With SO much chatter going on over social media about economic and political systems, I thought it would be a good idea to clarify the definition of terms that get thrown around, often as barbs, and offer some of my reflections on them. Naturally I am speaking from my own viewpoint, but also hope to be as factual as possible. In point of fact, that’s the first thing we need to clear up.
The Difference between Facts and Opinions
American Society right now seems to be a bit confused about facts and opinions. Both are useful.
Etymology: From Latin factum (“a deed, act, exploit; in Medieval Latin also state, condition, circumstance”), neuter of factus (“done or made”), perfect passive participle of faciō (“do, make”). Facio is in turn from Proto-Indo-European *dʰeh₁- (“to put, place, set”), possibly through a later intermediate root *dʰh₁-k-yé/ó-. Cognates include Ancient Greek τίθημι(títhēmi), Sanskrit दधाति (dádhāti), Old English dōn (English do).
Facts are things that are verifiably real. As a Philosopher, I am very much aware that in the field of Epistemology (the Philosophy of Knowledge), ever since Kant, many hold that we can only observe phenomena, not noumena (things in themselves). I am of the school of Fr. Bernard Lonergan, S.J. on this question. With shared–as objective as possible (which isn’t absolute, even on the macro-level)–observations, we can attain the “Virtually Unconditioned.” That means, I can say without fear of contradiction that there is a City of San Francisco, and one named San Jose. I live in one and work in the other.
It’s kind of like the difference between Euclidean Geometry and other, more accurate geometries. My cousin Joe Guinn at JPL could not have used purely Euclidean Geometry to send his Mars Lander to the red planet. But for designing a house, it is just fine.
Science makes observations, and reaches conclusions based on its observations of the phenomena. Nothing is ever final, as new observations may occur, but sound consensus theories can and are formed. They are as close to facts as we can get.
Gravity is a fact. It is real. While we don’t yet know exactly how it works, it does. One can have opinions or feelings about the effects of gravity (ouch! when I fall), but I cannot have an opinion about the existence of Gravity. That is Flat-Earth thinking. The round Earth is a thing. It’s real. It’s a Fact. An opinion that the phenomenon of gravity does not exist is not equal to the Fact that it does. That opinion is simply wrong.
Opinions are not facts, nor are they equal to facts. To say about a red rose that “in my opinion, that rose is yellow,” is just false. I can legitimately say, “I prefer yellow roses to red ones.” Somehow we have gotten the wrong-headed notion that if something is “my opinion,” it is sacrosanct. It’s not. For example, when Donald Trump asserts that Mexico is deliberately sending its criminal element to the U.S., he is quite simply wrong, since he has no demonstrable Facts to back up his statement. If he knows that he is stating something contra-factual and says it anyway for his own The Donald purposes, that is called a “lie.”
There are also several kinds of opinions, the most important two of which are Informed Opinions, and Uninformed Opinions. To have an informed opinion is to have done your research with credible sources–not just credible to you, but objectively credible–and to have come to a conclusion based on reason, not emotion.
There are also Expert Informed Opinions where someone whose expertise is in the field under consideration offers her or his judgement, free of any constraint or reason for bias. Therefore, an independent medical opinion that cigarettes cause cancer is valid, and a medical opinion paid for by Big Tobacco that they do not is invalid. It’s really pretty simple. The bought-and-paid-for “experts,” are just lying for money.
If I simply share the opinions I am given by my religious leaders, or neighbors, or political fellow-travelers, or anyone else, then I am not thinking for myself, and my opinions are a species of Uninformed Opinions, sometimes called “Knee-Jerk” opinions. They are actually a priori thinking, that is “Don’t bother me with the facts, I know what I believe.”
A good example is about the age of the Earth. Those who for religious reasons believe that the world was created in 4004 BCE cannot by any amount of argumentation and scientific proof, or even comparisons to the vast majority of Christians who do not hold that, be convinced otherwise. Any counter-argument is demonized as Satanic or Anti-Christian, and so is dismissed, contra-factually. In philosophy this state is called “Invincible Ignorance.”
