I’m bemused by the trend, in recent years, of obfuscating, conflating and downright deliberate abuse of our language – especially our political language. It has left people confused (perhaps intentionally) about some basic terms and that, in turn, has left them confused about the realities of our current social/political/economic situation. This may seem picayune to some, after all harping on the language used to describe events can’t hold a candle to actually dealing with those events, right? Well, not so much; to the extent that we use and abuse language we define or obscure what we’re talking about. This is done in two ways: first by ignorance, people who are not clear about their subject or the definitions of the words they are using are red meat for the propagandists. The second way is by design. This is the special world of propaganda/advertising where the word and the meme are deliberately twisted to serve a commercial and/or political end. As Orwell pointed out, this is an unparalleled tool for establishing and maintaining control of a market or a society. And tyrannies of the left and the right have used it assiduously even a casual look at history will provide numerous examples.
I‘m very concerned with how this is playing out today. Right here and right now the meanings of words are being twisted for public consumption – see anything written by George Lakoff and Frank Luntz for details on this trend. I want to examine the definitions of some political/economic concepts so we can try to determine how the concepts are twisted by the misuse of words and how that relates to the difference between what we’re told is going on to what actually happening in reality.
First, some definitions (I got these from Wikipedia for simplicity’s sake, if you distrust Wikipedia go look them up in the Encyclopedia Britannica, or any other unbiased authority you respect, they’re functionally the same).
Socialism is an economic and political theory advocating public or common ownership and cooperative management of the means of production and allocation of resources. Additional definitions can be found here.
Democracy is a political form of government in which governing power is derived from the people, either by direct referendum (direct democracy) or by means of elected representatives of the people (representative democracy). Additional definitions can be found here.
Fascism is a radical and authoritarian nationalist political ideology. Fascists seek to organize a nation according to corporatist perspectives, values, and systems, including the political system and the economy. Additional definitions can be found here.
Corporatism is a system of economic, political, or social organization that views a community as a body based upon organic social solidarity and functional distinction and roles amongst individuals. Formal corporatist models are based upon the contract of corporate groups, such as agricultural, business, ethnic, labor, military, patronage, scientific, or religious affiliations, into a collective body. Additional definitions can be found here.
Capitalism is an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and operated for a private profit. Additional definitions can be found here.
Right enough, I have some quibbles about these definitions – from my more leftward perspective and I’ll be mentioning some of them – I’m sure many others have rightward quibbles themselves. I’m less concerned with what these definitions say than with what they leave out or ignore altogether.
We throw these words around without examining their roots. We use them as epithets to cudgel our opponents and in doing so, we strip them of their meaning and substitute the buzzword soundbite – useful only as agitprop which stirs anger (with extra foam) and drowns discourse and understanding.
The roots of these definitions lie in our nature as humans and in our innate understanding of the world around us. It comes down to money and power and how we behave around them.
This can’t be a surprise to anyone who looks at the evidence but we generally don’t take the time to examine the structure of the ‘isms’ and ‘acys’, let’s take a quick look at them right now, maybe we can shed some light…
Let’s start with Socialism (guaranteed to drive right wingers crazy).
Socialism is an economic and political theory advocating public or common ownership and cooperative management of the means of production and allocation of resources.
Well, first of all, I think it’s more than a theory. Socialism has been enacted, more or less successfully, by several nation states and other socio-political entities around the world. In fact, despite the frantic efforts of the corporatists/fascists to deny it, the most successful societies in the world today are socialist. I refer to the Scandinavian nations, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland (more about Iceland later). This is only, of course, if you believe that the purpose of society is to provide the best possible standard of living for all of its citizens.
Our own Anglo-Saxon heritage is socialist to the extent that it is based on the concept of ‘the commons’, a community supported grazing field that would support anyone’s cattle or sheep if there were a famine or a flood. More to the point, we have a sterling example of socialist behavior right here in the middle of River City: a public entity that provides cooperative management of the means of production and allocates resources to that end – the Pentagon… think about it for a minute and see if you don’t agree. Or rather see if you aren’t forced to agree…
These things get tricky once you really start thinking about them…
More on this later on…
Moving on to Democracy, the ne plus ultra of American political worship.
Democracy is a political form of government in which governing power is derived from the people, either by direct referendum (direct democracy) or by means of elected representatives of the people (representative democracy).
Very careful language here, almost as if the writers suspected a trap. That’s not surprising as there has been virtually no credible, viable, direct democracy, ever, anywhere.
Think I’m joking? Let’s look at the record:
First, there is not now, nor has there ever been, an ongoing, functioning direct democracy. It’s called a mobocracy or plebiscite democracy and it plain doesn’t work: too easily coerced by demagogues, too easily corrupted by oceans of money (hmmm… that sounds familiar). Even our cherished Athenian democracy wasn’t pure rule of the demos. Eligible voters were restricted to free men who had done their military service to the state. That is: no women, no slaves, no one who was not a veteran, no one who owed money and no one who had property close to the city walls (this last rule was because a contemporary tactic of invaders was to burn the grounds close to the city walls to prevent the inhabitants from reaping the grain and fodder). They forced out the corrupt kings and substituted a set of aristocrats and oligarchs called the Archons. The Archons of course were subject to the same kind of corruption as the kings and this was one of the main reasons why the Athenian democracy was eventually defeated by the outright militarist/fascist Spartans. Even in Solon’s Athens there were great restrictions on democracy but these are minor cavils when placed beside his staggering, revolutionary idea of people ruling themselves. We’ve still not gotten over it.
