RAW political #2 – “left”/”right”

‘like a visitor from non-Euclidean dimensions whose outlines are perplexing to the Euclidean inhabitants of various dogmatic Flatlands.’ – RAW, Left and Right: A Non-Euclidean Perspective


I suspect I’m not alone in thinking Robert Anton Wilson did us a big favour by tackling political semantics in his ‘Left and Right: A Non-Euclidean Perspective‘. Seen by many (including me) as a classic, and seemingly well-known (relatively, for a Wilson article), I just wish it was as widely circulated as, say, a typical social media pronouncement from the former CIA and Booz Allen Hamilton employee Edward Snowden.

(To digress: I wouldn’t know how to categorise Snowden politically. He seemed quiet on Trump, but appears to have found his critical voice again on Biden. He expressed some “interesting” views on IRC chats, circa 2007/8/9 – for example, that “[the elderly] wouldn’t be fucking helpless if you weren’t sending them fucking checks to sit on their ass and lay in hospitals all day”. Not a fan of social security, apparently. Still, one can appreciate an action that someone once took – eg whistleblowing – without setting them up in your head as a wise oracle, sacred cow or political ally.)

RAW deconstructs here via biographical detail – an effective way, it seems, to soften and dereify political abstractions. As he points out in the article, he prefers to gamble on human experience “with all its muddle and uncertainty”, than to believe in “capitalized Abstractions” and “general principles”.

A good synonym for “Euclidean” in this context might be “linear space”. Political issues – like messy personal realities – mostly don’t reduce to linear representation; but with “left” and “right” as established labels we seem stuck with the metaphor. As RAW puts it:

‘Of course, we are living in curved space (as noted by Einstein); that should warn us that Euclidean metaphors are always misleading. Science has also discovered that the Universe can count above two, which should make us leery of either/or choices.’

RAW, Left and Right: A Non-Euclidean Perspective

No political centre – “Non-E” vs “Non-A”

Note the different functions of RAW’s “non-Euclidean” and “non-Aristotelian” critiques. That’s to say: you can have multi-valued (non-Aristotelian) logic within a linear (Euclidean) spectrum. In fact RAW’s recommended probability-rating method – a mindful alternative to reflexive 2-valued logic – accords with linear Euclidean POVs. With “non-Euclidean”, RAW gives us something new to chew on – a different set of metaphorical entailments than “maybe logic”, per se. This should become clearer as we continue…

In a way, Bob anticipates work by cognitive linguists (and some neuroscientists) on conceptual metaphor in politics and its “neural binding” in our brains in different areas of our lives. For example, I don’t recall him referring to a political “center” (or “centre”, “centrists”, “moderates”) much, if at all. But he did refer to “mixed economies”, by which he meant neither “Capitalist” (“right”) nor “Socialist” (“left”) but containing mixed elements of both, and neither, of what those terms popularly signify. That’s at the level of economies; his article makes the point even clearer regarding individual human lives and the chaotic multiplicities and messy contradictions they “contain”.

This reflects the more recent cognitive scientists’ preferred way of referring to political categories – ie as needing to take into account endlessly varied mixtures of different co-existing elements (at the neural level and in the “real world”), rather than assuming a shared metaphorical “centre” or “mainstream” position with movements along a Euclidean line towards an “extreme” at each end. As George Lakoff says, “there’s no ideology of the ‘center'” – the “centre” arises as an entailment of a spatial metaphor. A “semantic spook”, as RAW might say.

Another way of saying it: people who self-identify as politically “moderate” (and also people labelled by others as “moderate” or “centrist”) happen to turn up all over any Euclidean political “map” you care to construct – you won’t find them concentrated in one metaphorical spatial “location” (though most people “see” them as somewhere in the “middle”). It makes no difference whether you use a simple “right” vs “left” map, or whether you add an extra axis or two (eg “libertarian” vs “authoritarian”).

So, in the same manner that RAW warns us of outmoded belief systems (eg worldviews that derive from Aristotelian and Platonic philosophies), and cites Bucky Fuller warning us about the consequences of antiquated Malthusian and Darwinian thinking, we get an extra warning here – originally from RAW – about dysfunctional, past-its-sell-by-date Euclidian metaphors in politics.

‘The left-to-right scale that political pundits love is an inaccurate metaphor – and a dangerous one, for two reasons. First, it posits a political “mainstream,” a population with a unified political worldview, which does not exist now nor has it ever. […] Accepting the left-to-right scale leads to the logic – and the claim – that to get more votes you have to move to the right. […] there is no left-to-right line between progressive and conservative views, and no unified “moderate” worldview.’

