On Leftism and Rightism, Part 1
On Leftism and Rightism, Part 1
On the differences between rightism and leftism and how libertarianism relates to these distinct frameworks of social interpretation.
In this article, the goal is to first tease out the inclinations of leftism and rightism, or at least give indication of several tendencies that each of them has as a framework for interpreting the world. Second, we will relate these tendencies to libertarianism as an ideology, that is, a series of logically coherent propositions on the matter of political theory proper. In modern and mainstream libertarian circles, it is the popular interpretation to completely disregard left and right as useful categories at all, preferring instead to hold libertarianism as the replacement of left and right, and as an approach to property and the state that no longer has a use for an outdated left/right divide.
Thus, we here find our first clarification: left and right are not mere approaches to the state and liberty. Right and left are not references to political issues within the mere context of public policy but rather are references to the theory and interpretation of the problem and study of social development. Libertarians who argue for the abandonment of left and right as useful ways of categorizing approaches to politics completely miss the fact that left and right are far broader than what libertarianism could ever speak to. In other words, left and right aren’t even intended to “categorize approaches to politics,” narrowly speaking. They are intended to categorize approaches to society and historical meaning, in which politics is only but a small part.
Libertarianism, being a doctrine strictly within the discipline of political theory, cannot speak to historical progress, the role of custom and tradition in human interrelations, or the role of non-state social institutions in the development of human affairs (except as these themes touch the specific aspect of coercive behavior). Far from being some sort of failure of libertarianism (which is the conclusion that those on the alt-right, who passed through libertarianism, came to hold) to speak to important matters, the thesis here is that libertarianism plays an important role in our study of the world, but since the political realm is much smaller than we in the west often presume, there is more needed than just libertarianism “thinnly” speaking. Especially if we aim to make sense of broader sociological concerns.
Right and Left as Frameworks of Interpretation
With regard to libertarianism in our time, there is a developing crises at play wherein the individuals that make up what was once an exciting movement a mere seven years ago at the height of Ron Paul’s influence, are now so concerned about political theory narrowly speaking, that there is no attention being paid to broader cultural, sociological, historical, or epochal issues. The modern libertarian operates in an abstract silo and what weighs him down is not that he holds to libertarianism, but that he doesn’t know where it fits in the world; for his world is simply political theory alone– the authoritarian state is his only enemy– and he makes this mistake because he has fallen for the narrative of the modern zeitgeist: that all must be interpreted in terms of the political.
The crises, which this author predicts will only worsen, is a failure not of libertarianism as a theory, but of the libertarian as a person. He is the political theory version of a generation that has abandoned studying the world in exchange for shallow and disconnected ideas.
The typical libertarian, suffering under the illusion that the political society is the most important aspect of social analysis considers that left and right are mere policy lists that are held together due to the interests and inclinations of political constituents and voters. In this arrangement, to be “on the right” or “on the left” is to have a certain opinion on a series of political issues such as abortion, taxation, wage laws, privatization, deficit spending, gay marriage and so on. To be in the center is to have sort of a mixed opinion on the issues and to be a libertarian therefore is to choose from among these list in a more informed and theoretically guided way and to overcome the meaninglessness of the stances on these lists. But this is all mistaken and confused.
If we are to improve on our understanding of the world, and also to seek the development of better quality libertarians, we need to swiftly leave aside this cheapened meaning of left and right. Right and left are interpreting frameworks with reference to broader sociological and historical themes, and not merely a stance on a handful of public policy issues. Right and left are two very different approaches to the world beyond politics and statecraft; they speak to the nature of man and his relation to others, they speak to the movement and progress of history, they speak to problems that precede modern politics.
This last point is tremendously important: right and left are frameworks of interpretation that precede conversation of the state. Eventually, they flow into matters of politics and statecraft, but fundamentally, politics and the state are but one expression of man and the society that flows from his action. Thus, the topic of “right and left,” strictly speaking, does not need to mention the state until later in the development.
Five Differences Between Right and Left
A more systematic and well-developed typology of right and left would be needed to do justice to this subject, but in the interest of time, and aware of my own place in my developing education in these matters, I’ve selected five key differences that stand out as especially worth knowing, especially in preparation for part two. They are ordered somewhat importantly, as later points depend on earlier points in the flow of explanation. For those interested, much of my current thinking on these matters comes from people like Paul Gottfried, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Robert Nisbet, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Importantly, it is subject to adjustment and refinement as knowledge is acquired over time.
