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Meaning in Political Discourse

image of "Marxist" black-and-white label

Political polarization has become an important issue in recent years. On matters of public policy it seems like there is little room for rational conversation when people of different political stripes cannot agree on the same basic facts. Solutions to the problem of polarization are likely to be as complex and as plural as the causes of the problem, but there is one issue that may be an important starting point: meaning. A lack of clarity in the meaning of certain terms in political discussion only weakens our ability to engage in fruitful dialog. It fragments our political culture and encourages us to continue to talk past one another. If refining the meanings of our words helps to improve our political discussions, then the issue takes on a moral importance as well as a logical one.

For the first example, let’s consider what the term “socialist” means. The issue has become important as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has at times used terms like “socialist” or “democratic socialist” to describe his positions. Yet according to some he is not a socialist at all, he is a democratic socialist and not a regular socialist, or perhaps he is not a democratic socialist but a social democrat, or still others insist that he is not a socialist but an all-out Marxist. Why is it so difficult for us to decide what Sanders is? Debates about the finer points separating these different views are not new; political ideologues have argued about these distinctions for years. However, much of these debates has always centered on articulating a position relative to an entire political and metaphysical philosophy.

For example, the historical materialism of Marx and Engels was the philosophical driving force behind Marxism. It held that history and society is largely structured by matter, by the control of material forces, rather than ideas or ideals. Borrowing from Hegelian thought, this historical materialism will result in the end of history; historical change is driven by class conflict and will end with the elimination of class: communism. Such philosophical views not only affected Soviet economic thinking, but their thinking about everything else. For example, Soviet science initially rejected genetics since the notion that an inherited trait made an organism better than others ran counter to the Marxist understanding of history and nature.

But terms like socialist, communist, democratic socialist, social democrat are, in many ways, now divorced from these larger philosophical systems. Instead they have been giving new meanings and associations in contemporary contexts. This is important. For example, some try to distinguish between socialism and communism purely in terms of what governments should enact as policy. Communism means the elimination of all property, socialism allows for the retention of varying forms of private markets we are told. While this may be partially true, it wouldn’t be how a Soviet communist in 1920 would have understood the term. But here in 2006 Sanders defines democratic socialism in terms of making sure that income isn’t a barrier to healthcare, education, and a clean environment. Sanders tends to refer to policies not philosophies when situating himself on the political spectrum.

If these terms no longer refer to specific systems, then the meaning of such terms becomes fuzzy. Sanders doesn’t seem to mind using any of these terms so long as he can redefine them in terms consistent with policies that he supports; the label is of secondary importance. This may be why he continues to use terms like “socialist” and “democratic socialist” interchangeably. Little distinguishes him policy-wise from self-proclaimed capitalist Elizabeth Warren or from FDR, except additional rhetoric. But the looseness of such terms can only serve to create confusion and room for empty political name-calling. It is problematic to take concepts which had their original meaning embedded in a 19th century philosophy and place them in a 21st century context. If something sounds vaguely like what the Soviets would do, then you are labeled a “communist.” Given this tendency toward oversimplification, we must be vigilant about how we use such terms moving forward. The real question we should ask ourselves is whether favoring policies of universal healthcare or education constitute necessary or sufficient conditions for using terms like “communist” or “socialist.”

Another example of unclear meaning creating problems can be found in a term like “social construct.” Originally coming out of sociology, social constructivism examines the ways in which society and social interaction structures our understanding of reality. Like “socialism” it emerged from academia operating under certain methodological and philosophical principles, and like “socialism” the term can be understood in several different, complicated ways. At one end of the spectrum social constructivism might hold that how we understand and use concepts is socially influenced while at another end it may hold that our entire understanding of reality is socially determined; the world is the way society says the world is.

It is often noted that gender and race are social constructs, but how is the term “social construct” being used and why is it controversial? Those who insist that there are only two genders, for instance, will tend to argue that biology tells us that we are born with XX or XY chromosomes and that this is all that matters. Part of this political conflict is a matter of epistemic and metaphysical disagreement. A hard realist about epistemology may hold that there is only one way that the world is, and that science is the path to find objective truths about it; social factors only get in the way. To their way of understanding it, only the two-gender theory “carves nature at its joints” so to speak. Social influences, including all of the values, perspectives, and experiences that come with them, only serve to lead to biased or subjective science. Thus, any discussion of more than two genders can be accused of engaging in mere “political correctness” (another poorly defined term) or ideology.

