[FoRK] A Thrive/Survive Theory Of The Political Spectrum

Stephen D. Williams sdw at lig.net
Fri Feb 20 21:00:01 PST 2015

I lost track of how I found this, so I can't be sure it isn't a duplicate post.  But it deserves a clear posting anyway.

Nice read and a good theory.

A Thrive/Survive Theory Of The Political Spectrum
Posted on March 4, 2013 by Scott Alexander

I admitted in my last post on Reaction that I devoted insufficient space to the question of why society does seem to be drifting 
gradually leftward. And I now realize that in order to critique the Reactionary worldview effectively we’re going to have to go there.

The easiest answer would be “because we retroactively define leftism as the direction that society went”. But this is not true. 
Communism is very leftist, but society eventually decided not to go that way. It seems fair to say that there are certain areas 
where society did not go to the left, like in the growth of free trade and the gradual lowering of tax rates, but upon realizing 
this we don’t feel the slightest urge to redefine “low tax rates” as leftist.

So what is leftism? For that matter, what is rightism?

Any theory of these two ideas would have to explain at least the following data points:

1) Why do both ideologies combine seemingly unrelated political ideas? For example, why do people who want laissez-faire free trade 
empirically also prefer a strong military and oppose gay marriage? Why do people who want to help the environment also support 
feminism and dislike school vouchers?

2) Why do the two ideologies seem broadly stable across different times and cultures, such that it’s relatively easy to point out 
the Tories as further right than the Whigs, or ancient Athens as further left than ancient Sparta? For that matter, why do they seem 
to correspond to certain neural patterns in the brain, such that neurologists can determine your political beliefs with 83% accuracy 
by examining brain structure alone?

3) Why do these basically political ideas correlate so well with moral, aesthetic, and religious preferences?

4) The original question: how come, given enough time and left to itself, leftism seems to usually win out over rightism, pushing 
the Overton window a bit forward until there’s a new leftism and rightism?

I have a hypothesis that explains most of this, but first let me go through some proposed alternatives.

The Reactionaries have at least two theories. Moldbug suggests that rightism is common sense, and leftism is Christianity minus the 
religious trappings and rightism is rational thought. Another of his posts suggests that leftism is naked power-grabbing and 
rightism is virtuous pro-social behavior.

But the first of these fails to explain point 1; how come most traditionally Christian ideas end up on the right side of the aisle? 
It fails to explain 2 – how come we can call Sparta rightist even in the pre-Christian age? It might explain 3. But it definitely 
fails point 4; even if it were true, why would this weird neo-Christian sect suddenly take off just as all other Christian sects are 
hemorrhaging believers? As for the second, it explains point 4 and point 4 only, and seems, well, maybe a little completely 
obviously self-serving?

The Libertarians say that leftism supports government intervention on economic but not social issues, and rightism supports 
government intervention on social but not economic issues. Unfortunately, this isn’t really true. Leftists support government 
intervention in society in the form of gun control, hate speech laws, funding for the arts, and sex ed in schools. In fact, leftists 
are sometimes even accused of being in favor of “social engineering”. Meanwhile, conservatives lead things like the home schooling 
and school choice movements, which seem to be about less government regulation of society. Having gotten Point 1 not quite right, 
this theory then goes on to completely ignore points 2, 3, and 4.

The scientists studying neuropolitics in that article I linked to say things like “Liberals tend to seek out novelty and 
uncertainty, while conservatives exhibit strong changes in attitude to threatening situations. The former are more willing to accept 
risk, while the latter tends to have more intense physical reactions to threatening stimuli.” But this seems flawed. Leftists have 
an intense physical reaction to the threatening situation of global warming. Rightists seek out the novelty and accept the risk of a 
foreign war that might increase America’s global power at minimal cost but might waste hundreds of thousands of lives to no end. 
Another failure of 1, I’ll give it 2 or 3, and once again no love for point 4.

Okay, I’ll put you out of your misery and tell you my hypothesis now. My hypothesis is that rightism is what happens when you’re 
optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.

The Dead Have Risen, And They’re Voting Republican

Before I explain, a story. Last night at a dinner party we discussed Dungeons and Dragons orientations. One guest declared that he 
thought Lawful Good was a contradiction in terms, very nearly at the same moment as a second guest declared that he thought Chaotic 
Good was a contradiction in terms. What’s up?

