It is often said by libertarians that left and right wing are two sides of the same coin. This is only partly correct. The ideologies of left and right are very different indeed: the former concerns itself with horizontal collectivism (enforced equality, conformity), and the latter concerns itself with vertical collectivism (authority, hierarchy, group supremacy).
Is there a substantial difference between the ideologies of vertical and horizontal collectivism? Surely the fact that they are both collectivist implies a great deal of similarity, but there must also be differences as well.
The nature of authoritarian structures is well understood. They are supported by a belief system, which includes (amongst other things) top-down morality, us v them reasoning, propaganda, and in some cases rituals. Does horizontal collectivism follow these points?
As mentioned earlier, horizontal collectivism is based on enforced equality and conformity. We can recognize two major foundations of horizontal collectivism: relativism and utilitarianism. Relativism is the belief that morality depends on group identity and collective decision-making. Utilitarianism is the belief that morality of an action is based on how much benefit it brings to the group as a whole. Inherent in these two foundations is the idea that the individual must be morally subservient to the group, in the name of the “common good.” The only difference is that this “common good” is ostensibly the collective aggregate of a group of equal units, instead of the good of a specific class or status within a group of unequal units.
We can concretize each foundation by assigning them a major ideology. To relativism we can associate democracy. Democracy is based on the premise that truth and morality is determined by aggregate voting from the members of a given group, and that truth and morality are variable from group to group. Thus truth and morality depend on group identity- such as the nation- and collectivized decision-making- in this case, voting.
To utilitarianism we can associate two ideologies. The first we can call socialism, or the “welfare State.” Socialism holds that actions are moral, even when coercive, if they help more people than they hurt at an economic level. Thus the socialist will tend to adopt measures which ostensibly take from the few and give to the many, such as welfare (which entraps the poor in poverty), minimum wage (which reduces the poor’s ability to get work), “progressive taxation” (which is in fact not overall progressive), and protectionism (which most affects the poor, as they are the most price-sensitive). Of course, we know that these measures almost universally pursue ruling class values, not the values of the greatest number.
The second ideology, we may call “environmentalism,” but as its real purpose is far removed from the environment we may call it the more personalized name of Greenism. Greenism holds that morality must be evaluated not only as the greatest good for all humans, but also for other species of animals and entire ecosystems. The lives of human beings may be considered inferior when their loss entails greater non-human benefit (how the benefit of humans and non-sentient species can be compared is unclear at best). That is the theory: in practice, Greenism is mainly concerned with the abolition of freedom of trade and private property, and Greenies impute environmental destruction to voluntary trade. The truth, of course, is that only voluntary trade has any positive effect on the environment, and that environmental degradation is almost always caused by State failure. The ultimate goal of Greenism is the triumph of ruling class oppression against the individual.
To come back to our criteria, we can certainly qualify these three ideologies as belief systems. All three hold that morality is imposed on the individual from the power of authority, and that man is too greedy and competitive to take decisions for himself, lest he irreversibly damage society. Despite promoting the enforcement of equality, all three cultivate an us v them mentality (voters v non-voters, one party v another, “environmentalists” v polluters and exploiters, “the poor” v “the rich”). They depend on, and generate, a great amount of anti-scientific, anti-individualist propaganda. Democracy has its own elaborate set of rituals (voting being the most prominent one).
Vertical belief systems have their own inter-subjective language: usages of words which only make sense within the framework of shared belief. The believer in religion uses terms such as “God,” “Heaven,” “supernatural,” “divine will,” “uncaused,” “salvation,” “sin.” The believer in politics uses terms like “government,” “common good,” “war,” “taxes,” “borders,” “immigration,” “law.” These terms only make sense to us because we have been raised to believe in them: once analyzed from outside the belief system, they dissipate into semantic vapour.
The horizontal belief systems have less of such terms, since they are ultimately dependent upon the parent terminology of politics, but they have some inter-subjective terms of their own. To my mind, the most notable one is the Greenie term “sustainability,” which seems to mean whatever any given Greenie thinks it means, but is generally correlated with cultural isolation and anti-globalization. Other terms include democracy’s “the people”, “will of the people”, “representation.”
The main effective role of the vertical belief systems is to provide for social and moral cohesion under the flag of a coercive system of power relations, real or imagined. This is also true of horizontal belief systems. The sense of belonging remains the same- belonging to the democracy, to the environment, to the society- but it becomes tied, not to a hierarchy, but to a principle of equality. One is proud to be the subject of a democracy, not because of one’s leaders, but because of the principle of “one man, one vote.” The environmentalist is proud of being part of something greater than himself. The welfare statist is proud to be helping his society towards greater equality.
And this brings us to the main difference between horizontal and vertical collectivism: specialness. The difference is not in how they work, or their end result, but in their justification in the eyes of the believer. The democratist, the welfare statist, the environmentalist, does feel superior to those who oppose him, but this feeling of superiority is secondary to the feeling of equality and conformity. The horizontal believer, seeing the great diversity of human beings, supports efforts to mold them in order to make them conform. This is why horizontal collectivism is most popular in the cities. Inhabitants of rural areas are not used to diversity and therefore see no inherent problem with conforming to traditional hierarchies.