Leftism argues for the importance of emphasizing equality. Sometimes, this comes in the form of “equal outcome,” other times in the more restrained yet still leftist, “equal opportunity.” But at a more substantial level and in light of the modern Dominant Social Themes that characterize the entire western intellectual mood, there ought to be an “equality” of man’s legal ability to participate in the social sphere.
This manifests itself especially in the presumed superiority of democracy; the idea that, even if democracy and liberty are sometimes at variance, it is still important that everyone have a voice in the political realm because universal involvement is a reflection of universal equality. Freedom (the thing which the military fights for against undemocratic regions) has as a defining characteristic the participation of all men in the democratic process. Whether you lean Democrat, Green, Republican, Libertarian, Centrist, Independent, Constitutionalist, what ultimately matters is that everyone participates. All this, according to the leftist inclination with respect to democracy.
Thus, for the leftist, there is a continued emphasis on the importance of every group being treated equally, not playing favorites in social dealings, portraying no biases with regard to family ties, wealth, sex, lifestyle choice, religion, race, culture, or character. If there is any sign at all of a disparity in the experience that a certain group has, it should be addressed. It’s important to note that this has generally been true of both Democrats and Republicans as the former play the role of pushing new egalitarian ideas and the Republicans quickly come behind them to support and cement into place yesterday’s progressivism. Democrats blaze the trail and Republicans pave it. The entire zeitgeist of the modern era is egalitarian from the so-called conservatives to the loudest Progressives.
It’s important to juxtapose this correctly with true rightism– for it is easy to simply jump to the conclusion that therefore the right must oppose the treating of people equally and rather should treat the above categories with bias and prejudice. But this is not the proper way to characterize rightism. Rather, rightism simply does not emphasize equality as some universal good that we should all pursue at all times. He is not consciously working toward the equal treatment of groups in an idealistic way but instead allows the decision making onus to be on the individual people and contexts of the activity. It is entirely permissible to the rightist that some would choose to emphasize family ties or wealth in some dealings, culture in others, or character in still others.
But more importantly, the rightist doesn’t look for aggregate disparities in the outcome of social groups as a pretense for solving social problems. He recognizes that individuals are different and therefore their experiences in society will vary. At any rate, the rightist recognizes that equality is a myth, that individuals are not equal to each other in personality, temperament, time preference, discipline, wealth, conviction, intellect, physical ability, mental ability, kindness, fairness, objectivity, trustworthiness, or any other of the several dozen characteristics we couple place here.
Thus, so far as democracy is concerned (and leaving aside the legal-libertarian problems inherent in democracy), it is absurd to give all people equal weight in the realm of socio-political decision making. Democracy therefore to the extent that it gives political power to the masses at large is actually a very dangerous system that can make society less stable, more prone to economic waste, and the transfer of authority from centers of natural hierarchies to raw political power. Egalitarian democracy, for the rightist, is the path to tyranny.
This leads to the related subcategory of social hierarchies. Under a leftist framework, the very idea of a social hierarchy, whether in the workplace or in other social settings such as religious institutions, frustrates the leftist, primarily because they mock the commitment to equality of social position. For the rightist, the existence of a hierarchy is a reflection of the fact that men are not equal. Disparities in skill, education, experience, relation to others higher up in a hierarchy, account for the continued existence of hierarchy and this presents no obvious social problem. There is no injustice inherent in one’s lack of privilege on the basis that there is no natural or legal obligation for equal social positions.
This of course does not merely relate to financial questions and the obvious fact that some people have more wealth than others, but it also relates to biological issues as well. For instance, the leftist might express aggravation that in times past family units developed varying roles along gender lines– men, for instance would tend to earn the paycheck for the family while the woman stayed at home to tend the children and the home. Whereas leftists would interpret this as an unfortunate patriarchal arrangement imposed on women that should, in the modern world, be rectified, the rightist merely sees this development as a natural result of the differences between men and women. It was imposed by nobody, and therefore is followed over the centuries because it made sense on account of the biological differences between men and women. Here, it should be clarified that this model isn’t per se normative for the modern world for the rightist, but merely that he interprets this past arrangement as naturally evolving, rather than oppressive.
