Kill the Political Compass in Your Head

The political compass is possibly the most popular political meme across a wide range of political identities and movements. Here is why socialist should stop using it.

One of my favorite jokes to make since socialism has made a comeback was this following parody of the political compass I would send to people when they asked me what my political orientation was or even more precisely where I was on the political compass:

“Stalin? Pol Pot? Those simps let everyone get away with everything.”

The joke was focused a lot on the insecurity and self-consciousness US socialists have about being perceived as “authoritarian” due to the predominant libertarian political culture in the US and accompanying fear mongering of “authoritarian socialism” like the Soviet Union or the Bolivarian Republics. While I do think many liberal ideas should be criticized, I do not think the awesome power of the state should be used to send people to gulags for thought crimes. But that conflation of critiquing liberal ideas of “freedom” with being tyrannical gets to a broader point.

This meme is also a joke about the political compass in general, a meme with the trappings of some kind of scientific standard that is, in actuality, meaningless and doesn’t accurately portray the real political divisions in our society. Where in actuality would someone like myself be placed who is critical of a lot of traditional ideas of freedom in a liberal society but also advocates for protections of freedoms beyond a liberal society? As Maurice Bishop persuasively argued, if a person is starving their freedom of speech means little, to which I would add if a person’s free speech can be drowned out by a 24/7 bombardment of corporate speech, it means practically nothing. Given this intersection, can axes of economy and social liberty be so clearly delineated?

While the political compass has no official creator, it is believed to be the creation of Wayne Brittenden. Brittenden is generously called a “political journalist,” but he’s really more a muckraker than a journalist, with an agenda focused on promoting Zionism and all the mudraking that usually comes with it.

A lot to unpack here.

Apparently Brittenden has not even acknowledged being the creator of the political compass, let alone explained why he did so, but we can intuit the intentions of the meme from the plain language of the website and the methodology. Let’s breakdown some of the claims made by the site and whether they hold up to scrutiny.

“Universal Tool”

In various ways, the political compass is claimed to be “a universal tool, applicable to all western democracies.” That sentence is somewhat contradictory since application to western democracies clearly puts it outside the realm of being a universal. Also while it may not have been the intention of the creators, the political compass is applied to governments and individuals outside of “western democracies” all the time. The website’s own analytical example of the need for a political compass has individuals who were mostly not in nor advocating for western democracies:

Known western democracy Nazi Germany.

The website explains the basis for an “Authoritarian-Libertarian” axis as follows: “If you could get Hitler and Stalin to sit down together and avoid economics, the two diehard authoritarians would find plenty of common ground.” The most basic glance at the two respective administrations shows that Hitler and Stalin disagreed on quite a lot besides economics. The Soviet Union under Stalin was one of the socially progressive societies as to education, healthcare, and women’s rights, while repressing certain political and religious freedoms.

Conversely, Nazi Germany under Hitler was one of the most repressive societies as to women’s rights, education was so greatly defunded that there was an almost constant shortage of teachers, and while many public health restrictions were passed on activities like smoking, healthcare remained largely privatized, particularly for the populations considered inferior in Nazi Germany like Jewish and Romani people, who were not allowed to apply for a public option health insurance program run by the Nazi state. And while the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany do somewhat share restrictions on political freedoms, their attitudes towards religion were very different, with the Nazis embroiled in constant internal conflict on the issue and members holding beliefs ranging from atheism to Catholicism to paganism, and historians themselves are in disagreement over what exactly the Nazi vision, if any, was of religion.

The overall point is that Hitler and Stalin’s “non-economic” policies and views were in fact quite divergent, and the category of “authoritarian” does not capture those vast differences even if it does capture a shared policy of restricting political freedoms.

Objective and Scientific

One of the reasons I think Leftists get attracted to the political compass is that it represents a range of politics not experienced in the United States dichotomy of a two party system with little differences between the two parties. Statements like “Bernie Sanders is popularly perceived in his own country as an off-the-wall left figure; in other western democracies he would sit squarely within the mainstream social democratic parties” seems like a refreshing objective assessment of Sanders’ politics versus the American mainstream of treating him as the furthest left possible (but also somehow the same as Elizabeth Warren).

But is the political compass more broadly objective or scientific? While as a meme it is used in many ways, the self-proclaimed website connects the compass to a test that pinpoints where on the two axes you fall by asking whether you strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with a statement. And before you even take the test, you are warned: “The[] purpose [of the questions] is to trigger reactions in the mind, measuring feelings and prejudices rather than detailed opinions on policy.” This methodology seems contrary to the objective and scientific character ascribed to the political compass, even more so in application.