George Lakoff, The Political Mind (2008)

Simple signifiers vs Euclidean implications

The “right”/”left” terminology in politics apparently “appeared during the French Revolution of 1789 when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president’s right and supporters of the revolution to his left”. One can speak of “left” and “right” without any linear scale between – as in left hand and right hand, left and right hemispheres of the brain, etc. And in that sense, as simple signifiers with no Euclidean metaphorical implications, “right” and “left” seem relatively unproblematic as political labels. And, like RAW, we probably continue to use them for that limited purpose, as a kind of convenient shorthand.

But, “the Universe can count above two”, as RAW noted, and people realised that a simple duality didn’t accomodate the whole of politics. And so, ironically, “right” and “left” got extended into a metaphorical linear scale, with “centre”, “centre-left”, “far left”, etc. A sliding linear (Eudlidean) scale can represent many things more “accurately” than a binary toggle seems to – even among political issues. But not whole brains, people or economies, it seems.

Another irony: quite a lot of important political matters seem to be “modelled” more usefully by a dichotomy than by a linear scale. On capital punishment, abortion, etc, we don’t see a sliding incremental scale or a middle-of-the-road. You don’t hear people say “I’m moderate to centre-right on the death penalty – about 67% pro-execution”!

(As I describe in another post, RAW has written at length on the Matrist/Patrist psychological dualities and their political manifestations – another area in which he seems to anticipate a trajectory now seen in cognitive and brain sciences. This post-Freudian analysis yields several political dichotomies that can be boiled down to “right”/”left” – or “conservative”/”liberal” or “authoritarian”/”libertarian”, etc – terminology.)

RAW anti-war – the debate

‘I seem anti-war by “temperament” (whatever that means — early imprints or conditioning? Genes? I don’t know the exact cause of such a deep-seated and life-long bias).’RAW, Left and Right: A Non-Euclidean Perspective

In the context of “left”/right” semantics, Bob’s anti-war remark strikes me as a useful springboard for a timely, urgent debate. In recent years I’ve noticed a flood of social media posts equating warmongering with “liberalism” and even “centrism” (often tied to depictions of Trump as maverick peacemaker). I’ve no idea how much of this is organic, as opposed to engineered.

There seems a big difference to me between anti-war views based on “progressive” morality (universal empathy, humanitarianism) and so-called “non-interventionist” views based on fairly narrow nationalist cost-benefit considerations. Of course, I’ve long been aware of hawkish establishment “Liberals” (indeed, RAW mentions a few in his article); but in my British upbringing, I’d always associated pro-war leanings with “conservative” and “nationalist” views. “Shock and awe”, “full spectrum dominance”, colossal overpowering military strength, etc – these don’t seem the things that “liberals” (or “leftists”) by definition fetishize! (I’m old enough to remember when “liberals and lefties” seemed more likely to be denounced for being too soft – for not having the stomach for military action).

RAW’s point about temperament and early imprints leads me to think again of Matrist/Patrist dichotomies. Naturally, the instinctive abhorrence of suffering of all kinds, and all creatures, reflects the nurturing Matrist polarity, whilst the emphasis on strength, control and conquering expresses the Patrist side. G. Rattray Taylor (along with RAW) links Matrist tendencies with “progressive” views, and Patrist aspects with “conservative” politics.

I also think of RAW’s remark that he saw himself as, emotionally, a “bleeding heart liberal”, but rationally as “libertarian”. That makes perfect sense to me in the current context, in which Bob (along with cognitive/brain scientists) points to multitudes of possibilities co-existing within a human being – as revealed in biographical detail, with different political modes of thought arising in different areas of one’s life – often without us being aware of the shifts between them (eg when those different modes co-exist in time – which Lakoff calls “biconceptualism”).

‘I think one of the bravest statements of the 1970s was made by Norman Lear in a Playboy interview when he said, “I’m an old-fashioned, bleeding heart liberal.” That is so corny and so kitsch and so camp and everybody sneers at that kind of thing. But if you’re not a do-gooder you don’t really appreciate life. That’s the secret of secrets.’

