Fifty-Three Topics of OPAR

I am going to try something that will likely be difficult and painstaking. You see, last year, I wrote that I was going to use this blog as a means to understand socialism, but then the world changed, and I did not finish the project. I did write one post exploring the definition of socialism, I did write another post about a terrible lecture on socialism I forced myself to watch (twice), I started reading The Communist Manifesto, and I read half of the book, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis by Ludwig von Mises. But then, the mood in America shifted, and my Facebook news feed that had been dominated for months by adulatory articles championing the wonders of Democratic Socialism began to be overtaken by extreme levels of tribal insanity over Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The blistering irrationality of the things people were saying in total seriousness about the election was just so extreme that I could not look away. And so, I did not become a godlike expert in Democratic Socialism like I had wanted.

I want something different now. Not that Democratic Socialism isn’t important—it is. And not that I am a flake—I don’t think I am. But rather, there are twelve chapters in the book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand with fifty-three chapter subheadings in total that I would very much like to write about.

Ayn Rand is the shit, you see. Her major works include three novels, two works of short fiction, a play, and seven works of nonfiction from about 1935 to 1980. Inspired to a great extent by Aristotle, Rand developed her own philosophical system called Objectivism, the essence of which she summed up as, “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute” (from the appendix of Atlas Shrugged). An atheist and a laissez-faire capitalist, Rand once said in an interview with Raymond Newman: “Philosophy, since it underlies everything in life, cannot be presented too briefly,” which anyone who has ever read Atlas Shrugged can appreciate.

Rand also said, “If Objectivism could have been presently briefly, I should have done so. Instead, I have written millions of words, and even at that, I cannot say that I have completely finished.” What’s interesting is that apart from John Galt’s 50-page speech in Atlas Shrugged, and apart from the topic-specific explications contained in her nonfiction works, Rand wrote no all-inclusive treatise on her philosophy of Objectivism. She left that task to Dr. Leonard Peikoff, whom she designated as her philosophical heir and best interpreter. In 1991, Peikoff published the book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand based largely on a lecture course he gave in 1976 entitled, “The Philosophy of Objectivism.” Those original lectures were attended by Rand, and she stated, “Until or unless I write a comprehensive treatise on my philosophy, Dr. Peikoff’s course is the only authorized presentation of the entire theoretical structure of Objectivism—that is, the only one that I know of my own knowledge to be fully accurate.” Rand never wrote that treatise. In other words, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (or OPAR, for short) is the only complete disquisition on Ayn Rand’s philosophy that exists.

What does this have to do with my blog? Well, in the summer and fall of 2014, I read the following Randian works:

  • The Fountainhead 
  • Atlas Shrugged 
  • Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology 
  • For the New Intellectual 

Then, in 2015 and 2016, I read the following works by Peikoff:

  • Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand
  • The Ominous Parallels 
  • Understanding Objectivism: A Guide to Learning Ayn Rand’s Philosophy
  • The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West Are Going Out

I also started reading all of the following books last year but have not yet finished them:

  • Philosophy: Who Needs It
  • The Virtue of Selfishness
  • Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
  • The Romantic Manifesto

I have a problem, though. You see, over the past three years, I read all of this philosophical material a little too quickly without focusing on each conceptual element long enough for the ideas to properly simmer or integrate. I didn’t intellectually “chew” on the content long enough to digest it in the way that ideas should really be digested. I would read a book, say to myself, “That seems probably awesome!” and then immediately go on to another book before coming to any real conclusions about the ideas in the previous book or even allowing the ideas to become 100% clear in my mind. I was like a person who sits down to a delicious 7-course meal, scarfs everything on the table in two minutes, and then cannot remember all of the details about what exactly I ate other than that it agreed with me and was probably delicious.

Peikoff once stated in a lecture on the Objectivist theory of concepts:

The proper teacher therefore, has to take you in stages, let you absorb a certain amount, let you automatize it in your mind, and this then frees you to absorb further material at a later time….And then as your knowledge grows, we revisit the issue in a more complex perspective, go over the same subject again, but from new, more advanced angles. We see new meanings in older points which are eliminated by our new context….It would in short be—a spiral. We go over and over the same issues and topics, again and again, each time from a more complex perspective. That is what we mean by the spiral progression of knowledge.