And of course, equality is further at odds with the rightist acceptance of social hierarchies more broadly speaking. Concepts such as honoring one’s parents, respecting one’s elders, chivalrous men acting as protectors toward women, property owners guiding the use and employment of their lands, the young acting in a subservient way toward their masters in an apprenticeship relationship, Hoppe’s natural elite which become community arbitrators and practitioners of dispute resolution, the passing on of one’s wealth to their oldest son. All these elements of an older social hierarchical arrangement strikes the leftist as outlandish, inegalitarian, and backward, while the rightist finds them attractive and at least more stable meaningful than the emptiness of modernity.
Equality therefore, is a core difference between right and left and in many ways can be seen as a foundational difference from which many other differences flow.
2. Historical Progress
The leftist tends to interpret history as an improving progression. Every epoch that replaces the prior is in almost every way a bettering of the social framework. As time continues on social frameworks tend to improve and the idea of civilizational decline is only accurate to the extent that one age passes away as its improved replacement comes to fruition.
For the rightist, progress is not inevitable and there is important nuance in judging the possibility of progress. The right can recognize components of improvement, but always considers what was lost in transition. For the rightist, progress itself is often overstated, mischaracterized, or presumed yet never proven. Perhaps more important than whether progress defines the history of the ages is what progress would even look like. Much of what the left points to as progress (universal suffrage, mass democracy, a flattening of social authority, the general contempt of aristocratic and bourgeois norms), are to the rightist generally uninteresting, or at least unconvincing.
For the rightist, the problem is that the west is so obsessed with revolution and the necessity of progress that we always jump to the conclusion that older models of socio-political structures are necessarily worse than their revolutionary replacements. And thus, when we read in moments in history when the standing order was undermined and torn to shreds, it is an opportunity to raise our fists in solidarity. The Thesis of Progress guides our reaction and we are predisposed to seeing revolutions as merely misguided, never thinking of the reality that existed in the standing order; we prefer to interpret events from the lens of the revolution rather than any other, perhaps more restrained and balanced, angle.
I have elaborated on this theme in my discussion of the rise of egalitarian social democracy in the west and how the left generally interprets the shifting social structure toward mass democracy as a positive development because it replaced the hierarchical “authoritarianism” of old. The right interprets these things as a civilizational decline. Mass democracy is only seen as progress by the leftist because of his predilection for equality, as mentioned above. But if equality as a universal good is to be discounted, as the right does, then perhaps mass democracy and the tearing down of the Old Regimes requires more nuanced judgement. In any case, progress is neither guaranteed nor obvious for the rightist.
3. Universalism vs. Plurality
The leftist mindset has very much an internationalist bent; whatever he is specifically interested in (whether it be religion or democracy or gun rights or woman’s suffrage) must be proclaimed and spread throughout the entire world. The very idea of national or more local borders is a bit of an obstacle to the expansion of his goals and objectives across the globe. Without venturing too much into what will be done in part two, one can see this in certain libertarian circles where the US Constitution was handed out to people in Iraq as an encouragement in their presumed interest of liberating themselves according to the western democratic model. Additionally, perhaps more obvious, is the so-called neoconservative proclamation that democracy as a universal ideal should be spread throughout the world, using force on behalf of the people for whom the US army was to be a sort of messiah character. This is only one way in which neoconservatives are profoundly leftist in their approach to the world.
The right does not find much value in expending energy toward “changing the world.” Rather, they believe that the world can operate just fine under conditions of a “realist” approach wherein smaller social units operate at variance with one another, relating to each other in friendly ways, but not seeking to import ideas and ideals foreign to other peoples. In this way, rightism emphasizes a sort of overarching plurality wherein distinct cultures and societies can coexist peacefully and without idealist declarations of Change that they seek to impose on those who do things differently. Importantly, this is not just a statement of relations between nations, but also more fundamentally at more local levels as well. The idea, especially in the context of the United States, of a “national issue” is a bit troublesome; after all, the United States is filled with people completely at odds with each other, having almost nothing in common from religion to culture to art to social norms to family hierarchies and beyond.