But one does not need to understand “social construct” in this way. Social influences and interactions, practical concerns, and even values, can affect the way we understand and study a topic without falling into complete epistemic relativism. For example, in her book Studying Human Behavior Helen Longino argues that different scientific approaches to studying human behavior do not all agree about what constitutes an environmental causal factor and what constitutes a biological causal factor. To some extent how we divide the world up into what constitutes a behavior, what is environmental, and what is biological is a social construct, but that does not imply that the end conclusion is simply made up or that accepting the findings of any given approach constitutes only subjective or ideological agreement.

Yet, unfortunately the notion persists that social construction implies subjectivity. For instance, Joshua Keating of Smithsonian Magazine notes that time is a social construct. Social interaction influences our understanding of concepts like minutes and seconds, “being early”, “late”, “fashionably late”, or “workday.” Yet he notes, “Those subjective views help explain why the standardization of time has often been met with reluctance if not outright resistance.” But there is no good reason to accept the conclusion that simply because a concept is (at least partially) a social construct, it is therefore subjective.

As philosopher Ray Lepley notes, our interests and desires do not confer value, they create value in interaction with reality. The way we understand and use the concept of time has (generally) proved itself objectively well at allowing us to navigate our environment in ways that are relevant to our society. For other societies a different understanding of time may prove itself objectively good at allowing them to navigate their environment. When different societies interact, it creates new problems for our established ways of tracking time that need to be worked out.

On the other hand, socially constructed terms can be merely subjective in the sense that they do not allow us to successfully interact with the world. For example, Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist tells us that race is a social construct in the sense that it is a socially-created concept that does not allow us to predict factors like intelligence or explain innate differences between peoples and populations. Empirically, it is an empty concept. So long as we avoid understanding the terms “social construct” and “reality” in mutually exclusive ways, questions like: How many genders there should be? work themselves out empirically over time as various societies, (and sub-societies,) and their environments all continue to interact with each other. Thus, as long as we clarify the meaning of these terms, we can have conversations about these topics and discuss the merits of using concepts without talking past one another or worry that one side is merely trying to instill their ideology over others.

There are countless other extremely loaded terms which can be used to create arguments to attack others while avoiding serious debate and discussion. What do terms like “political correctness”, “liberal,” “democratic,” “conservative”, or “fascist” mean in their 21st century contexts? These questions are not new. Early analytic philosophers concerned about the rise of nationalist and racist beliefs in Europe argued that clarifying meaning could help resolve political questions. It is still worth taking up the task today.

The Socialist Calculation Debate: Revisited

Photo of Karl Marx bust on a plinth in a small park

The socialist calculation debate preoccupied some of our finest economic thinkers in the first half of the 1900s. The debate revolved around how to best solve society’s resource allocation problem—as in, how do we best allocate society’s scarce resources? In the attempt to answer the question, two camps emerged: the right-wing free-marketers and the left-wing socialists. The right’s answer to the allocation problem was a decentralized pricing system, whereas the left’s answer was a centrally planned economy. While on some level this debate died with the 20th century, glimmers of its return can be seen today. Continue reading “The Socialist Calculation Debate: Revisited”

Can There Be a Democratic Socialism?

A photo of Salvador Allende waving to a crowd.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro recently said that he is willing to become a dictator in order to ensure “economic peace” in his country. This is very strange, as commentators have widely argued that Maduro has already been a dictator for quite some time. Latin American countries had long endured dictatorships, but for the most part, dictators acknowledged their condition. They rarely pretended to be democratic. The only exception was Cuba. There, a leftist dictator pretended to be democratic, ala the German Democratic Republic, which everyone knew was democratic only in its name.

Continue reading “Can There Be a Democratic Socialism?”

Freedom and the 2016 Electoral Season

‘Tis the season for politics, once again, in the United States of America. And while some surprising new topics, like the size of candidates’ hands, have cropped up in this cycle, some of the mainstays of American political rhetoric are also at the rendez-vous.

Take Donald Trump, for instance.

In January, one of his campaign rallies featured the following performance:

While it features somewhat dated nationalist lyrics (including verses like “Come on boys, take them down!”), slightly updated for promoting Mr. Trump’s bid in the 2016 presidential contest, it also highlights a theme that is about as central to American political rhetoric as apple pie is to American cooking: freedom.

Whether freedom has been invoked as an empty rhetorical trope, as in this case, or whether it has been used more substantitvely, it has so completely permeated electoral discourse as to become inescapable.

Whether they have talked about government regulation, trade, national security, tax reform, education, abortion, or immigration, freedom has been Republican candidates’ preferred frame of reference.

Meanwhile, on the left of the political spectrum, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been quite as single-minded. While Clinton has spent a great deal of her time trying to square away her commitments to free trade and to an equalitarian progressive politics, Sanders has explained his commitment to democratic socialism as meaning “that we must create a vibrant democracy based on the principle of one person one vote.” “True freedom” according to Sanders, “does not occur without economic security. People are not free, they are not truly free, when they are unable to feed their family.”