In other words, knowledge progresses in the shape of a spiral rather than in a straight line. You learn something initially in whatever way you can grasp it, and then, after living a little and learning other things, you return to that original something and consider it from a more complex perspective. And then you do it again. And so on. And then you become a philosophical master of the universe.

The purpose of this new blog project will be to use Peikoff’s notion of the spiral theory of knowledge as inspiration for a re-read and second exploration of the book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. The book has twelve chapters (Reality, Sense Perception and Volition, Concept-Formation, Objectivity, Reason, Man, The Good, Virtue, Happiness, Government, Capitalism, and Art) that are structured hierarchically. Each chapter builds on the chapters that came before. It is a worthy book, one that deserves to be read more than once (not as a wild and starving savage), and it is a book I believe will help me develop a better understanding both of Rand’s philosophy and of my own assessment of Objectivism.

Within each blog post, I plan to address:

  • What idea is covered in the section?
  • How easy or difficult is this particular idea to understand?
  • What questions or concerns might I or other people have about this idea?
  • How integrated is this idea within my own mind? (This last point will be stored in a secret number somewhere within the post.)

In short: fifty-three blog posts on Objectivism are forthcoming. It’s going to be great!


On Crying Wolf

Ever since the election, a huge number of articles, videos, and discussion comments associating Trump with white supremacy have catapulted across the internet. There has been a lot of this:

“I feel like personally apologizing to every POC, LGBT+ person, and woman of childbearing age. I want to live in a Stronger Together America, not a white nationalist fascist America.”

and this:

“White supremacy and white denial helped Donald Trump win the White House.”


“No Trump, No KKK, no fascist USA.”


“So how long before whites are simply outnumbered by non-whites, so that a strategy based in White Nationalism isn’t enough?”


“Today we saw that in the 21st century, you can run an utterly incompetent campaign headlined by a man utterly and obviously unfit for office, and as long as your guiding star is white nationalism you have a good shot at the win.”


“If you voted for Trump, your vote encouraged the language and actions in this video [of white supremacists giving Trump the Nazi salute]…. Stand up, tell your chosen candidate that he needs to do more than say ‘stop it.'”

In light of this elevated state of concern regarding white supremacy/nationalism, I have been investigating the topic quite a bit, because if it were true that Donald Trump is in favor of white supremacy, that would be extremely concerning.

A few days ago, though, I stumbled across a powerful and well-researched counterargument to the claim that Trump is openly white supremacist and the candidate of the KKK. This author’s counterargument is important and should be considered.

You don’t have to like Trump even slightly to read this, as the author himself is anti-Trump. The conclusion is especially powerful, so read the whole thing.

Two good excerpts:

This, I think, is the first level of crying wolf. What if, one day, there is a candidate who hates black people so much that he doesn’t go on a campaign stop to a traditionally black church in Detroit, talk about all of the contributions black people have made to America, promise to fight for black people, and say that his campaign is about opposing racism in all its forms? What if there’s a candidate who does something more like, say, go to a KKK meeting and say that black people are inferior and only whites are real Americans?

We might want to use words like ‘openly racist’ or ‘openly white supremacist’ to describe him. And at that point, nobody will listen, because we wasted ‘openly white supremacist’ on the guy who tweets pictures of himself eating a taco on Cinco de Mayo while saying ‘I love Hispanics!’

“But as I pointed out in Part 4, a lot of these accusations [against Trump] shy away from the word ‘racism’ precisely because it’s an ambiguous thing with many heterogenous parts, some of which are understandable and resemble the sort of thing normal-but-flawed human beings might think. Now they say ‘KKK white nationalism’ or ‘overt white supremacy’. These terms are powerful exactly because they do not permit the gradations of meaning which this subject demands.

Let me say this for the millionth time. I’m not saying Trump doesn’t have some racist attitudes and policies. I am saying that talk of ‘entire campaign built around white supremacy’ and ‘the white power candidate’ is deliberate and dangerous exaggeration. Lots of people (and not just whites!) are hasty to generalize from ‘ISIS is scary’ to ‘I am scared of all Muslims’. This needs to be called out and fought, but it needs to be done in an understanding way, not with cries of ‘KKK WHITE SUPREMACY!’

