Left is the New Right is the New Left
Marx’s concept of a class struggle has been so influential that people don’t realize that sometimes those revolutionary classes won, and became ruling classes. And then in turn fought the subsequent revolutionary classes.
In fact, they often did.
Understanding this is important if you want to build a startup society. Unless you are significantly differentiated from the establishment — unless you have a “10X value proposition”, as a venture capitalist would put it — you’re not going to attract citizens.
Social differentiation means being revolutionary in some sense. Not necessarily in the sense of the Paris Commune. But morally revolutionary in the sense of inverting some premise that society at large thinks is good, yet that you can show — through your meticulous study of history — is actually bad.75 That moral inversion is the moral innovation that’s the basis for a startup society, and it leads us ineluctably to left-vs-right.
Wait. Can’t we just do technology without politics, or use technology to escape politics? Unfortunately, no, because politics is about people who disagree with you. If you’re working with computers, or robots, or pure math, you don’t have politics. If you’re in a highly aligned society, you don’t have politics either. But to build such a highly aligned society from scratch, you need to think about politics.
Put another way, if the startup founders of the 2000s and 2010s had to level up beyond technology to learn business, the startup society founders of the 2020s need to add history and politics to their curriculum. Because a theory of left and right is necessary for nation formation.
Our theory begins by discussing the split between visions of moral and technological progress, the analogy between political and financial arbitrage, the market for revolutionaries of both the political activist and tech founder type, and the concept of startup societies as a way to reunify moral and technological progress.
Next we discuss left and right as real constructs, using the spatial theory of voting to obviate the objection that left and right don’t really exist, and qualifying our observation by noting these are point-in-time constructs.
Subsequently we discuss how left and right change over time, using examples from what we call the left, right, and libertarian cycles, in the context of both State-oriented political movements and more recent Network-centric tech startups.
Finally, we discuss several specific “flippenings” through history where winning teams changed ideological orientation upon victory, and give a thesis on what the next flippening will look like.
Before we get into left-vs-right, the concept of starting a new project with a moral rather than technological innovation will be unfamiliar to many tech founders. So let’s make it familiar.
First, we need to understand the surprising similarities between startup founders and political activists, between those focused on technological innovation and those interested in moral good. The turn-of-the-century progressives thought of these as the same thing: progress was both technological and moral progress. Public sanitation, for example, was both a technological innovation and a moral good (“cleanliness was next to godliness”).
More recently, technological and moral innovators have grown to be at odds, because the US establishment now regards its economic disruptors as enemies.76 As we’ll get to, the idea of funding presidents of startup societies around the world could reunify technological and moral progress. But what exactly do we mean by “moral progress”?
If you want to produce moral and not just technological progress, you’re going to have to introduce new moral premises that invert what people previously believed. So one man’s moral innovation is another man’s moral inversion. Here are some specific examples:
- smoking was acceptable, is now considered “bad”
- alcohol was “bad” during Prohibition, is now acceptable
- profit was “bad” under Communism, is now acceptable
- college was once considered merely acceptable, but in the postwar era became “good”
Some observations immediately come to mind.
- First, from this list, you should be able to generate many more examples (we avoided the very obvious ones). And you might realize that a significant fraction of today’s public conversation is devoted to debating whether X is morally good or bad, usually without stating it quite so bluntly.
- Second, a moral innovation need not flip something all the way from “good” to “bad”. Simply flipping it from “bad” to “acceptable” or “acceptable” to “bad” can be highly consequential.
- Third, we can see that moral progress is not as straightforward as technological progress. The moral step forward that Communism proposed - the premise that “profit was bad” - was actually a terrible innovation that led to tens of millions dead and a worse-off world. By contrast, the Enlightenment’s moral innovations were good, at least in the sense that they led to technological development.
- Fourth, that last point shows that benchmarking what “moral good” means is nontrivial. Does it mean deontologically good, or consequentially good? That is, is this moral principle good in some abstract sense, or is it good because it produces measurably good results?77
- Fifth, if a given society has its moral foundations generally right, then most of the proposed moral innovations or inversions will actually make people worse off if imposed on the populace at large.
All of this is true. Nevertheless, a key realization for a tech founder should be that a significant fraction of people want moral progress. Just as much as the technologist wants to get to Mars, a large chunk of society wants to feel like the good guys fighting in some grand cause. And if you don’t give them that cause, they’ll make one up, and/or start fighting each other. (Note that Mars is itself a moral cause when framed in terms of “backing up humanity” or “exploring the final frontier”.)
Another realization is that consent can bound the scope of moral innovation. The communist revolutions of the 20th century were evil not just because of their murderous results, but because they ran a giant human experiment on people against their will. Those who wanted to opt out, to exit, were stopped by Berlin Walls and Iron Curtains. But the forgotten American “communistic societies” of the 1800s were generally good, because only those who wanted to be there remained. Anyone who didn’t like it could leave. That’s why the reopening of the frontier is so important: it gives space to morally innovate without affecting those who don’t consent to the experiment.
A third realization is that technological innovation drives moral innovation. While human nature may be roughly constant, technology is not. So new tech causes the introduction of new moral principles, or the re-evaluation of old ones. Consider the premise that “freedom of speech is good”: that means one thing in 1776, another thing during the era of highly centralized mass media, and yet another in an era when everything reduces to speech-like digital symbols transmitted over the internet.
A related realization is that moral innovation drives technological innovation. Once it was no longer considered morally “evil” to propose a heliocentric model, people could develop more accurate star charts, which in the fullness of time got us to oceanic navigation, satellites, and space travel. Conversely, if you introduce the moral premise that “digital centralization is bad”, you move down the branch of the tech tree that begins with Bitcoin.
A final realization is that just like most attempts at technological innovation fail, most attempts at moral innovation will also fail. However, if those failures occur within the bounded confines of a consensual startup society, they’re more acceptable as the price of moral progress. And if you think society has in many ways now generally become bad, it may not that be that hard to find ways to improve on it through a moral inversion.
A moral inversion is a form of political arbitrage. Nietzsche criticized it when Christianity did it, but also had to admit it worked.78 Why did it work? One view is that “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” is essentially the same concept as buy low/sell high. You’re supporting something when it’s low and shorting it when it’s high.
The mood of the words is very different, of course. The political arbitrage of supporting those with low status and attacking those with high status is typically framed as a moral imperative, while the financial arbitrage of buying assets with low value and selling assets of high value is usually portrayed as a dispassionate mechanism for gaining financial capital. But recall that people do sometimes make moral arguments for buying low and selling high (“it helps markets become more efficient”). So you might invert the mood of the words on the other side too, and think of “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted” as a dispassionate mechanism for gaining political capital.
There’s a related observation: the concept of “buy low, sell high” assumes there are many different assets to choose from, many axes to arbitrage. By contrast, the concept of “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” tacitly assumes only one axis of powerful-vs-weak. However, multiple axes of power exist. For example, a man who organizes a million dollars for charity may be economically comfortable, yet can be socially weak relative to the establishment journalist who decides to afflict him for his tweets. So the ability to designate just who exactly is “comfortable” and who is “afflicted” is itself a form of power. Someone who can pick who to label as “comfortable”, who can pick the axis of political arbitrage, can keep knocking down the “comfortable” while themselves remaining very comfortable. And that means the concept of “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted” can also be a mechanism for maintaining political capital.
Putting these ideas together, once you start reclassifying much of the moral language flying through the air as a kind of political arbitrage, you can start thinking about it more rationally. Political arbitrage involves backing a faction that is politically weaker today than it could or should be. An early backer that risks their own political capital to make a faction more justly powerful can also gain a slice of that power should it actually materialize.
Think about the status that accrued to the Founding Fathers, to the early Bolsheviks, to Mao’s victorious communists, to the civil rights activists, or to the Eastern European dissidents after the Soviets fell. These very different groups of social revolutionaries all took significant status risks — and gained significant status rewards come the revolution.
Once we see the mapping between financial and political arbitrage, we realize there is a market for revolutionaries.
