The New Political Vocabulary: Part 1
All of us have been caught in strange political arguments that seem to devolve immediately into political terms used as projectiles. We find ourselves dodging accusations of socialist, communist, Marxist, Nazi, used with almost no discrimination as to actual meaning or history. In the US this has become the norm in talking to people who are supporters (perhaps spear carriers is more appropriate) of what has become the Republican Party. Invective seems to be the only point of their existence such as was once encountered only from extreme religious converts. The impression is one of violent rejection of communication and a fundamental fear of words. Political terms no longer have meaning but exist only as crude semaphores or, devoid of all meaning, as bludgeons.
There has been a tremendous amount of discussion in all media about this condition, particularly, as it has rapidly worsened under Trump. This has been primarily an effort to uncover the inherent meaning behind these words assuming that the confused language is either the result of anger, lack of education, or an open, direct attack on democracy, diversity, education, or all of these as managed by higher level instigators both foreign and domestic. The end result of this is deeply disturbing as the condition worsens and meaningful discussion disappears. That suggests that little is effectively understood. Our definitions continue to fail.
The last nine months have not been without some progress in understanding the situation. It has come to be understood that Trump is a symptom and not a cause. By a unique quirk of history the breakdown of US political and social order found a an excellent symbol in Donald Trump. As an inheritor of great but dubious wealth, little competence, and an apparent condition with most of the features of pathological narcissism, he spent a lifetime losing money and convincing people of his great prowess in placing his name on as many things as possible. In an endless quest for fame and money to replace his losses he stumbled into the clutches of corrupt Russians funneling state money out of the wreckage of the USSR and its authoritarian successor. This would have run its course except for Trumps fascination with running for president. As we know this resulted in the shock of his achieving an impossible win. In the confusion following this it became increasingly obvious that this was at least partially the result of a completely new level of population manipulation identified and implemented by Vladimir Putin as a political tool for planetary influence. It’s is now, I think, fairly safe to say that Trump has no idea what he was getting when he asked the Russians for help in defeating Hillary Clinton. The nature and extent of these new Artificial Intelligence and big data techniques is only now beginning to be identified by the more educated and intelligent portions of the US and planetary population. This is a far bigger symptom of a fundamental paradigm shift or phase change in how Homo sapiens perceive the world and their social organizations. No wonder the political language problems have proven unsolvable.
To put this simply, the situation that I started with is very much like people spending a great deal of time and energy inspecting chairs and the floor under the chairs to try to determine why they keep sliding to the side of the room. Much as Copernicus solved an immensely complex problem with the movement of certain celestial bodies by realizing that they and the earth were orbiting the sun, our sharper political commentators have begun to realize that the chairs are moving in a nonsensical way because the ship we are in is listing badly. While Copernicus was dealing with a long term analogy of structure of the solar system we are dealing with a social analogy that is the cause of a growing disaster. Not only are we on a ship, rather than solid ground, but the ship has entered uncharted waters with rocks that have damaged the ship causing it to list. We have left known waters far behind and are only slowly discovering that we have no idea where we are and where we are going. Hence all the anger and shouting. Nothing matches what we know.
Once you accept this new situation it becomes immediately obvious that nothing will come of demands that the chairs be put back where they belong. The problem is not the location of the chairs but the location and condition of the ship. It is critical to determine the damage that has been done and the nature of the shoals that we have entered. Can the ship be saved or should we head for the lifeboats. Or can the situation be stabilized while we determine where we are and what is salvageable.
This also casts light on the problem of people and commentators who insist that nothing has changed and we just aren’t moving the chairs back to where they belong with adequate faith in the system. Somehow everything is going to work out alright. As an example this Bloomberg article discusses a model of the Democratic Party that will be influenced by Bernie Sanders call for Medicare for All. It appears to assume that Trump never happened and completely ignores the effect of AI via social media amplifying the massive social distortions currently tearing the US apart.
If there is one thing that we can say with some confidence it is that things are not what they once were. We are struggling to come to terms with what they may be but the old ways of seeing the world and human society are gone. Strange things are happening and it does no good at all to convince ourselves that this is all just a temporary condition and the furniture just needs to be moved back one more time and it will stick where it once was. We are more likely to be rudely shocked by water coming in over the window sills. And massive hurricanes are very much a part of the new world we need to understand.
Understanding Historical Paradigm Change
My original areas of focus, in my years of graduate work in history, were revolutionary change in East and Southeast Asia, history of technology, and intellectual history. That was all an effort to understand what drives modern revolutionary (disruptive) change particularly change in social structure and intellectual understanding of the justifications of that structure. Social, political, and economic change is a product of ways of seeing the world that allows the solution of problems that are unsolvable under existing or previous world views dependent on your perspective in the process of change.
