What is your ‘ism’? Ask the dictionary

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The dictionary can be a calm, quiet, simple source of truth

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”.

Dictionary definition of Liberalism (from dictionary.com)
Dictionary definition of Liberalism (from dictionary.com)

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.

Dictionary definition of Socialism (from dictionary.com)
Dictionary definition of Socialism (from dictionary.com)

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.

Dictionary definition of Communism (from dictionary.com)
Dictionary definition of Communism (from dictionary.com)

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).

Dictionary definition of Conservatism (from dictionary.com)
Dictionary definition of Conservatism (from dictionary.com)

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?

Dictionary definition of Fascism (from dictionary.com)
Dictionary definition of Fascism (from dictionary.com)

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.

Summary

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.

24 thoughts on “What is your ‘ism’? Ask the dictionary

  1. Excellent post, Owen! Far too many today use “liberal” as if it were a cuss word, spitting it out into our faces. Personally, I am a liberal with socialist leanings. No, I do not want the community to own the means of production, but I do want corporations and government to help the people … the poor, but also the average wage earner … rather than to hoard their millions or billions while some people are homeless and others go to bed hungry at night.

    You are so right that many people haven’t bothered to see exactly what these terms mean, but rather bandy them about in whatever sense they have seen on far right-or-left news, or the rhetoric of politicians. Having earned degrees in political science, it frustrates me when people call programs to help the poor, “socialism”, or raising the minimum wage rate for the first time in 12 years a path to socialism. Thank you for these definitions and your added insight!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s an excellent point about homelessness. I also believe that wealthy corporations should be taxed more, directly to help eliminate homelessness, so perhaps I too have socialist leanings. I definitely think there is a serious imbalance at the moment. The rich elite are trying to paint themselves as “men of the people” and appear to be getting away with it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have a problem seeing the ultra-wealthy as “men of the people” when they are hoarding millions, sometimes billions of dollars that could do so much to help people who struggle just to survive. I do believe people should be rewarded for hard work, but to hoard more money than anyone could possibly need just seems the height of greed and arrogance.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Taxing corporations us not enough. Controlling them, especially limiting their profit rates, the salaries of their corporate executives, and removing their incrediby-unnecessary perqs, is absolutely necessary. How this can be accomplished is for wiser people than me to devise, but if we do not do this, 99% of the population of the world will end up homeless, while the 1% will he holed up in impregnable castles where they will shiver in fear someone might find a way to breach their inpenetrable defences.

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      3. You mean regulation. Regulation already exists, or at least it does here in the UK. Numerous independent bodies oversea and limit the activities of corporations. One could argue it’s not enough, for sure. Where it gets serious is when the heads of private corporations collude and conspire with politicians, so that both sides gain personally. That is what’s happening unchecked in the UK right now.

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  2. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    Owen is a blogging friend from the UK. His post yesterday focused on the political terms we use that so many people don’t even understand, but use them almost as if they were bad words. He gives concise definitions for everything from liberalism to fascism and adds his own views of each. Though his perspective is from Brexit and the UK, he also has a good understanding of U.S. politics and sees the parallels between his country and ours. Thank you, Owen, for this helpful post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for remembering on looking closer to the terms we are having in daily use. Most of them are overused, and misused, depending on what intention someone is pursuing with the use. Have a beautiful day! Michael

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I arrived here via Jill’s reblog. An excellently argued post, based on the simple premise of seeking out what the words actually mean – if only more people would take the time to do that, rather than being told what to think by newspapers supporting what I also see as a slide here towards fascism. The US has, for now, pulled back from their own slide in that direction. I hope they continue to do so, and that we follow their lead. But it will be hard, especially with two new UK broadcasters of the ‘Faux News’ variety looming on the horizon.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think we adult have to accept the fight may not be won in our lifetimes. The slide is only just beginning. It’s slowly dawning on me that we have to now place our trust in the next generation(s) of voters to fix our mess. Sad but true.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. If I may use an awkward aquatic metaphor. I’ve presented a list of 4 fish and you’re asking “why haven’t you included the South Pacific in your list?” It’s because I’m listing the fish not the oceans. Fascism, Socialism, Liberalism, are all things that come about through democracy. Democracy is a tool to achieve those and other types of government. I’m comparing the types not the tools to get them. Democracy is the ocean. I’m comparing fish.