Today, there are two kinds of revolutionaries: technological and political. And there are two kinds of backers of these revolutionaries: venture capitalists and philanthropists. The backers seek out the founders, the ambitious leaders of new technology companies and new political movements. And that is the market for revolutionaries.
Equipped with this framework, you can map the tech ecosystem to the political ecosystem. You can analogize tech founders to political activists, venture capitalists to political philanthropists, tech trends to social movements, YC Startup School to the Oslo Freedom Forum, the High Growth Handbook to Beautiful Trouble, startups to NGOs, big companies to government agencies, Crunchbase to CharityNavigator, and so on.
Just as there is an entire ecosystem to source and back tech founders, there is an entire ecosystem to do so for political activists. It’s less explicit in key respects, of course. There aren’t term sheets between political philanthropists and their young proteges, there aren’t “exits” to the tune of billions of dollars, and we don’t usually see political activists bragging about their funding in the same way that tech founders talk up their investors. Indeed, often the funding trail is intentionally obscured, to frustrate opposition research.
But the process of going from a revolutionary’s bright idea to a small group with a bit of funding to a mass movement is similar to the journey of a tech startup. And the endgame can be even more ambitious; if the top tech founders end up running companies like Google and Facebook, the top political activists end up running countries like Myanmar and Hungary.79 It’s “going public” in a different way.
Take another look at the careers of political activists as varied as Aung San Suu Kyi, Viktor Orban, Vaclav Havel, Hamid Karzai, Ahmad Chalabi, Joshua Wong, Liu Xiaobo, and the like. All of them fit this model. Western resources backed them to come to power and build pro-Western governments in their region. That doesn’t mean these political founders always won (Wong and Xiaobo very much did not) or executed well (Karzai and Chalabi did not), or even stayed West-aligned indefinitely (Suu Kyi and Orban did not). But if you track each of their careers back, you’ll see something like this episode, when Soros was funding Orban and both were on the same side as revolutionary forces against the Soviets. At that point in time, Soros was the philanthropist and Orban his protege, much as a venture capitalist might back an ambitious young founder. That’s a classic example of how backers seek leaders in the market for revolutionaries.
You might find it surprising, or disquieting, to think about all these different political revolutions as being similar to VC-backed startups. But revolutions are difficult to bootstrap, so there’s often a great power sponsor. The French were crucial to the American Revolution, for example.
What’s the relevance for us? Well, the startup society reunifies the concepts of technological and political revolution, pulls together the two different kinds of progress, and presents a new path to power. Because now both the tech founder and the political activist can declare themselves presidents of a startup society.
Backers can fund startup societies using the mechanisms of tech, out in the open, with explicit contracts, and consent by all citizens. But they can also achieve the moral innovation desired by the political revolutionaries. And if these startup societies are built out on the frontier, whether digital or physical, then the moral innovations are no longer imposed top-down, but adopted bottom-up by the people who opt in. That gives a better way to achieve the goals of ambitious young political reformers.
In short, once we see that a tech founder builds a startup company to effect economic change, and a political activist builds a social movement to effect moral change, we can see how the startup societies we describe in this work combine aspects of both.
Now we turn to left and right.
The simplest approach is to talk about the left and right as if they are permanent categories; you’ll hear this when people talk about “the left” and “the right” as groups.
The second order approach is to contest this binary. People will (correctly!) note that realignments happen, that the left/right dichotomization doesn’t fully encode80 political behavior, that the masses aren’t as ideologically consistent as the elites, that the categories vary over time, and so on.
The third order approach is to acknowledge this complexity but invoke the spatial theory of voting, which allows us to quantify matters. As reviewed in this PDF, the spatial theory of voting allows us to analyze everything from Congressional votes to Supreme Court decisions to newspaper editorials. When we do so, the first principal component of political variation does indeed correspond to the left/right spectrum.
The fourth order approach is to then note that this (real!) axis actually rotates over time. It’s more about relative tribal positioning (voting with members of the same political tribe) than absolute ideological positioning (voting for a constant ideological position). Revolutionary tactics eventually succeed in gaining power for one tribe, and ruling class tactics eventually fail to defend power for another tribe, so the “left” and “right” gradually switch over historical timescales even as the tribal names remain the same.
Two factions consistently arise because coalition-forming behavior is game-theoretically optimal. That is, when fighting over any scarce resource, if one group teams up and the other doesn’t, the first group tends to win.
This is a fundamental reason why humans tend to consolidate into two factions that fight each other over scarce resources till one wins. The winning team enjoys a brief honeymoon, after which it usually then breaks up internally into left and right factions again, and the battle begins anew. After the French Revolution, factions famously arose. After World War 2, the once-allied US and USSR went to Cold War. And after the end of the Cold War, the victorious US faction broke down into internal hyperpolarization. A strong leader might keep this from happening for a while, but the breakdown of a victorious side into left and right factions is almost a law of societal physics.
The names for the two tactics that arise in these battles may hail from the French Revolution81 — the left and the right — but they’re almost like magnetic north and south, like yin and yang, seemingly encoded into our nature.
The left tactic is to delegitimize the existing order, argue it is unjust, and angle for redistributing the scarce resource (power, money, status, land), while the right tactic is to argue that the current order is fair, that the left is causing chaos, and that the ensuing conflict will destroy the scarce resource and not simply redistribute it.
You can think of circumstances where the right was correct, and those where the left was. A key concept is that on a historical timescale, right and left are temporary tactics as opposed to defining characteristics of tribes. For example, Protestants originally used left tactics relative to the Catholic Church in the time of Martin Luther. Then, hundreds of years later, the American descendants of those revolutionaries - the Protestant establishment, the WASPs – used right tactics to defend its position as the ruling class. As we discuss, many such flippenings occur in history, where a given tribe uses leftist tactics in one historical period and its cultural descendants use rightist tactics in another.
What’s the guideline for when a tribe will use left or right tactics? The tribe that’s defending (the ruling class) uses right tactics, and the tribe that’s attacking (the revolutionary class) uses left tactics. Because institutional defenders tend to win, each individual member of a revolutionary class feels like they’re losing. But because institutional defenders have to constantly fight swarms of revolutionaries to hold onto their position, the ruling class also feels like it’s on the back foot.
While there are big victories where the tribe using right or left tactics manages to sweep the field of their enemies for a brief interval, a new tribe usually arises that is to their respective left or right, and the battle begins anew. Can we ever escape this cycle of conflict over scarce resources?
The key word there is scarce. Everything changes when the frontier opens up, when there is a new realm of unoccupied space, where resources are suddenly less scarce. There’s less obligate wrangling, because an aggrieved faction can choose fight or flight, voice or exit. The would-be revolutionary doesn’t necessarily have to use left tactics to overthrow the ruling class anymore, resulting in a right crackdown in response. They can instead leave for the frontier if they don’t like the current order, to show that their way is better, or alternatively fail as many startups do.
The frontier means the revolutionary is simultaneously less practically obstructed in their path to reform (because the ruling class can’t stop them from leaving for the frontier and taking unhappy citizens with them), but also more ethically constrained (because the revolutionary can’t simply impose their desired reforms by fiat, and must instead gain express consent by having people opt into their jurisdiction).
These are, however, reasonable tradeoffs. So while the frontier is not a panacea, it is at least a pressure valve. That’s why reopening the frontier may be the most important meta-political thing we can do to reduce political conflict.
We’ve talked about the left and right as tactics. You can also think of them as two ghosts, with different hosts. In any population, at any given time, one subpopulation will be hosting the leftist ghost and the other will be animated by the rightist ghost.
Left and right in this sense are almost like spirits that flit from host to host, occupying the minds of millions of people at the same time, coordinating groups against each other. And as you start looking at the history of religions or political movements, you can start to see that each has a “left mode” for revolutionary offense and a “right mode” for ruling class defense.
Why then do people often discuss left and right as if they were permanent classes rather than temporary tactics?
