I often think about that old quote asserting that “there is nothing new under the sun.”
Of course, there are obviously lots of things that are “new under the sun,” (these days, AI comes to mind) but the very human tendency to use words as labels or weapons, rather than as tools for communication, isn’t one of them. That probably began when the snake sold Adam and Eve on eating the apple.
The problem is, when we use words as signals or epithets, rather than transmittals of descriptive content, it becomes very difficult to engage in meaningful conversation, let alone political debate.
Today, terms like “fascist” and “woke” are used to label political opponents rather than to describe particular beliefs or behaviors .
Much like “woke,” (which apparently means “not members of my MAGA tribe”) “fascist” tends to cover a lot of political ground. Which leads me to that saying about nothing being new under the sun, at least when it comes to political discourse.
Back in the day, right-wingers scorned undefined “liberals,” turning the word into a negative accusation. As a consequence, those of a liberal political bent began to self-identify as “progressive.” And as long as I can remember, those on the political far right have reliably labeled any and all social programs as “socialism,” depriving that term of any descriptive use. Etc.
When words lose their meaning, it becomes very difficult to assess where we are as a nation. Are we on the road to totalitarianism? Fascism? Given the Supreme Court’s current fondness for returning questions of fundamental rights to the various (and very different) states, is it even possible to talk about a “we”?
What triggered me, and led to this disquisition, was an article warning that America was dangerously close to fascism. (My immediate take, for what it is worth, is that the farce that is our current Congress defies comparison to any coherent system. It’s as though we elected the Keystone Kops.) Like so many articles of the sort, this one didn’t bother to define fascism–but how do we answer the question “are we there yet” unless we know where “there” is?
In my little book Talking Politics, I offered definitions of these very fraught terms.
As I noted, socialism may be the least precise of these political labels. It generally gets (mis)applied to mixed economies where the social safety net is much broader and the tax burden somewhat higher than in the U.S.—Scandinavian countries are an example. Those are more accurately called welfare states, or examples of democratic socialism, since genuinely socialist systems are those in which a fairly autocratic government owns the means of production. It is really important to draw that distinction. When Republicans scream about “socialism,” what they usually warn against is communism; socialism can be an “interim step” toward communism.
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 little 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).
Fascism is sometimes called “national Socialism,” and people who are unaware of history (and ignorant of political philosophy) sometimes get them mixed up, despite the fact that fascism differs significantly from socialism. The most striking aspect of fascist systems is the elevation of the nation—a fervent nationalism (MAGA??) 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 (mythical) glorious past, and to uphold traditional class structures and gender roles as necessary to maintain the social order.
Fascism generally involves a radical authoritarian nationalism, with fascists seeking to unify the nation through the elevation of the state over the individual, and to mobilize the national community through discipline, indoctrination, and physical training. Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy are the most notable examples of Fascist regimes.
Now that we’ve defined our terms (and noted some disquieting parallels), we can ask: where are we heading? And I sure hope we’re not there yet.