‘Ism’s, Rhetoric,and the Branding of Ideology in the 21st Century

The following is a reflection I’m sharing with my online Introduction to Political Economy (it has a different name, but that’s what it is) course. It’s long and therefore continued after the jump.

Textbooks and politicians make frequent use of labels for socio-political-economic systems. Typically these labels identify some particular ideology as an “ism”.  Thus we have capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism, and probably several others I’ve missed. For those that grew up in the 20th century or have been educated by those who grew up in the 20th century, it seems natural. We talk about the merits of socialism vs. capitalism for example as if we were discussing the merits of alternative selections from a menu.  It hasn’t always been this way, though.

In the middle and dark ages people did not discuss or promote “feudalism”.  In fact, the term itself is an invention of scholars in later centuries. (see fascinating article on how feudalism as we think of it didn’t really exist).  The term, “feudalism”, is a construct, a rhetorical device, created to guide us into thinking about the socio-political-economic system of that era. In earlier times, those people who discussed political and economic policy issues focused primarily on the specifics of the issues in front of them at the time.  Policy decisions were made on an ad hoc, practical basis.  They essentially are today also, but since the 19th century, we don’t always think of policy that way.  There is a tendency to think there is a master plan or grand design or some kind of over-arching principles which can be used to guide our specific decisions.  We think that policy makers are (or should be) guided by these principles in making policy.

The Role of Media in Creating Manifestos, Platforms, and Slogans

Part of the reason, perhaps the major reason, why we think this way is because popular elections have made it necessary. In the pre-democratic past, back before the French or American revolutions and before the franchise was expanded in England, only a few people, the power elites such as kings, lords, landed gentry, their advisors, high clergy, and some academics need be concerned with policy. They were the only ones whose views mattered. But as popular elections and democracy began to spread, starting in the 18th century and continuing into the 20th century, the views of the populace at large began to matter. It became increasingly important for policy questions to be debated and understood by larger and larger numbers of people.  Increasingly, these people had less background and less time to understand the “nuances” or specifics of policy.  A farmer on the frontier or a worker in a factory may have been smart and literate, but they had little time or resources to spend researching and considering policy options before voting.  Even for the well informed, they had little influence beyond the voting for particular candidates. Their specific views on particular subjects were (and still are) irrelevant. Their only choice was between the candidates presented.

In parallel with the emergence of widened democracy are two other historical phenomena: mass media and the industrial revolution.  Mass media, the publication of information intended for mass consumption by the populace, begins with the invention of moveable type printing by Gutenberg in Germany in the 15th century. As Elizabeth Eisenstein has pointed out pamphlets and newspapers were critical important sources of information for the American and French revolutions.  Indeed, a strong argument can be made that the revolutions could not have happened without the printing press, pamphlets, and newspapers.  This growing mass media, catering to a growing populace, needed simple, convenient ways to communicate ideas and analysis.  After all, you can’t put a Ph.D. dissertation full of nuance onto a protest placard.  Slogans and simple phrases are needed. Three messages (arguments) needed to be conveyed by political activists to the populace:

  • some statement of Principles or Logic by which society should be organized (i.e. a Vision of the Future)
  • why explanation or justification as to why these principles were right or desirable
  • who the people (party) was that could be trusted to implement this vision.

The Era of Positive Platforms

The era of manifesto’s and party platforms was born.  The most famous manifesto, of course, is probably the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published in 1848. The need to communicate political goals and ideals itself drives the emergence of ‘ism’s: communism, socialism, feudalism, capitalism, libertarianism, mercantilism, etc.  An ‘ism in this context is what we often also call an ideology. It’s more than just particular policy recommendations about specific issues immediately in front us.  It involves a set of overarching principles and some implied vision of how society could and should be organized. As part of this vision of how society should be organized an ideology usually also includes some type of theory about how politics or the economy work. Typically acceptance of the theory leads intellectually to acceptance of the platform which leads to supporting the party leaders. Once the party leaders are supported, followers should accept the leaders’ specific policy recommendations.

The 19th and most of the 20th century became what I’ll call the era of “positive” platforms. Supporters of each ‘ism put great effort into defining or explaining what they stood for. Yes, they attacked the other ‘isms, but the bulk of the effort was in defining, explaining, and selling their vision. Communists, socialists, fascists, and capitalists all had not only their manifestos and party platforms, but they had extensive array of academic books and theories supporting their ideas.  Attacks and critiques of other ‘isms were made, but the primary effort was clearly to define and sell their own ‘ism.  Hitler had his Mein Kampf, Mussolini had his fascist manifesto.  Socialists and capitalists had numerous party platforms. In some cases such as fascism, the vision comes first, a supporting theory was then evolved to justify it, and then power came.  Others, notably capitalism, had power first, then a variety of academic apologists evolve a series of theories to justify why the existing policies are desirable (neo-classical/neo-liberal economic theory). As mass media evolved bringing eventually magazines, movies, radio and then television the era of propaganda emerged.  Politicians initially used these new media to explain and sell their ideologies, their ‘isms, to the people. They pushed their vision. The emphasis was “we are great”, “my ideology is good and right”.  It was a positive message in the sense that it was about how the supporters of the ‘ism wanted to the world to be.

