In Depth

What is the fish hook theory?

Political concept takes aim at those in the political centre

The so-called horseshoe theory that the far-left and far-right more closely resemble each another than they do the political centre has been around for decades, but now an alternative is gaining ground: fish hook theory.

Instead of a straight line, or a horseshoe where the two ends almost touch, the fish hook theory sees the political Left out on one end, and the Right bending around like a hook to end up close to the centre.

The suggestion is that people who are politically centrist are actually a lot closer to far-right politics than their “centre” label suggests.

How did fish hook theory originate?

Fish hook theory was developed in response to horseshoe theory.

Leftists unhappy with the suggestion that they are aligned to the far-right came up with the fish hook theory partly to satirise the horseshoe theory, but also because they believe the centre often does makes way for the Right. 

Or as California-based online magazine Pacific Standard puts it: “Centrists enable fascism with such predictable frequency that the Left has come up with an alternative to horseshoe theory: fish hook theory.” 

Leftists pushing fish hook theory argue that there is a strong intersection between centrist neoliberalism and fascism, and that the freedoms of the former can lead to the rise of the latter.

“Freedom from trade unions and collective bargaining means the freedom to suppress wages,” writes George Monbiot in The Guardian.

“Freedom from regulation means the freedom to poison rivers, endanger workers, charge iniquitous rates of interest and design exotic financial instruments. Freedom from tax means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty.’”

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Is there truth to it?

The theory holds that because of the apparent proximity between far-right and the political centre, centrists are susceptible to adopting fascist beliefs and can pave the way for fascist rule.

“Centrists are the least supportive of democracy, the least committed to its institutions and the most supportive of authoritarianism,” says David Adler in The New York Times. “As Western democracies descend into dysfunction, no group is immune to the allure of authoritarianism - least of all centrists, who seem to prefer strong and efficient government over messy democratic politics.”

However, many commentators argue that far-right politics has elements that could appeal to people on the far-left as much as the centre. They point out that populism, ideological purity and a feeling of embattlement are common to the the far-right and far-left, but less prevalent in the centre.

“Call it tendril theory,” concludes The Week US. “Fascism extends its slimy feelers out to centrists and leftists alike.”

However, the theory relies on the assumption that “left-wing” and “right-wing” are helpful and widely-recognised terms when we talk about people’s views – and research by YouGov suggests otherwise.

The pollsters found that, at most, only half of those surveyed understood what a left-wing policy and a right-wing policy was. “That is to say”, explains data journalist Matthew Smith, “even for the very most stereotypically left- and right-wing policies, half of the population do not identify them as such”.

The opinion pollsters also found that nearly 50% of Britons regard themselves as neither left-wing nor right-wing. Although 28% describe themselves as left-wing and 25% consider themselves right-wing, a further 19% place themselves in the centre and the remaining 29% don’t know.

Given that around half of the British public do not regard themselves as “left-wing” or “right-wing” - and that a similar proportion struggle to position policies on that spectrum - the usefulness of the fish-hook theory is open to debate. 

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