H ow can the GOP be advocating for getting rid of government while working feverishly to enhance the power of government for their own ends? Politics are filled with such contradictions. It is easy to dismiss them as irrational chaos. To frame political diversity in terms of the left and the right only captures a sliver of the landscape of power in this country. The confusion begins to clear if one takes a broader approach.
In this first episode on a series on American politics, I set the stage by examining the advent of modernity and the development of the two political wings. I then branch out beyond the left/right perspective into the anarchist/statist expression of the political landscape. In the next installments, I will focus on the populists/establishment pole, then turn to the secular/religious and urban/rural spectrums.
Understanding these currents clears up much of the confusion. To say that politics are consequential is truly an understatement. It is more important than ever to have a sense of just what is going on.
Part 1: The Wings
To understand the America political diversity of the moment, we should begin with a brief look to the origins of modernity. The terms left/right arose after the French Revolution, a split among those willing to embrace new ways and those who clung to the old. Europe was at the early stages of a radical, modern transformation, propelled by capitalism and merged with racial hierarchies and colonial expansion. The left oriented itself toward social and political progress, whereas the right sought to maintain the traditions of the past, including the old hierarchies of religion and patriarchy.
That pattern has persisted across time but politics go far beyond a left/right dynamic. Politics are primarily about the flow and expression of power across society. The government and state are always up front and center in this discussion but they are not the only loci of power. A state is a legal and geographic entity defined by a code of laws and bounded by a border. Government is the institution(s) that manage the state. What makes it so distinct is that government has a monopoly on overt coercive power.
With the exception of totalitarian states, however, coercive power is not the primary way that people are governed in the modern world. Nation-states are created through a set of public, private, and civic institutions that work together to shape the nature of power and control over people. This has two purposes, to make societies function better and to serve the interests of elites. The left/right split reflects these two functions.
And then there was capitalism
Most people give credit to science for modern transformation, but it was capitalism that organized it and made it possible. Capitalism’s main effect has been to alter the nature of work and set the stage for a deluge of rural to urban migration still sweeping the world today. At the time of the French revolution 95% of all humans worked as farmers and lived in rural areas. Today about 25% of humans still farm and 44% are rural. In the most advanced, capitalist economies those number are about 2% and 10% respectively. With this change, society became far more complex and so did politics.
Capitalism changed society not simply by replacing the old elites with new ones. More fundamentally, it redefined the very nature of labor through deskilling, automation, new forms of management and new relations of production. Artisans were swept away by factories that made the manufacturing process far more efficient by combining machines with the unskilled. By the early 20th century, capitalist regions were comprised of tiny and fabulously wealthy ruling elites, small middle classes, and a vast sea of largely unskilled workers coming from the countryside.
The extreme level of human oppression engendered by capitalist transformation is long-forgotten in the mind of the white middle classes of developed nation. But this history must not be ignored as it speaks to the potential calamity of returning to unfettered capitalism, which has been the recent course both globally and domestically. Our politics today can be understood as a reflection of this shift.
The core of the modern left, anarchism, socialism, progressivism and so forth, arose from resistance to capitalism. In the 19th century, this political economy eradicated communal, rural life and replaced it with a cruel and unforgiving urban subsistence. Wages settled just at the point that kept the working class alive to continue to work. People were forced to work brutal hours in brutal conditions and sickened by pollution. Eventually workers began to resist.
The new order, capitalism, sought to maintain and aligned itself with right conservatism by championing aspects of the old ways it could live with – religion and traditional culture. This strategy coalesced into an emerging set of ideologies that bound patriarchal, racist cultures with imperialism and nationalism. Populist right wing sentiments aligned in that direction and acted as a powerful check on the aspirations of workers to liberate themselves from capital wage slavery.
The greatest expression of right-wing populism was European fascism. The chaos that ensued — bombed out cities, tens of millions of dead, a holocaust — open the door for a new political landscape. The Great Depression and two World Wars combined with the century-long resistance moments on the left to shape a new reality, the advent of regulated capitalism and social democracy in the West.
In the US, the bounds were set by an established consensus that was informed both by the New Deal and the Cold War. The typical way people envisioned the political spectrum and political possibilities was through a narrow and discrete set of positions between the left and the right. This Post War consensus was a very circumscribed and ephemeral reality that is now coming to a close. We are relearning that politics is no longer a simple matter of right and left.
During the post war period, radicals towards the ends of the left/right spectrum were relegated to the sidelines. However, largely because of the Cold War, this was by no means a both-sides phenomenon. The hard left was associated with the enemy, the Soviets, and was systematically suppressed, whereas the hard right was largely ignored other than being socially shunned by the mainstream. It was not, however, shunned by the deep currents of power that run through capitalism. The hard right had far more resources and room to organize into a nationalistic, theocratic controlling power. This process began soon after the war and is now radically reshaping America through the same strategy used by European capitalists in previous eras.
Part 2: Spectrum of Control
The left/right spectrum of the post war always was a gross simplification of political diversity. Consider that libertarianism, conservatism, and fascism, while all on the right of the political spectrum, often disagree. On the other hand, Nazism and Stalinism are very similar in behavior even though they are considered on the opposite end of the left/right spectrum.
All nation-states rely on government and law but extreme state-centered ideologies, such as Nazism and Stalinism, demand total control – they are totalitarian – and that determines why they act in similar ways. The same totalitarian currents can be seen in this right-wing populist movement that has taken control of the GOP. The old right ideologies have been subsumed under this umbrella of control.
Despite all their claims of freedom, today’s Republican party is “statist” to the core. That rings odd, doesn’t it? It’s always the left that is accused of being “statist.” The narrative has worked brilliantly to obscure reality.