As long as they remain willfully in that state, there is no hope of convincing them to see the factual truth. It is only when an adherent discovers that some other plank of their belief-system is false, that they may begin to say, as did Molly Ivins, “I wonder what else they have been lying to me about,” and the house of cards falls down.
And…let me interject, I defend their right to be invincibly ignorant in our free society. We should just not base any policies on their delusions or be forced to teach their delusions in our public educational systems. There is no right to try to make others ignorant.
Having settled that question, let’s look at some topics in Economics and Politics that are hot buttons in Social Media right now.
First it is important to emphasize that Economic and Social Systems are made by humans for humans. They are not part of nature, and they do not come from God (however you conceive God to be), although religions do tend to favor some over others).
My goal here is to–as factually as possible–to establish base-line understandings for these terms that get thrown around so much. We have to have a common terminology, or our discourse will go no where.
Etymology: From French capitalisme (“the condition of one who is rich”). First used in English by novelist William Thackeray in 1854. Capital is borrowed from the Latin capitālis, which in turn is from Latin caput, “head” from Proto-Indo-European *kauput-, *káput (“head”). Cognates include German Haupt and English head.
Here is a good standard definition of modern Capitalism from Wikipedia:
Capitalism is an economic system and a mode of production in which trade, industries, and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned. Private firms and proprietorships usually operate in order to generate profit, but may operate as private nonprofit organizations. Central characteristics of capitalism include private property, capital accumulation, wage labour and, in some situations, fully competitive markets. In a capitalist economy, the parties to a transaction typically determine the prices at which they exchange assets, goods, and services.
The degree of competition, the role of intervention and regulation, and the scope of state ownership vary across different . Economists, political economists, and historians have adopted different perspectives in their analyses of capitalism and have recognized various forms of it in practice. These include laissez-faire or free market capitalism, welfare capitalism, crony capitalism, corporatism, “third way” social democracy and state capitalism. Each model has employed varying degrees of dependency on free markets, public ownership, obstacles to free competition, and inclusion of state-sanctioned social policies.
The extent to which different markets are free, as well as the rules defining private property, become matters of politics and of policy. Many states have a mixed economy, which combines elements of both capitalism and centrally planned economics. Capitalism has existed under many forms of government, in many different times, places, and cultures. Following the decline of mercantilism, mixed capitalist systems became dominant in the Western world and continue to spread.
Capitalism as we know it arose in the West during the Italian Renaissance, and with the European conquest of the planet, was spread worldwide. Capitalism is an economic system, NOT a social system, although it has social aspects.
A controlled, ethically operated capitalism has many benefits, and as I have blogged about before, can be accepted by Christianity (and other religions) if it meets certain standards.
At the moment in the world economy, and especially in the United States, Capitalism is neither effectively controlled nor conducted ethically. Our system is “Crony Capitalism” at the moment. The deck is permanently stacked in favor of the 1%, and against the rest of us. This is not real Capitalism. The current world economic system is based on keeping all people and Nations in crushing debt, and therefore, under the control of those on the top.
The best book on the question of a just economic and social system is John Rawls, A Theory of Justice. Please read it. To boil down a massive book to one thought: In any truly just system, nothing must benefit those at the top of the system, unless it also benefits those at the bottom.
A caveat: this is not an endorsement of “trickle-down economics” which is just balderdash. As I read somewhere on the web, “Trickle-down economics is like having three dogs, and tossing one a hot dog and saying ‘He’ll share.'” FALSE!
Etymology: Attested since 1832; either from French socialisme or from social + -ism. Social is from Latin sociālis (“of or belonging to a companion, companionship or association, social”), from socius (“a companion, ally”), which is from From Proto-Indo-European *sokʷ-yo- (“companion”), from Proto-Indo-European *sekʷ- (“to follow”). The assistant to a Jesuit Provincial is still called the Socius, which my great mentor, Fr. Al Naucke, S.J., is currently in the California Province.