At best, these days, we have the Parliamentarian system (exemplified by the UK) and the Constitutional Republic system (exemplified by the US). These are both powerful bars to the progress of corruption and decay, if used properly. But their flaws are transparently obvious to everyone - how do we deal with the real problem: the will to power.
Democracy and Socialism, in the context of their stated aims, are very, very close, in power distribution terms. Each claims to want the best possible result for the greatest number of its citizens. Where they diverge is that Socialism avers that it is necessary to control the means of distribution in order to effect a just and fair dispersal. Democracy, being only a political system, has no comment on this issue – it punts.
This is a signal difference and we’ll return to it later on…
Next, there’s fascism:
Fascism is a radical and authoritarian nationalist political ideology. Fascists seek to organize a nation according to corporatist perspectives, values, and systems, including the political system and the economy.
This is the most troubling definition for me, mostly because there is so little agreement on what, exactly, fascism is. The definition, above, from Wikipedia is a little incoherent but none of the other definitions I could easily find were any more clear. The best description I remember is that fascism is political system where, the state, under the guidance of a dictator, directs and controls civil and business entities for the benefit of the state. I’m not sure that’s any better but it puts the focus on the dictator, where it belongs.
Everyone knows the shibboleths about this: Mussolini, Hitler, Franco; their mad world conquest fantasies, their horrible xenophobias and persecutions, their genocidal psychopathy. These monsters are only matched in ferocity and depravity by their communist alter egos: Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Actually, the lines kinda get blurred here: it’s difficult to parse the difference between Hitler murdering 6 million jews (and assorted catholics, homosexuals and gypsys) and Pol Pot murdering 2 million Cambodians (about a fifth of all Cambodians), not to speak of Stalin’s murdering of upwards of 30 million Russians or Mao’s staggering murder toll of over 100 million Chinese. Who cares what political name you call them? This leads directly to my larger point later on…
But the direct point here is: fascism is largely dependent on a cult of personality surrounding the dictator. His personality cult (this is pretty much a male party, unless you count Maggie Thatcher as a fascist dictator… hmmm… no… but it was close) drives the entire enterprise, egged on, of course by various (truly evil) businesses and organizations - See the history of Krupp, AG in the 1930s and read “The Family” by Jeff Sharlet.
…and corporatism: here’s where it starts to get fun:
Corporatism is a system of economic, political, or social organization that views a community as a body based upon organic social solidarity and functional distinction and roles amongst individuals. Formal corporatist models are based upon the contract of corporate groups, such as agricultural, business, ethnic, labor, military, patronage, scientific, or religious affiliations, into a collective body.
A “system of economic, political, or social organization”, that’s quite grand, isn’t it? And “based upon organic social solidarity and functional distinction and roles amongst individuals” seems a bit thick, doesn’t it? – almost like the writer didn’t really want you to understand what he’s talking about. The rest of Wikipedia’s definition reads like a classic case of double speak – Orwell would have been proud. Here’s the skinny on corporatism: where fascism has the state at the top of the heap running the corporations as satraps, corporatism has the corporations on top, using the state as the enforcement arm for corporate policy. …and you thought it was just corrupt Washington politicians going every man for himself. Turns out it’s not a chaotic mess at all, someone’s deliberately managing this, can you say: "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money," (H/T to Matt Taibbi). Goldman Sachs doesn’t get all the blame, mainly because there are so many, many others eagerly scrimmaging for a place at the groaning board.
Last, as it should be, is capitalism:
Capitalism is an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and operated for a private profit.
“Capitalism is an economic system” that says it right there. Not a political system nor a social system nor a political ideology, not even a financial system, it doesn’t know or care about countries or constitutions, sees no difference between Senators and gangsters, lawyers and prostitutes, cops and robbers – it’s just an economic system. Capitalism has no business meddling in politics or social systems: it doesn’t know anything about them and it doesn’t care anything about them. The fact that we’ve let fanatical ideologues who neither know nor care anything about our society and political system, manipulate, pervert and control our country in the name of capitalism (AKA ‘free trade”) is a testament to our stupidity and cowardice not their acuity and/or amorality. They never said they had any moral standards and walked the walk; we said we did, and have utterly failed to follow through.
The middle distance point here is that when people make the accusation that Obama is a socialist, they are wrong - by definition. If, for example, Obama had expanded Medicare to Part E (”E” for everyone), then you could legitimately make the charge that he is a socialist. Obama does not do that, he never has, If you look at his record (thin though it is) you will see that, at every opportunity, Obama always, always, comes down on the side of corporations against citizens, large corporations against small ones, corporations against country. Obama is not a socialist - he is a corporatist… no, I won’t say the ‘f’ word, they’d burn me in effigy but given his all-consuming self-absorption it’s not very hard to see him as a dictator (it certainly isn’t very hard for him to see himself that way – in fact I think he already does).
That finishes Part 1 of this exercise. Part 2 will see a dissection of the real world structure of the ‘isms’ and ‘acys’ we defined above. We’ll take a look at how the real world intersects with our pigeonholes and presumptions and how the language we use defines what we see and changes who we are.