The Political Compass: Don’t Waste Your Time

The Political Compass, a popular online quiz, was supposedly designed to remedy the simple-mindedness of the left-right spectrum by replacing it with two axes:  political and social libertarianism vs. authoritarianism, and economic Left vs. Right.  Basically, everything nice you say about big business puts you further to the economic Right — which the quiz equates to a preference for free markets — and everything negative you say about corporate power puts you further to the Left (i.e. collectivism).

The quiz explicitly identifies the economic Right with libertarianism and neoliberalism.  The horizontal Left-Right axis, the explanatory page says, is “economic.”  “Margaret Thatcher would be well over to the right, but further right still would be someone like that ultimate free marketeer, General Pinochet.”  The fact that the designers of the quiz refer to “Pinochet, who was prepared to sanction mass killing for the sake of the free market,” and that that they equate support for free markets as a right-wing position, says it all.

Remember the old “Pinochet was politically authoritarian but economically libertarian” canard?  Right.  Pinochet sent soldiers into factories and asked managers to point out union troublemakers for arrest.  The clear intent was to prevent the owners of a “factor of production” — labor power — from exercising full bargaining rights on the market.  Imagine if he’d carried out a similar program of terror against the owners of capital to force them to offer better terms to labor — do you think the designers of this quiz would call that “economically libertarian”? Pinochet took land from the people cultivating it and restored it to a landed oligarchy based on quasi-feudal titles.  He “privatized” taxpayer-funded state property to crony capitalists on sweetheart terms.  Somebody obviously never heard of the distinction between “pro-market” and “pro-business.”

Some of the questions have a “have you stopped beating your wife?” quality to them.  For example:  “Because corporations cannot be trusted to voluntarily protect the environment, they require regulation.”  Or “A genuine free market requires restrictions on the ability of predator multinationals to create monopolies.”

I believe the main reason corporations rape and pillage the environment is that the government is actively intervening to protect them from the consequences of pollution — subsidizing waste, preempting tort liability, and the like.  The main function of government is to subsidize the operating costs of monopoly and enforce the entry barriers that protect monopolies against competition.

But the implicit framing of the questions suggests the government and big business are naturally enemies, with state intervention as the only way to prevent corporate malfeasance.  So how’s a left-wing free marketeer like me, who believes big government props up big business, supposed to answer questions like those?  Given the designers’ preconceptions, there’s no way to answer truthfully without giving a false impression.

And how about this little gem:  “What’s good for the most successful corporations is always, ultimately, good for all of us.”  Want to guess whether an “Agree” or “Disagree” puts you closer to the “free market” end of the spectrum?

The test placed me squarely in the middle of the Economic Left/Right axis.  I suspect my answers cancelled each other out because, while I regard all my positions as perfectly consistent with genuine free market libertarianism (as opposed to being a shill  for big business and the plutocracy), the compass works from the unstated assumption that any critique of corporate power is somehow “anti-business” or “anti-market.”

This wretched quiz  takes for granted all the worst assumptions of our dumbed-down political culture.  In so doing, like Newspeak, it reinforces all the ways in which our corporatized political culture obscures critical thought.

“Both sides” in American politics share the unstated assumption that corporate economic domination is the natural outcome of a “free market,” unless the state intervenes to obstruct the process.  They just disagree on whether that’s good or bad.  But they share a common interest in promoting this misconception.  Mainstream “conservatives” have an interest in pretending the size and power of big business, and the wealth of the plutocracy, result from success in the competitive market — and not corporate welfare.  Mainstream “liberals” have an interest in pretending the regulatory state — run by people like themselves — is all that stands between us and corporate tyranny, when in fact it’s propping the tyranny up.

If I may allude to Plato, this quiz minutely measures our beliefs about flickering shadows on the wall of a cave.  If reality is what you’re interested in, then tear up this wretched quiz, free yourself from your mental chains, and turn around and face the light of day.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory