Capitalism and the right

There is a huge mistake, a blatant falsehood, that is sincerely believed on both the right and the left, and it leads to all sorts of consequent analyses and conclusions that are profoundly misleading. What is this untruth?

Unbelievable numbers of people, including people who are otherwise very intelligent and well-informed, think that capitalism is essential to the ideological right, and that opposition to capitalism is exclusively the province of the ideological left. This is just not true. It’s deeply mistaken to see things this way.

You can see this exemplified on the right by the insistence that Hitler and his movement were socialist. Contrary to the memes of the left, this is not simply a matter of the right being ignorant of history and reading too much into the name of the party. Rather, those on the right who say this will look at Nazism and see a big, powerful state that directs and limits the economy according to the goals of the state, and they think the problem with the Nazis is precisely that they are too far to the left, are insufficiently capitalistic and libertarian, and therefore that Nazism is not so much opposed to communism but is just one more example of what happens when a leftist approach to the state and the economy goes too far. If you assume that the right is defined by capitalism, then this is actually an understandable position to hold.

On the left, this same mistake is exemplified by the claim that fascism is precisely capitalism run amok, is the secret motives and mechanisms of capitalism displayed out in the open for all to see. This is based on a similar line of reasoning, which says that since we know capitalism is essential to the right, and since we know that fascism is about as far to the right as it is possible to go on the ideological spectrum, fascism must be the purest and clearest instance of the workings of capitalism. The problem is, as we saw in the previous paragraph, unless we start with a deeply idiosyncratic and amorphous definition of capitalism, fascism is a clear departure from capitalism, is in fact an explicit repudiation of the aims of unfettered capitalism. Indeed, the antisemitism that’s characteristic of so much of fascism is most often, even today, a dressed-up criticism of the globalist and materialistic assumptions tied to unfettered capitalism.

Capitalism is today often most loudly defended on the right, but that is newer, and it is certainly not universally true on the right. There are genuinely rightwing movements and ideologies that are opposed to capitalism from top to bottom, and this is as true today as it has been for centuries.

No, here is how the ideology of left and right should really be divided: The left is always, always comparatively and progressively egalitarian, and the right is always comparatively inegalitarian. Rather than the right being united around capitalism and the left resisting that capitalism, it is the left united around egalitarianism and the right resisting egalitarianism. It seems to me personally that there is much more actual diversity on the right than the left, an alliance of disparate kinds of hierarchical inegalitarianisms against the levelling egalitarianism of the left. This isn’t to deny that the right can sincerely embrace equalities of one sort or another to some extent (eg equality of opportunity, among some factions); I only mean to point out that they always place limitations on equality and egalitarian aspirations, and that it is precisely those limitations which separate them from the left.

The right today often represents the left as enacting an agenda that will lead to terrible authoritarian inequalities (of the sort seen historically in communist regimes), which might muddy the waters, by making it seem like the left is secretly anti-egalitarian or like the right is actually motivated by a more egalitarian agenda than the left, but this is not correct. In fact, this is an instance of the right engaging in tu quoque whataboutism, trying to pronounce the left deficient according to the left’s own ideological standard, not actually of the right opposing some comparatively egalitarian agenda of their own to the left’s inegalitarian one.

What counts as left or right changes as the years pass, which is to say the dividing line shifts (generally leftward, in “advanced economies,” but not exclusively). What separates one side of the line from the other is always relative attitudes about equality. Capitalism exists on both sides and the shifting line can move capitalism to be more on one side or the other. Anti-capitalist views exist on both sides of the ideological spectrum, even if, in the wake of the Cold War, we are today more habituated to associate capitalism with the right.

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