One answer comes from an analogy to tech startups. Just like a startup wants to maintain the pretense of being “revolutionary” for as long as possible, and a big company wants to maintain the pretense of being “dominant” for as long as possible, so too does it take a while for a revolutionary leftist to admit that they’ve becoming ruling class, or for a self-conceptualized member of the ruling class to admit they’ve actually become dispossessed. Paradoxically, both such admissions are demoralizing. Obviously, for the former member of the ruling class to concede that they’ve completely lost is a blow to morale. But for the former revolutionary to recognize they’ve won likewise takes the sails out of their movement, the moral justification for their revolution.
Another reason is that the switching tends to happen gradually, over historical timescales. So it’s not unreasonable to talk about “the left” or “the right” in a given period. Today, though, we’re in a realigning time where the switching is more visible.
Note that we take no position on whether left or right strategies are objectively “good.” In our model, these are just tactics used by warring tribes, by two different social networks going at it. The revolutionary tribe uses left tactics and the ruling tribe uses right tactics. But if the tribe using leftist tactics starts winning, it starts using rightist tactics to defend its wins, and vice versa.
As an analogy, take a look at this GIF of two magnets. They repel each other into mirror positions. Think of this as an analogy for left and right: my left is your right. Whatever you adopt, I’ll have to adopt the mirror tactic.
Americans saw this in fast-forward during COVID. First the Republicans were concerned about the virus, and the Democrats were calling people racists for paying attention to it. Then once Trump started saying the virus wasn’t serious, positions flipped, with the Democrats calling for (and implementing) lockdowns and the Republicans fighting them on libertarian grounds. Then Trump flipped again to supporting vaccines, while Biden, Harris, and other Democrats said they wouldn’t trust a rushed Trump vaccine. Then the vaccine came out (the same one developed under the Trump Administration’s Operation Warp Speed!) and many Democrats were suddenly all in favor of mandating that which they once wanted to avoid, while many Republicans now booed this as an intolerable infringement on liberty.
You can rationalize these twists and turns. Those who do so commonly invoke Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind — what do you do, sir?” You might say that the US was first too apathetic towards COVID-19, and then it overreacted. Committed partisans can no doubt give logical explanations for the observed sequence of events.
But forget about these details for a second and focus on the flip-flops. Whatever position one group adopted, the other did the opposite. The parsimonious explanation is that it was just magnets repelling, factions fighting. Professed ideals were just a mask for tribal interest. This fits the model of left and right swapping over time, because we’re now seeing those swaps happen in real-time. In such a period, the conflict is more obviously tribal (“Democrat-vs-Republican”) than ideological (“left-vs-right”).
Putting it all together, we propose that (a) left and right are quantifiable phenomena we can see via the spatial theory of voting, (b) the left/right axis is real but rotates with time, (c) they’re ancient and ineradicable concepts, arguably on par with yin/yang or magnetic north/south, (d) they’re complementary tactics to gain access to scarce resources, (e) if one group uses a left tactic, the other is almost forced to adopt a right tactic in response, and vice versa, (f) the frontier reduces political left/right issues because it reduces conflict over scarce resources, (g) we can think of left as revolutionary tactics and right as ruling class tactics and (h) the tactics constantly swap hosts over historical timeframes.
Let’s now drill into that last point, perhaps the least obvious: namely the concept that left and right change hosts over historical timeframes. Our study begins by introducing the left, right, and libertarian cycles.
The left cycle is the story of how the revolutionary class becomes the ruling class.
Think about the following concepts: Christian King, Protestant Establishment, Republican Conservative, Soviet Nationalist, CCP Entrepreneur, or Woke Capitalist. Each of these compound nouns has within it a fusion of a once-left-associated concept and a right-associated one.
That prefix is important: once-left-associated. At one point, Christians led a revolutionary movement against the Roman Empire, Protestants led a decentralist movement against the Catholic Church, Republicans led an abolitionist movement against the South, the Soviets led an internationalist movement against the nationalist White Russians, the CCP led a communist movement against the capitalists, and the Wokes led a critical movement against American institutions.
But then they gained power, and with power came new habits. The revolutionary left that justified the rise to power morphed partially into an institutional right that justified the use of power. By its nature, a revolutionary group adopts leftist tactics to gain power, but once it wins, finds it needs to use rightist tactics to maintain power against a new crop of leftist insurgents. Lenin promised land, peace, and bread — then Trotsky quickly organized the Red Army. Thus does the leftist revolutionary rebuild a rightist hierarchy.
If you told this in story form, a manifesto-motivated group of revolutionaries would fight the man and gain power, only to have some Stalin character compromise the revolution, capture it, and just become the man all over again. Then you’d need a new manifesto and revolution against that order. The excellent short film Dinner for Few captures much of this dynamic.82
If we take the 1000-year view, this is the long cycle that starts with Christian revolutionaries tearing down the Western Roman Empire by 476 AD, gives eventual rise to the ruling Catholic Church and Holy Roman Empire, and then (1000+ years later!) sees Martin Luther nail his Ninety-five Theses to the Church of Wittenberg in 1517 AD as a new manifesto that spawns a whole new crop of Protestant revolutionaries.
Is there any alternative to this cycle, to a ruling class gaining power at the end of the revolution? Well, if a revolution doesn’t result in some kind of order, it looks more like a Pol Pot or Seven Kill Stele scenario, where the “revolution” is kept up through endless killing. Something like that may be how past civilizations collapsed.
Thus, some kind of order after the revolution is preferable. That brings us back to the left/right titrations: Christian King, Protestant Establishment, Republican Conservative, Soviet Nationalist, CCP Entrepreneur, Woke Capital. Each of them justifies the new ruling class, the new order, with the language of the revolutionary class.
Note also that not every one of these titrations has exactly equal fractions of revolution and institution. But the model happens repeatedly through history. A successful revolutionary class becomes the institutional class, then a realignment happens, and the new institutional class encounters a new revolutionary class.83
The right cycle is the story of this epistle: strong men create good times, good times create weak men, weak men create hard times, and hard times create strong men. Here’s the visual:
This cycle starts from the right and becomes left. If we turned this into a story, it’d start with the rise of a small group of highly aligned Spartans. They grow on the borders of empire, so-called “marcher lords” with a strong sense of ingroup spirit, what Ibn Khaldun would call asabiyyah. Then they radiate out and start conquering the world. Their indomitable will carves a swath through the degenerate empire that surrounds them. They eventually achieve total victory. Strong men create good times.
But as they scale, they can no longer do everything on trust and need to start implementing processes and taxes. They also start attracting lazy parasites to the wealth they’ve created, people who want to join something great rather than build something great. And they have within their walls many of the people they just conquered, who don’t share their values and indeed didn’t much like being conquered. No one wants to work as hard or be as ruthless as that early Spartan band, given the easy wealth now available, so they enjoy themselves and busy themselves by fighting with each other over trifles. So good times create weak men.
Eventually this bureaucratic, disaligned, decadent empire falls to a new band of Spartans from the outside. And thus do weak men create hard times, and in turn fall to strong men.
The libertarian cycle is the story of how a libertarian founder rebuilds the state.
First, a libertarian(ish) founder leaves the stifling bureaucracy of a big company to start their own. Most immediately fail, but through pure maneuver warfare and relentless execution, that founder might be able to make enough money to hire someone. In the early days the most important quantity is the burn rate. Every single person must be indispensable.
Eventually, if successful, the company starts building up some structure. Conservativism takes over. With the business growing consistently, the founder adds structure, career tracks, and a stable hierarchy. Now the most important quantity becomes the bus number, the number of people who can get hit by a bus such that the company is still functional. Suddenly every single person must now be dispensable.
This is like the transition from unicellularity to multicellularity. The founder has to invest in a bureaucracy that impersonalizes the company and turns every employee into an interchangeable part. Otherwise, one person could quit and crash the company.