Socialism is also an economic system with social aspects. Here is a good standard definition from Wikipedia:
Socialism is a social and economic system characterised by social ownership of the means of production and co-operative management of the economy, as well as a political theory and movement that aims at the establishment of such a system. “Social ownership” may refer to cooperative enterprises, common ownership, state ownership, citizen ownership of equity, or any combination of these. There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them. They differ in the type of social ownership they advocate, the degree to which they rely on markets or planning, how management is to be organised within productive institutions, and the role of the state in constructing socialism.
A socialist economy is based on the principle of production for use, to directly satisfy economic demand and human needs, and objects are valued by their use-value, as opposed to the principle of production for profit and accumulation of capital. In the traditional conception of a socialist economy, coordination, accounting and valuation are performed in kind (using physical quantities), by a common physical magnitude, or by a direct measure of labour-time in place of financial calculation. For distributing output, two alternative principles have been proposed: to each according to his contribution and from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. The advisability, feasibility and exact way of allocating and valuing resources are the subjects of the socialist calculation debate.
The socialist political movement includes a diverse array of political philosophies. Core dichotomies include reformism versus revolutionary socialism, and state socialism versus libertarian socialism. State socialism encompasses calls for the nationalisation of monopolized or oligopolized corporations or other institutions, universal goal setting and planning, and legal public ownership of the means of production as a strategy for implementing socialism; libertarian socialism encompasses calls for decentralised means of direct democracy such as libertarian municipalism, citizens’ assemblies, trade unions, and workers’ councils coming from a general anti-authoritarian stance. While all tendencies of socialism consider themselves democratic, the term “democratic socialism” is often used to highlight its advocates’ high value for democratic processes and political systems and usually to draw contrast to other socialist tendencies they may perceive to be undemocratic. Some socialists have adopted the causes of other social movements, such as environmentalism, feminism and liberalism.
Modern socialism originated from an 18th-century intellectual and working-class political movement that criticised the effects of industrialisation and private property on society. The revival of republicanism in the American Revolution of 1776 and the revival of egalitarianism in the French Revolution of 1789 converged into the rise of socialism as a distinct political movement by the turn of the century. Initially, “socialism” referred to general concern for the social problems of capitalism regardless of the solutions to those problems. However, by the late 19th century, after waves of revolutionary movements, “socialism” had come to signify opposition to capitalism and advocacy for a post-capitalist system based on some form of social ownership. During this time, German philosopher Karl Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels published works criticising the utopian aspects of contemporary socialist trends, and applied a materialist understanding of socialism as a phase of development which will come about through social revolutioninstigated by escalating and conflicting class relationships within capitalism. Within this surge of opposition to capitalism appeared other more or less complementary tendencies such as anarchism, communism, and social-democracy and later, the confluence of socialism with anti-imperialist and anti-racist struggles around the world. Socialism became the most influential worldwide movement and political-economic world view of the 20th centurySome anarchist, socialist and Marxist tendencies argue that the Soviet Union did not establish socialism, but rather established state capitalism.Today, socialist parties and ideas remain a political force with varying degrees of power and influence in all continents, leading national governments in many countries.
As we can see, while Marxism and Communism were born out of Socialism, they are not synonymous with Socialism. In fact, in many ways, they are directly counter to the primary driving force of real Socialism, which includes spiritual and intangible goals which Marx wrongly eliminated, setting the stage for the horrendous scourge of the oppressive Soviet Union and other Communist countries.
In most of the developed world, Nations are running as Social Democracies, with a blending of Capitalist and Socialist economies. Kind of like back in the day in Arizona when the Gas and Electric company used the slogan: “Gas for what it does best, and Electricity for what it does best.” The equation between capitalism and socialism varies from country to country.
