The suffix -ism is one of those handy things inherited from the versatile Greek language. The original usage was the creation of an active noun from a verb, such as baptism or criticism. It makes an action into a thing, allowing it to become a subject or object.
More recently, this suffix has taken on the use of defining a philosophy, often a political practice. It is a way of taking a series of beliefs or practices and putting them into a box which can be delivered as one unique practice. Far from making an active subject, in practical terms it becomes most useful as a way of preventing any action at all.
The great -isms of political economics are Socialism and Capitalism. The boxes these words describe were fixed long ago and remain rigid. Yet they retain their power to an opposing tribe and thus remain in use. It’s long past time to dump the -isms, useful as this linguistic construction once was.
The term Socialism describes what is essentially a practical vision of Marxism, the teachings of Karl Marx. Where the world is divided between those who think that Marx was wrong about everything and those who think he was right about everything, he had an amazing ability to be half-right about everything.
This is does not in any way diminish the contributions of the first person to describe a comprehensive theory of political economics. Writing 150 years ago, as industrialization was just starting to transform every aspect of life, he left an enduring mark on its progress. Much of his analysis of history has been shown to be useful, and his predictions of the rise of working people into the middle class has been taken as not just fact, but an unalloyed good.
His vision of a world where the workers own the means of production has been embodied in much of the beliefs and practices which give us the 401k and the Stock Market as we know it.
Its antithesis, Capitalism, became a word in common usage at about the same time. Capitalist, or a person who invests, is a much older word once used as we might use Venture Capitalist. The term Capitalism seems to have come as a reaction to Marxism. It was an attempt to codify practices which rose more organically as pools of money outside of the monarchical state were formed.
The term Liberalism was already in use at that time. Coming from the perspective of pure political theory, it was a reaction to a controlling monarchy which didn’t allow too much control outside of the crown. It describes the state loosening up, or allowing capitalists to do their thing. Since it comes from a political perspective, not an economic one, it describes that process – opening up, or liberalizing.
Somewhere along the line Marxism hardened into a series of beliefs which state that a free, open market is a bad thing. This was only one of the reasons why Marx himself stated that “The last thing on this earth I would want to be called is a Marxist.” As a tool of empowering workers, it became dogmatic. As the term Socialism started to gain more currency, stripping the name of the inventor and emphasizing the sociological roots, little changed.
So did its reactionary contrast, Capitalism. The concept of a free market became a defining feature of the idea and the two were off to the polls. Nevermind that purest capitalism, or the rule of money, tends towards monopoly and eagerly supports asymmetry of information, two classic market failure mechanisms.
Free market means Capitalism. Shut up and let the money talk. Socialism is for losers.
This becomes important as we pass out of the industrial era into something new and poorly defined. We have very rigid definitions which had their place at the beginning of industrialization deeply rooted in our political language. Where nearly everyone understands there are limits to both prevailing ideas, the terms are always handy for batting down anything new or different. Wasn’t Obamacare Socialism? Isn’t Capitalism just an excuse for poisoning our planet?
While working on People’s Economics, the limists of the -isms have become very apparent. I have little idea that the free market at the core of this analysis will be derided as an excuse for more rape and plunder by Capitalism. The role of government in defining a free market will be sneered at as more creeping Socialism. It’s reasonable that the more educated will decry it as a Neo-neo-liberalism as well.
The process of creating names for practices is supposed to help codify them and make language simpler. In reality, it’s a process for limiting genuinely open-minded thought and preventing the genesis and synthesis of new ideas from the lessons of history.
Those Greeks had a word for everything.
In the past, I have reluctantly used the term Marketism to describe a free-market ideology independent of the perspective created by following money. In essence, it’s the natural evolution of a concept which started as Liberalism and became Capitalism. It’s a tricky thing because any new name will be inherently limiting. But if a name is not created immediately, those who are opposed or simply close-minded will slap a different label on it.
The problem is that any new idea has to arrive so fully described that an adequate box can be fashioned for it immediately if it is to survive.
This is the problem facing People’s Economics at this stage of its development. As the definition is fleshed out its limits must necessarily be described entirely for political reasons. That is because ever since the onset of industrialization we have been living in a world of -isms.
These handy codes seem to make it possible for us to debate complex ideas without having to go into lengthy descriptions constantly, but in reality they merely limit our ability to think through anything at all. For 150 years it didn’t seem like a harsh limit. Then, everything started to change.
Re-inventing the -isms will have to come quickly. If it doesn’t come at all we are doomed to live in the rotting past forever.
This is why I cut people off when any -ism comes up. Let’s talk about policy which either hurts or helps people. They rest is all performance art.
Bingo. But we have to contend with this nonsense. Labels are an important way that people who don’t really understand everything can be a part of the conversation. There’s a yin and yang to that. On the one hand, in a representative democracy people do need to be engaged, even partially. On the other hand …. well, what I wrote about here.
At this point, I have to agree with you. -isms are really just dangerous.
Thanks for the cogent response . .they’re so lacking nowadays…
Hear, hear. I’m still not sure I buy all of your PE stuff, I have to see the final form. Looks good so far. But you are right on with this, that we can’t have anything new. And we do need something new, maybe not a new “idealogy” or whatever but it’s so obvious things are changing.
I’d appreciate your questions and additions. Seriously, if you could take the time it would surely make things better.
Emanuel Macron – “We don’t need new ideologies, we need new methods.”
Why do we get so bogged down in the labels? Isn’t what works what is important?
It should be. See the above comment, there is a reason for it. Jargon is everywhere, but it is potentially dangerous.
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