Labels Versus Definitions

Yesterday morning, I was on the treadmill listening to “Morning Joe.” Scarborough was interviewing the Governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, who is one of the thousands of Democrats running for President. (Okay, maybe thousands is an exaggeration…) Hickenlooper was a successful entrepreneur before becoming Mayor of Denver and then Governor, and Scarborough asked him if he considered himself a capitalist.

When Hickenlooper responded that he didn’t like labels–that he focused on solving problems–both Joe and one of his panelists repeatedly pressed Hickenlooper on the issue, since they both said– falling neatly into a semantic trap being set by Republicans–the Democratic Party is split between good old American capitalism and a “socialist” flank.

I wish Hickenlooper had been more artful in his response. He might have pointed out that all western democracies are what we call “mixed” economies. (He did note that Social Security was originally opposed for being “socialist,” which of course it is.) We need capitalism in those areas of the economy where it clearly works well, and state-sponsored systems in areas where markets fail.

He also might have made the point that Elizabeth Warren has repeatedly made: as a capitalist, she wants to rescue capitalism by reinstating the regulatory rules that mandate the level playing field that is essential if markets are to work. (As I have noted in previous posts, America no longer has a genuine market system–capitalism has devolved into corporatism.)

In our highly polarized politics today, words like Socialism, Fascism and Communism are used more as insults than descriptions. So let me offer a few definitions.

Socialism may be the least precise of these terms. It is generally applied to mixed economies where the social safety net is much broader and the tax burden is correspondingly higher than in the U.S.—Scandinavian countries are an example.

Communism begins with the belief that equality is defined by equal results; this is summed up in the well-known adage “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” All property is owned communally, by everyone (hence the term “communism”). In practice, this meant that all property was owned by the government, ostensibly on behalf of the people. In theory, communism erases all class distinctions, and wealth is redistributed so that everyone gets the same share.  In practice, the government controls the means of production and most individual decisions are made by the state. Since the quality and quantity of work is divorced from reward, there is less incentive to innovate or produce, and ultimately, countries that have tried to create a communist system have collapsed (the USSR) or moved toward a more mixed economy (China).

When pundits take to the fainting couch over leftists who call themselves Democratic Socialists, they are (intentionally?) confusing socialism with communism. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we shouldn’t analyze and debate proposals to “socialize” added areas of the economy–but that analysis ought to rest on accurate definitions of the terms being used.

What about the other end of the political spectrum?

Fascism is sometimes called “national Socialism,” but it differs significantly from socialism. The most striking aspect of fascist systems is the elevation of the nation—a fervent nationalism is central to fascist philosophy. There is a union between business and the state; although there is nominally private property, government controls business decisions. Fascist regimes tend to be focused upon a (glorious) past, and to uphold traditional class structures and gender roles as necessary to maintain the social order.

Three elements commonly identified with Fascism are 1) a national identity fused with racial/ethnic identity and concepts of racial superiority; 2) rejection of civil liberties and democracy in favor of authoritarian government; and 3) aggressive militarism. (Sound familiar?)

If Hickenlooper’s appearance on Morning Joe is any indication, Americans are in for two years of empty posturing over economic terminology bullshit.

Maybe I can just hide under my bed until 2020 is over…..


  1. I wonder how many Mormons in Utah, who tend to be hard core Conservatives, realize that when Brigham Young led the fledgling group out there and set up shop, their economy satisfied the definition of Communism.

  2. I think many of us have waited a long time to see the Democrats stand up and BE FOR something. Watching Hickenlooper was painful. Glad I got to see Warren call for the enforcement of anti-trust laws on the same day.

  3. Sheila—I like your writing. I note that you didn’t define capitalism for us. I think Hickenlooper is a pragmatist rather than an idealog, that answer, in many ways, is the only reasonable answer to the question asked.

  4. I have written often that I am trying to save capitalism if the capitalists will let me. Adam Smith and even Karl Marx would be shocked, shocked to see what the capitalism of their day has morphed into, to wit: an unholy alliance of high finance with real corporate performance which has led to a poorly defined state of corporatism where bankers in effect tell corporate managers what to do with their time and talent, and the courts have reinforced the bankers’ side of the argument with rather recent holdings that the chief and even fiduciary duty of boards of directors is to “enhance shareholder value.” This means there are, effectively speaking, no other stakeholders in corporate activities and that consumers, customers, corporate workers and the rest of us are resigned to second place and that “shareholder value” is numero uno in any corporate board’s consideration of, for instance, its activities versus the environment.

    Any attempt to reintroduce the stakeholder concept is, of course, immediately labeled as socialist, communist etc., and all regulations are “anti-business” etc. In other words, everyone should be for corporatism (financial dictatorship) or else be ostracized from polite society. (See AOC, Warren, Bernie et al.). So what to do? See you at the polls.

