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Death of a Lexicon

Johnson's Dictionary

Taxonomy is crucial to comprehension. The complexity of the universe will overwhelm even the most expansive mind. For this reason we humans break down the endless complexity of the real world into categories that allow us to apprehend the most salient common features of a group of phenomenon. Without taxonomy, we would have to treat every instance of every phenomenon as a distinct entity, making any kind of general understanding impossible.

This is as true for politics as it is for anything else. As much as people like me would enjoy it, most people don’t have the stamina to debate the every single policy proposal on its individual merits. So we classify groups of policy preferences into ideologies or platforms, so we can debate the merits of general approaches instead of bogging down in the details.

This is why we have terms like Conservative and Liberal, Left and Right, Socialist and Libertarian. Not all the people who share one of those terms agree on everything, but they have enough shared beliefs and goals that talking about them as a group is clearer and simpler than having to discuss each aspect of an individual’s political beliefs.

At least, that’s the theory.

The fraught nature of our political lexicon has come up at Ordinary Times on multiple occasions. But the event that led me to write this post happened in meatspace. I was discussing 20th Century economic history with a friend of mine (this happens more often to me than you might think), and I discovered that we had definitions of common political terms like socialism and neoliberalism that were not merely different, but almost diametrically opposed. I consider a planned economy to be a necessary condition of socialism – whether that’s total economic planning like communist countries,  or merely direct government ownership or control over major industries (like the NHS or much of UK industry pre-Thatcher). Neoliberalism is then a Post-Socialist approach to the problems of inequality – relying much more on welfare rather than government control. So to me, Socialism looks like Venezuela, Cuba or pre-Thatcher Britain while neoliberalism is Denmark or Sweden.

His definitions were very different – socialism was any economic system that emphasises decreasing inequality. By contrast, neoliberalism was, as he put it “unrestrained capitalism”. To his way of thinking socialism was Sweden and Denmark, and neoliberalism represented the policies of Reagan and Thatcher. When I asked how we should distinguish the likes of Venezuela and Denmark he suggest “market socialism” for the latter. This term makes no sense to me, but then my definitions didn’t impress him either.

This post is not about which definition is better, but rather that this is no way to run a debate. If we can’t agree on what “socialist” or “neoliberal” even mean, what are we supposed to do with someone who identifies as one? And these aren’t the only problematic terms. Capitalism is a socialist term used to describe post-feudal, non-socialist economic systems. Capitalism can be used to describe the neo-mercantilism of Donald Trump, but also the ideas of economists like Bryan Caplan who advocates for something very close to Open Borders. With globalism vs. Nationalism being one of the great controversies of our time, what use is a term that puts such disparate views on the topic on the same side?

People on all sides of our great debates are using the same words to describe very different things. Both single payer and government-run healthcare are referred to as “socialised medicine” by opponents, despite them being quite different policy ideas. Equally, UBI’s minimum wages and a “Green New Deal” all get called socialism, despite some being (by my standards at least) much more socialist than others. After all Milton Friedman advocated for a UBI back in the 1960s, and if we’re calling Friedman a socialist now, I suggest the term has lost all useful meaning.

My contention is that most of our political terms are no longer useful – socialism, capitalism and neoliberalism have too little descriptive power to be useful in the modern political climate. Conservatism and Libertarianism are suspect as well. However, there are some terms that sill have some value. Social liberalism / conservatism and nationalism are still useful, as I still think there’s trans-partisan consensus on what types of ideas they advocates.

Something I think would help a lot is to stop trying to bundle ideas into large, total ideologies. Instead it may be more useful to try and break things down into more focused dichotomies:

  • Globalism vs Nationalism
  • Social Liberalism vs Social Conservatism
  • Market Economics vs Government Economics
  • Distributionism vs Anti-Distributionism

So I would classify myself as highly socially liberal, highly globalist , highly market and moderately distributionist.