I think the first guest was expressing a basically leftist world view. It is a fact of nature that society will always be orderly, 
the economy always expanding. Crime will be a vague rumor but generally under control. All that the marginal unit of extra law 
enforcement adds to this pleasant state is cops beating up random black people, or throwing a teenager in jail because she wanted to 
try marijuana.

The second guest was expressing a basically rightist world view. The prosperous, orderly society we know and love is hanging by a 
frickin’ thread. At any moment, terrorists or criminals or just poor management could destroy everything. It is really really good 
that we have police in order to be the “thin blue line” between civilization and chaos, and we might sleep easier in our beds at 
night if that blue line were a little thicker and we had a little more buffer room.

I propose that the best way for leftists to get themselves in a rightist frame of mind is to imagine there is a zombie apocalypse 
tomorrow. It is a very big zombie apocalypse and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be one of those ones where a plucky band just 
has to keep themselves alive until the cavalry ride in and restore order. This is going to be one of your long-term zombie 
apocalypses. What are you going to want?

First and most important, guns. Lots and lots of guns.

Second, you’re going to have a deep and abiding affection for the military and the police. You’re going to hope that the government 
has given them a lot of funding over the past few years.

Third, you’re going to start praying. Really hard. If someone looks like they’re doing something that might offend God, you’re going 
to very vehemently ask them to stop. However few or many atheists there may be in foxholes, there are probably fewer when those 
foxholes are surrounded by zombies. Or, as Karl Marx famously said of zombie uprisings, “Who cares if it’s an opiate? / It’s time to 

Fourth, you’re going to be extremely suspicious of outsiders. It’s not just that they could be infected. There are probably going to 
be all sorts of desperate people around, looking to steal your supplies, your guns, your ammo. You trust your friends, you trust 
your neighbors, and if someone who looks different than you and seems a bit shifty comes up to you, you turn them away or just kill 
them before they kill you.

Fifth, you’re going to want hierarchy and conformity. When the leader says run, everyone runs. If someone is constantly slowing the 
group down, questioning the group, causing trouble, causing dissent, they’re a troublemaker and they can either shut up or take 
their chances on their own. There’s a reason all modern militaries work on a hierarchical system that tries to maximize group coherence.

Sixth, you are not going to be sentimental. If someone gets bitten by the zombies, they get shot. Doesn’t matter if it’s really sad, 
doesn’t matter if it wasn’t their own fault. If someone breaks the rules and steals supplies for themselves, they get punished. If 
someone refuses to pull their weight, they get left behind. Harsh? Yes. But there’s no room for people who don’t contribute in a 
sleek urban postapocalyptic zombie-fighting machine.

Seventh, you want to maximize wealth. Whatever gets you the supplies you need, you’re going to do. If that means forcing people to 
work jobs they don’t like, that’s the sacrifice they’ve got to make. If your raid on a grocery store leaves less behind for everyone 
else, well, that’s too bad but you need the food. Are woodland animals going to go extinct as more and more survivors retreat to the 
woods and rely on them for food? That’s not the kind of thing you’re worried about when you’re half-starved and only a few hours 
ahead of the zombie horde.

Eighth, strong purity/contamination ethics. We know that purity/contamination ethics are an evolutionary defense against sickness: 
disgusting things like urine, feces, dirt, blood, insects, and rotting corpses are all vectors of infection; creepy animals like 
spiders, snakes, and centipedes are all vectors for poisoning. Maybe right now you don’t worry too much about this. But in a world 
where the hospitals are all overrun by zombies and you need to outrun a ravenous horde at a moment’s notice, this becomes a much 
bigger deal. Not to mention that anything you catch might be the dreaded Zombie Virus.

Ninth, an emphasis on practical skills rather than book learning. That eggheaded Professor of Critical Studies? Can’t use a gun, 
isn’t studying a subject you can use to invent bigger guns, not a useful ally. Probably would just get in the way. Big masculine men 
who can build shelters and fight with weapons are useful. So are fertile women who can help breed the next generation of humans. 
Anyone else is just another mouth to feed.

