Opposing both sides of rotten political debates does not mean trying to find a compromise with each of them. It means defending a radical alternative.
Given that we are living in age of political polarisation, the reassertion of centrism as a viable alternative to the populism of left and right may be a necessary backlash. With the right becoming increasingly nationalist and authoritarian and the left returning to socialism and experimenting with regressivism, there is something attractive in the idea of the level-headed moderate restoring sanity and pulling politics back into balance.
Whilst I agree with the sentiment, I do not think that centrism is sufficient for grounding a response to populism. Centrism is, by its nature, reactive and defined by circumstance. Whilst it is obviously important to adapt one’s beliefs to the evidence and to make pragmatic concessions, being defined entirely by being opposed to changing opponents is inherently dangerous and grants them too much. Defending the middle ground between two extremes legitimises the paradigm that they share. Positioning yourself as being ‘the middle ground’ between Islamists and white ethno-nationalists is not just too vague and woolly, but cedes the terms of the debate to two groups with meritless worldviews.
“Centrism is, by its nature, reactive and defined by circumstance”
If, on the other hand, you reject the extremes of the nascent contemporary left and right because you’re a principled supporter of internationalism, openness, individualism, free speech, tolerance, the scientific worldview, secularism, constitutional democracy, universalism, progress, growth, privacy, human rights, trade, and markets, then you are not a centrist at all but a liberal. Which is, in fact, a different kind of radicalism that does not sit on the left-right spectrum at all.
Liberalism is not centrism
Liberalism and centrism have historically been, and often continue to be, conflated. Indeed moderation is arguably an inherently liberal ideal. Checks and balances, the separation of powers, opposition to unaccountable power, and championing discourse and engagement over conflict, are fundamental aspects of liberalism. Nevertheless, moderation in this sense is not the same as being moderate in the sense of always finding an arbitrary central point between two unacceptable poles.
“Liberalism and centrism have historically been, and often continue to be, conflated”
Very often, what is objectionable about two ‘extremes’ is not what differentiates them but what unites them. Historically, the ‘horseshoe theory’ is an attempt to capture this idea. I believe that this falls short. It is not just that this plays down self-evident distinctions in the worldviews of, say, fascists and communists or Islamists and anti-Muslim bigots. It also places these extremes on a uni-dimensional spectrum with liberalism, and characterises them as being wrong in virtue of being too far from the middle ground, which misses the point.
Rather, opponents of liberalism usually share several implicit beliefs that incline them towards similar objectionable behaviour. Usually, this centres on the arbitrary elevation of a particular group (the nation, the Umma, the proletariat) above the individual, opening the door to disregarding the interests of those who get in the way. At the same time, a (probably related) fanatical belief in the rightness of their views creates a self-contained system that treats external criticism as enemy-propaganda and internal criticism as heresy.
The radical alternative
Much of our discourse is now defined in these terms. In the UK, many Hard-Brexiteers and the Corbynista cult of Momentum view those who disagree with them as malicious or dupes. The populist left and populist right both view globalisation and the free movement of goods and people as threats rather than opportunities. The regressive left and authoritarian right both champion curtailing speech they view as ‘dangerous’. Islamists and anti-Muslim bigots both reject the idea that Islam can change and be compatible with Western values. Given that anti-Muslim bigots usually aren’t exactly progressives, they often share the Islamist perspective on most social issues as well.
Opposing both sides of rotten debates does not mean trying to find a compromise with each of them. It means defending a radical alternative to their shared assumptions.
Blogger, activist and former philosophy student at The University of Edinburgh