You might have noticed in recent months weeks that horseshoe theory- the idea that the far right and the far left are similar to each other- has reared its head in political discourse.
The charge is that the left are acting much like the far right, and have become deranged conspiracy theorists, unable to rationalise and forming a cult around Jeremy Corbyn. Many have even compared the “Corbynistas” to the alt-right. It even went as far as members of the British press giving free publicity to racists of the far right who cynically claimed to support Jeremy Corbyn, which implied, disturbingly, that some members of the mainstream were more likely to be critical of the leader of the Labour party than leaders of far right groups.
It is true that both the left and the right share the idea that things need to change, however the more apt analogy between the two sides is not a horseshoe, but either side of a wide and gaping canyon. Even in the 1950s, the renowned American Sociologist C Wright Mills was fighting against the idea that you could equate the left and the right in this way. His classic text, the Power Elite, set out a framework of elite perceptions that remains remarkably relevant to this day.
The Omnipotent Elite theory, the idea of all-powerful shadowy elites, was what Mills saw as a “secular substitute for the will of god” that fulfilled the hope that the universe will reveal itself to us as a comprehensive story of good and evil. We can recognise this as the stuff of pop culture conspiracy theories with casts of reptilians, aliens and knights templar pulling strings from on high. But Mills noted that this same impulse was present in the way the far right scaffolded their racist and/or paranoid beliefs and to this day we see that the theories of all powerful communists or Jews (or communist Jews) directing world events uncontested are prevalent in far right discourse. To the far right, capitalism does not exist, so any failings of the system must be communist plots. Neoliberals like Blair and Obama are described as socialists, and billionaire capitalists like George Soros are cast as communists.
To unwittingly prove this point, many of the far right have appropriated John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live, for their own recruiting memes. The hero Nada, portrayed by Roddy Piper, finds a pair of glasses that enables the wearer to see the world as it really is. In the film, he sees evil aliens, but it’s a clear satire of the bourgeois yuppie capitalists of the Reagan era who have never really gone away. Highlighting their economic blindspot, the far right have declared that the film is actually about Jews and that their racist ideology is like wearing Nada’s glasses. While the far right may be correct in that reality does not always appear to us as it is presented, the glasses they have worn to see further have faulty lenses too.
It is not only the far right that fail to perceive capitalism and the structural drivers of inequality. According to Mills’ Framework, rather than believing than elites are omnipotent, liberals (or what we might call centrists today) suffer from the opposite problem: they see the elite of society as largely impotent, prevented from abusing their power by the series of checks and balances that the modern state provides. And just like Mills’ insights into the far right, this insight into the liberal mind remains pertinent and reveals why liberals and centrists of today cling so tightly to horseshoe theory.
They cannot tell the difference between the deranged fantasies of the far right and the critical analysis of the left, because to them, the very idea of power working negatively is unimaginable. When Andrew Marr interviewed Noam Chomsky, who was critical of mainstream media, Marr seemed to believe that Chomsky was speaking of omnipotent conspiracy, and defensively remarked that he does not censor his journalism to please those above him. “If you believed something different, you wouldn't be sitting where you are sitting" Chomsky responds, perfectly illustrating that structure is equally as important as agency.
So where does this leave the left or the critical? Mills’ own analysis of the elites saw that they were neither omnipotent nor impotent. Conspiracy and cronyism did exist among the wealthy and powerful, but it was both the actors and the structures of power that had to be held accountable in a just and lucid analysis. Or, as lecturer Michael Parenti puts it, “it’s not conspiracy or class power, it’s conspiracy and class power”. And it is this logic that the critical left has generally utilised in the last fifty years. What this means is that when it comes to the financial crisis of 2008, it is not enough to blame greedy bankers but to also attack the system of laws (or lack thereof) that enabled them to get away with it. When head teachers are taking extortionate salaries, they are rightfully called out, but the other culprit is the system of academisation that has set the conditions that allow them to get away with it.
The critical left are not adverse to conspiracies per se, as long as they are backed up with evidence and not something resembling a Dan Brown novel. Perhaps one of the biggest conspiracy of our age is tax evasion which some estimates put at trillions of dollars. Money that could be used to build hospitals, schools and infrastructure streams out of both developed and underdeveloped countries. And it is the left who do not just call attention to those who conspire to avoid tax, but also point the finger at the structures that enable it.
Mills does have a small warning for the left, that they shouldn’t become “vulgar Marxists”- pointing the finger at the bourgeois as evil villains without taking into account structure- and that perhaps is also something that the left of today should take bear in mind, while recent antisemitism accusations levelled at the left have been largely overblown, the small minority who have lurched into full blown omnipotent theories should be called out. On the whole though, the left have been a force for critical analysis of the powerful and the gradations of society that help to perpetuate inequality.
It’s remarkable how relevant Mill’s framework of elite perception remains to the 21st century, and it’s easy to feel a sense of defeatism that so little has changed. However, the lived reality of ever-tightening neoliberalism and the internet era’s plurality of voices has increased dissenting voices. However dissent is not enough, as it may lead to bigotry and racism. Arundhati Roy, writing on nationalism in neoliberal India, wrote that as people become aware of the difference between what they know to be true and what they are told, the discourse becomes “a place of endless speculation and potential insanity." We can see these insane voices in the wild and paranoid discourse of the far right across the world today.
The challenge for the left and those critical of state power in the 21st century is to mitigate that insanity with a strategy that not only continues to call out the individuals who help prop up neoliberalism but one that articulates the real existing power structures and importantly, offers a viable and fair alternative. To quote Richard Hofstater, we must acknowledge the difference between “conspiracies in history and saying that history is, in effect a conspiracy”. The latter describes the theories of elite omnipotence utilised by the far right but the former acknowledges that while conspiracies exist they are not inevitable nor all-powerful. The “horseshoe” only exists for those who are sheltered by the power they uncritically defend. The far right offer nothing but impotent rage, and the centrists offer nothing at all, it is the analysis of the critical left that gives us not only a framework, but a goal and an understanding that these are battles that can be won.