Before having any political discussion, it is obvious that we need to be clear about what our terms mean. This is some critical thinking 101, something everyone knows.
Well, sometimes it seems like everyone knows it, but there is one sense in which a very large segment of the population fails to apply this rule, this seemingly elementary rule.
You may be quite clear and quite sure about what you mean when you say a word like “capitalism,” but the major mistake lies in the very common assumption that others necessarily mean the same thing that you do when they use that word. Instead of getting what they mean to say, you instead hear something else.
This makes it so that people cannot communicate. Let’s say there is some new great idea that someone writes — some idea that challenges real, illegitimate power. Now let’s say that when you read this great new idea, you fail to get the message because you ascribe different meanings to the words. This could easily happen. Changing the meaning of only one word in an argument can change the entire message.
Human beings have probably been making this mistake in interpreting each other for a long time. Powerful groups, though, have cashed in on this mistake and used it to quelch dissenting ideas, and it has been an extremely effective tool in instilling pro-hierarchy ideology.
Remember, only a small faction of the society, the elite class, owns the institutional mechanisms which distribute information, and their interests are naturally most prevalent. So, what we get is a way of using words that upholds their interests.
We get a framework of discourse. The entire way of talking and understanding words is set out so that we can never really hear those arguments that would undermine their power. We would simply write them off because we would only understand a straw-man version of them.
We are taught, by the language-use imposed by the elite classes, to treat language this way. Once again, the parallels to Newspeak are overwhelming.
This whole problem becomes very clear when looking at a very bothersome scenario which frequently befalls me. People say, “If you are an anarchist, you could not possibly be a socialist!”
It’s such a shining example of the problem of people simply assuming that the way they define a term is the only definition.
It is an especially funny example, because people sooner assume that another rational adult would hold as core beliefs two extremely contradictory views, than they would guess that the other person is using the terms in another way. I think that the anarchism/socialism case is a striking example of how people fail to understand each other, and they do it in just the way that they are taught.
First I want to explain just how it is possible to be a socialist and an anarchist at the same time, and then I want to push further on how this shows that elite groups use this to their advantage.
Many people hear “anarchism” and think “no government.” Furthermore, they take that to be the only meaning. This would seem very strange to anyone who reads the foundational literature on the subject. Emma Goldman, considered a foundational figure in anarchism, would not have described anarchism as “no government,” but instead would have described it as “freedom from (private) property.”
Socialism, contrary to the popular conception, does not mean “total government control of industry.” That is one thing that the term is used to pick out. Just as in the case of anarchism, the main advocates of this view do not endorse the popular conception.
Socialism means that people own the industry, as in the people who work for the company, rather than a single capitalist. It can be a matter of degree as well. A mostly capitalistic society might have small socialist tendencies, such as collective bargaining of workers.
Since anarchism generally means the reduction or elimination of hierarchies — not “no government” — it does, in fact, naturally lead us to socialism. Capitalist industry is naturally hierarchical, with the capitalist class at the top of the hierarchy, and since anarchism wants to eliminate hierarchies, replacing them with equality in negotiation, anarchism demands the elimination of capitalist hierarchies.
So, how did the general population come to regard these terms in such a different way than the people who have historically identified with them? Simple: that is how the terms were used in the primary discourse that people were exposed to, the barrage of information provided by the institutions owned by the elite classes.
Furthermore, the discourse imposed by the elite class encourages us to treat terms as though they only have one meaning. We are taught to think of a term in a way that neutralizes its threat to power, while we are also taught to treat it only that way.
We do speak Newspeak.
BRIAN MOEN thinks that he is doing “meta-politics,” but realizes that the term is annoying. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.