And yet, these invocations are largely based on outdated conceptions of what freedom is. The idea at the back of Sanders’ viewpoint, that economic independence is the necessary precondition for democratic citizenship harks back to Thomas Jefferson’s glorification of the yeoman farmer, as historian Eric Foner was already noting in his book, The History of American Freedom. And as sociologists have been observing since the 1950s, such an ideal of economic independence is woefully inadequate to the corporate economy in which we live.

But it is just as true that the thesis that deregulation of international trade or of the labor market will result in greater individual freedom is based on the idea, first defended by classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, that government power threatens individual liberty. Mill’s disciples in the twentieth century, intellectuals like Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, argued that the crux of liberal freedom consists in the absence of coercion of the individual, either by private monopolies or by government power, so that the smaller the size of the government is and the less active it is in citizens’ lives, the greater will their freedom be.

But as early as the 1960s, the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram actually found, in a series of now famous experiments, that most people do not need to be coerced into doing things they don’t want to do, including engaging in actions which they are convinced will most likely result in the death of an innocent person: they will do these things of their own free will – a situation that suggests that “free will” and freedom may not be the same things after all.

In fact, a growing body of evidence has been produced in the human sciences over the past 40 years that suggests that the notion of a free-willing individual, who can make decisions independently of social and cultural contexts is a figment of our imagination. What this research reveals is that it is not the absence of context that enables individuals to act freely (whether it be the absence of a monopoly or the absence of a state bureaucracy), but on the contrary the presence of one.

This scientific research reveals several very surprising things about human nature that directly contradict the vision of human beings as rational, egoistic individuals, driven by an unquenchable lust for pleasure, money, or power, which we inherited from classical liberalism. The most recent of the great apes, it turns out, is a hypersocial being, whose subjective experience of the world is profoundly shaped by its empathetic openness to others, an openness that is not premised on any sort of fundamental or primitive goodness, but rather on the evolutionary mechanics of communication. Social psychologists, for instance, have discovered that in order to understand what someone else is saying we have to imitate the motion of their vocal chords (though in a much reduced fashion). We have to, in other words, become them. Neuroscientists have also found a specific type of neuron which corresponds to this process in the brain itself, the so-called “mirror neuron.”

Our identities, and therefore our desires, are profoundly affected by our cultural, social, and political contexts. To be free thus necessitates participating in the formation of the communicational contexts that affects and form us all. Freedom requires not only the freedom of expression cherished by classical liberals, but a certain freedom of connection – the power to shape the contexts in which this free expression happens. The freedom of choice advocated by classical liberals and their twentieth century followers confuses the fruit of freedom, the will, with its root. Likewise, those social liberals and socialists who emphasize economic independence while ignoring the other complex dimensions and processes involved in the creation of a free personality seem to be missing a significant component of the reality of the process of freedom.

This conception of freedom, if we examine it closely, suggests that democracy is not just a matter of elections or of constitutional rights (though it undoubtedly includes those concerns). Nor is the issue that of how “big” government bureaucracy will be. More fundamentally, political freedom consists in individuals and communities having the power to mutually affect each other and form each other. Democracy, understood from this perspective becomes a way of life rather than a formal mode of government, one that has consequences not only for the way in which ownership of the media of mass communication is organized for instance (a frequent complaint of the Sanders campaign is that this ownership structure is creating a bias in its coverage of politics), but also for every aspect of our lives, from the workplace to the bedroom, its fundamental principle being “equality of participation.” The aim of a “politics of freedom” in this context would be neither decreased regulation of the economy or increased government intervention but the creation of increased opportunities for participation by all members of society in both economic and political decision-making, regardless of their wealth or income level. Beyond the public funding of elections, one might imagine this agenda including decreased mediation of the mechanisms of political representation. Currently, for instance, the average ratio of representatives to represented in the US House of Representatives is something like 1: 290,000, making it extremely difficult for any but the most powerful interests to gain a hearing, regardless of the way elections are funded. And yet, there seem to be few technical impediments to cutting that ratio in half for instance. Any number of other reforms could be proposed that would enable greater citizen participation in the polity, from making congressional office-holders into recallable delegates in order to increase accountability, to instituting worker and consumer co-management councils in private corporations, legally entitled to raise concerns about the social and environmental consequences of business policies (corporations being legal entities to begin with, there seems to be little weight in the argument that this would be “undue government interference”).

Now, wouldn’t the transformation of everyday life from the standpoint of such a principle of “equality of participation” be the basis for a genuine “political revolution”?