Death of a Lexicon

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James K

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 Responses

  1. Avatar atomickristin says:

    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!Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Remember when people put “Geek Codes” in their email signatures?

    This sort of thing never really caught on, for some reason.Report

  3. Avatar JoeSal says:

    This will likely get worse until we are Post-Hobbes, and Post-Marx.

    Until the fog clears, about the only thing I will use is the political compass.Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

      Post Hobbes is where things get really wacky, and everything becomes Calvinball.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        You think the lexicon is bad now, just wait until it goes Full-Calvinball (you never want to go Full-Calvinball!).Report

      • Avatar JoeSal says:

        We are in the age of (sexual organ) hats, don’t preach to me about wacky.

        The ignorance of Hobbes is believing that the Leviathan doesn’t produce the war of everyone against everyone, Marxism just speeds the process along.

        (wasn’t it just a few weeks ago you were jousting about the high land costs of the leviathan property, and millennials not being able to afford that stuff? Pick a lane dude.)Report

  4. Avatar Marchmaine says:

    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. 🙂Report

    • Avatar George Turner says:

      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?Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine says:

        Hi George, I’m not sure I have any idea what you are saying, and I suspect the same with regards your reading of me.

        But this might clear things up.Report

        • Avatar George Turner says:

          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.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      My logic behind those names is less about marxism v capitalism (which I don’t much care for as a dichotomy), but rather the extent to which a government priorities distributional goals over efficiency goals.Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine says:

        I hear you… I’m mostly teasing that Distributism is already taken – it is a post about Lexicons – might I suggest Redistributism?Report

      • Avatar Pinky says:

        That question seems secondary to whether / how much the government plays a role in economics, no? I mean, if I’m pro-lethal injection and anti-electric chair, that sort of skips ahead one conversation, doesn’t it?Report

    • Avatar j r says:

      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.Report

  5. Avatar InMD says:

    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.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      Interesting, what are the key distinctions between each of these groups?Report

    • Avatar Maribou says:

      @inmd I think I broadly agree with these categories and would love to read your fleshing out of them.Report

      • Avatar InMD says:

        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.Report

  6. Avatar Pinky says:

    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.Report

    • Avatar JoeSal says:

      -‘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.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      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.Report

      • Avatar Brent F says:

        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.Report

    • Avatar Maribou says:

      @pinky 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.Report

  7. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    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.Report

  8. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    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.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      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.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        “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.Report

        • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

          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.Report

          • Avatar Pinky says:

            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?Report

            • Avatar Pinky says:

              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.)Report

        • Avatar James K says:

          I’m thinking more in terms of general tendency, basically no one is totally pro-market or totally pro-government, but then basically no one is totally globalist or totally nationalist either.

          As for the substantive question of how a government should intervene in an economy, well I wrote a whole series of posts on that.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      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.Report

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