Tenth, extreme black and white thinking. It’s not useful to wonder whether or not the zombies are only fulfilling a biological drive 
and suffer terribly when you kill them despite not being morally in the wrong. It’s useful to believe they’re the hellish undead and 
it’s your sacred duty to fight them by any means necessary.

In other words, “take actions that would be beneficial to survival in case of a zombie apocalypse” seems to get us rightist 
positions on a lot of issues. We can generalize from zombie apocalypses to any desperate conditions in which you’re not sure that 
you’re going to make it and need to succeed at any cost.

What about the opposite? Let’s imagine a future utopia of infinite technology. Robotic factories produce far more wealth than anyone 
could possibly need. The laws of Nature have been altered to make crime and violence physically impossible (although this technology 
occasionally suffers glitches). Infinitely loving nurture-bots take over any portions of child-rearing that the parents find boring. 
And all traumatic events can be wiped from people’s minds, restoring them to a state of bliss. Even death itself has disappeared. 
What policies are useful for this happy state?

First of all, we probably shouldn’t have a police force. Given that crime is impossible, at best they would be useless and at worst 
they might go around flexing their authority and causing trouble.

Second, religion seems kind of superfluous. Throughout history, richer civilizations have been less religious and our post-scarcity 
society should be no exception. What would you pray for? What fear is there for faith to allay? With vast supercomputers that know 
all things, what lingering questions are there for the Bible to answer?

Third, assuming people still have jobs or something, we should probably make them as nice as possible. It doesn’t matter if it hurts 
productivity; we’re producing far more than we need anyway. We should enforce short work hours and ample maternity and paternity 
leave so that everyone has time to concentrate on the more important things in life.

Fourth, interest in the environment. We have no shortage of material goods; if our lives lack anything it is beauty and connection 
to nature. So it will be nice to have as many pleasant green spaces as possible; and if this means a little less oil, it’s not like 
our Oil-Making-Machines can’t make up the extra.

Fifth, free love. There’s no worries about STDs, the family unit isn’t necessary for any kind of economic survival, and the 
nurture-bots and trauma-erasure-centers can take care of the kids of anything goes wrong. And since we don’t have anything else to 
do, we might as well enjoy ourselves with infinite sex.

I was going to go for ten here too, but you get the picture. This world of infinite abundance is a great match for leftist values. I 
imagine even a lot of rightists and Reactionaries would be happy enough with leftism in a situation like this.

I should also mention what would no doubt be the main pastime of the people of this latter world: signaling.

When people are no longer constrained by reality, they spend most of their energy in signaling games. This is why rich people build 
ever-bigger yachts and fret over the parties they throw and who got invited where. It’s why heirs and heiresses so often become 
patrons of the art, or donors to major charities. Once you’ve got enough money, the next thing you need is status, and signaling is 
the way to get it.

So the people of this final utopia will be obsessed with looking good. They will become moralists, and try to prove themselves more 
virtuous than their neighbors. Their sophistication will gradually increase as each tries to establish themselves as a critic, as 
tasteful, as a member of an aristocracy that can no longer be defined in terms of money. They will become conniving, figuring out 
ways to raise their own social status at their neighbors’ expense. Or they will devolve into a host of competing subcultures, united 
only by their pride in their defiance of a “norm” which is quickly ceasing to exist.

Chris wrote this comment to my last post’s section on Reactionary aesthetics:

     The things Reactionaries complain about in aesthetics seem not the fault of progressives, but the result of an unavoidable 
signaling logic. See Quentin Bell on what he called “conspicuous outrage.”

I agree with Chris 100% here, but I don’t think this is opposed to the Reactionaries’ link between this aesthetic and leftism. I 
think that leftists are the sort of people who are so secure that they can start thinking about how to excel at signaling games.

An Evaluation of the Thrive/Survive Theory

This is close to an explanation of our Point 1. It does not quite explain all left vs. right positions (in particular I despair of 
any theory that will tell me why school choice is a rightist rather than a leftist issue) but it does as well as any of the others, 
and better than some.

This also satisfies Point 2. The distinction between security and insecurity is far older than Classical Greece; it is perfectly 
reasonable for Athenian society to start from the assumption of the one and the Spartans to go with the other.

