home political and economic essays Political Totemism and the Danger of Metaphors, Part 1

Political Totemism and the Danger of Metaphors

by David Brin, Ph.D.

It helps at this point to make one straightforward and yet startling observation — that neither left nor right have monopolies on fanaticism or terror. The center, too, can go mad. Populist demagogues can lead a nation into insanity quite independent of radical economics.

Political Totemism and the Danger of Metaphors

models, maps and visions of tomorrow

Ever notice how sometimes a vehement argument can rage for hours, only to have the parties find out they were in agreement all along? Small differences in nomenclature — in definitions or logic — can make apparent bitter foes out of folk who might have been natural allies. One reason for this recurring and sometimes tragic irony is the way we take to labels.

If, say, one person claims to be a Democrat, a self-identified Republican is likely to hear that person's statements through a filter of preconceptions — What are Democrats like? — or — How should a good Republican react? Often, we hear exactly what we expected to hear, whether or not that was what the other person really meant. Thus we make strawmen of others, and deny ourselves the wisdom of complexity.

It has been proposed that human beings are unique in being pattern-recognizing animals. I would rephrase this. Humans are creatures who crave patterns. The same drive that lets us see animal shapes in clouds, and discern underlying laws amid the chaos of physics, also enables us to stereotype each other, painting over intricate issues in stark shades of perceived good and evil.

Subjectivity causes each of us, from time to time, to think — My opinions are reasonable and well thought out reactions to the world as it is. But, of course, my opponents have no rational basis for their positions. Rather, they are enslaved to illogical points of view, subject to the winds of emotion, or trapped behind the blinkers of narrow self interest. When pressed, most people will admit that their opponents must feel the same way in reverse. Only, of course, "they" are wrong!

The irony is that most of the opinions we pronounce with such gravity aren't really our own. To a regrettably large extent, they are all too often the pre-digested, passed around, agreed-upon totems of whatever sub-tribe we have joined — phrases and slogans we picked up and adopted from others who happen to be on "our side."

(To explore your own independent-mindedness, try taking "An Informal Questionnaire Regarding Certain 'Fundamental Questions' of Politics, Ideology and Human Destiny.")

This article, while purportedly about political philosophy, is actually about laziness... the way we frequently let ourselves accept other peoples' metaphors — their models of the world — without stopping to think or ask, "Hey, what are we talking about?"

Such laziness is comforting of course. It's pleasant and reassuring to identify one's self with a group, to share their mantras, and feel virtuous in a sense of common rightness. A shared indignation against both the dullard masses and nefarious authorities. But it is hardly the way that adults go about seeking solutions to the world's problems.

Worst of all are the ground rules we all seem to take for granted. Let's start by taking as an example one of the most venerable of all hoary icons — one accepted almost without question by people of nearly every political persuasion — and one that is demonstrably absurd.


the one dimensional political spectrum

The Left-Right model of modern politics has reigned long and unchallenged. Despite the fact that the paradigm is ill-defined and impossibly contradictory, people continue aligning themselves along a single, narrow line from the so-called "far left" to the so-called "far right."

In fact, this layout had its origins long before the birth of Bolshevism. It began in Paris, during the chaotic National Assembly of the French Revolution. Since then, this murky metaphor has been applied to everyone from Karl Marx to Adam Smith, from Mao to Reagan to LePen, yet I have never seen anyone give a decent definition of these axes, one which can be boiled down to a few clear, distinctive sentences. Indeed, consider yourself dared. Gather ten of your friends. All of you take three minutes to write down a definition of "left vs. right." Compare the results. Was there any overlap? At all?

To paraphrase a famous physicist — Nobody truly understands a concept unless he or she can explain its esthetic essence, simply and briefly, to a nine year old. If that test works in the arcane, convoluted realm of black holes and spacetime, it ought to stand as well in the world of politics.

Just what do news reporters mean when they speak of "right wing Shiite militias"? Or when they refer to Putin's opponents alternately as "reformist leftists" and the conservative (ex-communist) "right wing"? Mostly, it is space-filling jabber, meant to gloss over the fact that the old model doesn't work, and never has.

