioritize one axis over another. We ought to only form strategic alliances with those who aim to push society — in relation to the existent society, rather than in relation to our ideal society — in the same directions that we do. We ought not, presumably, ally ourselves with those who aim to push society in a direction counter to our interests. This seems obvious, when written out, but is a mistake that lower leftists have made time and time again.
Essentially, anyone pushing for an increase in authoritarianism, no matter how leftist, and anyone pushing for an increase in capitalism, no matter how antiauthoritarian, is not our ally. The same could be said for the third axis as well: anyone pushing for a less identity tolerant society is not our ally. Anyone pushing for a more identity tolerant, but also more capitalist or authoritarian society, is not our ally.
These concepts are a work in progress. In further articles, I will explore more about the ways in which the political map can be used to understand challenges and changes to the status quo, whether revolutionary or incremental.
Every time I publish a non-fiction book and go on tour with it, I learn at least as much by presenting my ideas — and being challenged on them — than I did in the process of writing the book. Every time, I think to myself, I should do the presentations as part of the writing process instead of after completing the book.
I was bemoaning this in Santa Cruz a few years back, and a friend looked at me seriously and said “that’s why us professors write books. They’ve honed their ideas by teaching their ideas.”
I’m not involved in academia, nor am I likely to be. “Honorary” is probably the only shot I have at any kind of degree. So then, the concepts laid out in this essay constitute a work in progress. I’m working on a non-fiction book called From Here to Freedom, and I’m testing my ideas out in front of an audience: you.
Version 1.1, 10/28/2016: altered figures 2 and 3 to reflect the fact that the USSR did not have market societies; altered text describing USSR as a step less identity-tolerant than first presented; attempted to clarify the section on strategic allies; altered figure 2 to expand Marxism to include anti-state Marxism.
Version 1.2, 11/2/2016: added captions to the figures to attempt to point out that the specific mapping of ideologies in figure 2 is not meant as an authoritative statement.