‘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. Continue reading