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  5. Dear OWEN,
    Your cultural biases show through in your personal notes. I am not going to say you are wrong or right, though you are left of right and right of left (pun) in your personal ideology, if I may say so without rancour.
    Liberalism promotes capitalism, but you do not mention this. Capitalism demands wealth inequities, which is not conducive to either peace or the greater good. You may prefer allows over demands, but that is a euphemism. Liberalism puts no controls over capitalists, and capitalism supports wealth for the few, and poverty for the many.
    Socialism does not in any way stifle innovation. That is a lie perpetuated by capitalists. Even in a socialist society there will be ideas to make improvements on established infrastructures, goods, products, etc. People to the right of socialism have this idea that no one in a socialist society will create innovation. That is what is stifling, the idea only capitalists can innovate. People are people no matter what the ism, and people like to improve what is already there.
    Communism as it is practised in the big three, Russia, China, and Cuba, do have totalitarian governments. This is not disputed. Nor have I ever read the Communist Manifesto, it does not interest me. But I cannot imagine anywhere that Communism demands a rulling party or class. The idea behind communism is state ownership, but unfortunately it does not look at how the state itself is developed. Communist states are unfortunately created as we know them by violent revolutions. This allowed the leaders of those revolutions to become totalitarian. But, were communism to be gently applied as an economic system that brought true eguality to all people, there would be no reason to destroy democracy. Given the idea that state ownership is better than capitalism, more equitable in every human endeavour, there is no need for totalitarianism. There are more ways than one to guide guide a communist state. They have just never been tried.
    Conservatism, or, in America, Republicanism, does not like change. Basically it is a servant of Capitalism, for, like my take on Liberalism, it demands that capitalism be the only way to run the economy, to the total wealth of the capitalists, and the toral poverty of the workers, with a bit of room for a middle class that wants to become upper class. Bill Gates is an example of a middle class success story. But in reality, those examples are few. Still, Conservatives want to maintain the status quo, which totally defies understanding of how the poor are willing to be dominated by them. But that domination exists, and it is perpetuated by the story that anyone can work their way into wealth–while reality shows they cannot.
    Fascism should not even be included in a discussion of political systems, as it really has no connection to choice. (Neither does communism as we know it, but communism can be supported by democracy despite all evidence–fascism cannot be supported by democracy despite the fact Mussolini and Hitler both rose to power through democratic processes. Both leaders (sic) ran on platforms of extreme nationalism and extreme racism that spoke to their populations. Donald Trump recently tried to copy their sucesses (sicker) but fortunately just over half of Americans were unwilling to be misled.
    Beyond that, I take umbrage at your statement “[Fascism] 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.” By not assigning this “abject terrot” directly to isms like socialism or communism is to imply thosé isms are willing to go along with it, to not fight against it. I think this is patently wrong, because most politically aware people in this world of 2021 are against fascism, no matter their actual ideology. I purposely did not mention conservatives/republicans, because as they are being practised in many countries today, conservatism is already halfway or more to fascism, and given the opportunity, they will become fascist. Just look at all the bills before state legislatures in America right now that want to restrict or constrict the rights of voters and their ability to cast their ballots. These are definite attempts to kill true democracy. s I understand it, the British Conservatives too are moving in similar directions. If these parties, Republicans and Conservatives, are not not stopped immediately, the fate of the human race will lie in anti-human hands.