But let's take a close look at it. Consider, for instance, what strange bedfellows it creates.

The Classical One-Dimensional Political Model

In the days of the French Assembly, there might have been simplicity and some elegance to this metaphor of a one-dimensional political landscape. In 1789 the "far right" represented those wanting to preserve elements of an old order of inherited privilege. On the left were those sharing one key theme — tearing the old system down in order to liberate people... or "the People"... back when early enlightenment thinkers imagined these concepts were the same.

But what does left-right axis mean today? How does it apply to today's complex antagonisms?

In Figure One we have placed just a few names and groups in niches widely-accepted by the press. And indeed, we do see a few old-fashioned aristocrats on the right, and some on the left who stand for hatred of moneyed classes. But who are those others grouped with them? Anti-state anarchists are lumped on the left with dictators like Stalin, although they share virtually no beliefs or behaviors. Nazis and Libertarians and fundamentalist Christians would seem to have very little in common with each other, let alone with classical aristocrats, yet they are all called "right-wingers." And what, exactly, does one do with Lyndon LaRouche and Manuel Noriega, who have been called far-left and far-right?

Is this a useful model? Does it tell us anything at all?

Of course any political model is bound to have weaknesses. Models are, after all, only metaphors for the world — ways to help organize our thoughts. We require a shorthand in discussing human societies and their problems, otherwise the exceptions and complexities would mire us down and we'd get nowhere at all.

Agreed. One ought to make allowances... except for two big problems.

FIRST: A lot of people do make the mistake of confusing the map for the territory. To them, a metaphor they believe in is as good as True. Gloss over too many complexities in your model, and soon the very notion of exceptions will be forgotten.

SECOND: A metaphor should at least represent a useful model of the world! Even allowing for oversimplification, the pattern ought to hold approximately. It should not clump together, as logical allies, political groups and individuals who are enemies in the real world, without any program, agenda or values in common.

A useful political metaphor should show how far apart different classes of political animal really are. And it should be definable in simple words.


two dimensional models

One problem may be the fact that we have been operating in only one dimension. Let's see if, by using careful definitions, we can improve matters by adding a second dimension to the landscape.

Several attempts have been made to do this. For instance, the well-known science fiction author, Jerry Pournelle, proposed a mapping in which the horizontal axis would stand for how strongly a person holds that human affairs are subject to rational control. Along Pournelle's vertical axis he lays out those who believe (or don't believe) in intervention by the State. This has much in common with another planar model proposed by Gregory Benford.

One problem with most such models — like the "Nolan Chart" often handed out at Libertarian gatherings — is that the two axes all too often overlap, meaning that there will be a tendency for persons traveling along one coordinate to automatically travel along the other. In other words, using the terminology of science, the variables are neither independent nor orthogonal.

Also, most two dimensional exercises prove not to be very illuminating, still lumping together groups who obviously despise each other. Or who only get along because they accept the metaphor.

And finally, many of these mental calisthenics have been created with a specific political message in mind. In other words, they suffer from tendentiousness, a gross logical sin that occurs when the arguer claims to be seeking a neutral process, but is driven all along to reach a foregone conclusion.

Bearing in mind all of these traps, I will dare to propose a new two dimensional scheme, emphasizing the caveat that this is just a metaphor. I offer it primarily to illustrate a point or two about the pitfalls of models, though I do believe it avoids these pitfalls better than most.

(Want to try a test? Would most of the people who get charted actually AGREE with where they wind up being placed? A chart that is not tendentious or biased should be functionally neutral enough that everyone from Stalin to anarchists would admit — "yeah, I guess that reflects my views pretty well. That's where I belong.")

In my two dimensional political landscape there is still left versus right. Only now we shall do something unprecedented and actually define our terms. Taking only one of the many and often contradictory attributes commonly associated with the old linear model, let's assign the horizontal axis the task of depicting a person's attitude towards personal property. In other words, the far left is where we'll assign people who consider personal property a suspect, if not an inherently evil notion. The further to the right you go, the more property-holding is seen as innate and irrevocable, one of the fundamental rights of man.

