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A Word on Horseshoe Theory

by Kevin Carson

I recently saw someone on Facebook post a “horseshoe” graphic, illustrating the popular centrist-liberal “horseshoe theory” trope that, the further right and left deviate from the center, the more authoritarian they become and the more they resemble each other.

The problem with “horseshoe theory” is that it takes the status quo for granted and ignores its status as a historically contingent system of power — and its origin in violence.

“Extremism” is distinguished from “moderation” or “centrism” by the extent to which a projected set of reforms can be carried out as marginal tweaks to the existing structure of power, and implemented by the same types of state and corporate actors currently running things.

Imagine a similar horseshoe theory ca. 1400, where the “far right” wanted to return to slave labor latifundia and the “far left” wanted to move on to full-blown capitalism, and the center took the “juuust right” position of tweaking feudalism one way or another.

Historical politico-economic systems have beginnings and ends, and the succession from one to another necessarily involves change that is considered “radical” by the classes in charge of running an existing system.

Someone in the replies to the Facebook post quoted Nick Cave’s comment that the right and left need to be reminded that “it’s the center that holds things together.”

The problem with that is that, again, it takes the historical system of power by which the “center” is defined for granted. The “center” is a 500-year-old structural alliance of capital and state, founded on massive violence. The center under feudalism was a structural alliance between Church, crown, and nobility.

Lionizing the center means a tacit acceptance of the legitimacy of whatever system of power you live under, and limiting “reforms” to whatever can be carried out under that system by the sorts of functionaries currently running it.

Implicit in this view of the center and its presumptive legitimacy is the kind of “end of history” assumptions associated with Bell and Fukuyama. History was a process of successive rationalizations that finally culminated in a neoliberal model of “democratic capitalism,” enforced globally by a Washington Consensus, with the range of permissible options being constituted by (say) Neera Tanden and Madeline Albright at one end and David Frum and Condoleezza Rice at the other. Having arrived at this plateau of rationality, history has reached its end, and all future progress will consist of further elaboration within this structure, with minor adjustments.

A good example is pop finance guru Suze Orman, who advocates “dollar cost averaging” in one’s investments if it’s more than seven years to retirement. Regardless of fluctuations in the stock market, her argument goes, stocks, in general, always go up over the long run. But they really don’t. It can take a generation or more for their value to go up after a long-wave Depression; for example, it took over thirty years for the Dow Jones to reach 1929 levels in real terms. And that’s not even getting into the unstated assumption that one of these long-wave downturns won’t  be terminal instead of cyclical.

The End of History thesis is ahistorical. It ignores the fact that the liberal capitalist order that centrists equate to “normalcy” could only emerge given certain material prerequisites, and that by its very evolution liberal capitalism destroyed these prerequisites in ways that undermined its own stability. These prerequisites included a seemingly near-limitless field of profitable outlets for large-scale accumulation, and likewise seemingly boundless cheap resource inputs. But of course, as was shown in the series of increasingly more severe crises from the 1870s through the Great Depression and again in the post-1970 period, these things turned out not to be boundless after all. The unsustainability of the material base for continued expansion is what caused the erosion of the center over the past generation, and the radicalization of the “extremes,” that horseshoe theorists complain of.

This is closely related to another conceptual blinder, which emphasizes “learning” or “increased understanding,” at the expense of power interest, as the primary driver of major policy changes. In this way of looking at things, the replacement of mercantilism by ostensible “free trade,” the repeal of the Corn Laws, the abolition of slavery, and so on, all reflect something “we” learned about how mercantilism or slavery didn’t work — when in fact they worked very well for their beneficiaries. In the real world, these changes were made, quite simply, because a component of the ruling class rose to dominance for whom these things no longer worked.

Regardless of centrist and liberal capitalist “End of History” illusions, capitalism is a system that not only had a beginning but will have an end. It will have an end because its very expansion and subsequent period of stability undermined the conditions for its long-term survival. In our critical analysis of the system, and our consideration of alternative courses of action, we must not labor under the delusion that there is some set of adjustments on the edge that can permanently stabilize a system which has in fact doomed itself by the very course of its development. The centrist ideology is just the last gasp of a ruling class trying to stave off the transition.

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