Around this time, the parasites start entering. They don’t want the risk of a small or even mezzanine-size business. They want lots of perks, high salaries, low workload, and the minimum work for the maximum return. They aren’t truly equity-aligned; the company is just a job that pays the rent. The interchangeability actually attracts them! They know they don’t need to pull their weight, that they aren’t that accountable individually for the business’ success or failure. The system will support them. This behavior is rational for them, but it degenerates into entitlement, and eventually causes collapse of the company’s business model, though this may take a very long time.
Finally, some stifled employee decides to exit the stultifying bureaucracy and become a libertarian(ish) founder, and the cycle starts anew. As per the helical theory of history, all progress is on the z-axis: they build the company, scale a bureaucracy to assist with that, see it take over, and incentivize the best to exit. Thus does the libertarian founder rebuild the state.
We can synthesize these into a unified theory of cycles.
- The left cycle starts with a group of revolutionary leftists that then become institutional rightists.
- The right cycle starts with a group of determined rightists that then become decadent leftists.
- The libertarian cycle starts with a group of ideological libertarians that end up building a bureaucratic state.
If you put them together, you get revolutionary, determined, ideologues (a left/right/libertarian fusion) whose glorious victory ends in institutional, bureaucratic, decadence (a different kind of left/right/libertarian fusion!)
Most people haven’t studied enough history to have an intuition for cyclicity on a 100-year or longer timescale. But many people are familiar with the lifecycle of successful tech startups, which exhibit this behavior on a 10-year timescale. That’s about the longest kind of experiment we can run repeatedly within a human lifetime. And fortunately the results have been widely witnessed.
That is, within our lives, we’ve seen many examples of a startup disrupting an incumbent84 through scrappy tactics, becoming the incumbent themselves, and then employing incumbent tactics to defend itself against a new wave of startups coming up against it.
We’ve also seen firsthand that a successful tech startup is typically a left/right fusion. It has the leftist aspects of missionary zeal, critique of the existing order, desire to change things, informal dress and style, initially flat org chart, and revolutionary ambition. But it also has the rightist aspects of hierarchy, leadership, capitalism, accountability, and contractual order. If you only have one without the other, you can’t really build a meaningful company. Right without left is at best Dunder Mifflin Paper Company85; left without right is an idealistic co-op that never ships a product.
Finally, we’ve also seen that just like most revolutions, most startups do fail. Failed startups don’t capture enough of the market for dollars, while the failed revolutions don’t capture enough of the political market for followers. But those startups that do succeed then need to fight off both startups and even bigger companies, until and unless they become a global goliath themselves (which is rare!).
The unified theory is thus a centralization, decentralization, and recentralization cycle. The revolutionary, determined, ideologues break away from the establishment, and then - if they succeed - build a giant centralized empire, which subsequently degenerates and spawns the next set of revolutionary, determined, ideologues.
New Boss: Not Exactly The Same As The Old Boss
The concept we’ve described here isn’t Marxism86, which doesn’t have the concept of groups shifting sides from left to right and vice versa. The Marxist tacitly stipulates only one transition, where the “poor” beat the “rich” and usher in the inevitable age of communism, and that’s it. There isn’t cyclicity in their theory of history. It’s a one-way ascent to utopia.
The unified cycle theory is more similar to the plot of Animal Farm, where the “new boss is just like the old boss,” Nietzsche’s concept of master religions, the Lessons of History excerpt on systole/diastole, or Scott Alexander’s finite automata model.87 These each tell a story of cyclicity; Orwell’s book is focused on elite cyclicity (“new boss same as the old boss”), Durant’s chapter treats economic cyclicity, and Alexander’s post discusses cultural cyclicity.
But the unified cycle theory is not about a perfect circle at all — the new boss may be much better or worse than the old boss, may not be exactly the same. It’s closest to the helical theory of history, because we don’t necessarily come back to the same place on the z-axis. Many of these revolutions may actually leave everyone worse off, representing setbacks on the z-axis, just like many startups fail. There is however the occasional crucial revolution — usually frontier-opening in some sense — that pushes humanity forward on the z-axis and improves the world for the better.
One way of thinking about the unified cycle theory is to fuse our theory of left as revolutionary class tactics and right as ruling class tactics. A leader needs aspects of both to win. The left gives the holy justification to fight the war, the right gives the might to win the fight, and together they allow that leader to prosecute a holy war. To take two examples:
Mao was a communist, but he was also absolutely a “strong man” created by “hard times.” He had that rightist ruthlessness about him, and unlike the stereotypical vegan pacifist of the libertarian left, his men were willing to impose capital punishment for any crime, real or imagined. Without some of that conventionally right-coded physical might he wouldn’t have won against a Nationalist opposition that was willing to use military force.88
Conversely, if you think of the Poles and Estonians revolting against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, they weren’t only making conventionally right-wing arguments for capitalism and nationalism and traditional religion, they were also making left-wing arguments for democracy and free speech. Without some of that conventionally left-coded humanism they wouldn’t have won against a Soviet Union which claimed greater holiness.
The point is that in any holy war, the left is the word, and the right is the sword. It’s the priest and the warrior; you need both.
The left programs the minds. The priests and journalists, the academia and media, they imbue the warriors with a sense of righteous purpose. They also justify the conflict to the many bystanders, convincing them to either not get involved — or to get involved on the warriors’ side. In this concept of left, the priests transmit a revolutionary zeal that justifies the war against the opposing order, blesses it, consecrates it, says it is necessary and virtuous, motivates the warriors, boosts their morale, and turns them into missionaries that can defeat any mercenary.
The right furnishes the resources. They bring the warriors themselves, the farmers and the miners, the engineers and the locomotives, the rugged physicality, the requisite hierarchy, the necessary frugality, the profit and the loss, the determination and the organization, the hard truths to keep a movement going that complement the moral premises that get a movement started, the point of the spear that prosecutes that holy war.
Why do you need both right and left to win? Unless it’s a robot war (and we’ll get to that later) you need high-morale fighters, so you obviously need the rightist component as we’ve defined it. But the less obvious part is that you can’t win without the leftist component either, because mercenaries will run out of morale well before zealous missionaries.
Just to linger on this, the right often underestimates anything that’s non-physical.89 If that describes you, don’t think of what the left does as just words, as woke slogans or religious mumbo-jumbo. Think of what they’re doing as writing the social operating system, the software for society, the code that coordinates huge numbers of human beings towards a common goal by telling them what is good and bad, permissible and impermissible, laudable and execrable. All logical deduction or martial action is then downstream of these moral premises.
To summarize: you really do need both the word and the sword to win a war, both the left and the right. And that concept applies outside the context of literal war, to a variety of large-scale political movements, because (to invert Clausewitz) politics is war by other means.
Again, this doesn’t mean that every movement has a precise 50%/50% titration of left- and right-wing concepts, nor that there is some globally optimum combination of X% left and Y% right that works across all time periods and societies, nor that the “center” always wins. The main point is that a moribund left or right movement can often be energized by infusing ideas from the other side.
A group using right tactics often has a deficit of zealous meaning, and is hanging onto a ruling class position while forgetting why they need to justify it from scratch to skeptical onlookers. Conversely, a group using left tactics often has a lack of hard-nosed practicality, attacking the ruling class without a concrete plan for what to put in its place come the revolution. Forming a left/right fusion that’s informed by these concepts is quite different from what we typically think of as a left/right hybrid, namely passive centrism.
As Saul Alinsky put it in Rules for Radicals: “The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.” One could imagine a third installation in that fictional trilogy, and it’d be about what happens when the Have-Nots win and become the Haves.
We call this a political flippening, after the term from cryptocurrency. A flippening is when the #1 suddenly becomes the #2, and vice versa. It occurs when a revolutionary class flips a ruling class, only to become a new ruling class. The former ruling class then gets pushed into oblivion…or becomes a new revolutionary class.
We’ll cover several flippenings in this section: the left/right inversion of the white working class, the American and global flippenings of the last 100 years, a set of historical flippenings that put these dynamics in broader context, and the ongoing flippening between the ascending world and the descending class.
The first flippening story is about the inversion of the working class. How did Stakhanov become Archie Bunker? That is, how did the white working class flip from the core of the left to the core of the right in one hundred years?