These terms aren’t going to dispel all of our problems. For one thing, they don’t capture everything; I haven’t covered attitudes to criminal justice reform, and there are probably other things that would need to be added too. Also, each of these groupings is still fairly high-level, so even people who consider themselves pro-market will disagree on specific issues. Similarly you have people who are generally socially liberal but want to ban hate speech who sit awkwardly in this model.

But still, I think this would be a big improvement over our existing approaches, even if the terminology never becomes mainstream, thinking about political disputes this way should at least clarify some of the ways the left and right of the future could end up being constructed.


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James is a government policy analyst, and lives in Wellington, New Zealand. His interests including wargaming, computer gaming (especially RPGs and strategy games), Dungeons & Dragons and scepticism. No part of any of his posts or comments should be construed as the position of any part of the New Zealand government, or indeed any agency he may be associated with.

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37 thoughts on “Death of a Lexicon

  1. Cool piece, thanks for writing!

    I agree with what you point out in the next to the last paragraph – it’s possible (in fact, I’d say quite common) for there to be a disconnect about what one wants from a system of government and one’s own preferences regarding their personal lifestyle. I’m highly socially liberal in a government sense, but in the way I run my life personally I would likely fall more into the conservative category. So I often agree with both sides in social issues. I have my beliefs but I wouldn’t want to impose them on others, and I don’t want others to impose their beliefs about the best way to live upon me.

    Really enjoyed this!

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  2. Distribute what? I think(?) your definition pre-supposes a capitalist/marxist framing already… and therefore your definition of Anti- / Pro-Distribution is taxonomically meaningless. Each side has a distribution strategy for the ends of production. :-)

    If capitalism is ownership of the means of production by the capital class, and marxism is the ownership by the state… then either side participates in Distributive schemes to the masses that don’t have stakes in the production capacity. This is likely going to be exacerbated by automation.

    Distributism already exists, but it makes a much more radical claim on economic policy crafting to more broadly distribute stakes in the ownership of the product means.

    Don’t let your lexicon steal my term, bruv… it’ll only confuse things. :-)

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    • We’re in the age of coding and posting cat pics on the Internet. The “means of production” is a smart phone. How much do we have to reorganize society so that smart phones aren’t just in the hands of a small elite?

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        • My point was that, if Marx had ever made sense, it was about the workers seizing control of a tractor factory or a coal mine so they could control their own destiny.

          But we live in a world where it makes little sense to seize the Samsung factory because it wouldn’t make the price any lower or the availability any higher, would only affect about 50,000 jobs, and that the real means of production isn’t the Samsung phone factory, it’s the Samsung phone itself, which everyone already owns.

          The workers already own the means of production, at least in regards to the tools of innovation, making a fortune on the Internet, and creating a future business empire. They carry it in their pocket. They don’t need to form a collective to violently take over a Leningrad ribbon factory (the pay and conditions in making ribbons, lace, and doilies for the European market was at the early heart of the communist unrest in Russia) because they already have the world’s best production tool, one that is also a marketing tool, and a stock market tool, and a banking tool, and a programming tool.

          Looking further, their are almost 30 million small businesses in America. That’s 30 million people who own the means of production, unless those are partnerships, in which case it might be 60 million people. That’s a huge fraction of the workforce, and many of the rest might not want to be in charge, filling out quarterly tax reports and dealing with the stress of running their own business.

          So what remaining things do socialists, who already carry the means of production in their pocket, want to take over? Certainly not the coal mines because they hate coal. Certainly not the oil companies because they hate oil.

          I suggest that maybe they just want to steal stuff, essentially looting stores like a hurricane had just hit, but demanding the lazy option of home delivery.

          Marx and Engels came to call America the burial ground of communists because they kept sending communist agitators over here, and they kept disappearing. So they’d send another communist over to find out what happened to the last one, and the usual report was that he’d opened his own business upon realizing that unlike Europe, anyone in America could just start a business. Their agitators were coming from rigid European systems where the workers weren’t allowed to own the means of production because of all the barriers to entry, whether from onerous and byzantine regulations, the bribes and fees required by bureaucrats in the various ministries, or guild and union requirements set up to protect privileged jobs, sectors, or markets. That’s what they’d wanted all their lives, a chance to work for themselves, to be in charge, and over here they found it without needing Marx.

