Incomplete vs. overshoot

The horseshoe theory is really, really wrong.

Cory Doctorow
5 min readFeb 26, 2024

--

A group of women’s May Day marchers from the 1900 May Day labor march, dressed in period costume. In the foreground are two horizontally flipped images of a furious, hair-pulling Tweedledum as depicted by Tenniel. The left one is colored red and wears a sign that reads WRONG WAY GO BACK. The right one is colored green and wears a sign that reads NO STOPPING PLEASE PULL FORWARD.

I’m on tour with my new novel The Bezzle! Catch TONIGHT in Seattle (Feb 26), with NEAL STEPHENSON, then Portland, Phoenix, Tucson, and more!

A yellow rectangle. On the left, in blue, are the words ‘Cory Doctorow.’ On the right, in black, is ‘The Bezzle.’ Between them is the motif from the cover of *The Bezzle*: an escheresque impossible triangle. The center of the triangle is a barred, smaller triangle that imprisons a silhouetted male figure in a suit. Two other male silhouettes in suits run alongside the top edges of the triangle.

You know the “horseshoe theory,” right? “The far-left and the far-right, rather than being at opposite and opposing ends of a linear continuum of the political spectrum, closely resemble each other, analogous to the way that the opposite ends of a horseshoe are close together”:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horseshoe_theory

It’s a theory that only makes sense if you don’t know much about the right and the left and what each side wants out of politics.

Take women’s suffrage. The early suffragists (“suffragettes” in the UK) were mostly interested in votes for affluent, white women — not women as a body. Today’s left criticizes the suffrage movement on the basis that they didn’t go far enough:

https://www.npr.org/2011/03/25/134849480/the-root-how-racism-tainted-womens-suffrage

Contrast that with Christian Dominionists — the cranks who think that embryos are people (though presumably not for the purpose of calculating a state’s electoral college vote? Though it would be cool if presidential elections turned on which side of a state line a fertility clinic’s chest-freezer rested on):

https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/otm/segments/how-alabama-ivf-ruling-was-influenced-christian-nationalism-on-the-media?tab=summary

These people are part of a far-right coalition that wants to abolish votes for women. As billionaire far-right bagman Peter Thiel wrote that he thought it was a mistake to let women vote at all:

https://www.cato-unbound.org/2009/04/13/peter-thiel/education-libertarian/

Superficially, there’s some horseshoe theory action going on here. The left thinks the suffragists were wrong. The right thinks they were wrong, too. Therefore, the left and the right agree!

Well, they agree that the suffragists were wrong, but for opposite reasons — and far, far more importantly, they totally disagree about what they want. The right wants a world where no women can vote. The left wants a world where all women can vote. The idea that the right and the left agree on women’s suffrage is, as the physicists say, “not even wrong.”

It’s the kind of wrong that can only be captured by citing scripture, specifically, A Fish Called Wanda, 6E, 79: “The central message of Buddhism is not ‘Every man for himself.’ And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.”

Or take the New Deal. While the New Deal set its sites on liberating workers from precarity, abuse and corruption, the Dealers — like the suffragists — had huge gaps in their program, omitting people of color, indigenous people, women, queer people, etc. There are lots of leftists who criticize the New Deal on this basis: it didn’t go far enough:

https://livingnewdeal.org/new-deal-and-race/

But for the past 40 years, America has seen a sustained, vicious assault on New Deal programs, from Social Security to Medicare to food stamps to labor rights to national parks, funded by billionaires who want to bring back the Gilded Age and turn us all into forelock-tugging plebs:

https://pluralistic.net/2022/11/06/the-end-of-the-road-to-serfdom/

If you only view politics as a game of elementary school cliques, you might say that the left and the right are meeting again. The left says Roosevelt got it wrong with the New Deal (because he left out so many people). The right says FDR was wrong for doing the New Deal in the first place. Therefore, the left and the right agree, right?

Obviously wrong. Obviously. Again, the important thing is why the left and the right think the New Deal deserves criticism. The important thing is what the left and the right want. The left wants universal liberation. The right wants us all in economic chains. They do not agree.

It’s not always just politics, either. Take the old, good internet. That was an internet defined by technological self-determination, a wild and wooly internet where there were few gatekeepers, where disfavored groups could find each other and make common cause, where users who were threatened by the greed of the shareholders behind big services could install blockers, mods, alternative clients and other “adversarial interoperability” tools that seized the means of computation.

Today’s enshitternet — “five giant websites, filled with screenshots of the other four” (h/t Tom Eastman) — is orders of magnitude more populous than that old, good internet. The enshitternet has billions of users, and they are legally — and technologically — prevented from taking any self-help measures when the owners of services change them to shift value from users to themselves:

https://pluralistic.net/2023/02/19/twiddler/

The anti-enshittification movement rightly criticizes the old, good internet because it wasn’t inclusive enough. It was a system almost exclusively hospitable to affluent, privileged people — the people who least needed the liberatory power of technology.

Likewise pro-enshittification monopolists — billionaires and their useful idiots — deplore the old, good internet because it gave its users too much power. For them, ad-blocking, alternative clients, mods, reverse-engineering and so on were all bugs, not features. For them, the enshitternet is great because businesses can literally criminalize taking action to protect yourself from their predatory impulses:

https://pluralistic.net/2022/10/20/benevolent-dictators/#felony-contempt-of-business-model

Superficially, it seems like the pro- and anti-enshittification forces agree — they both agree that the old, good internet was a mistake. But the difference that matters here is that the pro-enshittification side wants everyone mired in the enshitternet forever, living with what Jay Freeman calls “Felony contempt of business-model.” By contrast, the disenshittification side wants a new, good internet that gives every user — not just a handful of techies — the power to decide how the digital systems they work use, and to be able to alter or reconfigure them to suit their own needs.

The horsehoe theory only makes sense if you don’t take into account the beliefs and goals of each side. Politics aren’t just a matter of who you agree with on a given issue — the real issue is what you’re trying to accomplish.

If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:

https://pluralistic.net/2024/02/26/horsehoe-crab/#substantive-disagreement

--

--