We live in a universe that is the product of a massive change in how people understood the universe in 16th and 17th century western Europe. Interestingly the preliminary developments of that change happened in China in the 14th and 15th century. Part of that was the beginnings of a concept of globalization. Ming China made a decision, in the 15th century, to block that development. Western Europe went with it. The rest, as they say, is history.
Dealing with this kind of change is the very definition of disruptive.
I, and many, many other people, consider our current period an equivalent or larger shift than the scientific revolution leading to the Enlightenment and, incidentally the founding of the United States. I think it is larger. But we know that because we understand what has happened in the different stages of these kind of intellectual transformations in past. What happens, simply, is that societies split into increasingly uncommunicative groups (see my Long Tailed Rat of History) based on their individual perceived world which is a range of stations from an earlier world to today’s cutting edge. To people this means that other people begin to not make sense. Some people kind of make sense and people begin to adjust because the new ideas begin to explain things in life that were not well explained before. On a day to day basis this is very pragmatic. The new way of seeing the world works in more ways than the old way. Or, most commonly, problems that could not be clearly understood let alone solved become understandable and then solvable. That is the only reason that people make changes unless they are forced to make them by conquest. That sometimes works, too, but is not how very large changes are made. (We can argue about Alexander and the Hellenic conquests that created the Graeco-Roman world of which we are a direct product. The old doesn’t go completely away but the understanding of it changes.)
The New Political Terms of the Old Paradigm
The terms citizen, nation, republic, capitalist, socialist, democracy were once new or newly redefined as part of the previous major paradigm shift. Some of these were ancient having been originally invented by the classical Greeks of the Athenian Republic and having gone through various iterations over time but mostly as exceptions to the normal aristocratic, authoritarian rule. The rise of the first wave of globalization in the wake of the European Age of Discovery found new meanings for these words and then invented newer words to deal with the acquisition of wealth in foreign trade and/or conquests. The need for capital to fund expeditions to Southeast Asia for spices or to the New World for gold and silver caused the evolution of joint stock companies and, eventually, representative government.
Entering the 21st century the fate of those political and economic terms was already so changed that they had little or no value. Select concepts within the etymology (literally the history of those words) have value but we must literally work that out without old assumptions. This is a process of slow thinking. And that makes it so difficult. Remember China above. Ming China opted for the tried and true that was, unfortunately, no longer strictly true. The end product of that was the collapse of imperial China in the face of a more effective view of the universe from western Europe courtesy of Copernicus and Galileo, the Age of Discovery, and the rise of capitalism. Two hundred years later (after unimaginable suffering and death) China is struggling with moving to a new world order just as we are. With their experience I, for one, think they are getting “it” better but we will see. That may be simply the benefit of a more authoritarian style of rule in periods of massive disruption and drastic change. It appears that the old form of representational government is one of the casualties of this paradigm shift.
But in any case the changes driven by technology (IT/AI,/Social Media/Mixed Reality) have been shifting us to intellectual property as the base value system.
I really don’t know what the end changes will be but I’m pretty sure, based on the last fifty years of history that the basic concept of capitalism, i.e. capital as value based on natural resources, manufactured goods, and finally services, is no longer viable. The entire structure of capitalism is based on growth in order to support increased population, build value (wealth), and make up for the inherent problem of the steady consolidation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. The even bigger issue, unknown until about thirty years ago is the destruction of our climate that makes a system based on unlimited growth deadly. There are many other issues having to do with the quality of life that are factors in this also. But in any case the changes driven by technology (IT/AI,/Social Media/Mixed Reality) have been shifting us to intellectual property as the base value system. This is a very different model and this is what we should be talking about.
Socialism was articulated to solve early problems in industrialization as an major element of capitalism. The theory was brilliant but became, in its time and place, a process of militant and even military change. That caused it to become dogmatic in reaction to capitalism (the earlier laissez faire type) which also became dogmatic. To cut to the chase, after fifty years of wars, economic instability, evolution, etc. it was discovered that one way to solve inherent problems within capitalist systems was to manage the markets to prevent distortions (only haphazardly effective) and to use taxation to prevent the inevitable consolidation of wealth to the point that would destroy the semi representative forms of government that had evolved under the name ‘democracy’. A major part of the socialist remedy is expanded public ownership which does slow down growth, accidentally, but is subject to political abuse as are all current systems of government. We need to do much better here.
All of this works more or less successfully unless applied dogmatically and/or managed under arbitrary authoritarian systems. Incompetence eventually terminates these systems.