The Rhetorical Change to Negative

However, there was a side message in much of the propaganda. There was the primary, positive message of what the ideology was about, but it also tended to mention the other ideologies as threats.  The great wars of the 20th century, two world wars and the cold war, were wars of ideology. The ancient dynamics of war as the great game of national interest vs. national interest for immediate advantage still happened (how else to explain capitalist U.S. allying with communist USSR in WWII?). But at the popular level, these were wars of ideology. No longer was it enough to sell people on the merits or desirability of your ‘ism, it was necessary to convince them that the other ‘ism was evil, threatening, and needed to be destroyed. Patriotism now entered the intellectual discussion. In the 19th century, you may have been a capitalist American and some one else a socialist American, but both of you were Americans.  You had a disagreement as to ideology and probably viewed the other as “ignorant” and in need of educating. The wars of the 20th century change that.  Now to support a different ideology makes one a threat to the nation. What at in 1900 may have Americans who supported communism, became “traitors” engaged in “un-American activities” by the time of McCarthy in the 1950’s.

The propaganda of ideologies, the ‘isms, had begun to move away from positive ideas and towards “us vs. them”. Radio and TV, while more effective at reaching and engaging more people in less time, also required shortening the message. Less and less of the message was about the theories or ideas supporting the vision.  More time had to be spent demonizing the “enemies”, the other ‘isms.  A new genre of books starts to be published. A notable early example is Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.  Now, instead of theories to support a particular ‘ism, supporters of a particular ‘ism focus their attack on some other ‘ism without justification of their own ‘ism.  In the book, Hayek essentially asserts that any form of socialist activity by government must inevitably lead to totalitarianism and loss of liberty.  The book really doesn’t spend much time building up capitalism as a desirable vision other than to say “capitalism isn’t socialism”.  The logic is: socialism bad, capitalism is not socialist, therefore capitalism is desirable. It’s a logical fallacy, but it sold.

As the 20th century evolved, it became a tournament, a battle of the ‘isms to the death.  The first to fall of course is fascism as Germany, Italy, and Japan are defeated in World War II. In the popular mind, reinforced by politicians,  Round two of the tournament pitched Communism vs. Capitalism.  Never mind that there were numerous varieties of communism and even more varieties of capitalism.  All systems were to be classified as one or the other. Us vs. Them. For those of us who were born in the mid-20th century we were raised on this steady diet of propaganda. For purposes of round two of the great 20th century ‘Isms Death Match, socialism as practiced in Britain or France was allowed to be an “honorary” capitalism.

Round two of course went to capitalism. In 1989 when the Berlin wall fell and confirmed in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Communism was deemed to be toast. Of course, the reality is that 1/4 of the world’s population still lived under Communist Party rule in China, North Korea, and Cuba. Logically communism must be what ever the Communist party does when it is in power. So again, logically, communism is anything but over. It still exists. It is still evolving and still being defined.  Yet, in popular political rhetoric, at least rhetoric in the U.S., Communism is yesterday’s news. It’s over. In the U.S., the tournament has moved onto “Capitalism vs. Socialism”.

Before the “victory” over communism was complete, Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher set their sights on defeating “socialism”.  Actually, they were only the front people.  Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and others had been plotting for a long time as the Mont Pelerin Society to attack what they defined as “socialism”.  They have succeeded. While there has been no dramatic TV-worthy moment where “socialism” fails, unlike the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the hanging of Mussolini, no substantial party in the U.S. or Britain is willing to defend anything that can be construed as “socialism”. Capitalism had won. Or at least that’s how it’s been presented to us by politicians and media.

But What Is Capitalism?

We are all “capitalists” now.  Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives, Tories, Liberals, and even the Labor Party now claim to be capitalist and to oppose “socialism”.  Indeed, “socialist” has become an epithet to be hurled at any policy proposal with which you don’t agree. There’s no need to critique the workings of the proposal or analyze it or find the flaw in your opponent’s reasoning.  Simply call it “socialist”.  So we have been treated in the last few years to Republican/Tea Party attacks on the Obama healthcare proposal as being “socialist”.  No explanation of how it’s socialist. No explanation of how a “capitalist” alternative might be different or might be more desirable.  Not even a recognition that the same plan is apparently “socialist” when Democrat Obama proposes it, but the same basic plan was “capitalist” and “anti-socialist” when Mitt Romney implemented it in Massachusetts as Governor.

The ideology of capitalism seems very ill-defined.  It is not clear what makes a system “capitalist”.  Is it the existence of markets and prices? Can’t be. Socialist economies have long made use of both. Private ownership? Fascists had private ownership. Socialists, too, only advocate public ownership of large enterprises, not the shirt on your back. Is it banking? Fascists, socialists, and capitalists all have it. Is capitalism the world of entrepreneurs or the world of multi-nationals that are “too big to fail”?