First: who’s Stakhanov, anyway? He’s the jacked Chad of socialist realism, the mythical Soviet worker who all the men wanted to be and all the women wanted to be with, the one who supposedly shoveled the coal of ten men in one day, the comrade who was a real bro, the guy in the “worker’s paradise” who somehow took no vacation time at all. Here’s a pic of the (likely fictional) Aleksei Grigorevich Stakhanov, from the 1930s.
And who’s Archie Bunker? Well, he’s the bigoted patriarch of a once-popular 70s show called All in the Family. Bunker’s role was to get dunked on in every episode by “Meathead,” his enlightened, college-educated son-in-law. He’s a foil for the TV show’s writers, representing all that is benighted and backward in the world. And here’s a pic of the (definitely fictional) Archie Bunker, from 1971.
So: these are two very different portrayals of the white working class, just a few decades apart! How did they flip? Why did they flip?
The Working Class as Revolutionary Rationale
In the first half of the 20th century, the person all enlightened people claimed to care about was the working man. The working man! Upton Sinclair’s book was for him. Orwell and the Popular Front fought alongside Stalinists in the Spanish Civil War for him. All the buckets of blood shed by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin — all of that was ostensibly for him. Hitler too claimed to be for the working man, the Aryan one of course; the full name of his faction was the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. In hearing both the communists and fascists tell it, the working man was the most honorable, humble, put-upon, long-suffering victim of a ruthless capitalist class…and also the brave, muscular, tough backbone of the necessary revolution.
That’s the context in which the Stakhanov posters (and their Nazi equivalents) went up everywhere.
Of course, in practice, communism was slavery, because the workers had to surrender 100% of their earnings to the state. As such, the Stakhanov posters were more cynical than any capitalist breakroom infographic. The Soviet worker couldn’t protest, couldn’t strike, couldn’t change jobs, couldn’t really buy anything with his “salary.” And those were the lucky ones! The unlucky ones were forced by Trotsky to dig the White Sea-Baltic Canal with their bare hands, or deported to Siberia by Stalin. As in Nazi Germany, arbeit did not macht frei.
But, be that as it may, communism had traction. At its peak it covered “26% of the land surface of the globe.” It was a secular ideology that commanded the zeal of a religious movement — pure State-worship, in our terminology, the total replacement of G-o-d with G-o-v. Decades after it had somewhat calmed down in the post-Stalinist USSR, it was in full murderous swing in the PRC and Cambodia. The political formula which put the working man on a pedestal as the put-upon victim of the powerful enabled one man after another to gain power worldwide — Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Kim Il-Sung — and then enslave the working man in the name of liberating him.
The Working Class as Revolutionary Obstacle
Then something interesting happened. The US managed to avoid communist revolution (barely — see Henry Wallace and Venona), scrape through the tumultuous 60s, and split enough of the proceeds with the union workers that they identified with America rather than the “godless Russian commies.” The physical manifestation of this was the Hard Hat Riot in 1970, when American union workers beat up the “dirty hippies” cheering for North Vietnam.
Now, suddenly, the heretofore ignored negative qualities of the working man were brought to the fore. He was white, first of all. And racist, sexist, and homophobic. Ignorant, too. He needed to be educated by his betters. And thus All in the Family with Archie Bunker began airing, depicting a very different kind of working man. Not Stakhanov, not the uber-Chad of socialist realism, not the star of “boy meets tractor,” but an obese layabout that represented everything wrong with society — and who was now the oppressor.
And who was he oppressing? Well, the new proletariat: women, minorities, and LGBT. Demographics that didn’t have that much political power when communism was roaring to dominance in the early and mid 1900s, but which gradually grew to represent >50% of the American electorate — a political prize waiting for anyone who figured out how to tap into it. A political arbitrage opportunity, if you will, where the value of the arbitrage was measured in power rather than money.
And this is how the white working class moved from oppressed to oppressor. But one more event had to happen: the fall of the Soviet Union.
Communism Was Centralized Left
The women/nonwhites/LGBT group of “minorities” (which >90% of the global population belongs to, if you stop to think about it) gradually became the core justification for the New Left, just as the working class had been the justification for the Old Left.
But there was a transitional period.
For many years, the Western left still had a foot in both camps, with Soviet sympathizers coexisting with New Leftists.90 After all, the hippies punched by union workers had been aligned with “Hanoi” Jane Fonda, and were pro-Communist or at least anti-anti-Communist. They were “objectively pro-Soviet” using the terminology Orwell disliked. Even as late as the mid 1980s, a lion of the Western left like Ted Kennedy offered to do a deal with the USSR if they supported him for the US presidency.
The Soviet Union wouldn’t be around forever, though. For a variety of reasons, ranging from the war in Afghanistan, the rejuvenation of American morale and defense spending under Reagan, the freedom movements in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, and of course the total failure of their own economy to produce consumer goods, the USSR was on its last legs. Gorbachev inadvertently doomed the empire in his attempt to reform it, by liberalizing speech along with economics at the same time. The double whammy of glasnost and perestroika destabilized a once tightly controlled system. Gorbachev did do a bit of cracking down (the raid on the Vilnius Tower comes to mind), but fundamentally he wasn’t as ruthless as Stalin, and a critical mass of his people wanted capitalist consumer goods anyway. So, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and an attempted restorative coup by “hardliners” in August 1991, the whole evil empire collapsed by Christmas Day 1991.
At this point the Western left was at a crossroads. In China, 13 years earlier, Deng Xiaoping had managed to outmaneuver Mao Zedong’s chosen successors, throw the so-called Gang of Four in jail, and turn China towards the “capitalist road.” Now, the other big communist champion, the Soviet Union, was going down for the count.
It appeared that the centralized left, the left with a designated and identifiable leader, the centralized left of the USSR and PRC, of Stalin and Mao…that centralized left would eventually lose its nerve and be beaten by the centralized right of the United States.91
So, after 1991, there was no more centralized left, no more communism, aside from holdouts like Cuba and North Korea that were of no global consequence. Instead it became all about the decentralized left, the fusion of the civil rights movement and Foucaltian deconstructionism, what we now call wokeness.
Wokeness is Decentralized Left
If you’ll note, the wokes don’t have a single leader like Stalin. They have no single book like The Communist Manifesto. They don’t even like to be named. This is notable for a movement that is otherwise so interested in verbal prestidigation, in renaming things!
Regardless of whether people call them “politically correct” or “SJWs” or “wokes” or what have you, they’ll try to scratch off the label and say that they’re just being “good people.” (You, of course, they have no problem calling you all kind of names.)
You can call them Democrats, and that’s in the ballpark, but many wokes are more radical than Democratic party candidates (though still vote for them) and many rank-and-file Democrats still aren’t wokes.
You can also note that the boundaries of wokeness are fluid. Anyone can just start voicing woke rhetoric. You may even sympathize with some of their stated ideas (as opposed to their actual practice). I do92, in fact, at least with the motte version - who’s against equal treatment under the law? Of course, it never stops there.
You can notice that they do have their symbols and hashtags and flags (which, when hoisted, indicate control of territory as any flag does) but that they often shy away from admitting that what they’re doing is deeply political. It’s again just being a “good person.” Then they return to writing policies and renaming streets.
They do have organizations, many NGOs and media outlets, of which Sulzberger’s NYT is perhaps the most influential. But there’s no single directing group, and there’s a very long tail of sympathizers.
Put it all together: no single leader, book, name, or organization. So if the communists were centralized left, the wokes are decentralized left. If communists were like Catholics folding into a single hierarchy, wokes are more like Protestants where anyone can set up a shingle as a preacher.
Communism was State-first, Wokeness is Network-first
Just as an aside, there’s a subtlety if we apply the lens of the Leviathans. While Communists were centralized, they were not entirely people of the State. The reason is that they had both the Soviet state and the international Comintern network of spies and revolutionaries. But they were primarily people of the State after 1917, as the global movement was downstream of the Soviet government.93
Wokes are the opposite. They are primarily people of the Network, as their habitat is outside the elected State. The control circuitry for the US government resides outside it, in media, academia, nonprofits, and the unfireable civil service.
