What ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ Really Mean

Invocations of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are extremely common in political discussions. Typically, they are deployed as hopelessly vague terms of abuse or goofy indications of team loyalty, unfortunately including among anarchists, libertarians, and other radicals.

I have argued for years that these terms are so broad and multifarious in their usage that they have been bleached of almost any meaning and should be abandoned by sensible people interested in coherent dialogue in favor of a multi-dimensional political grid. Naturally, this objection is rarely heard, and I am often nonetheless pressed to answer where I stand on Left versus Right.

My usual response is to say that the Left versus Right spectrum is not merely accidentally incoherent, but deliberately so, in that its constant usage in mainstream discourse is a form of divide et impera by the power elite that is simply the next level up from the Democrat versus Republican binary. Many people recognize the latter as a bullshit choice, but nonetheless maintain that Left versus Right is a real and natural split – in my view, it is instead meant to get the politically active masses to play team sports that the power elite can regulate and broker, making all of the Little People compete with, direct invective at, and even physically assault one another rather than their wise overlords. Divide et impera is the oldest power game the elite have, and it has worked extremely well for millennia.

If I am pressed further, perhaps with a “Yes, that’s fine and well, but we all know there are real differences among these people all the same – they aren’t fighting over nothing, even if they are encouraged to fight.” There are indeed differences, but why should those be mapped with a division based on 18th-century French politics? The etymology of Left and Right is literally a reference to the French Revolution, during which attendees of the National Assembly gathered to the right of the president to indicate their support for the ancien regime, while those on the president’s left indicated their support of the Revolution. Is there really anything consistent in these groupings from that very specific time and place to today, anywhere on the planet where these terms are used?

Perhaps, but it is not usually what it is said to be. It is sometimes said (even on Wikipedia today, which can be taken as an indication of pseudo-democratic, establishment consensus opinion) that being on the Left is about valuing egalitarianism, while the Right necessarily values one or more forms of hierarchy that are seen as legitimate. This is sometimes true but ultimately points at changeable surface qualities rather than fundamentals – and it is hence easy to find counterexamples: the various State Communist regimes of the 20th and 21st centuries were or are assuredly ‘Left’ in some broad form, yet it would be ridiculous to claim that these did or do not possess crushing, parasitic hierarchies. And the various strands of Right-libertarianism or Right-anarchism are far less hierarchical than almost all forms of Leftism, even if they almost always maintain the legitimacy of meritocratic “natural elites” (Hoppe) or certain more or less voluntary or organic traditional hierarchical structures like the family or religious organizations.

Another frequent false claim is that the Left/Right spectrum really measures the ineradicable tension between equality and liberty. There are again immediately apparent problems with this notion, the most obvious being that, while certainly sometimes in tension, equality and liberty are not necessarily always at odds with one another: the cancerous growth of a State on a human population tends to decrease both equality and liberty, as it produces a rapacious power elite who hoard wealth to enrich themselves while removing civil liberties to squelch dissidents. Secondly, just as the Left is not ultimately but only circumstantially about politico-economic equality, so it is the case with the Right and liberty. Many moderate conservatives in the modern West are willing to legislate against personal liberties in favor of protecting traditional moral values. And the Fascist regimes of the 20th century enormously subordinated individual liberty to State and Nation (it is sometimes argued that Fascism is actually an oddball offshoot of Marxism and therefore more appropriately placed on the Left – I think this contention has considerable merit, but in my view it is best to consider Fascism a Left/Right hybrid and thus still exemplary of certain Rightist values. I will write more on this in the future).

If we grant that this distinction has any meaning, then, what is it? Having dismissed the above politico-ethical distinctions, I believe we can now show that the real differences between Left and Right, and the reason that people tend to group themselves in these camps across widely differing times and places, is the disagreements are not in political or ethical views per se, but in ontological and metaphysical views. These differences are at least three-fold. 

The first and second differences concern questions of human nature. The paleoconservative scholar Paul Gottfried has suggested – correctly, in my view – that a core tenet of Leftism, whether held consciously or not by any given adherent, is that the differences we observe among human beings (in abilities, in quality of life outcomes, in beliefs, etc.) are primarily (or even, at the outer limits of Leftist ideology, entirely) the result of social and environmental conditioning rather than inborn constitution of some kind. Right-wingers, correspondingly, tend to believe that the inborn character of people (be it conceived of in material, spiritual, volitional, or other terms) matters more in whom they ultimately become. This elegantly simple observation of Gottfried’s is sufficient to explain how vastly different views like an anarcho-capitalism that wants to abolish all States and a Neo-Reactionism that wants to restore hereditary monarchies are both recognizably ‘Right-wing’ – one justifies difference on nothing but merit, the other on royal blood or divine right, but both believe different people are entitled to different social outcomes because difference is real, natural, and just. Gottfried’s point also helps to illuminate, as another example, why so many Left-wing people, no matter how much they may disagree with each other about political or economic questions, will unite in being averse to the concept of heritable IQ, since it suggests the existence of potentially ineradicable, socially important, and objectively measurable natural differences in ability.