RAW interview with Michael Helm (1977/78)

Algorithmic punchline

So, what of the weird contortions of political categories (“left” and “right”, for starters) on social media? What about the view, churned out relentlessly, of “liberals”/”centrists” as largely responsible for most of the “imperialism”, “regime change”, bombing, killing, drone-strikes and general nefarious warlike intervention in foreign lands? (Did you just have the reflexive response, “WELL,THEY ARE!”?). What of Donald Trump as anti-establishment saviour who would put a stop to the liberal deep-state war machine?

Not all of this comes from MAGA folks, discord-sowing bots, troll farms or profit-algorithms gone astray. Some comes from influential and creditable commentators – people like Edward Snowden. The Intercept‘s Jeremy Scahill, for example, asserted that Donald Trump represents “the best hope we’ve had since 9/11 to actually end some of these forever wars”. His then colleague Glenn Greenwald promoted the notion of Trump as “non-interventionist“, and also as “just more honest” about US policy than his “liberal” predecessors such as Obama.

With heavy-hitters like those asserting these claims, perhaps they contain some truth?

Well, maybe not so much. I note that after Trump took office, the number of US troops deployed abroad increased – Trump escalated every conflict he presided over, ramping up bombing in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Yemen, increasing civilian deaths (in some cases to record-high levels) while removing civilian protections and reducing accountability. In the year after Trump became president he oversaw more than 10,000 US-led coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, with a 215% rise in civilian deaths. Trump’s drone strikes far exceed Obama’s, and US weapon sales to foreign countries increased under Trump.

But then none of this should come as a surprise if you paid attention to Trump’s strongman campaign rhetoric on the use of America’s colossal military force (“I would bomb the hell out of them”, “I would bomb the shit out of them. I would just bomb those suckers”, “take out their families”).

So, presenting Trump as some kind of peacemaker seems a weird one, to me. As does presenting “liberals” (or “centrists”), as a class, as prototypical warmongers. But I guess we’re only just starting with the bizarro algorithm-boosted political-category dislocations.

In any case, I’d love to see the wider circulation of RAW’s insights on political semantics – and General Semantics and neurosemantics – along with the new trajectories of neuro- and cognitive sciences, as anticipated by RAW.


See also the first post in this series, RAW political #1

24 thoughts on “RAW political #2 – “left”/”right”

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  1. Excellent perceptive article. I see what you mean about “euclidean”, and RAW doesn’t expand on that too much but just rolls it into the EITHER/OR problem. BUt on reflecting I think it is what he was getting at. He was an intuitive writer for sure. You knew he was onto something even when he didn’t tease it out completely.

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    1. Thanks! And, yes – sometimes you have to read between the lines a little. And because he seemed ahead of the game on many things, you get the sense that we’re waiting for a proper consensus terminology to be evolved that catches up with an intuitive insight. Or sometimes you can read another writer or have a different experience, and it seems to throw a new light on what he was saying.

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  2. The version of ‘Left and Right: A Non-Euclidean Perspective’ in the book ‘Email to the Universe’ is slightly different than the one online that you link to. I see you’ve quoted from the book version, which has been slightly edited (by RAW himself I would think, given the nature of the edits). For example, the book version says ‘I seem anti-war by “temperament”…’ whereas the online version says ‘I was anti-war by “temperament”…’. The online version ends with a quote from Alexander Pope’s Essay On Man, which the book version excludes.

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    1. Yes – thanks – I did quote from the book version (I have the 2005 New Falcon edition). I think I also copied-n-pasted one or two quotes from the online version where they were exactly the same. Generally I recommend getting the latest book editions from Hilaritas Press where available (I think they have RAW aficionados as consultant copy-editors, etc, so typos from the original New Falcon versions get appropriately corrected, etc).

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  3. reading your understated criticism of Snowden and Greenwald just as newsfeed exploded with story of Chelsea Manning denouncing Greenwald for “hurting” and “intimidating” people. She also says she is terrified of Greenwald and was too scared to speak out before. Strange days

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    1. Strange days indeed. Only yesterday Noam Chomsky was ‘trending’ on Twitter because some of his most prominent admirers (people like Max Blumenthal) were denouncing Chomsky for saying something about Covid that sounded reasonable to me (balancing the right to not get vaccinated with the responsibility to stay isolated where necessary, so as not to increase risk to others).

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  4. lol you’re way too lenient on Greenwald and his reactionary chums. Back in the day he worked for white supremacists charged with murder, and there are pictures on the record of him grinning along with Nazis at parties. And then in his blog he went on about hordes of immigrants pouring across the border and threatening US national identity (look it up).