But just as the communists don’t control all states (though they wanted to), the wokes do not control all networks (though they want to). Their major weakness is that they do not yet have total control over the English internet, the Chinese internet, or the global crypto networks. But the wokes are trying manfully to gain such control. And the switch from glorifying Stakhanov to denouncing Archie Bunker actually helps with this, as social media users are much more helpful in gaining power over the Network than factory workers.
Why? In the 20th century, the factory floor was the scene of the action and communism was all about the strike. This was a collective action that seemed to help workers, by redistributing wealth from the hated bosses. Over the medium term, of course, adversarial unionization actually harmed workers because (a) they had to pay union dues that gobbled up much of the pay raises, (b) they got a second set of managers in the form of the union bosses, (c) their actions lead to a reduction in competitiveness of their strike-ridden employer, and (d) in the event their country actually went communist they lost the ability to strike completely. Nevertheless, union organizing helped the communists gain influence over states. General strikes could bring entire countries to a halt.
In the 21st century, the internet is the scene of the action and wokeness is all about the cancellation. There’s no factory floor, no formal union leader, no centralized direction from Moscow. Instead, anyone can decide at any time to use the rhetoric in the air to lead a campaign against their “oppressor” in combination with others who subscribe to one or more woke principles. It’s open source, it’s decentralized left.
Like the strike, the cancellation is a collective action that seems to help the “marginalized”, by redistributing status from the hated oppressors to the cancellers. The likes, retweets, and followers get redistributed in real-time. Over the medium term, however, cancellation actually harms the “marginalized” because (a) everyone can now cancel each other on some axis, making life highly unpleasant and (b) constant cancellation leads to a low-trust society. Nevertheless, cancellation helps wokes gain control of networks. Social media swarms in the 2010s could bring tech executives to their knees, just as general strikes in the 20th century could bring countries to a halt.
From Working Class to Wokest Class
So, that’s how Stakhanov became Archie Bunker. Once the US had integrated its working class tightly enough to defuse its revolutionary potential, and centralized right beat centralized left in the USSR and PRC, the left needed a new group it could use to justify its revolution. It found it in the “marginalized” that it has now ridden to power as Woke Capital.94 From the working class, to the wokest class.
The second flippening is about the inversion of the Republican and Democrat parties over the last 155 years. As context, most Americans know vaguely that the Republican and Democrat parties “switched sides,” that Republicans were on the left in 1865 and on the right by 1965, but not exactly how95 that happened.
How did the GOP move from the “Radical Republicans” of Lincoln’s time, to the conservative Republicans of mid-century, to the proletarian truckers of the post-Trump party? And how did Democrats go from secessionist Confederates to anti-anti-communist liberals to woke capitalists?
The Short Version
The short version is that the Republicans gained moral authority after the Civil War, used that to gain economic authority, then got critiqued by the (repositioned) Democrats for being so rich, then lost moral authority, and consequently also lost economic authority, bringing us to the present day. The Democrats were on the opposite end of that cycle.
The 1865-2021 Cycle
Now the longer version.
Let’s warp back to 1865. Immediately after the Civil War, the Republicans had total moral authority — and total command of the country. During the process of Reconstruction and what followed, they turned that moral authority into economic authority, and became rich by the late 1800s. After all, you wouldn’t want to have a Confederate-sympathizing Democrat traitor as head of your railroad company, would you?
Gradually, the Democrats began repositioning96 from the party of the South to the party of the poor. A major moment was William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896. Another huge move was FDR’s re-election in 1936, when black voters shifted 50 points from Republican to Democrat, though they still voted Republican at the municipal level.97 The wrap up was in 1965 when black voters moved another 10-15 points towards Democrats, though the civil rights era was really just the culmination of a multi-decadal trend.
After 1965 the Democrats had complete moral authority. And over the next 50 years, from 1965-2015, the Democrats converted their moral authority into economic authority. You wouldn’t want a Republican bigot as CEO of your tech company, would you?
Now that cycle has reached its zenith, and a critical mass of high income and status positions in the US are held by Democrats. Some stats and graphs will show the story. Democrats have:
- 97% of journalists’ political donations
- 98% of Twitter employees’ political donations
- >91% of professors in the top US universities
- 26 out of 27 of the richest congressional districts
- >77% of political donations from Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google
Meanwhile, the Republicans have by many measures become the party of the economic and cultural proletariat. There are of course exceptions like the Supreme Court and state legislatures which are majority Republican, but see this chart from the Brookings Institute, which shows that >70% of US GDP is now in Democrat counties. See also this set of graphs from 2019, and that’s before the money printing and small business destruction that occurred during COVID. The dominance is even more total when one thinks about cultural institutions.98 What’s the Republican Harvard — is it Bob Jones University? What’s the Republican Hollywood — some guys on 4chan making memes?
So, Democrats have become the party of the ruling class, of the establishment. And the Republicans are repositioning as the party of the proles, of the revolutionary class. This is why you see Democrats doing things like:
- tearing up over the Capitol six months after tearing down George Washington
- denouncing free speech
- setting up disinformation offices
- shifting from investigating the government to “investigating” the citizenry
- scripting the recruiting ads for the CIA and military
- putting Pride flags on attack helicopters
- advocating for corporations to fire people at will
- defending deplatforming as a private property right
- embracing the national security establishment
- allocating two billion dollars for the Capitol Police
- approving 40 billion dollars for war
It’s like the quote from Dune: “When I am weaker than you, I ask you for freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles.” Now that the Democrats are strong, they are acting like rightists. And now that the Republicans are weak, you see them acting like leftists:
- criticizing America’s imperial influence in the world
- opposing war and military aid
- not trusting the FBI or the police
- expressing qualified sympathy for America’s current rivals
- talking positively about unions
- introducing anti-discrimination laws to protect Republicans
- lobbying for free speech
This explains the weird flip-flops of American politics over the last few years. We’re in a realigning time where many institutional things are flipping from blue to red and back before finally going bright blue or red. Free speech is now coded red, while the FBI is now blue. Because Democrats are the ruling class now.
Note that this isn’t an endorsement of either side, just an observation that two ultra-long-timeframe sine and cosine waves have now shifted into the opposite relative phase. The parties that many identify with and implicitly think of as constant were not constant. The radical Republicans attained socioeconomic power and their defense of this order made them conservative; the reactionary Democrats lost socioeconomic power and gradually repositioned as revolutionary. Now they’re flipping again.
This doesn’t mean everything is flipping, of course. Democrats are still pro-choice, Republicans still pro-life. Republicans still have an institution or two, like the Supreme Court and some states. Just as Democrats after the Civil War were very weak, but not eradicated, and able to serve as spoilers.
However, the two parties have flipped on all the institutional bits, even if many Republicans maintain the Monty-Python-like pretense that the conservative America of their youth has just suffered a flesh wound, and many Democrats maintain the Soviet-like pretense that the ruling class is still a revolutionary party. Mexico has a great name for this kind of thing, the PRI or “institutional revolutionary party,” but there’s a more familiar metaphor: the startup.
As noted earlier, a successful startup wants to think it’s still the scrappy underdog, because that’s good for recruiting and morale. But now the Democrats are no longer a startup. The party has completed a 155 year arc from the defeated faction in the Civil War to America’s ruling class.
There’s a Ship of Theseus aspect to this, though. All the parts got swapped out, and the parties switched sides, but somehow the triumphant Democrat coalition of 2021 ended up geographically and demographically similar to the Republican lineup of 1865: Northeastern-centric liberals arrayed against conservative Southerners in the name of defending minorities.
And if you go even further back in time, this mirrors the English Civil War of the 1640s. Briefly, the people that came to Massachussets were the ideological descendants of the Roundheads, and the ones who settled Virginia 20 years later were the descendants of the Cavaliers, so it isn’t a surprise that descendants of the same two tribes went to war about 200 years later99 in the mid 1800s, or that their ideological descendants are gearing up for another conflict right about now. See Scott Alexander’s review of Albion’s Seed for the quick version.