The second question of human nature, related to but nonetheless separate from the first, is what the Chicago School economist Thomas Sowell called the “constrained” versus “unconstrained” visions of humanity, which he outlined in detail in his 1987 book A Conflict of Visions. The “unconstrained” vision is utopian, believes in the essential good of humanity, and strives for the perfectibility of the human creature and the social order. Thus, Rousseau believed man was born free but chained by society, the Soviet ideologues postulated the coming of the morally perfect “New Soviet Man”, and John Zerzan maintains we need only throw off all domestication in order to arrive at an Edenic communion with nature and one another that is our natural birthright. Conversely, the “constrained” vision is essentially tragic, views the human as a fallen creature who irremediably tends toward corruption, and believes society can never be perfected, but only carefully steered to keep the worst at bay. Thus, Hobbes referenced the Roman proverb homo homini lupus (“Man is wolf to man”) in describing human attitudes toward strangers and foreigners, René Guénon lamented that all of the efforts of ‘progress’ in technology and democratization were Icarian misadventures, and Murray Rothbard excoriated the legitimacy of the State primarily in terms of moral hypocrisy relative to natural law. The widely divergent conclusions of these thinkers are rooted in a common premise on a single issue.

The third and final difference, I will contend, is purely metaphysical and often unarticulated. Consciously or not, every person has to answer essential questions that implicitly undergird the answers to all more derivative questions: What is the relationship between the human mind and the world it seems to encounter? Are the boundaries between ideas clear and objective, or are they fuzzy and indeterminate? Do transcendental entities inform the world, or are we making it up as we go? 

Roughly speaking, one can be a realist or a subjectivist on a number of core issues. On the one hand, we have moral realism, a teleological Nature, a Platonic view of concepts as actually-existing things, and an epistemic optimism that sees human beings as essentially capable of knowing the world. And, on the other hand, we have moral relativism or nihilism of some kind, a belief in Nature as aimless and accidental, an instrumental view of concepts as personal or social constructs, and an epistemological skepticism that doubts whether so-called knowledge is more than a set of pragmatic fictions. Again, roughly speaking, we have a Traditional metaphysical view on the one end, a Modernist view in the middle, and a Postmodern or nihilistic view at the other extreme. 

As an aside, it is worth noting in case it is not obvious that none of the above are fully binary choices. We thus have phenomena like the famous (but frankly rather dull) Chomsky-Foucault debate in which two Leftists’ argument turned on the fact that Chomsky was a moral realist and an essentialist about certain aspects of human nature, whereas Foucault indulged in the nihilistic epistemic and moral conclusions of postmodern deconstructionism. And of course there are hybrid characters like Renzo Novatore, who very obviously had an unconstrained Rousseauvian desire to destroy all social chains as quickly as possible, but who also maintained a Nietzschean personal elitism that scorned the avolitional slavishness of the NPCs of his day, be they bourgeois or proletarian. 

It has been a personal irony for me, as someone who considered himself to be on the far-Left beginning as a teenager, to have realized in the past few years that I actually come down decidedly on the Right on all three of these questions. This three-fold schema also helped me to understand why the ‘Post-Left’ tendency in anarchism, in spite of breaking with anarcho-leftism on so many ethical and strategic questions, nonetheless has a dyed-in-the-wool leftism about it when it comes to certain questions. 

Aletheia: How and Why I Was Wrong About So Much, and the Purpose of this Blog

I have found a new humility. 

It was almost four years ago now that I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to this new place I have grown to love. It has been said that urban radical subcultures have a tendency to degenerate into ersatz religious cults or milieux for furnishing an extended adolescence for social misfits and eccentrics, and, from my small experience, that is true. But they are also spaces in which one, if conscientious, can learn quickly. As I moved to the Bay at the age of twenty-five, I was a self-identified anarchist who was passionately committed to living out my values, but I had a terribly naïve and incoherent worldview, in part because I had so few people in my life who could challenge my beliefs with anything other than mainstream boilerplate that I was perfectly capable of deconstructing.

But in the Bay Area, where I lived for three and a half years, I was suddenly around numerous anarchists for the first time in my life. Many were as young and foolish as I was, and many were thinly-veiled communists who would reveal themselves to be ultimately more authoritarian and hateful than normal people; but I was still able to learn from so many who were wrestling with a similar mix of enormously passionate visions, existential angst, and strategic confusion. Moreover, there were older anarchists who had shed many illusions, and, from them, I was able to do what every generation of healthy, pre-postmodernity humans has done: learn from the accumulated wisdom of elders. 

I was at various times doing urban activist organizing, working with the publishing house Little Black Cart, doing the podcasts Free Radical Radio and later The Brilliant about once per week, participating regularly in protests that frequently became riots, living in group houses, and earning my income in the grey economy – in short, I was pursuing a kind of archetypal urban anarchist lifeway. Whatsoever its shortcomings, idiocies, and indulgences, it was an interesting set of experiments that I mostly do not regret. Every month was a seething boil of new ideas, activities, people, irritations, and challenges, all of which forced me to repeatedly reevaluate my beliefs about what I was really for and against, what was possible and desirable, and what was a meaningful and valuable way of living. 