While some Americans see themselves as only Capitalist, that is not at all true. The New Deal set up a very effective social system. When we send our children to public schools, drive on government built roads, use the public library, mail letters, are protected by the regulations of the FDA, FCC, FAA, etc., we are enjoying some of the benefits of the socialist side of our system. A purely capitalist system would be brutal and inhumane. A purely socialist system probably would not work well either.
Given its druthers, traditional mainstream Christianity is more socialist than capitalist, as we have seen. The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament definitely lean heavily in that direction.
The main point in this section is that “Socialism” is not some diabolical, atheist, communist menace that threatens to engulf us and take away our freedoms. It’s just an economic system that blends well with an ethical, controlled capitalism.
Etymology: demo- + -cracy, from Middle French democratie (French démocratie), from Medieval Latin democratia, from Ancient Greek δημοκρατία (dēmokratía), from δῆμος (dêmos, “common people”, “assembly of the people”) + κράτος (krátos, “rule, strength”). The first part is from Proto-Indo-European *deh₂mos (“people”) (perhaps originally a feminine), from *deh₂- (“to divide”), whence also δαίομαι (daíomai). The original meaning was thus “part”. Cognate to Old Irish dám (“followers, crowd”) and Old Welsh dauu. The second is from Proto-Indo-European *kret-. Cognates include Sanskrit क्रतु (krátu), Avestan (xratu-), and Old English heard (“hard”).
Wikipedia’s definition of this social system is succinct and accurate:
Democracy is “a system of government in which all the people of a state or polity … are involved in making decisions about its affairs, typically by voting to elect representatives to a parliament or similar assembly,” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary. Democracy is further defined as (a:) “government by the people; especially : rule of the majority (b:) ” a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”
- A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections.
- The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life.
- Protection of the human rights of all citizens.
- A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.
In the Byzantine Divine Liturgy used by the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine/Greek Catholic Churches, one of the petitions is for the Sovereign of the Land. In ancient times, the petition referred to the Roman Emperor. In the UK today, many such Churches would pray thusly:
For our sovereign lady, Queen Elizabeth, her government, the royal family, and all in civil authority, let us pray to the Lord…
In the United States, it usually goes like this, which is technically inaccurate, since the prayer is for the Sovereign:
For the President, the Government, and the Armed Forces, let us pray to the Lord…
However, in some very heads-up parishes, it goes like this:
For the Sovereign American People, and for those they empower in Government, and for the Armed Forces and all who protect us, Let us Pray to the Lord…
The Government is not sovereign. The rich are not sovereign. Corporations are not sovereign. We are.
Of course, I am not making an argument for the silly and fatuous “Sovereign Citizen” movement. We are sovereign collectively, and we have a rather good checks and balances system that tempers majority rule with the rights of the minority. Our Rosicrucian and Masonic Founders of the Republic were very wise people, overall, and they created a Constitution which is flexible, dynamic, and able to adapt over the centuries.
A truly well operating Democracy must be free of Corporate, Religious, and Wealth controls.
Here’s my proposal about how to get back to that sane situation (now this is something you can have informed opinions about):
Christianity operates well in a Democracy, and while we were founded as and remain a secular Democracy, the Separation of Church and State is a protection going both ways.
One thing I would add in closing this section is that we MUST recover the concept of the Loyal Opposition that we so treasured when I was young. “Politics stops at the Water’s Edge,” we said. The fact that we now doubt the patriotism of those on the other side of the aisle will be our destruction if we do not stop it NOW.
Citizens and members of Congress communicating ex parte with Governments with which are negotiating, and which are hostile to us and our allies, is, in plain, black letter law, Treason. If you didn’t like it when Jane Fonda did it in Hanoi, you should not like it when 47 members of Congress sent the infamous letter to Iran recently. They are as guilty of Treason as every benighted American youth who fights for ISIL, at home or abroad. That part is legal fact.