Not Everything Flipped
You could plot the geographical, demographic, and ideological coalitions of the two parties over the last 155 years. You’d see a few different staggered sine wave-like phenomena before they snap into the funhouse mirror image of 1865 that is 2021. But if we drill into the ideological aspects of the flip we see some interesting things.
At the surface level, the symbols remain intact: Democrats and Republicans still use the same logos, just like the Chinese Communist Party has kept the hammer and sickle more than 40 years after Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist revolution. On a policy level, as noted, not everything has flipped: Democrats remain pro-choice, Republicans remain pro-life. But on an ideological level, that’s worth a bit of discussion.
Certain kinds of people are born revolutionaries. So when the Democrats flipped over from revolutionary class to ruling class, when they shifted from (say) “defunding the police” to funding the Capitol Police100, the born revolutionaries got off the bus. It’s not necessarily any one issue like the police, or military, or COVID restrictions, or regulations – the trigger is different for each person – but the common theme is that the born revolutionary just has a problem with what they perceive as irrational authority.
Visualize the startup founder who just cannot adjust to a big company after an acquisition, or the writer who just refuses to hold back a story because of his editor’s political demurrals. Born revolutionaries of this stripe include Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Jack Dorsey, Elon Musk, and many Substackers and tech founders. They just can’t bend to the establishment. But they also have real disagreements with each other, which is why they’re independents, and why they can’t mouth a party line. So the born revolutionary is really far more anti-establishment, and hence today anti-Democrat, than pro-Republican. Many of the most accomplished in tech and media share this characteristic – they don’t want to listen to authority because they think they know better, and in their case they often actually do. They’re fundamentally insubordinate and disobedient, rule breakers and novelty seekers, ideological rather than tribal, founders rather than followers — and thus sand in the gears of any establishment.
Other kinds of people are ideologically predisposed in the opposite direction, to what some might call “imperialism” and others could call “national greatness.” As the Republicans fully flipped over from ruling class to revolutionary class, and went from organizing the invasion of Iraq to disorganizedly invading the Capitol, the neocon types like David Frum and Liz Cheney switched sides. In our tech analogy, these are the big company executives who only join a company once it has 1000+ people and leave out the back when the writing is on the wall. They’ll take less upside in return for less downside, and are more focused on guaranteed salary and prestige. They’re cyclical, as opposed to counter-cyclical like the revolutionaries. They follow the school-of-fish strategy, going with the crowd at all times. And in this context, their animating characteristic is not so much that they’re “pro-Democrat” but that they’re anti-revolutionary. Much of the national security state and military establishment is also like this; they are fundamentally rule-followers, institutional loyalists, and top-down in their thinking.
So that means that right now, immediately after the American realignment, we see all four types: (a) revolutionary class Democrats who still think of their party as the underdog, (b) ruling class Republicans who similarly (as David Reaboi would put it) “don’t know what time it is,” (c) revolutionary anti-establishment types like Greenwald, and (d) ruling class anti-revolutionaries like Frum and Cheney.
Over time, if history is any guide, the independent thinkers will move away from the ruling class to the revolutionary class, while a much larger group of herd-minded followers will join the ruling class. Returning to our tech analogy101, think about how a few of the most independent-minded people have left Google, while many more risk-averse people have joined it. At Google, there isn’t much of the early startup spirit left, but there is a paycheck and stability.102 That’s similar to the dynamic that characterizes the Democrats in their formal role as America’s ruling class: they largely control the establishment, but they’re losing the talent.
The Second American Civil War?
Returning to the previous section, is 2021 really just a repeat of 1865? Well, if history is running in reverse as per the Future-is-our-Past thesis, maybe not. Maybe 1861-1865 has yet to happen; maybe the Second American Civil War is yet to come. We discuss this possibility later in our sci-fi scenario on American Anarchy.
However, if we really push on the historical analogies, there’s another factor that was just incipient during the 1860s but that dominated the era to follow. After North-vs-South slugged it out, America shifted its attention to the (Wild) West. Similarly, after whatever Democrat-vs-Republican donnybrook might ensue, we may shift our focus to tech.
Because technology is a third faction. A group that was once identified with the West Coast before the pandemic, but is now best thought of as decentralized network.
At least, about half of it can be thought of in this way. The technology companies still physically headquartered in Silicon Valley would likely be heavily involved on the US establishment side in any Second American Civil War, providing surveillance, deplatforming, and digital enforcement for the ruling class. But the decentralized global technologists — those that are into the overlapping but quite different movements that are BTC and web3 — would have a very different attitude. They may not really be “pro-Republican”, but they would be anti-ruling-class, and especially against the inflation and censorship the ruling class would need to support its war machine. Any truly global, decentralized platform would natively resist censorship requests by the US establishment.
That may be the next step in the American Flippening: the conflict between the decentralized people of the Network and the centralized people of the State, between global technology and the American establishment.
The third flippening is about the global reversal of the last 30 years, where the communist countries became ethnonationalists and the capitalist countries became ethnomasochists. In this flippening, the countries on the economic left moved to the cultural right, and countries on the economic right moved to the cultural left. The ideologies reversed, but the geopolitical rivalries remained the same.
The visual above tells the story. The most right-wing country in the world is now CCP China, the ethnocentric champion of the Han, the place where “sissy men” are now banned from TV and whose self-admitted goal is irredentist reunification. Its core premise is ethnonationalism, which can be paraphrased as “Chinese people are the best.”103
Conversely, Woke America is to America as Soviet Russia was to Russia. It is the most left-wing country in the world, the place where whites go to the back of the line for vaccinations and the self-admitted sponsor of global revolution. Its core premise is ethnomasochism, which can be paraphrased as “white people are the worst”.104
At this point, you may be sputtering in disbelief, in which case I refer you to these103 two104 footnotes to give a tissue for that sputtering. You may think this is obvious, in which case read this section only for entertainment. You may argue that the right and left categories have no meaning; if so, go read the earlier section on the spatial theory of voting and note that there’s always a first principal component in any map of ideology space. Or you just may be confused, contending that the US is still “conservative” and China is still “communist,” and want proof of the switch.
So here’s the detailed argument.
The Global Axis in 1988 was Politico-Economic
First, what was the political spectrum in 1988, right before the fall of the Berlin Wall? From right to left:
- USA: center right under Reagan
- Western Europe (NATO): center / center right
- Switzerland: neutral center
- PRC: migrating right, less ideological, hard to place under Deng Xiaoping
- India: left, socialist
- USSR, Warsaw Pact: far left
I don’t think any of these ideological positions should be too controversial. These countries explicitly identified themselves as conservative, socialist, or communist respectively. India was socialist, but not a member of the Warsaw Pact and not pointing guns at the West. China was nominally communist, but also not hostile to the West, and entering the second decade of the capitalist reforms begun by Deng in 1978. The US was the champion of the capitalist right in spots like Chile and South Korea, and the USSR was the global sponsor of the communist left in places such as Cuba and North Korea.
The Global Axis in 2022 is Ethno-Cultural
By 2022, what did the global political spectrum look like, right after the Russo-Ukraine war?
- US Establishment: ethnomasochist far left, denoted by the Progress Flag
- Western Europe: center left, but with increasing variance
- BTC/web3: pseudonymous center
- India, Israel, Singapore, Visegrad: center right
- Republican America: nationalist right
- CCP China, Russia: ethnonationalist far right, the Z flag and “We Will Always Be Here”
The first thing we note is that the major axis has shifted. The primary axis is no longer the politico-economic axis of capitalism-vs-communism, but the ethno-cultural axis of ethnomasochism-vs-ethnonationalism. Is it the ultimate evil for a state to consciously represent its majority race (as America contends) or is it the ultimate good (as China contends)? Or should it be neither, as the pseudonymous economy contends?
