Philosophy, Politics

What socialism actually means

Though I should know better, I find myself reading comments on the internet all too often. In these sections I am exposed to one of my biggest pet peeves: the complete re-creation of meaning for the major political theory isms: conservatism, liberalism and socialism.

  • In the United States, conservatism is Republicanism (whatever Republicanism means, since they always say one thing – ‘small government!’ – and do another – ‘triple the debt!’) and sometimes also Libertarianism.
  • Liberalism in the US, as I like to say, embodies everything from Noam Chomsky’s anarcho-syndicalism to Al Gore’s very middle of the road tempered ‘modern liberalism’ (one of the worst named isms ever, by the way).
  • And socialism, which would not describe Chomsky, but would at least be a better fit than liberalism for his brand of politics, is used as a label for actions and policies often associated with the dreaded “Liberals” and of course for other countries, like mine (Canada), and much of the rest of the developed world.

Socialism actually involves the nationalization of the economy. Not parts of the economy, but the entire thing (or at least the vast majority of it). So, even though Canada has state health insurance, funding towards higher education, publicly owned and operated roads, telephone poles and electrical wires (though that is definitely not uniform throughout the country), and other such state¬†apparatuses,¬†Canada is in no way a socialist country. It is, on the other hand a “modern liberal” country. And though Romneycare Obamacare does require people to get health insurance, there is nothing remotely socialist about it. (As there is nothing remotely socialist about many if not most of Obama’s policies, except those continuations of Bush policies that are borderline fascism: fascism and socialism are actually very, very related.)

So I would die a happy man if people could understand the words they use. But I know that is not going to happen. Canada will continue to be labeled socialist by people who don’t understand an iota of the three great political isms:

  • Conservatism:
    • originally, to preserve the old status quo in the face of the emerging liberalism;
    • then to extend the state as a means for taking care of those who liberalism was not looking after while maintaining the traditional structure of society;
    • now a bizarre mix of the economic ideas of classical liberalism – or libertarianism, its extremist off-shoot – and some of the social ideas of the original conservatism.
  • Liberalism:
    • originally, the idea that all human beings (or at least European, propertied men) were equal in the eyes of the law and the state must be prevented from abusing them untowardly through laws, governmental checks, and encoded rights;
    • it has since splintered into numerous variations but most popularly they are
      • libertarianism: classical liberalism taken to its logical extreme
      • neo-liberalism: the revival of classical liberalism without the original emphasis on equality
      • and modern liberalism, which combines some level of liberal economic rules – modern liberalism still requires and supports capitalism – with more of an emphasis on equality and some policies drawn from socialism.
  • Socialism:
    • originally, the idea that equality and positive (i.e. state-assisted) liberty was more important than negative (i.e. state-restrained) liberty;
    • then, the idea that to be free, people need to be helped by the state in every way possible.

These are all caricatures to some extent, as they are very short descriptions of phenomena people write books about, but they are more accurate than practically anything that makes it into the public discourse lately.

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