Government seems to dominate over the rest of the structures in any given society, but people ignore deeper currents of power that shape it. The way most people are controlled and managed is not through direct state coercion. It is done through the realm of ideas (narratives and propaganda), through institutions (governments, corporations, churches), and through cultural practices (religious adherence, leisure, etc.).
What is key here is that non-government actors with great resources who control people’s bodies and minds have the greatest power. Stepping through the door of your employer is to give yourself over to that power. Many of the rights under the constitution are null and void once through that door. We see this as normal. At the same time, those powers use the value their employees have given them to in turn reshape government to their will. We also consider that normal. Both are legal.
The modern left emerged with the rise of capitalism, but also includes the struggle against more ancient orders based on master/servant relationships, patriarchy, slavery, and religion. All of these hierarchies are ultimately about control of resources, of bodies, and of minds. Capitalism is no different except that its means of control are still legal, normalized and accepted. Ultimately, this is the real struggle — liberation from those who have such control, no matter how they got it.
Anarchy was once not considered to be synonymous with pandemonium or chaos; it was a political movement with a philosophy and a strategy. Anarchism was an early response to the rise of the capital world order. It was an organized resistance to the power I speak of. For that, it was wholly eradicated. Unlike statism (best expressed by fascism and Soviet socialism), anarchy as a philosophy has had virtually no expression in the 20th century. In fact, the very word anarchy evokes chaos and pandemonium.
Anarchy was not opposed to governance; it was opposed to coercive governance. What is key to understand here is that governance is not synonymous with government. Governance comes from any and all means to manage and regulate society. In the late 19th century, anarcho-syndicalists advocated for self-governed communities based on free associations and voluntary institutions. They were called soviets by some, although that term has radically changed meaning.
Left anarchism holds that without authority and rulers, altruism and cooperation can emerge and create greater freedom, happiness, and equality. Anarchists opposed both the state apparatus and capitalism and advocated for a cooperative and communal society. That feels to most of us as overly idealistic, but what is important here is that left anarchist philosophy, unlike US right libertarianism, understood the true nature of power — an imbalance of any kind opens the door to coercion and oppression.
A boss can take advantage of his unequal power relationship with a subordinate for sexual favors. The same dynamic applies at all scales of society for all forms of oppression. Power is the means to control, dominate. History shows that unequal power, without restraints (ethics, laws, institutional norms), leads to abuse. If checks and balances are stagnant as power rises, they become ineffective. The greater the inequality, the greater the potential for abuse.
What the anti-communist ideology of the Cold War has obscured is that anarchism was the centerpiece of socialist thought until the late 19th century. Its political agenda included Marxism, internationalism and collective based governance. A “soviet” was envisioned as a free association of people and workers, run by consensus or by democracy. At first this vision of soviets was supported and shared by Bolsheviks and anarchists. Not soon after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the face of socialism transitioned into totalitarian Soviet Stalinism, an altogether different reality.
Totalitarianism of one form or another reigned. The remaining anarchists vehemently opposed this development and the movement was suppressed everywhere, not only in capitalist states but also in socialist ones. The term anarchy disappeared from mainstream political discourse in the 20th century along with any left anarchist power. At best, leftist anarchist visions were seen as expressions of delusional utopian counter-culture.
Both US libertarianism and anarchism share a position on the far end of this spectrum. However, they are diametrically opposed in one other key way. 19th century anarchism was communal. In the US, property rights, gun rights and tax freedom merged to create a hyper individual form which defines the right-wing libertarian movement both within the Republican party and outside of it. It is a movement quite hostile to the notions of communitarianism, even social contract theory.
Moreover, unlike left anarchism, its focus is anti government, not anti power. American libertarianism has served an important role for maintaining the power of the corporate class. With the New Deal, government was no longer an exclusive tool of the upper classes and had become a check on capitalism. Attacking it served corporate interests.
By the end of the 20th century and rising dissatisfaction with conventional politics, the “anti-statist” libertarian narratives began to dominate right-wing discourse. Ronald Reagan won by painting the Democrats as the de facto statists because of their advocacy of the welfare state, regulations, and progressive taxes. Mainstream Republicanism preached small government through “free market” policies, which for the most part meant freedoms and benefits for corporations.
The right-wing alliance was not without issues. In practice, there was virtually no difference in the size of government between Democratic and Republican administrations. Though Republicans sold themselves as the limited government party, they worked to increase government by creating a larger military and police and by boosting corporate welfare.
The libertarian wing, dissatisfied with this reliance of government, began to assert more control within the GOP, spurred by victories like the second amendment issue. The fight over the ACA (Obama care) and the Republican repeal and replace plans illustrates this shift towards libertarianism on the right. The Republican “free market” health care plan was billed as an expression of limited government, but it would only shift the cost to the middle class and redistributes wealth upwards, and it did little to curb state power. The Freedom Caucus (the next iteration of the Tea Party) opposed the plan on the grounds it was a continuation of the statist agenda.
The Freedom Caucus appeared quite serious about eliminating “statism,” but that would not last. The modern Republican party, largely an alliance of social conservatives and corporate interests, has shifted towards a new reality. A more powerful force, right-wing populism has subsumed libertarian, anti-statist rhetoric into its agenda while acting in opposite ways. The goal of this new face of the GOP is not eradicating the state but taking it, broadening it, and using its full power to reshape society towards their ends.
To understand this contradiction also requires a look at the populist phenomenon as a different spectrum of power, which I will do in Part 3, the populist/establishment divide. Part 4 will examine the urban/rural dimension and Part 5 will close off with the secular/religious one. Stay tuned.