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Spectacles, but for Bad Guys | Insight

A new magazine seeks to build a coalition between left- and right-wing critics of liberalism. What explains their alliance?

The Briefing: A new “post-liberal” magazine.

  • It's called Compact
    • It calls for "a strong social-democratic state that defends community...against a libertine left and a libertarian right"
    • It hosts both leftists and conservatives seeking to "challenge the overclass that controls government, culture, and capital"
    • For a quick primer on the post-liberal right, check out a previous Insight from us here
  • Who's Involved?
    • The founding editors are two conservatives—Sohrab Ahmari and Matthew Schmitz—and one Marxist—Edwin Aponte
    • Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule are two right-wing contributors
    • The left flank includes Michael Tracey, Slavoj Žižek, and Glenn Greenwald
  • A taste of the content:
    • "Why We Need the Patriarchy," by Nina Power: a case that the collapsing distinctions between male and female are wreaking havoc on society
    • "The Revenge of History," by Malcolm Kyeyune: a broadside attack on a liberal order supposedly run by unelected managers in government, the boardroom, and the academy
    • "The Stupidity of Nature," by Žižek: an argument that technological progress has left humans dangerously unmoored from their grounding in nature

The Big Question: Why are leftists and rightists teaming up?

Before I try to answer this question, I want to note that—my own politics aside—the content that Compact has put out since it launched yesterday is rather underwhelming. To be sure, the articles are written to be polemical (provocative and argumentative rather than analytical), but they strike me primarily as rehashes of old, mostly conservative talking points. The familiar hits—destructive new gender orthodoxies, the erosion of human nature, the nefarious diversity and inclusion movement—are all front and center, with little else added to the mix. If the project was as interested in “getting to the root of things” as its founders say it is, they might try to coax more novel thoughts from their stable of writers.

That all aside, it’s fair to wonder why the post-liberal right, which embraces hierarchy (often informed by religious teachings), would seek an alliance with the Marxist left, which seeks the abolition of all forms of hierarchy and religion. The post-liberal right has indeed loudly advertised its break with “old-school” conservatism, but advocating trade nationalism and tax breaks for married couples is not the same thing as socialism.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that the leftists now associated with Compact are generally of an anti-“woke” stripe and as such probably unrepresentative of the majority of self-proclaimed socialists in the United States today. Edwin Aponte probably wouldn’t be greeted by a round of applause for starting Compact if he walked into a Democratic Socialists of America meeting. But his views are undoubtedly socialist, so the question remains: why the team up?

The Theory: Horseshoes and Molotov cocktails.

Let’s talk about Vladimir Lenin and horseshoe theory, in that order.

In 1917, weeks before the October Revolution, Lenin wrote a long pamphlet called The State and Revolution. In it, he explicates his own views—through interpretations of Marx—on, get this, the state and revolution. For Lenin, the state was a “special organization of force” that was necessarily an instrument of bourgeois rule, and the oppression of the masses. Once violently smashed by the revolutionary proletariat, Lenin argued that the state needed to become a dictatorship of that proletariat, run by a “vanguard” of qualified men like himself.

Lenin asserted that “democratism” was insufficient to dislodge the all-powerful bourgeoisie controlling the state. They would never concede their hegemony through electoral defeat. Meanwhile, he believed that the dictatorship of the proletariat would eventually dissolve itself and transition to a social organization in which politics was no longer even necessary. He rejected any time frame for this dissolution. Obviously, it never came.

Horseshoe theory, on the other hand, is the idea that the far left and far right of the political spectrum actually have more in common with one another than they do with the political center. It’s arguably overused— a knee-jerk response to even the most tenuous parallels between the strategies and goals of the left and the right. For that reason, it’s often criticized as intellectually unserious and not particularly rigorous. However, there may be something to it.

The Takeaway: How horseshoe theory works.

I’m not the first to link Lenin with the post-liberal right (I’m also not the first to link him with any left-wing faction, obviously), but there are interesting, if imperfect, parallels. As I argued in the aforementioned Insight, it doesn’t seem like there’s a massive popular constituency for what Sohrab Ahmari—who, I’m proud to say, blocks me on Twitter—and his buddies are selling. Bans on pornography and mandatory mass attendance on Sundays seem like a bit of a long shot, even within today’s Republican Party, which is more interested in prosecuting the culture wars.

If I’m onto something, then it’s not crazy to think of the academics and commentators that make up the post-liberal right as a kind of vanguard, a movement without a mass constituency that seeks to craft one by seizing the levers of political power.

Yes, the majority of self-described leftists would probably do just about anything before starting a magazine with religious conservatives. But there’s a certain type that is so repulsed by what they see as the degeneracy of liberal capitalism, so confident in the unbridgeable rift that exists between leftist aims and capitalist realities, so skeptical of what electoral democracy can deliver that an alliance with the post-liberal right is actually attractive.

This seems to look a lot like what horseshoe theory would predict, but the trouble with horseshoe theory is that it doesn’t help us understand why. Why are people ostensibly so far apart on the political spectrum really so close?

Here’s a thought—the farther you get toward the political fringes, the more zoomed-out your politics become. Think of people on the center-left and center-right. What do they argue about? Policy. They agree on fundamentals, but they disagree on details. People at the edges, fascists and communists, what do they argue about? Regime type, what kind of society is desirable.

If you’re far enough to either fringe, your politics are simply about opposition to the status quo, writ large. And, today, the status quo writ largest is liberal democracy.

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