The leftist dreams of a world of one great and universal society, of multiculturalism and a melting pot of the cultures of old, where we can all come together as one people, with one creed, all living happily without the various distinctions that made up yesterday’s stratified world. The right, on the other hand, doesn’t approach the world in this way and doesn’t speak in terms of universal groups. They rather recognize that many of the differences between cultures and social values and traditions cannot be willed or dreamed away. Therefore, just as there is a natural tendency to associate personally with like-minded people, so societies develop accordingly and there will always be distinctions between social units.
It is important that we emphasize the descriptive nature of rightism on this issue, as it would be wrong to characterize rightism as the left so often wants to: as preferring the forced arrangement of a segregated society or perhaps even a consciously segregated society. The rightist doesn’t think in this way; he is not an idealist that presents his vision of society (it is here, among several other places, that I sense and would emphasize a difference between the so-called alt-right of Richard Spencer/Chase Rachels and traditionalist conservatism, and would distance myself strongly from the former). The rightist merely is just not bothered by the existence of differences and distinctions between cultures and believes that they can coexist in the world without needing either uniformity, nor a full multicultural blending as some obvious ideal.
But in any case, it doesn’t make sense to the rightist to focus efforts on changing the world, on making the world a better place, or exporting the values of his smaller society to places foreign to the context of smaller social units. And not only is universalism at odds with the rightist’s mood, he sees no obvious reason why he should import cultures to mix in and rearrange the way things are in his locality. He generally has no problem with other places doing other things, but there is no obvious charm in a universal society that glosses over and blurs the traditions and norms of different cultural groups.
It is important to clarify that the rightist often finds delight in the way other (though not all) cultures do things but is aghast at the leftist suggestion that all the world should be one melting pot culture, without differences and separations. The rightists is fascinated by the way Russians do Russian things, English do English things, and Germans do German things… the leftist mood was captured so well by Marx when he declared that workers must come together in unity to oppose the capitalists classes everywhere (“you have nothing to lose but your chains!”); that our connections with each other are on the basis of class, not nationalities and customs.
4. Social Continuity
Society for the rightist is a natural phenomena that must evolve naturally and slowly. Under normal conditions, we are connected to the past in many ways and we learn from those who came before us. Valuable lessons can be forgotten and rediscovered, we can improve on the mistakes of those that came before us, but just as often we can fail to heed their advice and slip away. The past is not something that we should judge as if those who before us are on trial. There is a certain delight and charm and practical use from studying the development of our roots and a continuity that is healthy between the past and the future and those who are presently alive are responsible for acting as a conduit between the generations.
Therefore, this naturally evolving society is fragile and any social upheaval, revolution, or social mood swing toward disturbance and disorder does damage to the succession of social continuity. While often perceived as completely opposing change, the right embraces change so long as it is not forceful or disrupting but rather is natural, restrained, and with respect to the integrity of the past. Much of what has constituted “change” in the modern world has been the result of war, revolution, the legislature, politicized judicial bodies, or state-backed educational efforts. None of these are natural, or even “social” in a meaningful sense, and thus the rightist completely rejects the accusation that he opposes change by opposing such top-down social engineering.
The leftist mindset, however, is much more revolutionary; the pursuit of the ideals must be given emphasis and social disruption is a tool to be leveraged in favor of the world that ought to be. The ideals of the Revolution (in a general sense), therefore, are most important and society must learn to adapt to the pursuit of the ideals. The world must be made anew each generation and normalcy makes men lazy, sloth, and dispassionate about the state of affairs for which mankind ought to strive. Social development therefore depends on upheaval and the history of the modern world is characterized by the struggle against the existing order.
In this light, the leftist mindset tends to judge the past and eradicate reminders of its deviation from the present understanding of ideals. There is little to learn from the past, as the present social mindset encapsulates any necessary progress in sort of a “Whig Theory” of our keeping the best elements from the past and losing sight of the rest. For instance, if racism is a great social problem that characterizes our western society, then statues to people who were slaveholders might be torn down; slaveholders should be erased out of the history books; the descendants of slaveholders owe a debt, both social and financial, to the descendants of slaves. In one fell swoop and on the question of the usefulness of history, they ignore Ludwig von Mises’ wise words:
nothing is more useless than complaining over errors that can no longer be rectified, nothing more vain than regret. Neither as judges allotting praise and blame nor as avengers seeking out the guilty should we face the past. We seek truth, not guilt; we want to know how things came about to understand them, not to issue condemnations. Whoever approaches history the way a prosecutor approaches the documents of a criminal case—to find material for indictments—had better stay away from it. It is not the task of history to gratify the need of the masses for heroes and scapegoats.