Along our second (vertical) axis we shall then array various opinions regarding State or Private coercion, or the desirability of some authority with the might to impose its will (perhaps for the "common good") upon recalcitrant individuals or competing systems.

Figure Two: A Two-Dimensional Political Landscape

One advantage of Figure Two over the old linear model, is apparent at a glance. It separates natural foes who should never have been lumped together in the first place.

Stalin believed nobody should own anything, but that he could and should feel free to torture his opponents to death. Therefore, he is placed in the upper left corner as both coercive and anti-property. Ferdinand Marcos, Anastasio Somoza and Saddam Hussein, on the other hand, ran their nations as personal fiefdoms, enforcing programs of inherited family wealth and power to benefit their oligarchic supporters. They were classic coercive aristocrats of the kind that dominated nearly all human cultures since agriculture and metallurgy came along, feudalists who believed they could by right both torture and own people. That puts them at the upper right.


(Want to learn a magic trick? How to make most dogmatic libertarians turn purple? Show them what we've drawn so far, and ask — WHICH type of coercive repressor destroyed freedom and markets in most cultures, across 4,000 years of recorded history? Taken across that span, it has been propertarian wealth-accumulating aristocracies that were the market-repressors, 99% of the time! True, we grew up terrified by anti-propertarian (socialist) tyrants, like Stalin. But these were, in fact, a recent invention. A mutation of the older, more pervasive pattern of owner-aristocrats. But, having thrown that idea-grenade, let's get back to model-making.)


Let's look at a few other examples. For example, Hitler's position in the top center in no way makes him "moderate." This chart simply portrays the syndicalist economic program the National Socialist Worker's Party (Nazis) imposed upon both labor and factory owners, soon after it killed off all opponents and confiscated the goods of non-Aryans. Their rule was one of unparalleled horror, but Nazi opinion about personal property was indisputably far more centrist (with syndical-socialist elements) than old-line Marxists would have us believe.

This at once illuminates a lesson which the old model conveniently disguised, and yet one of vital importance to us all — that the center, too, can go mad.


Communists perpetually repeat the assertion that Nazism grew out of the political right wing. The notion has been repeated so often that it is taken as gospel, even by fierce opponents of communism, though it lets Marxists portray themselves as polar opposites to the accepted principle figure of evil in this century, Adolf Hitler.

In fact, both Hitler and Lenin called on the German philosopher, Hegel, as the father of their dialectical systems of ideology. Following in the grand tradition of Plato, both downplayed accountability and instead placed absolute state authority and central planning over the human individual. And if you ask, political historians will tell you that Nazism was not a madness of the far right, but one of the center. Nazi leaders claimed that they were the sole defense of the common people against the contrivances of both the "Bolsheviks of the east" and the "capitalist plutocrats of the west." That Hitler's was a populist revolution is demonstrated in scholarly studies of the period, and by considering the principal source of his support. Landowning small farmers and the petite bourgeoisie provided the core of his following. These are not constituents of any left or right that I know.

It helps at this point to make one straightforward and yet startling observation — that neither left nor right have monopolies on fanaticism or terror. The center, too, can go mad. Populist demagogues can lead a nation into insanity quite independent of radical economics.


The concept of populist madness is an especially important one for Americans. Our Jeffersonian traditions seem to protect us against being suborned by the radicalisms of the far left or right, since our myths teach us to despise aristocrats, while even the most average middle American has only contempt for "the masses" (who are quite distinct from "the people"). (I wrote this paragraph before the recent — circa 2006 — neoconservative movement began pushing so hard for a full-fledged return to aristocratism, supported by more Americans than I ever would have thought possible.)

Populism, on the other hand, is in our blood. From the Know-Nothings to the Klan, there have been many examples in our history of groups going paranoid straight up the middle. As Huey Long once put it — "If Americans ever go for any 'ism,' we'll call it Americanism."