When “capitalism” in today’s debate is defined, it is most often done by so-called libertarians.  They often appeal to the writings of Friedman, or Hayek, or Ayn Rand.  Ayn Rand’s writings don’t provide a comprehensive theory or explanation of how the economy works, so we’re left with Friedman and Hayek.  Both offer justifications for what they assert is “capitalism”, but most often these justifications are theoretical and critically based on some assumptions.  For example, Friedman started the privatization craze that has seen government functions and enterprises increasingly sold or contracted to private firms. Everything from schools, to prisons, to feeding soldiers and even police protection has been outsourced and privatized. Yet the economic justification for privatization critically depends upon an assumption that a competitive market can be established for the service or good.  Yet in practice no such competitive markets are created. In Wisconsin today, the governor wants to sell-off government assets and power generating stations without even getting a competitive bid!  And he calls this “capitalism”.

Ideology as Brand: Marketing Policy to the Masses

As ideology propaganda moved into the “us vs. them” era of the 20th century, ideologies came to be defined in the negative.  That is, instead of the postive statements of the “‘ists”, the supporters of the ‘ism, an ideology has come to be defined according to what it’s opponents claim it is and according to who supports it.  But another step in the propaganda evolution has happened in the last 30 or so years. Politicians have become astute marketers.  Political parties realize that ideology has become a consumer good.  It matters not what it really is, what matters is the brand identity and that consumers identify with the brand. Ideas and analysis is dead. Brand is everything now. And with brand comes spin, that consultant euphemism for lying or incomplete truth. The textbooks tell us that Fascism is dead. It’s over. World War II supposedly killed it. But did it really? Do the ideas still exist and motivate politicians only now they can’t call it “fascism”?  Is fascism really dead or did Hitler only ruin the brand?

News media that focuses on drama and horse-race reporting over analysis makes it worse.  Politicians don’t really follow their platforms. They don’t really support the ideologies they claim when in office.  It’s all branding.  So Obama runs for office as a “liberal”, one who supposedly was anti-war, supported social welfare programs and favored government involvement in regulating big business. In practice, of course, he is nowhere near that.  His administration fought for big banks against reform and helped pass a toothless, worthless reform document. He has been as pro-war as his Republican predecessor. In his one supposed social-oriented big program, the Affordable Healthcare Act, he pushed through a bill that not only isn’t “socialist”, but it actually promotes and entrenches capitalist insurance companies and private healthcare providers.  Now he is considering changes that may cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security programs. This, folks, is not a “socialist”. Yet, we are told repeatedly that the Obama administration is “socialist”.  It must be, because the “capitalist” Republicans say it is. How do we know the Republicans are “capitalist”? Because they tell us they are.  This kind of labeling obscures rather than enlightens.

Proposal:  ‘Ism Is as ‘Ism Does

I would like to suggest a modest rule. ‘Ism Is as ‘Ism Does. Yes, it’s a take off on the line made famous in the movie Forrest Gump, but was apparently actually coined by Elizabeth Eisenstein: Stupid is as stupid does.  The idea in the movie is that the test of how “stupid” someone really is in their actions.  It doesn’t matter what credentials or claims they have.  If they act stupid, then they are stupid. If they don’t act stupid, they aren’t.  In similar fashion, I suggest that we judge people’s ideology according to what they do, not what they say.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson takes this approach.  He does not take the King of England to task because the King is a “monarchist”. Jefferson writes that:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design…

It matters not what the king claims he is. What matters is what the King has done and the object we can infer from the pattern of his actions. It’s not a single action that matters. It’s not the King’s stated objectives that matter. It’s the objectives that can be reasonably inferred from observing the actual pattern of actions.

In short, I propose a socialist politician is one who actually implements socialist ideas and programs – one who behaves a socialist would. A true capitalist would be one who acts to implement capitalist ideas, regardless of the “brand” they have sold us.

What are the implications of thinking this way?  Well, for one, I suspect we would realize that in the U.S. today we really aren’t presented any ideological choice at the ballot box. Both of the big parties are essentially the same.  It’s all Coke vs. Pepsi.  In a blind taste test, few can tell the difference and even more find they prefer the “other” one. Another implication is that we would have to focus on actual ideas and policy proposals instead of dismissing everything as the “workings of those socalists/capitalists/communists/fascists/whatever”.  If we focus on ideas, then compromise might be possible.  Identity cannot be compromised. Policy ideas can.

Another implication is that we would be required to think anew about what each ‘ism really is supposed to be about.  What is capitalism really? What is socialism?  Finally, we may find that we don’t have the ‘ism we really want.  We may find that some of those “dead” ideologies are, in practice, quite alive and evolving.  For example, perhaps fascism isn’t dead after all.  Is the unending “global war on terror” and battle with “radical Islamicism” something socialists would actually promote? Is it really something that’s capitalist?  Or is it something that’s actually akin to fascism?

I know it’s an idealistic proposal, this idea that perhaps we could deal with ideas and specifics without the short-cut emotional labels or “brands”. But this old guy can dream, right?  After all, that’s what ideology is supposed to be about –  dreams of a better world.