    Another problem I have with your post is your trust in dictionaries. Yes, I said your trust in dictionaries. You believe them to be neutral, and for the most part they are. But look at your definition 4 under communism: communalism.
    How that definition was allowed to stand is beyond me, but there it is in black and white. Communialusm has nothing to do with communism as a political ideology. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as 1. social organization on a communal basis. The Oxford dictionary defines it as 1. a principle of political organization based on federated communes. Your source, Dictionary.com, gives two definitions of concern here:
    1. a theory or system of government according to which each commune is virtually an independent state and the nation is merely a federation of such states.
    2. the principles or practices of communal ownership.
    None of the above definitions come close to communism, and yet your source throws it in unquestioned as a lesser meaning of communism. This cannot be tolerated.
    But, more importantly, while dictionaries are, to my knowledge, universally accepted, we have to look at who is producing these dictionaries. They are being written by people living in democratic nations supporting capitalist economies, using the English language as the overarching method of communication. I am unaware of any dictionary completely and originally written, vetted, and published in any other language without being translated from English. I am not saying they do not exist, I only speak English, English is all I know. But any reference I have ever seen to a dictionary is never to one originally used to define words completely in the language of its creater. This implies bias, unintended I am sure, pretty much unrecognized, but nonetheless, undeniably biased to the underpinnings of English-speaking democratic infrastructures. Dictionaries may seem neutral, but they are not. And they are capable of giving biased definitions.

    Owen, let me say, despite my objections and hopefully constructive criticisms, I do thank you for this post. I think it was an icredibly good idea, a very much needed idea, but not a perfectly executed idea, for just like the dictionary definitions you used, they have biased written directly into them, and then we have your cultural biases added on top of that. I am not saying what I tried to add is not unbiased by my own biases. You asked where your readers stand on your political spectrum? I am not on it. For starters, I do not believe in government. I consider it to be one of the four worst ever inventions of humanity, starting right from the earliest form of government existing in the nuclear family, and reaching on up to the world government we are eventually progressing towards. People telling people what to do and how to live is just inherently wrong. For your own edification, the other three worst inventions of humanity as argued by me are symbolised in the words god, gold, and guns. So, those are the things that bias me. This world would be a much better place to be had those things, and the things they represent, never been invented. But they were. In my mind, our task now as human beings is to evolve beyond them. Only then will we live in true peace and true equality. That is my dream.

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    1. I do apologies, sir, for the length of my comment, but to reasonably reply to your post, length was required. I did try to keep it as terse as possible. These are my most salient thoughts on what you had to offer. Thank you for giving me the inspiration to organize my thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. FURTHER, I do hate Spelchek for taking words I typed, and changing them into apparent nonsense. The word apologies should have read apologize.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Thanks for the effort you put into that extremely detailed response. There is simply too much to reply to here, as this isn’t a debate for me but a set of passing observations about definitions. Suffice to say I read your entire comment carefully, and I agree with some of your views and disagree strongly with others. Now, I have to respond to your final assertion that “no government” is a preferable way forward. That’s anarchy. No thanks. Lawless streets aren’t my idea of paradise any more than a viscious police state is my idea of paradise. However we can totally agree about guns and to a lesser extent, gods.

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      1. I posted the comment at the above piggyback address, if you care to follow up on my blog rather than on yours.
        For now, no government can be anarchy, as in anything goes, but this is not my vision. I see a world without government, but where people are taught as young children to be responsible for, and giving prior thought to, all their actions, so that they cause no harm–physical, mental, or spiritual–to their fellow citizens, or to any living beings.
        Everything else can be debated/discussed elsewhere.Nice to meet you.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. A good post with a fair overview.
    Speaking as an ‘ist’ ,ie Socialist there is a sardonic rider I would add.
    Socialism seeks to provide a fair and balanced society; bodies of Socialists have widely different views as to what that might be, Socialism in practice is a forum in a constant state of flux of argument, recrimination and lack of focus which only gets into government when a majority of the voting population have one of their periodic disenchantments with the traditional ruling Conservatives.

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