Lower Leftism: Expanding Upon the Political Map

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.

Proposed two-axis political map, with subdivisions.
Proposed two-axis political map, with 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.

Examples of possible locations for various societies and ideologies on this two-axis map. Note that this particular mapping is not meant as authoritative, but merely based on my best guesses. The placement of many of these things is subjective, and the specific location of existent ideologies isn't entirely relevant to the main point of this article.
Examples of possible locations for various societies and ideologies on this two-axis map. Note that this particular mapping is not meant as authoritative, but is instead merely based on my best guesses. The placement of many of these things is subjective, and the specific location of existent ideologies isn’t entirely relevant to the main point of this article.

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.

An example of certain ideologies as mapped by a third axis, that of identity tolerance.
An example of certain ideologies as mapped by a third axis, that of identity tolerance.

Lower Leftism

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.

Strategic Allies

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.

One way of understanding who are a lower-leftist's strategic and natural allies.
One way of understanding who are a lower-leftist’s strategic and natural allies.

Further Analysis

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.

12 thoughts on “Lower Leftism: Expanding Upon the Political Map”

  1. A couple of things about this bother me.

    1. The Nazis were not less authoritarian than the USSR. The difference between the Nazis and the USSR is not tolerance of identity (after all, both regimes engaged in genocide), and at no point was the USSR less tolerant than the average Republican in the US today.

    In your typology, the Nazis should be placed at the upper end of the diagram, just to the right of the inequity line: Hitler purged any socialist remnants within the party, actively promoted inequality by destroying the unions, and believed that there was a natural order of better and worse people, even within ethnic groups. He fails to be at the right end only because he did not engage in economic austerity.

    The USSR under Stalin would’ve been at the upper end as well, left of the market line; there were no real markets in the USSR. After Stalin, it would go farther down, but not to the right: prices were still dictated by the party, but genocide was replaced with discrimination, and murder of any suspected political opponent was replaced with exile and blacklisting.

    2. The Republicans are not really farther down than the Democrats. They believe in state formation under all the usual definitions of the nation-state. The white nationalist faction, which voted Trump in the primary, is explicitly anti-democratic. It’s not just the voter suppression, or Thiel’s opposition to women’s suffrage; the alt-right is intertwined with people who genuinely believe absolute monarchy was better than democracy, and before the neocons (themselves far from committed democrats), the political right loved fascist dictators like Franco and considered democracy to be decadent.

    3. Libertarian vs. authoritarian and tolerance of identity are far too correlated to be separate axes.

    At one end, high democracy and low tolerance, you’d get a herrenvolk democracy, like the antebellum US and what South Africa aspired to be. But this is not a stable situation: the US had universal white suffrage after the 1820s, and within a generation friction led to emancipation; a hundred years later, a similar but less violent friction led to civil rights. In South Africa, and in the Jim Crow South, apartheid had to be maintained with constant violence against political opponents, regardless of race, and neither place was ever a multiparty democracy.

    At the other end, high tolerance and low democracy, you’d get a tolerant, multiethnic empire. This is usually tolerant only in name: absolute monarchs, even tolerant ones, routinely engage in ethnic cleansing and suppression. The USSR was and the PRC is tolerant in name only.

    4. The lower right quadrant has a great example of internal solidarity: the European Union. The eurocrats have painstakingly worked together on a system of harmonized regulations, austerity, human rights, red tape, environmental protections, and abuse of refugees.

    While capitalism leads to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small owner class, the owner class is not normally a tiny oligarchy. There’s too much mobility and outmarriage for that. The 0.1% are, well, 0.1%; that’s 300,000 people in the US, and 500,000 people in the EU. This is orders of magnitude beyond the maximum size at which informal arrangements can promote wealth accumulation; it’s also orders of magnitude more than the maximum number of workable states in a modern capitalist system. The upshot is that one-capitalist-overlord-per-territory does not work, and this forces mechanisms that you would call solidarity and cooperation and they would call rule of law.

    1. Thanks, this is useful stuff to chew on. After hearing from several people, I’ve updated the charts to put the USSR further to the left (which allowed room, graphically, for Nazi germany to join it at the upper extreme of authoritarianism).

      My opinion about the positioning of specific groups is far less important to me than the exploration and clearer demarcation of the map itself. But I do believe that, overall, republicans have a more libertarian, and less-identity tolerant, bent when compared to democrats.

      I disagree with you about identity tolerance being too indistinguishable from political authoritarianism to merit its own axis. While I personally believe that these axes are fairly heavily interrelated (I consider the lower right quadrant’s claim to be antiauthoritarian to be dubious at best, since it allows for an economic hierarchy), proponents of the lower right undoubtedly feel similarly about the lower left. As for identity tolerance specifically, even having a way of politically understanding the important distinction between “nationalist anarchism” and actual anarchism makes the distinction worthwhile. Normally, identity tolerance is conflated not with the vertical axis but the left/right axis, which is of course also un-useful.