My opinion about this situation is that all 47 members of Congress and every person who fights on behalf of ISIL should be prosecuted for Treason, so that we get this adjudicated in Law.
As you can tell, I am passionate about our Democracy. The Escontrias side of my family have been living here since the Conquistadores came over in the 16th Century. We waved “Hi!” to the late-comers on the Mayflower in 1620. The Irish-Welsh-English side, the Catos, Lewises and Armstrongs came over before the British starved the Irish during the falsely called “Potato Famine.” My family is part of the foundation of this Land, and I’m fighting for it!
Etymology: From Italian fascismo, from fascio (“bundle, fasces”), from Latin fasces, plural of fascis, which in turn is from Proto-Indo-European *bhasko (“bundle, band”), see also Proto-Celtic *baski (“bundle, load”), Ancient Greek φάκελος (phákelos, “bundle”), Old English bæst (“inner bark of the linden tree”), Welsh baich (“load, burden”), Middle Irish basc (“neckband”).
The word is taken from the Roman symbol of strength through solidarity, the Fasces, a bundle of sticks bound together with an Axe. As that concept, it is just fine. However, the Nazis perverted this noble symbol, as they did the mystical symbol the Swastika, during their reign if Evil in the Third Reich (They too were trying to be the Third Rome). On the other side of the political spectrum, the Communists perverted Socialism. Both can also be viewed as Christian Heresies.
Many of the Western Democracies, and some other Nations, still use the Symbol of the Fasces as part of our Roman Heritage. We do, the French so, et al.
As we have done before, let’s look at Wikipedia’s good description:
Fascism (/fæʃɪzəm/) is a form of radical authoritarian nationalism that came to prominence in early 20th-century Europe. Influenced by national syndicalism, fascism originated in Italy during World War I, in opposition to liberalism, Marxism, and Anarchism. Fascism is often placed on the far-right within the traditional left–right spectrum, but some academics call that description inadequate.
Fascists identify World War I as a revolution. It brought revolutionary changes in the nature of war, society, the state, and technology. The advent of total war and total mass mobilization of society had broken down the distinction between civilian and combatant. A “military citizenship” arose in which all citizens were involved with the military in some manner during the war. The war had resulted in the rise of a powerful state capable of mobilizing millions of people to serve on the front lines or provide economic production and logistics to support those on the front lines, as well as having unprecedented authority to intervene in the lives of citizens. Fascists view World War I as having made liberal democracy obsolete, and regard total mobilization of society under a totalitarian single-party state as necessary to prepare a nation for armed conflict. To respond effectively to economic difficulties, such a totalitarian state is led by a strong leader — such as a dictator and a martial government composed of the members of the governing fascist party — to forge national unity and maintain a stable and orderly society. Fascism rejects assertions of violence automatically being negative in nature and views political violence, war, and imperialism as means that can achieve national rejuvenation.
Fascists advocate a mixed economy, with the principal goal of achieving autarky through protectionist and interventionist economic policies. Following World War II, few parties have openly described themselves as fascist, and the term is usually used pejoratively by political opponents. The terms neo-fascist or post-fascist are sometimes applied more formally to describe parties of the far right with ideological similarities to, or roots in, 20th century fascist movements.
Fascism is one of those terms that gets thrown around in Social Media, and usually I avoid it like the Plague. However, there is something disturbing happening in this interminable election cycle. Umberto Eco has a very important article on the characteristics of Fascism. I urge you to read it.
Finally, in this section, I urge you to read over the 14 characteristics of Fascist Regimes. I did, and I became very concerned. Compare the characteristics listed there with some of the political rhetoric and reality of our shared life today, and you may be surprised–and worried. I am. We and others fought the largest war in history to defeat Fascism. We must not let it get even a foothold here.
I am getting ready to read a fascinating 1989 work, Albion’s Seed, which I believe will go a long way in explaining why the current GOP base is particularly–not uniquely–vulnerable to the infection of Fascism. I’m not suggesting that we have fully fallen into Fascism, but the threat is there.