          In the US, why would you need a revolution to seize what is already available for free, the right to own your own business? If you don’t want to start from scratch, you can buy someone else’s business, but you can’t just steal someone else’s firm because of social justice or whatever excuse you make up.

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    • If capitalism is ownership of the means of production by the capital class, and marxism is the ownership by the state… then either side participates in Distributive schemes to the masses that don’t have stakes in the production capacity.

      I think that James K is spot on with this post and this bit highlights why I think that these terms have lost a bunch of meaning (to the extent that they ever had meaning). Who are the capitalist class in 2019?

      Most of the inequality of the present moment isn’t being driven by the exploitation of workers by the idle rich monopolizing all the capital. It’s being driven by an increasing number of highly skilled professionals and entrepreneurs, who are using to technology and financial leverage to make returns at an increasing scale. George Turner has a point.

      We need better policies, which means that we need better conversations, which probably means that we need better terminology.

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  3. I love this concept. At the risk of breaking the dichotomy rule, I see one of my own pet issues (civil liberties and surveillance) as breaking into three broad categories, those being:

    Civil Liberties Individualists
    Civil Liberties Collectivists
    and Security Statists

    Both of America’s major parties and coalitions include constituencies of varying size and influence for each of these which makes discussing it in the traditional lexicon unproductive.

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      • The briefest way I can possibly state it would be:

        CLI- civil liberties must be protected and apply universally and equally to all individuals, identity and religion agnostic, process oriented, distrust of law enforcement and intelligence services. Will make common cause with CLCs in some circumstances. Limited representation on the center left and support in the Bernie/Greenwald further left, limited support from political independents, represented on the right by a vocal but very weak libertarian minority.

        CLC- interest and support for civil liberties is selective and strongly connected to group affiliation, highly focused on outcomes and less so on process, skeptical of the possibility of neutrality, primacy is placed on capture of enforcement bodies. Will make common cause with both CLIs and SS when convenient. CLCs also often fight other CLCs with different priorities. They are primarily represented by the religious right, the progressive faction of the left, and numerous subgroups of each.

        SS- civil liberties are secondary to public safety, state and law enforcement prerogatives have primacy, strong trust in the professionalism and competency of public agencies, outcome focused, tend to see process as a refuge of scoundrels. Will make common cause with and at times be captured by different CLC groups. Represented by the law and order and populist factions of the right, neoliberal faction of the center left and center right, centrist bureaucracy, neocons.

        Obviously this lacks the level of nuance I’d like to give it but is the best I can do for a comment instead of a post.

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  4. I’ve never known anyone in person who uses the term “neoliberalism”, and I only rarely see it online except on the most extreme lefty sites.

    It seems like a lot of the more recent proposed taxonomies come from the libertarian camp, and tend to cast things in that light. I find the political compass to be particularly bad in that regard. It’s also already dated. The most interesting change in politics recently has been the emergence of a clearer nationalist/globalist divide, and the political compass doesn’t address that. The political compass is very horseshoe-y, trying to lump together all non-libertarians.

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    • -‘The most interesting change in politics recently has been the emergence of a clearer nationalist/globalist divide, and the political compass doesn’t address that.’

      I think the way that would plot would be the nationalists more centered, and the Globalist far left of center. The more rule-by-force that was defined in each would plot how far up the y-axis each are. If looking through the lens of escalation, both nationalism and globalism would continue upward on the y-axis. The higher up the y-axis, the more likely a war of some sort will likely develop.

      Neoliberalism is a odd one, I have seen at least one map that showed it on the right, the rest show it on the left.

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    • FWIW I consider myself rather neoliberal but that is synonymous in my mind with market liberal whereas the term neoliberal is mostly used in various lefty sites to simply define anything leftists don’t like.

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      • I get the impression that neoliberal is the go to slur for the segment of the Anglophone left that will never forgive B. Clinton and Blair for being electorally successful as left of centre moderates.