The second thing we see is that the middle has shifted. Switzerland is no longer neutral, as it’s siding with the US now. Cryptocurrency and cryptography is now Switzerland, what Obama called the “Swiss bank account in your pocket.” And – as just noted – it offers an ethical alternative to both American ethnomasochism and Chinese ethnonationalism, namely pseudonymous meritocracy.
The third thing we note is that we don’t use the American flag to represent the US establishment as it is very much a disputed symbol, with some in the establishment claiming it while others claim it is disturbing. So instead, we use the Progress Flag for the US establishment as (a) this is proudly raised by the State Department and in the White House and (b) it sharply distinguishes the establishment from a Republican America that very much does not fly the Progress Flag, but might instead fly the Thin Blue Line flag or (eventually) the flag of Bitcoin Maximalism.105
The fourth thing (which is not on the figure) is that we don’t think of Republican America as coincident with the US establishment anymore. That’s because the US is a binational state with two warring ethnicities (Democrat and Republican) rather than a single nation state. We didn’t put a separate Republican flag on the figure, though, as placing it on the nationalist right would seem to cluster it near China, and Republicans dislike China as much as they dislike the Democrats. So you need to go to more dimensions than just a linear axis, which we discuss in the next chapter on NYT/CCP/BTC.
The fifth thing we note is that Europe is now broadly to the right of the US Establishment on ethno-cultural issues, whereas it was to the left of the US in 1988. (See Macron and Orban’s comments, for example, if this isn’t on your radar.)
The last and most important thing is that this is a rough inversion of the 20th century, as the formerly communist/socialist countries are on the ethnocultural right, while the capitalist bloc is on the ethnocultural left.
Evidence for the Global Political Spectrum of 2022
How can we establish that this ethnocultural axis is a reasonable one-dimensional representation of reality? Let’s do it in stages.
Existence of an axis. First, the #1 and #2 powers of this era are the US and China, establishing these as the poles of some axis in the first place.
- Here’s a graph of global GDP, showing the US and China as #1 and #2.
- Here’s a graph of global military power, again #1 and #2.
- Here’s Ian Bremmer’s G-2 concept.
- And here are several books and articles that talk about this include Destined for War, The United States vs. China (FT review), and Getting China Wrong.
Unity of NYT, Harvard, and Democrats as the US Establishment. Next, let’s establish that there is alignment between America’s informal government (NYT, Harvard, etc) and the formal government (elected Democrats and career bureaucrats). Basically, we want to show that (a) this an interconnected social network and (b) it is on the ethnomasochist left.
- The Progress Flag was raised over the U.S. State Department and
- The Progress Flag is raised in the White House by the US Press Secretary and a Navy Admiral
- 97% of journalists’ political donations went to Democrats
- 90.1% of Harvard students voted Democrat
- 98.82% of partisan contributions at Harvard’s FAS went to Democrats
- 90% of professors at top universities are Democrat
- NYT’s use of ethnomasochist words went exponential in the 2010s
- The graphs in Yglesias’ article on the Great Awokening show that white Democrats are to the cultural left of black Democrats on many issues
NYT denunciation of entities to their right. Third, let’s show that the US establishment’s leading paper, the New York Times, has run articles indicating that China, Russia, India, Israel, Singapore, Hungary, and France are “fascist” and “authoritarian” and hence to its right. We note that none of these countries are being denounced as “communist” or to NYT’s left.
- China: “Can China Be Described as ’Fascist’?”
- Russia: “We Should Say It. Russia Is Fascist.”
- India: “The Rise of Modi: India’s Rightward Turn”
- Israel: “Israelis May Have Committed Crimes Against Humanity in Gaza Protests, U.N. Says”
- Singapore: “David Marshall, 87, Opponent Of Singapore Authoritarianism”
- Hungary: “He Used to Call Viktor Orban an Ally. Now He Calls Him a Symbol of Fascism.”
- France: “France’s Far Right Turn”
China and Russia are to the cultural right of the US. Next, let’s establish that China and Russia take culturally conservative positions on marriage and family that put them substantially to the right of today’s West.
Europe is also to the cultural right of America. Now, let’s show how European countries have put out statements noting that they are actually also to the right of America on ethnocultural issues, albeit not as far from the US as China and Russia are.
- France on wokeness: Macron, France Reject American “Woke” Culture That’s “Racializing” Their Country
- Visegrad on immigration: Visegrad Four grouping push back on new EU migration plan
- UK on immigration: The UK’s “Anti-Refugee Bill”: What Everyone Should Know
So if you put all those together, we have (a) the existence of a US/China axis, (b) a group of institutions that can be reasonably regarded as the voice of the US establishment, (c) a set of NYT denunciations of other countries as being to the right of the US establishment, (d) positions from China and Russia that are far to the ethnocultural right of the US establishment, and (e) a set of statements from European heads of state like Macron and Orban indicating that the US establishment is also to their left.
Note that even if you dispute the absolute position of any given country on this axis, it’s now hard to argue with their relative position. That is, if you click the links above, you’ll see that NYT does think of Russia and China (and France, Hungary, India, Israel, and so on) as all being to its right on ethnocultural matters. And Russia and China do think of the US establishment as being to their left on the same things.
I belabor this point because it’s somewhat implicit. The capitalist-vs-communist divide of the 20th century was an official, declared economic divide. By contrast, today’s ethnonationalist-vs-ethnomasochist divide is an unofficial, undeclared cultural divide. It is nevertheless the primary global axis of conflict, and a very real reason for hostility between the Sino-Russians and the US Establishment.106 Even if the geopolitics have remained similar, with the Chinese and Russians of Mackinder’s world island still aligned against the Anglo-Americans, the ideologies have flipped.
Our fourth flippening story is a survey of historical flippenings. How did the revolutionary class become the ruling class, through history?
From Christian crash to Christian kings. Early Christianity was the original communism; it delegitimized and then tore down the Roman Empire. Then, many generations later, the Holy Roman Empire that consciously took the name of its distant predecessor turned Christianity into what Nietzsche called a “master” religion, one that fortified hierarchy rather than undermining it. Christians were on the left in Roman times as the revolutionary class. Then, upon winning, descendants of those Christians eventually went to the right as the ruling class.
From Protestant heresy to WASP establishment. Much later, Martin Luther began a Protestant insurgency against the Catholic Church / Holy Roman Empire. Even later than that, descendants of these Protestants made it to the US to give rise to the WASP aristocracy! Protestants were on the left as the revolutionary class. Then upon winning, eventually descendants of those Protestants went to the right as the ruling class.
From ChiCom revolutionary to princeling. Today’s Chinese Communist Party is another example. What do people call the descendants of the early Communists, who fought both the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek to gain full control of China? Why, they are princelings. A more cut-and-dried example of the transition from revolutionary class to ruling class would be hard to find.
From marginalized minority to Woke Capital. And perhaps the most important contemporary example is Woke Capital. The women, minorities, and LGBT groups that replaced the working class as the Democrat party’s base are now to Woke America what workers and peasants were to Soviet Russia: their mascots, with all politics done in their name. It didn’t really matter to the communists that workers and peasants actually went to the gulag in the Soviet Union, and it doesn’t really matter to the wokes if women and minorities actually suffer from crime and inflation in Woke America – what matters for the movement is the power gained by the rhetoric.
So the CIA and Army now frontpage their female spies and soldiers. The US State Department tells us Black Lives Matter. And when American helicopters descend on their targets they do so while flying the rainbow flag. The meme is now real: wokeness now justifies American nationalism just as Communism rationalized Russian imperialism. It’s what tells those pulling the triggers that they’re killing for a higher cause, that they’re morally superior to those in the gunsights. It’s the revolutionary ideology that justifies the ruling class.
We could do more, but you see the pattern. Once you’ve seen several cases of historical flippenings, it changes your perspective on current events. The ideological shifts become more predictable. It’s a bit like an experienced investor who’s seen many a company rise and fall talking to a first-time entrepreneur. When you’ve seen it before, the pattern recognition calms your nerves and allows you to distinguish the truly “unprecedented” from the highly precedented.