  5. You threw me off with “listening to Morning Joe.”

    Why would anybody do that voluntarily? 😉

    Actually, we are much more mixed than people understand. We’ve got utilities galore and even a few publicly owned banks which are leading the charge with the conversion of our corporatism to a more democratic socialist ideal.

    Our healthcare system needs Medicare for All because it’s just an abusive and too costly a system. Over 50% of cancer patients are wiped out financially. The other half were probably Cadillac plans or the state and I would guess the majority are the state/feds.

    The Green New Deal is another idea which MUST be embraced or none of this other crap is very important. The GND is just another proposal like FDR instituted with the New Deal (our last Gilded Age period). The people had enough.

    Chomsky calls Bernie Sanders a New Dealer for obvious reasons. He’s going after the Oligarchs who’ve been ripping off the people for decades. Sadly, we wasted a whole eight years with Obama and another 4 with Donald.

    Arguing semantics won’t fix our polluted healthcare system or get us off fossil fuels. The days of Big Pharma and Big Oil controlling the conversation must end.

    Anybody calling for pragmatism is a tool in 2019.

  6. Vice President Henry Wallace under FDR defines Fascism:

    “A fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends. The supreme god of a fascist, to which his ends are directed, may be money or power; may be a race or a class; may be a military, clique or an economic group; or may be a culture, religion, or a political party.”

  7. Communist states, by holding the fake promise of Socialism at the end of a stick like the proverbial carrot in front of a jackass, have given Socialism a bad name, and numskull people all over the world can’t seem to tell the carrot from the driver of the jackass.

    In my thinking, the entire purpose of government is to a greater or lessor degree SOCIALISM but socialism nevertheless. Almost every group effort — from home associations to coops to government — exists to reduce the animal behavior in the human and increase the human (social) (cooperative) behavior in the animal.

    The point at which animal instincts begin being harmful to the group determines that point where every form of government must stop short of pure capitalism and pure fascism.

    Likewise, the point at which social/coop endeavors begin being harmful to the group determines that point where every form of government must stop short of pure socialism.

    Very few people have ever had a real life experience, seen it happen, or better yet, been a part of an experience that demonstrates the magic of “a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts”. Some athletes in team sports, who are blessed to be part of an exceptional team, can attest to “the superior whole”, and a few musicians who are part of a musical group know the experience.

    Until the vast majority of American’s have in one way or another become intimate with THE SUPERIOR WHOLE, as have athletes and musicians, our population of Me-first Three-fifths Citizens will never tolerate civil cooperation (government) of socialist identity.

    Note: I use the term “Three-fifths Citizens” deliberately. Most of our current attitudes concerning citizenship and good citizenship render us something less than full citizens, thus we are mere three-fifths of a citizen. Ironically, three-fifths of a citizen was in our early history the calculated value of slaves. I think I see a resemblance.

  8. The so called Cable News Networks like FOX, MSDNC and CNN, avoid any serious discussion about the political spectrum of each candidate by constantly using their simplistic Capitalism vs Socialism comparisons. It reminds me so much of the Cold War rhetoric – A Binary thought process.

    I would agree with Todd >> “Anybody calling for pragmatism is a tool in 2019.”

    There are only two Democratic Candidates with a track record of Progressive Credentials that have been proven over time: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Joe Biden is a Zero and is step back to the Corporatism Agenda of the Democratic Party, which is why the “pundits” on CNN and MSDNC love him.

  9. The majority of potential voters are “pragmatists” rather than left or right “our way or the highway”. They are VERY tired of all that and therefore, many decide not to vote at all. They want problem solvers not “solution carriers”. The GOP senate is likely to stay so a “progressive” in the WH, though unlikely, would mean nothing but more nothing getting done in DC and less faith in our democracy.

    With Sherrod Brown out, it is looking fainter that the DEMs will have a problem solver to face Trump. The Duckoids will come out in droves and the result may be closer (or worse) than you may think…

  10. It’s often overlooked that Capitalism here is on the path that Karl Marx posited it must follow to its self destruction and morph into Communism. His thinking may have been wrong about the solution but he accurately foresaw the problem.

    Democrats are trying to save capitalism and socialism because both potentially contribute to society.

    In terms of elections that’s the challenge. Who can save both and the country and be electable?

    Please join me in keeping an open mind in order to listen and learn throughout this part of the election process so that we are informed rather prejudiced by our private positions and can vote in the primary as objectively as the general election.

  11. Unless Democrats find a way to defuse the word “socialism”, and soon, Trump and cohorts will use it to eviscerate and emasculate the party. My view is that “socialism” is a debate about whether a country’s wealth is to be used to improve the nation and the lives of its citizens or for the enjoyment of 10% of the population. We need to get Democratic candidates to turn the conservation in that direction every time the term is used.