For the rightist, there seems to be a certain elegance of the past, a certain beauty and grace that is worth remembering and passing on. Contrary to the leftist who sees only oppression, sexism, and, of course, anti-egalitarianism in the social arrangements of times past, the rightist can find a certain aesthetic pleasure in what once was, despite having almost completely adapted socially to the informalities of the modern age. The rightist finds hope and inspiration in the past, and uses it as a compass and guide; the leftist sees in the past a reminder of what was overcome and a fuel to continue in angst toward the fulfillment of his idealist visions.
Perhaps, in our age overrun with upheaval and continuous outrage, a reminder of rightism’s mood can be found in the 1920 campaign demeanor of Warren Harding:
“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”
5. Freedom and Virtue
Note: When I first put this post together, I had formulated this section in a way that was dissatisfactory to my further reflection. I had emphasized religion and transcendent ethics, and yet this did not get at the heart of the difference in mood between left and right and did not account for religious leftists in a broad sense.
The meaning of freedom here must be interpreted with nuance and care. We are not speaking of a rational liberty in the legal-libertarian sense as a scenario without coercion (the legal definition of liberty), rather, we are talking about freedom in a broad sense that is in dispute between the classical divide between right and left. It is important that I emphasize this point: we are not talking about legal-political freedom (the legal right to do something; that is, the criminality of using coercion to prevent other people’s activities– this legal freedom is a separate issue).
For the leftist demeanor, a sign of social improvement is when men consciously seek to set themselves free from the psychological, spiritual, and traditional-social binds that restrict their free expression. The very idea of society informed by traditional norms, habits, and customs puts the leftist at unease. Thus, the leftist despises when society “judges” his behavior or looks down on certain activities of expression. The leftist spirit enjoys and takes delight in the challenging of more conservative conventions and mannerisms. He seeks to liberate himself of what he considers the burdens of yesterday’s social restraints.
Moreover, he considers disapproval and concern about his desires and habits as necessarily oppressive and domineering. Thus, we have movements in our time such as LGBT Pride which the leftist mood treats as a moment of liberation and overcoming the social status quo. It is not the particular activity or lifestyle itself that is at topic here, but more the mood of challenging norms that constitutes a leftist outlook and posturing. The leftist dismisses the biases and bigotries of the older world and sets forth a vision of individualistic expression as a good in and of itself.
It is helpful to formulate the leftist’s social freedom in the words of Roger Scruton (Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands):
[Freedom] means emancipation from the structures; from the institutions, customs, conventions that shaped the bourgeois order, and which established a shared system of norms and values at the heart of Western society. […] they regard liberty as a form of release from social constraints.
The rightist, of course, is here at a core fundamental of historical rightism: his demeanor is one of restraint and hesitancy toward the idea of freedom and liberation from social norms. The rightist is first and foremost consciously “anti-leftist.” For the rightist, this distorted idea of freedom is antisocial and the cause of social strife and disharmony. The rightist emphasizes the idea of continuity of virtue; there has developed over time (centuries) a sense of rightful acting, while customs and norms support and promote these virtues. Founded in the natural development of social behavior, one’s posturing is not toward undermining the traditional, but presuming its wisdom and helpfulness.
Thus, for the rightist, freedom from the naturally developed social institutions and norms (not to be confused with the state itself, which we are leaving out for this discussion) is itself not something that is obviously worth praising and pursued. Thus, the rightist tends to be bothered and distrustful of shocking displays of what older generations considered to be distasteful, grotesque, and deranged. Issues like gay marriage and abortion therefore are not opposed because of a sense of hatred against women and homosexuals (as the left characterizes the right), but because they stand in opposition to activities which necessarily challenge traditional and natural understandings of morality and virtuous behavior. That which is ethical and good and prudent is not determined by the will of the individual mind, but by something outside the individual and his immediate desire/context.
The theory of individualism in responsibility, agency, human action (praxeology), and spiritual status (all which are consistent with rightism), must never be confused with individualism in reference to the determination of goodness/moral standard or opposition to society and its norms.
About the author
C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Austro Libertarian. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and others. He owns several consulting business and actively works on the magazine, for Tom Woods, and lives in Northern CA.