Some notes on political labels

Making distinctions like "left vs. right" and "socialist vs. anarchist" isn't semantic sectarianism - it's just how you talk about politics.

It’s Saturday, and as usual this means that I’m not going to spend a lot of time writing out an organized, formal essay. I am, however, going to lay out a few thoughts about a particularly annoying — and I think sinister — argument I’ve run into a lot in recent years. It generally goes something like this:

Stop calling people capitalists just because they don’t use labels like “anticapitalist” or “socialist.” Stop getting stuck on artificial labels like “left” and “right”. What really matters are someone’s substantive politics.

Yes, there is a kernel of truth here — of course we should not exclusively care about things like personal identification or quirks of phrasing at the expense of considering one’s substantive politics. But this point is true only insofar as it’s utterly trivial and uncontroversial. The way this argument is being used, however, is a different story. Some objections:

  1. “Left” and “right” are not just empty labels. As used for centuries around the world, both technically and in popular discourse, these are ways of distinguishing politics that value egalitarianism versus politics that value traditional hierarchies. One may argue that these labels are improperly applied to this-or-that position, person, or politics, but it is perfectly legitimate to use these terms as shorthand for the broader analysis that they refer to.

  2. Political labels, on that note, are often just that: terms of a broader political analysis that needs to be argued against, not summarily dismissed as superficial name-calling or tribalism. Which is why everyone who engages in political analysis inevitably uses labels. If you are someone who rejects “left” and “right,” you’re almost certainly also someone who uses labels like “establishment,” “elites,” “authoritarian,” “wokeness,” “partisans,” and so on. There really is no way around this: “labelling” is really just another way of saying “using language.”

  3. Which bring us to another reason why the critique of labels is so sinister: because the implicit subtext to “stop using labels” is always “I’m not using them.” It is, in other words, a way to aggrandize one’s own political analysis as natural, as just a description, and to dismiss someone else’s analysis as artificial and distortive — without actually making either argument. People who vilify talk about “the right” but then call people “partisans” really do think that these are two different activities, and they want you to think this too.

  4. Similarly, to vilify the words we are using in the course of political analysis as “labelling” is to deny us a way to make that analysis. And this, I think, is a major driver of the “no labels” discourse right now. The people who advance it do not want you to argue that socialism in particular (as opposed to progressivism, populism, anarchism, and so on) is the correct remedy to capitalism; and so they will vilify attempts to refer to it specifically, and to distinguish it from other political programs, as labelling, as petty semantic sectarianism, and so on.
    The danger here is that if socialists don’t have a way to refer to their political agenda and to distinguish themselves from their opponents — without being accused of “labelling” — then we have no way to defend ourselves from any cynical rival who wants to declare “we really want the same thing.” And the same point holds, of course, for anyone who values egalitarianism and want to distinguish their politics and their agenda from people who do not.