Toward the end of my time there, from just before my departure from Free Radical Radio and through my internship with Little Black Cart, I had sufficient hubris to believe that I had more or less arrived at what would be my set views philosophically. I knew that North American anarchism had been poisoned by Leftist ideology, especially the currently reigning Woke variant, and I felt very secure in what seemed to be a perfectly purified anarchism that drew from Nietzsche, Stirner, the Post-Left anarchist milieu, and the green anarchist critiques of technology and agriculture. 

The stereotype of someone who falls in love with Max Stiner’s perspective is that they wield a Maslow’s Hammer: they call everything they dislike ‘reification’, as though doing so were an unstoppable refutation of any point. While I do not think I was ever that bad, I did push a quite extreme form of epistemological skepticism and moral nihilism. I thought of enlightenment as a series of purgations, consisting of one illusion being discarded after another. In my formal education at undergraduate university, I had come to realize that my unexamined scientism, metaphysical materialism, and political left-liberalism were rank nonsense, and the years following university seemed a continuing illumination via disenchantment. Eventually, I thought all that was real and true was the singularity of the absolutely distilled existential-phenomenal moment and the actualization of its liberated desire. 

In truth, I was playing a kind of intellectual hide-and-seek with myself. I believed, on some level, my values were correct and true and lived as if they were – but I knew I had no metaphysical framework with which to argue that they were anything other than subjective preferences, and so that was what I said I believed. I acted as if truth was real, objective, and discoverable – and even despised postmodern relativism – but I felt it was impossible to justify rationally this view. And I knew in my heart that my anarchism was not merely political, social, and economic in its dimensions, but also aimed most of all at a transformation of consciousness and the feeling-toned fabric of life – but I felt this even as I inveighed viciously against any talk among radicals of “spirituality”. In sum, I took the Death of God seriously, as Nietzsche and Stirner had, and as most bien pensants moderns do not.

As I wrote my polemical Corrosive Consciousness, which expresses the zenith of this line of thought, I started feeling an immense tension in myself. I felt weaknesses in the worldview I was presenting, though I could not rationally grok what they were. In retrospect, I see it as a conflict between dianoia, discursive rationality, and noesis, the superior faculty of the intellect that allows for immediate, intuitive apprehension. I struggled to finish writing it (which accounts for its admittedly very unedited nature). By then, I had begun having experiences of a felt presence of which I could not make sense but which seemed immensely important.

It would happen to me during periods of being alone outside for hours, when I was either doing gardening or walking through the woods. In retrospect, I can see that these were spontaneous meditative episodes of a sort; but as I had no meditation practice at the time, I did not conceive of them this way. I would be struck by a feeling of being enveloped in a kind of enormous, abstract sentience – sometimes it would feel like the sensation of being observed, and other times it was far more emotional, so much so that I would be abruptly be moved to tears from a sense of beauty.

As with everything in my life, I tried to interpret these experiences philosophically. As a committed Stirnerian-Nietzschean hyper-atheist and as someone with an aversion to sentimentalism, my temptation was to interpret as simply resonating with contact with the nonhuman ecological world. But the recurring episodes resisted this interpretation through the nature of their character, which seemed somehow qualitatively beyond, beneath, or above the organic world. I learned around this time that I had Lyme Disease and genuinely wondered for a period whether I was experiencing some side effect of neurological damage, but I later had to dismiss the hypothesis when I realized the timing was wrong.

I was able to talk with a few friends about the experiences and was eventually led to return to studying metaphysics in a serious way. Much of my insistence on the hyper-hygenic existentialism to which I had been clinging for years was that it gives primacy to immediate subjective experience – that is, consciousness – even as it resists essentially any inference beyond that pure conscious experience. What I had foolishly ignored is the potential of building a fully fleshed-out philosophy beginning from direct experience and first principles. This path of inquiry – which engaged my reason, emotion, imagination, and intuition all at once – led me quickly to panpsychism, then metaphysical idealism, and finally the Perennial Philosophy.

Realizing the genuine existence of the Absolute (or God, Brahman, Tao, the One, etc. – names name It not) is the most significant event of my philosophical journey, even more so than having become an anarchist, since the latter is confined to the ethical dimensions of life. The implications are enormous in terms of the origins and places of value, the meaning and purpose of life, the possibilities and kinds of knowledge, and the implications of suffering and death. When I open the door to step outside now, I do not feel I am stepping into either a world of matter and energy or an absurdity of Sisyphean existentiality – instead, I see a symbolic manifestation of thought.

My tendency is toward intellectual hubris. In social gatherings, I tend to think I know more about politics, science, human nature, and philosophy than the vast majority of people and furthermore tend to think that I have better reasons to believe I genuinely know what I think I know. But I was wrong about almost everything for the majority of my intellectually conscious life thus far, and I now struggle, in spite of myself, to be more humble, careful, and provisional in what I say and think. Hence, I now have a blog, which lends itself to short, frequent updates and quick feedback.