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    • Neoliberalism gets used more to self-identify in commonwealth countries, I think. I’ve certainly heard people use it in Canada and NZ far more than in the States.

      I was actually superconfused when I moved here 20 years ago and had to relearn a different meaning for it.

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  5. What I’ve noticed was that after the fall of Communism, there seemed to have been a collapse in political terminology on the Left at least. Take LGM for instance, nearly everybody on that site describes themselves as a liberal despite believing in an economic policy well to the left of what the Democratic Party believed in during the height of the New Deal/Great Society phrase. Many see themselves as outright anti-capitalist despite Cold War liberals seeing themselves as pro-capitalist.

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  6. As I understand it, the term neoliberalism was coined by economists in the 1930s in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Slightly later, people like Hayek used it to mean they were liberals who prioritized the price mechanism, markets, an impartial state, and laissez faire. It wasn’t used so much until the late 70s when those ideas came back in vogue with Reagan, Thatcher, et al. and people needed a term. I don’t know that it was exactly post-socialist, but it’s generally opposed to socialist economies or state intervention into economies. There are plenty of advocates for those ideas on the left and the right.

    But the term has become a slur on that part of the left that isn’t in charge of very much. To avoid conflict, we could use that term “market fundamentalism” that people like Stiglitz and Soros prefer. I can’t imagine that causes controversy.

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    • Equally, one could choose to label people who still advocate Marxist ideas after what happened in the 20th Century as “economic death-cultists” but that isn’t going to be helpful either.

      What I would like is terminology that isn’t designed as a rhetorical weapon for one side or the other, something that gets at the question of “is it better for resource allocation decisions to be handled by the market or by the state” without presupposing in the labels that one is better than the other.

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      • “Better” seems like a relative question though. After two hundred plus years, we must recognize that the “state run economy” and the “self-regulating market” are both unachievable Utopian fantasies that would prove ruinous were they ever brought to full fruition. The “better” option is probably some variant of a mixed economy, which is what most societies have gone with.

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        • Which is why I think that economic matters have largely receded as a defining feature.
          If you strip away the issues of race and culture, there really isn’t much about economics that separate Trumpists from mainstream Democrats.

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          • I couldn’t disagree more. (I know, me disagreeing with you, right? Anything can happen!) Maybe this is more a disagreement with Rufus’s formulation…let me explain.

            Rufus’s formulation has merit. No system is 100% government-run, and no system is 0% government run (except maybe for some tribes in Madagascar). It’s worth noting that. When we argue about systems, we’re all picturing something in the middle. But the formulation opens up the possibility of the fallacy of the mean, and it seems like you’ve fallen into it. The Cultural Revolution and the Coolidge administration are both in the middle between 0% and 100%, but no one would confuse them.

            I’m not sure about the benefit of distinguishing between economic and non-economic government intervention, at least off-hand. But it seems very wrong to say that there’s no meaningful debate about economic government intervention. Do we agree on tax rates for the rich, or benefits for the poor, or environmental regulation of businesses, or the minimum wage, or universal health care?

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            • Sort of off-point, but I should add this: another merit of Rufus’s formulation is that is calls attention to the difficulty in cross-country comparison. Americans may be arguing about “more” versus “less” government, as are Brits, but the base is very different. Even that is the wrong way of characterizing it, though, because the base on each issue could be completely different. The US and England are more similar than most countries, but our approaches to trade, free speech, religion, et cetera are wildly different. (There’s also the problem of different terminology, which Maribou points out.)

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    • I’ve made my peace with “neoliberalism.” It’s a useful term, in that people who self-identify as such are usually interesting and reasonable even when I don’t agree with them, and people who use it as a slur are…interesting, with a capital ellipsis.

      “Market fundamentalism,” on the other hand, seems to me to be trying very hard to insinuate by analogy to religious fundamentalism that its referent is based faith in direct opposition to reason. I feel a very strong urge to lift up my hand and do a quick air wank when I see the term used unironically.

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