Figure Two leads to interesting speculations. Included with Hitler at top center should be others who believe in coercion, but with neutral or ambivalent opinions about property. Would some of our fundamentalist preacher-politicians belong a bit lower and to the right than Nazis? (They preach authority, and sanctity of property.) Perhaps some of the radical Islamic mullahs fit a smidgen lower and to Hitler's left. Where would one put someone like Huey Long, though? Roosevelt's great foe of the 1930s apparently belongs at the top center-left, yet we must admit that he should not be lumped with Adolf. Obviously, by its own criteria, the model needs something else to help discriminate among these various believers in power.

Arrayed along the bottom of this chart, the various forms of anarchism are now clearly recognized as cousins. They share an aversion to authority which is a common mythic theme in the West, from Robin Hood and Davy Crockett to Clint Eastwood and Eddie Murphy. Everyone who hates bureaucracy and pompous officialdom hankers to drift downward on the chart in Figure Two.


For this reason you don't just up and ask somebody, "Do you like coercion and centralized authority?" If the question is put that way, naturally, few will reply affirmative. Far more effective is to ask the other person to fantasize. "What would you do if someone made you king?" "What would be your program and what would you do if someone opposed you?" The details of a person's agenda may be less significant or telling than the relative ferocity or single-mindedness they portray themselves imposing it... all for a "good cause," of course. Some who would picture themselves in the lower half of Figure Two might be surprised where on that chart others would place them! It's good that few of us ever get tested by a chance to accept or turn down the role of tyrant.


Consider this: Who, on Figure Two, are the ones most likely to sit down over a few beers together, and argue amiably without drawing knives? It's interesting to note that libertarians and anarchists frequently get along, even become good friends, although neither would last long in the company of Stalin, Marcos, or Hitler. Meanwhile, Panamanian "strongman" Manuel Noriega, characterized for years as a "right winger," later appeared to be best friends with Fidel Castro, while Stalin trusted Hitler as no one else, right up to the eve of invasion... and Saddam Hussein admired both. Nor is this ideology-blind crony relationship of coercionists merely a matter of history. An article by Martin Lee, in May 1987 Mother Jones, described new radical alliances forming in Europe, linking leftist and neo-fascist groups such as Armed Revolutionary Nuclei (NAR) with slogans such as "Hitler & Mao united in struggle."

Clearly, left and right mean very little, when it comes to whom you'll share a six pack with. Your attitude toward violent power is a much stronger predictor of your friends.

This exercise can be taken further. (Indeed, the uncomfortable proximity of Long and Hitler demonstrates that the model is still too simple, by far.) What might be done to add descriptive power to our metaphor?

Well, one could add a third axis, constructing a three-dimensional political solar system. Again, that third axis should satisfy the orthogonality requirement (independence from the other two)! And it ought to help us separate those who do not belong grouped together, illuminating the conflicts and disagreements between opposing political theses.


third political axis?

Here are some candidate criteria for a third axis. First let's try asking —

What explains the observed differences among human beings in ability, temperament and achievement? Is it genes or the environment?

Few issues are of greater importance in modern debates over what to do about this world of ours. Many shrill arguments arise out of this matter of nature vs. nurture, usually driven by passionate belief, rather than evidence, even when the deeper issue itself is never raised aloud.

Imagine a "Z-Axis" sticking out of Figure Two, perpendicular to the other pair, with our cast of characters now strung in and out of the page according to whether they believe genes or learning control what we become.

Stalin remains in the upper left corner, as before. But he also projects out from the page many inches, for he was just as fanatic a believer environmental determinism as he was in coercion, or the elimination of personal property rights. (Look into his rabid support of "Lysenkoism.") This meant that he would kill you as a political opponent, but spare your children so long as he thought them young enough for re-education. Like Big Brother, he believes utterly in thought control.

Hitler, the racist genocide, descends inward an equal distance below the paper, because of his tenet that racial inheritance is crucial. He will not only kill you, but hunt down your kids and every relative. On the other hand, a good Aryan can collect decadent art if he wants, because genetic superiority trumps environmental pollution.