      As for the EU, you might be right. My instinct is that it’s just part of the usual upper right, the same as its constituent states.

  2. This is dope, thanks for the work you’ve put into developing this tool of analysis. I wonder if there is a way one might incorporate a line related to the environment, the rights of mother earth, industrialism, fossil fuel extractivism, etc. Much love!

  3. I would change the “market line” to “capital market line”. I think there is a massive difference between using markets as a means of exchange of goods and services, and private ownership of capital traded in a market. For example, many of the social Anarchists in the Spanish revolution utilized market relations for goods and services (regulated by federated communal councils), but in the context of social ownership of the means of production. More statist anti-capitalist politics have done the same, a la the Yugoslav experiments.

    I would also not use a blanket “tolerance of identity” axis to try to capture both anti-imperial/anti-white supremacy and feminist and queer political lines. Those are at least two distinct axes (imperialism and patriarchy), which I would run parallel to the class/economic axes on the running left-right. This of course would spoil that spatial element of the map to a degree. The word “tolerance” is especially limited. Like we are all going to get along starting on equal footing, rather than what do we do about the 500 year history of European imperialism and its various racialist hierarchies it has left behind.

  4. Shouldn’t the inequity line be called the equity line, since all the other lines indicate that once you cross it moving away from the center, you are violating it?

  5. I had some disagreement with the positioning of ‘Feudalism’ — surely it should be much further right?

    But then I remembered your choice of economic axis was competition-cooperativism, which doesn’t quite work with command economies — they’re neither competitive nor cooperative! (Actually, they do compete — just with other command economies, in what is essentially an anarcho-capitalistic fashion.)

    This reflects a perennial issue with drawing up two-axis political maps: there’s a huge amount of complexity masked by ‘horizontal for economics, vertical for social’. Using ‘economic authoritarianism’ for the horizontal axis gives similar positioning problems with cooperatives. And of course on the vertical axis, progressive-conservative falls apart as soon as the authoritarian progressives come along; remember Prohibition?

    In conclusion, I find it greatly amusing to see feudalism located between ‘most organised labor’ and ‘most of what people have called communism’.

    1. i agree that this doesn’t work incredibly well for compound economies, and placing feudalism was a fuzzy logic decision. However, there are many facets of societies that are not explored, and the proximity of two societies on these two dimensions doesn’t necessarily correlate with proximity on other, important axes. Like the massive gulf between “national anarchism” and anarchism.

  6. Thanks for an interesting article on your views on Political Compass. I’ve been playing with it for some time. I’m interested that you placed USSR in top left as this might have been ok 20 years ago however Putin’s Russia is a Statist Capitalistic state like China rather than communist system these days an consequently would more likely be about +8, -2. It’s actually rather hard to get a fix on Russia , China or anywhere other than the western and OECD countries. It would be nice if political compass added a much wider group to their web site. Regarding your location for Trump – political compass puts him well into the Fascist area. Its interesting where you have placed most Democrats and most Republican. I suspect the distribution is much wider and the two groups overlap on many issues. If we go by the locations of the Democrats senators from each of the states as shown in Political Compass they are closer to the center while most Republican senators are virtually up there with Trump in the fascist area.
    Its interesting to note that most of the ordinary people that I’ve seen vote are much more distributed toward the lower left, well away from their political parties, where your friends and indeed my friends are located. This probably matches up with the fact that the politicians rarely tell the truth to the public and consequently there is a large gap between the people and the politicians’ aspiration which you might expect if the western countries were really more oligarchies rather than democracies.
    Finally, in view of the Global Warming problem where the IPCC opinion is that we will have to move to a zero carbon economy that is more friendly to the environment there is a need for a Political compass that expresses world political view in a way that encompasses the Global warming problem and allows us to see where the political parties and politicians stand on those issues.

  7. I like this alot; your ideas are solid, my only comment, being political the same as you, but a green party organizer(guess my goal is to pull people in upper right to center, and being closer on the map helps). I wonder if there is to be a separation between the vision/platform of a group, and the results of their work. The greens are lower left in platform, but I can also see us as being the center when governing and campaigning.

    1. I think that’s a really useful point. In some versions of the map as I was filling out examples, I had “most green party members” in the lower left-ish area and “most green party politicians” hovering just above the state line, straddling the wage labor line. There’s definitely a difference between a party’s constituency and its leadership, and furthermore a difference between an ideologies stated intent and its facts on the ground. For the most part, for my examples, I tended to map ideologies based on their aspirations rather than their reality.

  8. I love the political compass model and this is an excellent expansion of it.

    I’d say you can also form strange strategic alliances with people who are close to you on one axis even if they’re far away on the other.

    Though personally I’m something of a Georgist or Geolibertarian. Which is difficult to fit on this map, because we approach land and natural resources with a communist mentality, but labour and income with a capitalist mentality.

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