I admit some confusions. For example, it seems weird that poor people, the people who are actually desperate and insecure, are often 
leftist, whereas rich people, the ones who are actually completely safe, are often rightist. I would have to appeal to economic 
self-interest here: the poor are leftist because leftism is the philosophy that says to throw lots of resources at helping the poor, 
and the rich are rightist because rightism says to let the rich keep getting richer. Despite voting records, I expect the poor to 
share more rightist social values (eg be more religious, more racist) and the rich to to share more leftist social values (more 
intellectual as opposed to practical, less obsessed with guns). For a more comprehensive theory of economic self-interest and 
politics, see my essay on the subject.

This theory also satisfies Point 3. Developmental psychology has gradually been moving towards a paradigm where our biology actively 
seeks out information about our environment and then toggles between different modes based on what it finds. Probably the most 
talked-about example of this paradigm is the thrifty phenotype idea, devised to explain the observation that children starved in the 
womb will grow up to become obese. The idea is that some system notices that there seems to be very little food, and goes into 
“desperately conserve food” mode, which when food becomes more plentiful leads to obesity.

Another example, more clearly neurological, is the tendency of children who grow up in broken homes to have poor life outcomes. 
Although this was originally just interpreted as “damage”, an equally valid theory is that the brain seeks out information on what 
kind of society it lives in – one based on love and trust, or one based on violence and mistrust – and then activates the 
appropriate coping strategy. If child abuse or something makes the brain conclude we live in a violence and mistrust society, it 
alters its neural architecture to be violent and mistrustful – and hence dooms itself to future bad outcomes.

It seems broadly plausible that there could be one of these switches for something like “social stability”. If the brain finds 
itself in a stable environment where everything is abundant, it sort of lowers the mental threat level and concludes that everything 
will always be okay and its job is to enjoy itself and win signaling games. If it finds itself in an environment of scarcity, it 
will raise the mental threat level and set its job to “survive at any cost”.

What would toggle this switch? My guess is that genetics plays a very large role in setting the threshold (explaining why party 
affiliation is highly heritable) and that a lot of the remainder is implicit messages we get in childhood from our parents, school, 
church, et cetera. Actual rational argument and post-childhood life experiences make up the last few percent of variation.

Knowing this, the answer to Point 4 is blindingly obvious. Leftism wins over time because technology advances over time which means 
societies become more secure and abundant over time.

As a decent natural experiment, take the Fall of Rome. Both Greece and Rome were relatively leftist, with freedom of religion, 
democratic-republican governments, weak gender norms, minimal family values, and a high emphasis on education and abstract ideas. 
After the Fall of Rome, when Europe was set back technologically into a Dark Age, rightism returned with a vengeance. People became 
incredibly religious, militant, pragmatic, and provincial, and the government switched to an ad hoc and extremely hierarchical 
feudalism. This era of conservativism ended only when society reached the same level of technology and organization as the Greeks 
and Romans. So it’s not that cultures become more leftist over time, it’s that leftism varies with social and economic security.

Both rightists and leftists will find much to like in this idea. The rightists will ask: “So you mean that rightism is optimized for 
survival and effectiveness, and leftism is optimized for hedonism and signaling games?” And I will mostly endorse this conclusion.

On the other hand, the leftists will ask: “So you mean rightism is optimized for tiny unstable bands facing a hostile wilderness, 
and leftism is optimized for secure, technologically advanced societies like the ones we are actually in?” And this conclusion, too, 
I will mostly endorse.

Given that we are in conditions that seem to favor leftist ideals, the modern debate between leftists and rightists is, to mix 
metaphors atrociously, about how hard we can milk the goose that lays the golden eggs. Leftists think we can just keep drawing more 
and more happiness and utility for all out of our massive scientific and technological progress. Rightists are holding their breath 
for something to go terribly, terribly wrong and require the crisis-values they have safeguarded all this time – which is why posts 
like this one seem to be the purest expression of rightist wish-fulfillment fantasy.

I will only remark that one of the most consistent findings of my researches through economic and political history has been the 
remarkable, almost supernatural resilience of our particular aureate waterfowl. To a leftist, this is good news. To a rightist, I 
suppose this would just be evidence of how shockingly audacious we must be to try to push our luck even further.

EDIT: People are taking this as pro-Reactionary. I meant it to be at least suggestive of anti-Reactionary ideas. See my reply to the 
first comment below.


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