    Capitalism, to the extent that it encourages innovation and can provide a path to prosperity, seems like a good fit for a Democratic system. But when it becomes twisted and bent to the gratification of a small number of people, it needs a lot of fixing to stay relevant. Today’s most harmful system weaknesses include:
    – Income Inequality (real wages for workers flat for 35 years. Glacial changes now occurring thanks to low unemployment)
    – Potential for Political Unrest
    – Capitalism’s Core Requirement – Endless Growth In An Overcrowded World – Is Impossible
    – Capitalism Is Killing Both The Environment & People
    – Capitalism is Fundamentally Unstable
    – Capitalism Puts Unrelenting Focus On Cutting Workers
    – Capitalism Encourages/Rewards Criminality & Corruption
    – Capitalism Concentrates On Short –Term Goals while Ignoring Sustainability
    – Too many Capitalists succeed using Externalities (let the public pay for my sloppiness) – Resulting in an Upward Transfer of Wealth
    – Capitalism’s Core Mechanism – Free Market – Is A Myth
    – Capitalism Is Devoid Of A Social Conscience – Youngstown/Cleveland/ Detroit
    – Capitalism’s Motto: If they don’t, we won’t! Companies Stop paying benefits.
    – Capitalism Encourages/Facilitates Wars by Making the Machinery of War Highly Profitable
    – Capitalism Has an Innate Inability to Respond To Problems Like Disappearing Jobs
    – Capitalism Pays Executives and Boardroom Members in a Way that Bears little Relationship to Underlying Performance
    – Capitalism (& the Stock Market Especially) Panics over Inflation when Workers get Raises
    – When Workers are Fired, Society, not the Corporation, Pays to Support Them (this is an externality)
    – Unfairness: About 1% of Shareholders Own 2/3 of all Shares
    – In a Democratic System, Corp. Decisions more Closely Resemble Totalitarianism
    – Corps Obtain Tax Advantages by Contributing to Legislators’ Campaigns
    – August 7, 2018 was Black Women’s Equal Pay Day (when, after more than 19 months work, they had earned as much as their white male counterpart (on average) earned in the previous year for the same job)

    These are fixable problems except that many Republicans see them as pluses and refuse to engage in discussions on how to make capitalism something that works for all.

  12. There are very compelling reasons to save capitalism from itself but they require restoration of effective government in order to establish the conditions required for capitalism to serve in the right markets:

    1) regulation to protect all stakeholders like consumers, employees, investors, government, competitors and the environmental for present and future humans.

    2) progressive taxes to redistribute back what capitalism distributes only up.

    3) robust competition in the markets served by capitalism.

    4) effective socialism to serve the markets that capitalism is ineffective in like health care.

  13. Socialism, Communism and Fascism are labels defying definition because they are a muddle of economic and political systems.

    I conceptualize it better if I think of it as a graph. One axis is “political” ranging from anarchy to tyranny. The other axis is “economic” ranging from pure private property capitalism to state ownership of all property and distribution of wealth.

    The 195 nations of the world are then data points distributed within the graph. Socialism, Communism and Fascism are then mere groups of data points clustered together between the axes.

    I don’t know how useful this may be to others, but it helps me think about it.
    (The U.S. is moving in the wrong direction along both axes)

  14. “Socialism, Communism and Fascism are labels defying definition because they are a muddle of economic and political systems.”

    John Neal nailed it; our democracy has also become a muddle of systems being accepted and rejected through the changing administrations. How deeply embedded will Trumpism be due to his Executive Orders and the enacted laws undoing civil rights with the evangelic/conservative stacked SCOTUS sitting with lifelong terms due to the one party control of all three branches of government? Trump has already taken over the 2020 Democratic campaign foundation before it is set; there is no way to get around the primary objective being to “oust Trump”. Will it work better than our attempt to vote for anyone as a vote against Trump in 2016. What labels and definitions of today’s insanity will be used in future history books?

    We saw him coming but believed him to be a national joke; “The Donald” kept changing parties till his money and open racism finally landed him in the Oval Office disguised as a Republican candidate. How do we define his Republican label or his ability to create new, readily accepted chaotic situations almost daily? How do we explain to future generations how the Republican party so quickly and easily become a politically accepted monarchy? We have much explaining to do; no label fits today’s political system but “Trumpism”, how will we define it in history books?

  15. Capitalism has nearly destroyed itself many times over in depressions and recessions. Government steps in to control the excesses of capitalists and restore financial order and some fairness, then the capitalists succumb to greed and short term gain again.

    Our highways, Social Security, Medicare, military, guaranteed protections of bank deposits, and many more government services are socialism to benefit each and all of us. I wouldn’t want to live in a purely socialist economy, but neither do I want to live in a purely capitalistic economy where the rich can bankrupt everyone else.

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