Fascism, which has shocked people by reappearing to protect racism and other bad attitude, is a combination of feudalism (rule based on personal relationships with external conquest) and capitalism. That is more accurately corporatism. This allies the wealthiest corporations with authoritarian, strongman rule that is above the law. It has nothing to do with socialism in any of its forms and is the result of Adolph Hitler using the word socialism for his nationalist party to confuse the issue. (This is where the technique came from that was so effectively picked up by the Russians, e.g. KGB and Putin, to weaponize words by making them meaningless.) And why we need to reset almost all of our political language. Hypercapitalism, the late American model, is simply giving over government to the owners of wealth as oligarchs who “own” the government indirectly. People still elect representatives but the representatives work for the oligarchs who fund them and not the people. This can slip easily into fascism when things get disrupted or fail due to corruption, greed, or natural disasters. (Trump is a good example.)
The basic concepts that were originally developed under these names had a range of interpretations and steadily evolved. Those were valid within the context of time and place. Those are not the meanings now. The politicization of the terms adds at least 150 years of evolving meanings that were not intended to explain or clearly differentiate but to confuse and inspire emotional reactions by the building of mythic structures. After more than a century of this the historical baggage of the terms far outweighs any useful or objective meaning. Words that have lost or been stripped of any real meaning have become “weaponized”.
New Names, New Systems
We don’t have new political terminology yet but we are beginning to see the nature of what will come if we manage to avoid killing ourselves in escaping the old. At the simplest level we need to focus on new political structures and ideas. Here are some topics for thought and discussion:
Virtual Democracy, there is a tendency noted in a range of surveys that suggests the millennials and younger are not as committed to democracy as their parents. Here are two sources for this and there are many others.
Have millennials given up on democracy?
Chief among the accusations levelled at millennials is that of political apathy. But the real problem could be even…
Harvard research suggests that an entire global generation has lost faith in democracy
People everywhere are down on democracy. Especially young people. In fact, so rampant is democratic indifference and…
Who can blame them when you look at the mess in two of the oldest democracies. Perhaps the problem is not only disappointment but something more profound? Millennials and younger are products of the new paradigm. That is the social media world with instant information and continuous communication. What they expect, as this is true in education as well as everything else, is immediate access to information and direct involvement in the process. So what does the old concept of democracy provide? A long and slow process of choosing from a very limited number of potential representatives offering positions and policies that are totally outdated and irrelevant. Once elected these people, as noted above, work for the people who fund their campaigns and dogmatic groups with no connection to the 21st century world and do nothing for the people they supposedly “represent”. This concept was developed over several hundred years when most people were illiterate and communication took weeks or months hence it made since to designate one person to travel to a far off city and spend months deciding everything. And they needed to be paid to do this.
Nations were developed from monarchies and evolved tribal units to manage large areas of land with thinly scattered populations. We are moving to metropolitan units with a majority of the planet’s population now in metropoles. That’s where people live and partially work although they may be working for organizations in distant metropoles or, increasingly, for no one but themselves as they provide creative services on a regional or international level. In 1800 only 3% of the planetary population lived in urban areas. In 2045 80% or so are projected to be urban. This is a completely different world than that in which democracies developed.
Using public social media general administrative performance can be continuously reviewed and general administrative guidelines can be surveyed with new proposals solicited.
If we take just these two changes, unhappiness with democratic systems and urbanization, we can begin to see the problem for millennials. Why not shrink (?) our administrative areas (government in the old terminology)to the metropole level and make it direct rule by continuous vote? Most of the role of government is purely administrative managing all the public services that already make up the majority of work in many regions. Using public social media general administrative performance can be continuously reviewed and general administrative guidelines can be surveyed with new proposals solicited. As a resident you would be required to review and discuss public issues. The point is not big votes on big issues but constant participation on many issues. This could provide a constant sense of direction for public services and important issues. While political groups would form to advocate certain types of issues they would be less likely to have positions on everything but only on the things that a group of people felt important.
Remember we are beginning to hand off to the younger generation and this could be more natural for them. It could also solve many old problems between large and small government and the failure of the old representational democracies to maintain anything other than a dictatorship of a voting minority. This seems to be the direction many urban areas are tending toward as they support their diverse populations and define themselves as sanctuaries and environmental centers.
This would also begin to overcome the intellectual bankruptcy of the old Conservative versus Liberal paradigm that dates back to the French revolution. The new metropole administrative structure with direct virtual democracy could also incorporate a movement to digital (virtual) citizenship within several entities based on residency, ethnic affiliation, or simply personal preference based on ethical or artistic characteristics.
Rather than communist versus democracy and big versus small government we would end up with smaller regional governments that could adjust to population preferences as tracked on a continuous basis. Allocation of funds for greater public ownership of services or greater private ownership could more easily be determined directly by residents. This could also eliminate the idea of borders other than as functional administrative boundaries for a specific metropole and could allow affiliation with a larger metropole in a different region without wars or outrage.
What other options become available if the old terminology and concepts are dropped and new ideas are tried? Now is the time to begin talking about these changes as they will happen anyway but will only be trapped in tragic struggle under the old paradigm.