Take for example the question “Military action that defies international law is sometimes justified.” There are so many ways to have reactions to the statement, from support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to recruiting foreign nationals to fight for Armenia against Azerbaijan to using chemical weapons. And of course this range is supposed to be mediated by the number and diversity of the questions — U.S. invasion supporter might answer “Our race has many superior qualities, compared with other races” than chemical weapons user, and so on and so forth. But that principal only works if each question in aggregate provides more information about the person taking the test than it provides misrepresentations and omissions. As listed above, there are reasons to think left and right, authoritarian and libertarian, there are people who believe military action that defies international law is sometimes justified. I do not have the precise methodology of test, of whether the answer to this question provides “+2 Libertarian” or something more nuanced, but the fact is it only provides information about whether the test taker is left or right, authoritarian or libertarian if there is a normative judgment of where those who answer the question wind up on the compass.

The Political Compass perpetuates an individualistic and capitalistic idea of politics

The first two flaws with the political compass (a travesty of the “universal” and of the “scientific”) are flaws with the concept as used for political science. As a socialist, I do not think socialists should use it because it will not give them an accurate understanding of the politics of say the Thatcher administration or right wing libertarians. But there’s a third and even more fundamental reason I oppose the political compass as a socialist.

The political compass is the successor of much older political memes. The political compass in the first degree was “left wing” and “right wing.” In feudal Europe, politics was defined by the three estates: the clergy, the nobles, and the peasants and bourgeoisie. But in France in 1789, when the Estates General were called, a new way of defining politics took form. The Ancien Regime was necessarily defining politics by the domination of the clergy and nobility.

The way the gentry is holding the Church is quite sexual, or is that just me?

The peasants and the bourgeoisie increasingly realized that French politics as they saw it, as the subordinated class, was not three estates against each other but rather two sides: the communes (Third Estate) and everyone else (First and Second Estates). Those on the left supported creating a new liberal regime and those on the right supported maintaining the monarchy.

And for awhile, left-wing and right-wing worked. Even in the United States, a nobility-less land, the terms were and still are grafted onto the more liberal and more conservative political forces respectively. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden can both be held to be “left-wing” because when “left-wing” means having any kind of liberal politics, it covers a wide range of modern politics. Some critics of the political compass argue in favor of left-wing and right-wing specifically for this reason: the political compass attempts the impossible task of pinpointing an individual or group’s entire politics whereas left-wing and right-wing merely describes a spectrum that all political things fall on in sum.

What created the conditions for, and thus form of, the political compass? Communism, and capitalism’s fairly successful effort to prevent communism from gaining predominance over the political narrative. Communism was the greatest challenger to capitalism, an existential threat it hadn’t faced since it grabbed the world out of the hands of feudalism. Communism created a new political meme that flipped the left-wing, right-wing narrative on its head. It asked “What do the peasants and working class have in common with the bourgeoisie?” The bourgeoisie claimed the peasants and working class needed their help to destroy the final vestiges of monarchy, but from Britain to the Congo, capitalists were actively working with monarchs to exploit and oppress the peasants and the working class. The true sides of politics, communism argued, were the workers of the world versus everyone else. The peasants, victims to capitalist proletarianization, were more “soon-to-be-workers” than their own class. And the monarchs, the colonial and non-colonial petit-bourgeoisie, the lumpen proletariat, and all other political classes were all under the domination of capitalists as well. But only the workers could overthrow capitalism with their access to the means of production, and no class other than the peasants could be trusted to follow revolution to its material end.

The working class vs. the capitalists is such a compelling meme that it is now going through a reawakening in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world, albeit in modified forms like “multi-racial working class” and “the 1%.” But communism was dealt an existential blow with the destruction of the Soviet Union. Capitalists triumphant put forth two new interrelated memes: the political compass and the end of history. The end of history has become something of a joke with Brexit and the election of Trump in 2016, but the political compass has persisted because unlike the end of history, it does not deny political conflict but instead tries to frame and set the terms of it in a capitalistic conception.

The political compass is only a worthwhile tool where a significant amount of people exist in each of the four quadrants. If, for example, there are no libertarians, then why not have three categories that would capture the same amount of people? But actually, there are no libertarians.

Just kidding. Sort of. There is a statistically insignificant amount of them, at least if you believe that politics require some of amount of mass support. But libertarians do not need to be a large amount of people, or really any people at all, they just need to be an abstracted counterbalance to the concept of authoritarian left-wing politics, also known as communism. They are the weight on the other end of the scale to hold up the aforementioned idea that Stalin and Hitler were the same but-for economics. It pushes a neoliberal idea of drawing a clear and exclusive line between the economic and the social, the opposite of a Marxist conception of politics that recognizes a society’s mode of production creates society.

