In times of turmoil, fear and uncertainty, words matter. As ever, the dictionary provides our clarity, our definition, our truth. It is held up as a source of truth to settle arguments, to provide resolve to confusions, to finish debates.
We should look to the dictionary for simplicity in chaos. One can gain more from a two-paragraph definition than a five hundred page book about politics.
A lot of words are banded about in online arguments: Fascism, Conservatism, Liberalism, Socialism. These words are weaponised, hurled as insults, but also worn as proud badges, waved as flags (don’t get me started). Sometimes though, one wonders if the users of such words actually know their meanings. I put myself in that same category, and it struck me that I should pause and recap, and refresh myself on the meanings of these things.
Let’s have a look at what dictionary.com says about these “Isms”.
Liberalism is absolutely where I live. I have read this definition to myself many times and I am sure that it defines who I am politically. Especially the part about nonviolent modidication of institutions to assure developent in human endeavour. This is how we, the human race, progress ourselves, how we move forward. How can the word “liberal” be hurled as a derogatory term, an insult? This happens more and more these days, especially in the US, but increasingly in the UK. The right wing media monsters have hijacked the term to use alongside ‘snowflake’ or ‘remoaner’. Liberals are seen by many as non-progressive, backwards thinkers, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth: We want change, lots of change, and we want it to have benefits, real visible benefits. Brexit was a huge backward step, perhaps the worst backwards step in UK history, which is why Liberals felt so deeply opposed to it.
OK, so looking at this, Socialism is close for me, but not quite a comfortable fit. It pushes hard for public ownership of things like utilities and infrastructure, stifling commercial or developmental freedoms in those areas, stifling innovation. But, it’s still far better than some of the alternatives (see below). The mindset is a good one; that large communities, or entire countries, as people working together, hold power over the way things are run, that no small companies or individuals may rise too high. However the overriding fear of anti-socialists is that it’s somehow a doorway to Communism, that it gives far too much power to communities (and by communities I could mean workers’ unions for example). I don’t buy the worry about such a transition being inevitable, any more than I see liberalism as a gateway to anarchy. The idea of Commuism being an inevitable outcome of Socialism is, to me, a convenient yet unfounded downgrade of Socialist enemies of Conservatives.
Communism, as an ideology, is the historical arch enemy of the west, and of the US in particular. I’ll be honest, I’m not totally certain what it means. When I think of Communism I think of evil Russian overlords seeking to take over the world and reduce everyone to pitiful, restrained and repressed states where they aren’t free to innovate or develop economically. I’m probably wrong. I don’t know.
So I look to the dictionary for help: “A system of social organization based on the holding of all property in common, actual ownership being ascribed to the community as a whole or to the state.”
From reading the dictionary definition, I’m learning that I was kind of almost right, but that Communism is all about state ownership exceeding its bounds; of government wanting complete and total control over every organisation, instutution and business in existence. Perhaps this is why in the UK, Labour, who wish to renationalise things like railways and the utilities (for example), are often tarnished by hardline Conservatives as Communist sympathisers.
Under Communism, a totalitarian state with absolute unchallenged power, holds a vice-like grip on any and all financial and social activity. The state would be a single party authority over everything (ie the Communist Party).
The ideology is oppressive and extreme, and to my mind quite some distance from Socialism. In fact it sounds far closer to modern day Conservatism in terms of it’s target of being a single party authoritarian state. This is why I always become confused when people try to tar Britain’s Labour Party with the Communist brush; it just doesn’t fit. No true socialist wants a government to own and control everything; they just want government-guaranteed rights and freedoms for those employees who keep instututions and businesses running (some of those rights and freedom, incidentally, used to be guaranteed to the UK as an EU member state).
Conservatism is all about actively preventing progress, holding the status quo intact, and in some cases regressing any progress that was made. Here, case in point, we have Brexit: The EU was a progressive post-war idea which moved the UK forward, cemented new bonds and new trade routes with our neighbours, secured peace through free movement of people, services and goods to the mutual benefit of all involved. Yes! It was strong, tangible progress!
The progress, the change to the status quo, never felt right to hardline Conservatives, and it tormented them. Over 40 years they engaged the media in a creeping undoing of support for EU membership, an erosion that was carefully and wilfully encouraged at many levels. This carefully nurtured hate of progress eventually matured into a near-religious nationalism and ultimately, Conservatism (the hate of progress) triumphed over Liberalism (the love of progress). Brexit happened, and the progress was wound back. This, people, is Conservatism in action before our very eyes. The rollback of change, the forced restoration of a nostalgic past that doesn’t fit in the present. Conservatism is, in a nutshell, regression.
But what is a Conservative government to do when despite the apparent rollback of progress, the people still want to restore that progress? When simple, traditional, Conservatism doesn’t satisfy the country and there are vast swathes who don’t accept the regression, when the threat of progress remains, what does a Conservative government turn to?
And here we are now, on the brink of this final and most devastating political ideology. Fascism. To me, Fascism is Conservatism run amok. It stamps out all opposition, sometimes literally or violently. Instead of trying to win debate it seeks to eliminate the debate itself, using any and all tactics, including for example creating laws to make arguing illegal, or if that fails, just distract and divert the agenda elsewhere to make debate impossible. If the people, under Conservatism, still insist they want progressive change and freedoms, then Fascism steps in, and stamps out that insistence using blunt, retrograde tools: Propoganda, lies, voter suppression, refusal to fund or support progressive sectors (science, arts), exploitation of circumstances to stamp out progress (eg. emergency powers in a pandemic, with those powers lasting forever). Fascism, as the dictionary definition makes clear, is all about suppression of criticism and the bloating of a nationalist mindset (eg. waving national flags instead of addressing the problems of the country).
Right now, under Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his authoritarian cabinet, Great Britain, in peacetime, is diving headlong into fascism. It is cause for celebration by the racists, the nationalists or the regressives. It is cause for abject terror for the liberals and progressives, who see this as nothing short of the total demolition of a lifetime of outreach and innovation.
But worst of all, for the vast majority of people in the UK, fascism is a cause of absolutely nothing, of total apathy and sleep. It is happening, this vile transformation, with nobody batting an eyelid. Everyone is too busy or too distracted – just as the fascists want.
To summarise what I think the dictionary as told me:
Liberalism = wanting progress.
Socialism = wanting key industries (eg transport or utilities) to be owned and/or run by government or government-backed bodies (eg unions).
Conservatism = wanting to stop or revert progress.
Communism = nobody owns their own stuff, it’s all owned by the country as a whole or by the state.
Fascism = the forced, sometimes physical, removal of opposition voices to government under cover of bloated nationalism.
These definitions are based on what I read in the dictionary. Perhaps there is a question of interpretation, but the source is one we can all agree is neutral and trustworthy, yes?
Which of these ‘isms’ do you feel you belong to?
Use the dictionary in debate
People often say, in retort to political disagreers, “do your research”. People tell others to “go read a book”. I say that’s harsh. You can’t tell people to read a book and hope they come back on your side afterwards. They won’t read a book and they won’t come back afterwards. Nobody reads a book because they were told to. Frankly too few people read books at all. No, instead of saying “do some research”, or “read a book”, I recommend this:
Tell people to read a definition in the dictionary.