Etymology: America, from a Latinized form of the Italian forename of Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512), the cartographer who first demonstrated that the New World was not East Asia. Exceptionalism: From Anglo-Norman excepcioun, from Old French excepcion, from Latin exceptio (“take out, withdraw; make an exception, except”), from ex (“out, away”) + capiō (“take”). Capio is from Proto-Italic *kapjō, from Proto-Indo-European *kh₂pyé-, *kh₂pi- (compare Breton kavout, English have, heave, Lithuanian kàmpt, Albanian kap, Ancient Greek κάπτω (káptō)).
I conclude today with a concept that I believe (my informed opinion) is creating difficulties for us today.
Once again, let’s see Wikipedia’s very cogent explanation of this concept:
American exceptionalism is the theory that the United States is inherently different from other nations. In this view, American exceptionalism stems from its emergence from the American Revolution, thereby becoming what political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset called “the first new nation” and developing a uniquely American ideology, “Americanism“, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, democracy and laissez-faire. This ideology itself is often referred to as “American exceptionalism.”
Although the term does not necessarily imply superiority, many neoconservative and other American conservative writers have promoted its use in that sense. To them, the U.S. is like the biblical “City upon a Hill“—a phrase evoked by British colonists to North America as early as 1630—and exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries.
The theory of the exceptionalism of the U.S. can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the country as “exceptional” in 1831 and 1840. The exact term “American exceptionalism” has been in use since at least the 1920s and saw more common use after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin allegedly chastised members of the Jay Lovestone-led faction of the American Communist Party for their belief that America was independent of the Marxist laws of history “thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions”. However, this story has been challenged because the expression “American exceptionalism” was already used by Brouder & Zack in Daily Worker (N.Y.) on the 29th of January 1929, before Lovestone’s visit to Moscow. In addition, Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, has noted that “exceptionalism” was used to refer to the United States and its self-image during the Civil War by The Times on August 20, 1861.
However, American Communists started using the English term “American exceptionalism” in factional fights. It then moved into general use among intellectuals. In 1989, Scottish political scientist Richard Rose noted that most American historians endorse exceptionalism. He suggests that these historians reason as follows:
America marches to a different drummer. Its uniqueness is explained by any or all of a variety of reasons: history, size, geography, political institutions, and culture. Explanations of the growth of government in Europe are not expected to fit American experience, and vice versa.
However, postnationalist scholars have rejected American exceptionalism, arguing that the U.S. had not broken from European history, and accordingly, the U.S. has retained class-based and race-based inequalities, as well as imperialism and willingness to wage war.
In recent years scholars from numerous disciplines, as well as politicians and commentators in the popular media, have debated the meaning and usefulness of the concept. Roberts and DeCuirci ask:
- Why has the myth of American exceptionalism, characterized by a belief in America’s highly distinctive features or unusual trajectory based in the abundance of its natural resources, its revolutionary origins and its protestant religious culture that anticipated God’s blessing of the nation—held such tremendous staying power, from its influence in popular culture to its critical role in foreign policy?
The primary problem I see in holding fast to American Exceptionalism, besides being–I believe (informed opinion)–untrue, is that it prevents us from learning from other nations’ and cultures’ experiences. It also militates against our understanding that we are part of an interdependent family of Nations and that we need to seek solutions together.
Even though I do hold that we were the first of the New World Order, that does not set us apart from the rest of the nations of the world, some of which have joined us in this grand adventure. We certainly have some unique qualities, many of which we share with Canada, and to a certain extent, Australia and New Zealand, as I have suggested in many posts. E pluribus unum (Out of many, One) can stand for that uniqueness in some ways. But all of this still does not make us aliens. Our Nation has more in common with many other Nations, than differences.
I hope that this over-long exposition will assist in clarifying terms and enabling more clear dialogue on the pressing issues of our day.
Thank you for reading!
Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant