Monday, June 6, 2011

Defining The Terms

So, for clarification, I propose my definitions of several complicated, loaded words.  These meanings, like those of most theoretical terms, are contested, and their precise definitions fill many, many books. I read a lot of these books and don't exactly agree with any of them, but these aren't TOO far off from any of them either.  So, anyway:  This edition of When I say...what I mean...

When I say..."socialism"

I mean..."the belief that the resources of a society should be used to for the common well-being of its members."

Sometimes socialism is used more specifically, to describe a system of government where major industries and basic welfare of citizens are run by a centralized government.  (I will not bother addressing the uses of the word "socialism" as a code word for Bad and Totalitarian and Un-American and Nanny State and all that drivel).   That is fine, but I think there is a more universal meaning that simply the balance between private and public that the Scandinavian countries strike.  When I say I am in favor of socialism (a *socialist*), I am not talking so much about a specific style of government, but working towards conditions and solutions where societal resources primarily are used to ensure that all members of a society have their needs met.  There are many different ways to do  this, and I don't pretend to know which is the best.  But I do support policy making and governance that takes the well-being of all citizens as a goal.  Also, many wonderful people who agree entirely that we should try to take care of each other run from the word "socialism."  That is their right, and it does not diminish their ethical authority in my eyes at all. I simply respectfully disagree with them on terminology.

When I say...anarchism

 I mean...freedom from hierarchy; the belief that all humans are equal and deserve liberation from hierarchical systems of authority.

Again, there are a lot of other legitimate uses of the term "anarchism."  In the specifically political sphere, it often denotes people who are opposed to a centralized state.  This is also fine, a good definition, one that is true for a lot of instances.  I am not particularly pro-state or anti-state; if a state helps us bring about justice and peace and equality, that is fantastic.  I have not seen a state doing that a lot, but when it theoretically does, again, kudos to all the justice and peace and equality and goodness we can get.  However, I am more interested in analyzing and upsetting the ways that rigid structures elevate some people in terms of wealth, power, authority, etc., at the expense of other people.  All people are created equal.  I believe that, and this is the soul of anarchism.  

When I say...anarchy

I mean...the practice of direct democracy and direct action; communal control of communal resources; communal reaction to communal problems

Anarchy is usually used negatively to indicate a lack of order, or a surplus of chaos.  This definition actually doesn't bother me--it is just as obvious from the roots of the word (an-, without, and arch- rule or order) as is freedom from hierarchy.  But there is also a historical practice associated with anarchy.  Usually when this is mentioned, if it is mentioned at all, it is in association with isolated incidents of bombing or, slightly more intelligently, attempts through violence to create enough chaos that society will self-destruct, then reorganize of principles of more liberation.  As I previously discussed, these have been disastrous attempts.  I am interested in the other, actually much more important and frequently practiced, practices of anarchy: direct democracy (as opposed to representative democracy), direct action (as opposed to waiting endlessly for processes to change), and in general the idea that stakeholders in a problem or opportunity should determine the resolution of that problem or opportunity.  So, parents and teachers should have more say about what a school in a community does; state boards of education, and more importantly, private donors who have no relation to any child in the district and no vested interest in the school should have far, far less say.

When I say...Theism

I mean...Belief in some power or force larger than individual human experience.

Some cultures and religions call this "God."  Some call it "life force."  Some call it "the market."  Some call it "the universe." These are all different, to be sure.  And I am not exactly interested, in this blog, in most of those differences. I am a theist. 

Actually for the purposes of this blog, I think I do mean something a little unorthodox.  When I say I am a theist, I mostly mean, "I believe that religion is a vital and unavoidable part of human existence."  I have faith in God, yes, but that is a separate belief from my faith that faith itself continues to play a huge role in human societies.

One more word of the day:  

When I say...radical

I mean...Related to root causes.

I am a math teacher, after all.  The word "radical," in math, refers to square roots (and other roots too).  So radical changes are changes that attempt to change the root of a problem, rather than the symptoms.  For me, the words 'anarchy,' 'socialism,' and 'anarchism, all make me think of mostly good things.  (I realize that this is not the case for many of my readers.  Obviously, I would like to change people's minds on that.)  The word "radical" is more ambiguous, though.  "Radical" just means that something deals with a root level, not a surface level, and it can be used by liberals, conservatives, moderates, libertarians, and so on and so forth to deride--or praise--opponents ideas.  Eh.  An interesting word, but should be used precisely, not as a value judgment.

Ok, that wraps up How I Use Words...for today!  Cheers all!

Erik Olin Wright's book Envisioning Real Utopias deeply influenced my understandings of these concepts.


  1. Hey Ang. I've been enjoying your (wow frequent) blogs.

    I like that you've defined your terms precisely, because that at least allows people to know exactly what they are or aren't agreeing with. Two semi-questions:

    1. How do you, as an educator, plan to deal with the obvious hierarchies that exist (and, I'd contend) are necessary to keep up the appearance of knowledge? Of course, there are cases in which there's only an appearance of knowledge, but you know that in cases like math, there really is a lot of capital-k Knowledge--actual, hard matters of fact--that keeps getting passed from generation because we insist that there is an absolute, (ironically) unreasonable right and wrong in such matters, and that such matters of logical fact aren't up for discussion by morons in the community who simply aren't interested. Empirically, such persons ("morons") exist. Is this a problem, or not?

    2. Recall the section in Cryptonomicon in which N.S. insightfully discusses the role of military protocol (I'm bringing this up because the military provides the best example of an absolute hierarchy that still exists in our society). The contention is that the reason these rules exist is not to make people miserable and unhappy in their lax everyday world; they are there because there exist situations that are not lax and everyday: i.e., situations of extreme stress that without rigorous protocol would be psychologically impossible for average human beings to handle. If you really don't like hierarchies, I think it's important to look at them in the kindest light possible, and only then to say you'd prefer to obliterate them on their own terms. Are you willing to do that?

  2. I really like how you've changed words with negative connotations into positive ideals. I wish the rest of the country (and even the world) would take a page from your blog and work towards these ideals. I will do my part in working towards that by spreading the word!

  3. Dave--I think your first question is very interesting and a definite problem, and one that I will try to devote an entire post to in the future. Your second point, I would also have some answers to (why is it important to look at hierarchy in the kindest light possible) and I will try to work it into a future post as well. Thanks for your thoughts.