That candidate third axis seemed to separate and illuminate, as we wished it to. And the coordinates have no overlap, preserving orthogonality...

...though it's true that our modern moral concepts assign greater value to "nurture" for the sake of basic justice. This is not just political correctness, since the "right" claims not to believe in inherent and obligate determinism, any more than the "left" does. Rather, we seem to have risen out of the chart a bit, as a matter of civilization consensus.


Are there more candidates for a third axis? Another possibility might arise by asking "Do you believe in the improvability of humankind?" I leave it as an exercise for the reader to see where famous people would be arrayed by that criterion.

This is where members of the Pragmatic Modernist Enlightenment turn radical, of course. Their entire agenda is about human and social improvability, even if they are eclectic about issues like property.

The following query also tends to sort people out a bit. "Do you believe there was a past golden age from which we've declined, or is that golden age to be found in the future, as our society evolves and matures? Or is the mere idea of a golden age idealistic claptrap?"

(Note: Once again, see "An Informal Questionnaire Regarding Certain 'Fundamental Questions' of Politics, Ideology and Human Destiny." Also relevant: see "J.R.R. Tolkien and the Modern Age.")

We'll talk again about some of these questions, especially the last one, later (in this series).

Let me emphasize that the important thing about this exercise was not pushing a particular map of political stereotypes. Rather, it was meant to show how bad the old left versus right scenario has been for clear-thinking. And — yes — some of the "alternatives" that have been bandied about lately. Homo politicus loves designing patterns to put people into, and the tendency can be useful, at times. But far more often, stereotypes cripple communication. They set into furious opposition people who may actually have, deep down, much more to agree about than disagree.

Alternatively, they often force into uneasy alliance individuals whose deep agendas are mutually anathema.

In order to break stereotypes, one must try not to play the usual game. It is all too easy to succumb to temptation and accept the totems and standard slogans bandied all around us. But it is likely to be far more instructive to inquire into basics, avoiding "them vs. us" arguments.

Ask yourself this — what is your objective in an argument, to shout a lot? Or to persuade? The latter is better achieved by finding out what you already have in common with the other person, and edging them gradually from there. The only problem with the more mature approach is that it's much more fun to demonize your opponents, and feel self-righteously virtuous. Self-righteousness may be an auto-induced drug more powerful than heroin. (For more on this, see "Addicted to Self-Righteousness?.")

I suggest that one may, by asking simple questions like those above, get a far better handle on another person's views than by demanding, "Are you on the right or on the left?"

Next... how do we chart a path ahead — and to which future?


Political Totemism and the Danger of Metaphors

about this article

Copyright © 2006, 2017 by David Brin. All rights reserved.


"Political Totemism and the Danger of Metaphors" was originally posted on the Libertarian Reform Caucus (LRC) web site in 2006. It is published in four parts here.

Part One, while purportedly about political philosophy, is actually about laziness... the way we frequently let ourselves accept other peoples' metaphors — their models of the world — without stopping to think or ask, "Hey, what are we talking about?"

In Part Two, Brin makes the case that incremental improvement in a context of general individualism may be part of a long process of transformation that was first envisioned by John Locke.

In Part Three he asks — is present-day American society the monstrosity that Americans of all political persuasions seem to believe it has become?

In Part Four Brin notes that every one of humanity's brief experiments with free market systems withered soon after flowering. Few were permanently ruined by proletarian or peasant uprisings. A great many, on the other hand, were destroyed by another nemesis of free enterprise... aristocratism.


articles, films & books cited here

Andrei Amalrik, "Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?" part 1 and part 2

David Brin, "Addicted to Self-Righteousness?"

David Brin, "An Informal Questionnaire Regarding Certain 'Fundamental Questions' of Politics, Ideology and Human Destiny"

David Brin, "J.R.R. Tolkien and the Modern Age"

David Brin, "The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism"

Robert Heinlein, Coventry (in Revolt in 2100 & Methuselah's Children)

Jean François Revel, Without Marx or Jesus: The new American Revolution has begun (book)

Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (book)


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