In addition to extrapolating “social issues” from “economic issues,” the political compass obscures class conflict within an axis of economic issues. In the political compass, individuals exist in a plot of opinions rather than in a system of class with different material interests. The above graph illustrates how misleading this can be: when some kind of representative sample is plotted, it becomes clear that the majority of people are on the Left. And keep in mind 44.3% of the US did not vote in the election at all, most of whom were working class people, let alone that the world as a whole is far more disproportionately working class than the United States (keeping in mind that the political compass claims to only reflect western democracies…or is universal…whichever one it is…).

The political compass meme becomes even more inaccurate when applied to intra-Left differences in politics. Take this plot of the political forces during the Russian Revolutions:

I have questions…

Almost all the forces on this plot besides the Black Hundreds and the Cadets are socialists. While certainly the respective placements of the Left SRs and Right SRs make sense as to the horizontal axis, the “Authoritarian-Democratic” axis is a bit-confusing. While the placement of the democratic centralist Bolsheviks towards the middle is arguable, one has to wonder about the placement of the Left SRs and Anarchists more towards the “Democratic.” The Left SRs supported the Bolshevik Revolution, and eventually split from the Bolsheviks over the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, taking the “democratic” actions of assassinating the German ambassador to try to force a break of peace with Germany since they did not have the legislative majority to otherwise make it happen (the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries had 352 delegates compared to 745 Bolsheviks out of 1132 total).

This seems to be a fallacy I have previously pointed out on this blog. Having a more libertarian ideology is not more democratic, but rather more individualistic. I refer to this as the “dictatorship of the individual” versus the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Rosa Luxemburg wrote persuasively about the dictatorship of the proletariat being democratic rather than a polar opposite of democratic: “Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, but in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished.”

The political compass misconstrues the most fundamental question of politics: how to build power. It only focuses on how the individual or group wants to use it. As Maurice Bishop once said: “It can only be relevant if appropriate grassroots mechanisms rooted in the people exist, through which the people can effectively participate, can make decisions, can receive reports from the leaders and eventually be trained for ruling and controlling that particular society. This is what democracy is all about.” These are the most fundamental questions in disagreements on the Left, a difference less in ideals than how to achieve and pursue those ideals by either building or dispersing power.

It is also the foundation of a Marxist view of politics. The Marxist idea of class war was instrumental rather than ideological. A goal of abolition of private property hardly distinguished the early Communists from many of the other mid-19th century radicals. The Communist Manifesto described the difference as follows:

“And, since it ceased in the hands of the German to express the struggle of one class with the other, he felt conscious of having overcome ‘French one-sidedness’ and of representing, not true requirements, but the requirements of Truth; not the interests of the proletariat, but the interests of Human Nature, of Man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophical fantasy.”

This socialism and Communism both had utopian aims (after all, communism theoretically leads to the withering away of all class-based institutions including the state). Their ideals would likely fall in the same or at least nearby parts of the political compass. But Marx and Engels so fervently believed in the importance of differentiating themselves from these utopians, and from Proudhon, and from Stirner, and from the Syndicalists, and so on, they dedicated most of their writing to it. The political compass obscures what Marxists believe is the most important question (at the risk of sounding flippant) — what is to be done.

That obfuscation makes the political compass an adept tool for the worst trend of modern politics towards the aesthetic. With the political compass, a person can define their politics not by what they do, but where they fall. A person can align themselves with any group or individual throughout history by abstracted theory rather than praxis. The political compass encourages foremost an individual identity over a collective — you may be a socialist who believes in collective working class struggle, but you fall on your own specific coordinates of the political compass.

What is the point of going after this meme in so much detail? I do not believe the political compass and its use is responsible for the aforementioned aesthetic politics. Rather, it is a poignant representation of those politics. It is specifically a representation of the individualistic of modern political identity. I am less concerned with a person’s use of the political compass as the political compass in their head, that when one working class person engages with another that they see the political compass and the other person as a different point on the plot rather than as a fellow worker. If we are serious about socialism, we have to rid ourselves of this way of looking at political identity and instead embrace a collective political identity through not only political groups/parties but also collectives, communes, unions, etc. Despite the stubborn persistence of the political compass, there are encouraging signs that collective political identity may be slowly but surely winning the battle, at least within the Left. Let’s make sure it does.

Feminist socialist writer fighting for econ justice. Views do not represent my firm, DSA, or my cats, who are sadly both ultra leftists.