    And now he’s most at home guesting on Tucker Carlson’s show and attacking libs, dems, and lefties. Not to mention the four years he spent as apologist for Trump. It’s people on the right like Cernovich who are most likely to defend him now.

    All fairly consistent. The only aberration was the couple of years after the Snowden leaks, when he found he had big liberal-left support, and so marketed himself to them. That’s worn really thin over the last few years.

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    1. It’s good that I can comment freely and immediately here. I just tried posting a comment to Greenwald’s new Substack article, to defend Chelsea Manning, since all the commenters there swallow Glenn’s BS. But it turns out only paid subscribers to his BS can comment on his BS. That’s basically like: you can comment but only if you agree with me. And Greenwald is supposed to be a great free speech, anti-censorship campaigner?

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    2. If you want me to be more critical of Greenwald, I’m happy to – although it’s somewhat off topic. On the recent social media rumble, Chelsea Manning posted a few tweets saying she’s terrified of “everything” Greenwald does – his “unprincipled” and “greedy” approach, etc. Which I took to refer to the fact that he’s raking in huge sums by posting populist Tucker Carlson-style anti-liberal, anti-dem, anti-Deep State, Covid-“sceptical” framing. As if he didn’t already have enough money (he’s a multi-millionaire) and a big enough following, without appealing to a MAGA/QAnon-type audience. Or at least I assume that’s Chelsea Manning’s take, based on what’s now on the public record

      And in response to Manning’s tweet, Glenn seemed to have a “24-hr meltdown” in which he posted her private DM correspondence, without her consent – and brought up her mental health issues, her suicide attempts, etc. He also asserted (falsely) that Manning “insinuated” that he “abused” her. And he posted a photo of Manning in which she happens to be in the same shot as Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys (although Greenwald has always railed aggressively against people who bring up his own associations with far-right figures).

      Manning evidently spent years anguishing over denouncing someone she once saw as a friend, but it took Greenwald literally minutes (less than an hour) from Manning’s critical tweet to go into full-on attack mode, including exposing the private communications of a source (Manning, incidentally, is someone who is probably still the subject of an ongoing investigation into a decade-long hack-and-leak investigation that includes Edward Snowden). But Greenwald is the one telling us that “Friendships that depend on political agreement were never ‘friendships,’ just cynical transactions.” You really couldn’t make this stuff up.

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  5. I really, really enjoyed this post, thanks! Love me some RAW political analysis (both by him and of him). Just a few random comments, opinions and word vomit:

    1) I’m playing the ‘label game’ here, but I consider American progressive politicians as much warmakers as conservatives. I can’t find a meaningful difference between them on the war issue (ie – that one “end”
    of the spectrum seems more peaceful instinctually.)

    It seems to me the left just cites a different, more altruistic purpose for war (democracy/humanitarianism). American neoconservatives, who now seem to be occupying the left as much as the right, have their genesis on the American left and in Progressivism, which interests me.

    I think you kind of alluded to this, so nothing really of value added here. And I realize I am also conflating a modern day progressive mindset with Woodrow Wilsonian Progressivism with “the left” generally. That’s why the label game stinks!

    2) I used to sometimes call myself non-interventionist but agree that it usually connotes a “colder” anti war position. IMO it is worthwhile to talk about the costs of war (to the war making country and its citizens), but not to the exclusion of what happens to the populations terrorized by the warmakers. Far from flawless, Ron Paul seemed to me to embody a healthy, balanced non-interventionism.

    3) Just spewing at this point but does anyone tune into Fox News to see the coverage of Afghanistan?! It’s so gross. I have no doubt that if Trump said from the sidelines that he’d re-invade, most of the Right would agree. I see the war fever of 2001 all over again. His (and his supporters’) America First brand of non interventionism is so surface level.

    4) WTF happened to the anti war left of the Bush years?! Really want to read this book: https://jacobinmag.com/2018/05/anti-war-movement-democratic-party-iraq

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Chad – sorry it’s only just appeared (I wouldn’t have noticed that WordPress had held it back in a “possible spam”[!] queue if not for your shorter comment that did appear immediately without moderation – as all comments here are set to).

      I know what you mean about hawkish politicians on both Republican & Democrat sides, with not much to choose between them. I think all the pro-war arguments tend to be couched in morally righteous terms whether “defending our freedoms” (Bush) or supposed “humanitarian” interventions (saving the people of Iraq from a dictator – the “liberal” argument).

      The genuine progressive abhorrence of war always seemed to be portrayed as “soft”, “appeasing”, pinko/commie, etc, so I think many Democrat politicians tend to stay away from what may be perceived as “pacifist” messaging, as political death.

      But away from the politicians themselves, I still see a fairly fundamental distinction between “progressive” and “conservative” views on foreign policy, including military action. But that’s about definition – ie what generally defines a conservative as opposed to a progressive view. Someone whose politics seem largely “progressive” by conventional terms, may still have what’s regarded as a conservative approach on foreign policy, or vice versa. I think this comes back to RAW’s article – his critique of the right/left labels seems to be at the level of the person, not the view on a given issue. So a person can “contain” mixtures of “right” and “left” (by conventional definition) views. We need labels, after all – in the sense that basically “all” words/signifiers function as labels, but we use them at the wrong level/scale a lot in politics, and with misleading metaphorical entailments. Anyway, I think I’m repeating myself and stating the obvious at this point!

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    1. I think some issues can be better evaluated according to the “authoritarian / non-authoritarian (or libertarian)” dichtomy than to “left/right”. But I don’t really buy the notion that the Political Compass 2D grid gives us a better classification of a person or organisation than conventional terms such as “conservative” or “liberal”. Our political complexities as people don’t map onto coordinates in Euclidean space – RAW’s insight.

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  6. As you point out, depictions of Trump as a “maverick peacemaker” don’t hold up in view of his actual record, but I can understand how that could have arisen in 2016; when he ran for president the first time, Trump talked a good game and seemed to offer a real change in U.S. foreign policy. And his opponent was Hillary Clinton, who seemingly never met a war she didn’t like. None of this was enough to get me to even consider voting for Trump, but antiwar people I respect did see Trump as a possible vehicle for positive change. I don’t think things worked out for them. Biden actually ending a forever war was kind of a pleasant surprise.

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    1. I wonder what happened to Hillary Clinton to make her so hawkish (or at least appear that way). The Clintons didn’t seem like that at first – I remember RAW saying something to the effect that he felt the Clintons were people he could have a pleasant dinner with. And RU Sirius’s ‘The Revolution’ book mentioned something similar, with an anecdote about Paul Krassner, I think, saying that the Clintons were “like us” (I’m paraphrasing as I don’t have the book to hand.

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      1. I will give it a listen although, tbh, I’m not a Michael Tracey fan (the podcast you link to appears to be with Tracey), for the same reasons I’m not a Glenn Greenwald fan.

        My dislike of the MT & GG style (and content) of commentary probably comes from my British working-class (and somewhat “leftwing”) background, and the fact that I don’t actually hate “liberals” as a class of people (which seems to be an unspoken prerequisite for appreciating a lot of this stuff, something that seems more common in the US than UK).

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    2. Tom Jackson, I have some friends like that who wanted to take Trump at his word, and believed that he offered a hope of stopping the neverending wars. I used to say to them, “Why have you started believing politicians at election time? Especially one like Trump?”

      It’s disconcerting to see people you’ve known for a long time, who have always been savvy and skeptical with political bullsh*tters of all stripes, suddenly lose their critical senses and fall for a con-artist like Trump. It’s not as if Trump had any prior antiwar credentials. On the contrary. he was a hardline conservative billionaire businessman and shyster, not a peacenik. But these good people appeared to lose their critical faculties. What did they expect? Did they really have to wait 4 years for the verdict that maybe Trump isn’t our Gandhi, isn’t our Martin Luther King, after all!

      People lost their minds, and were misled by the likes of Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange. Assange even secretly tried to engineer a deal with the Trumps, as shown by those leaked DMs between him and Trump Junior. Good people were betrayed by these figures they looked up to. It’s so sad.

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  7. Like

  8. I like what you say about “contortions” and “dislocations” of political categories. Here’s an example of such bizarre contortions from Glenn Greenwald, who sees Tucker Carlson as a “socialist”!!!!:

    “I would describe a lot of people on the right as being socialist. I would consider Steve Bannon to be socialist. I would consider the 2016 iteration of Donald Trump the candidate to be a socialist, based on what he was saying. I would consider Tucker Carlson to be a socialist.” https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/09/24/glenn-greenwald-is-not-your-misunderstood-left-comrade/?fbclid=IwAR2j-zE5Ofwcit2hnmy9g3idLLIUTLFANiubW5B881o396MUzbynVr7aQ-k

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