Please read it. For peace.

You Are Still Crying Wolf

To the Left

Why do politics divide us? Really, why do they?

All people, whether they admit it or not, hold beliefs which are based on other, more fundamental ideas which are based on deeper, even more fundamental ideas which together form a “philosophical pyramid,” if you will. Politics, which rests at the fourth level of this pyramid, concerns itself with defining and enacting a proper social system. Below politics is ethics, which deals with discovering and defining the moral values that people should live by. You can’t decide on the best social system without first having some sort of ethical code (whether you hold that code implicitly or explicitly) that you use to weigh and judge a political system. Beneath ethics sits epistemology, which deals with the question of how humans can claim to know anything at all. You cannot determine which kinds of human behavior are good and which are bad, for example, if you do not have some sort of method by which to know anything at all. To be specific, some people believe that the Bible is an appropriate method of acquiring knowledge; others believe in their innate intuition; others believe in logic; others believe in some mixture of all of these methods; etc. Epistemology provides an answer to the question, “But how do you know?” And finally, below epistemology lies metaphysics, which concerns itself with the question, “What even exists in the first place?” Metaphysics is the investigation into the nature of the universe itself and the kind of world we actually live in. (Do we live in seven dimensions? Or one? Or inside a computer? Or in the hands of a god? Or in an illusion or a dream?)

Why do politics divide us? Because people hold vastly different beliefs about things that lie quite low on the philosophical pyramid. People do not actually agree on the kind of world we live in or on the proper method for acquiring knowledge. They especially do not agree on the proper moral code for human behavior. And so these people will obviously disagree on what kind of social system is the best kind to have in America.

Do politics really divide us in America today because some people are just ignorant, miseducated idiots with hate and fear and sexism and racism in their hearts? Really? Is that the essential reason why this is happening?

I posit no.

And I posit that nothing is going to get better until we face our disagreements for what they actually are: disagreements about the deepest, most important questions of life.

Please stop treating this era in American history like it is the most obvious thing in the world, because it isn’t. If you cannot clearly define the metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical positions of the opposing team, you should not present your opinions about the election as authoritative.

This is for you, Left.

A Revision

I would like to qualify my statements from Two Minutes of Hate last week. Throughout the whole (brief) post, I referred to the object of my hatred simply as “politics,” which was an imprecision. I said, for example, “Why hate politics? Because politics puts a crown on the head of the worst methods of human thinking and enshrines those methods on a comfortable throne.” 

My use of the term “politics” did not make clear the distinction between contemporary politics and politics as a vital branch of philosophy. My statements failed to differentiate between politics in essence and politics in the manner in which they are carried out today in our compromised, pluralistic, unprincipled, mixed-bag of a collectivist quasi-democracy.

In philosophy, politics is the fourth level of the pyramid. Politics sits on top of ethics, which sits on top of epistemology, which rests on metaphysics. Politics uses ethics to set goals and determine the proper actions to take in order to bring about the best future for humans living together on Earth. Political philosophy is, according to Ayn Rand, “abstract theory to identify, explain and evaluate the trend of events, to discover their causes, project their consequences, define the problems and offer the solutions” (from Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution). In this sense, I actually love politics.

Compromised, pluralistic, unprincipled, collectivist, quasi-democratic politics are “an affront to the good, the noble, the just, and the true” (to quote myself), but they are not all politics.

I think this distinction matters. I would like to revise what I said.

Two Minutes of Hate

Read “Apolitical Reasons to Hate Politics,” by Bryan Caplan.

Why hate politics? Because politics puts a crown on the head of the worst methods of human thinking and enshrines those methods on a comfortable throne.

Politics utilizes fakery, hyperbole, lies, bandwagons, group-think, and compromise to get its way. With a smile.

Politics is an affront to the good, the noble, the just, and the true.

Politics acts like there is no other way.

Richard Wolff Sucks

Richard Wolff’s video lecture, “As Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens, Thoughts of Socialism Return Again” is awful. Here are the three most rage-inspiring reasons why I hate it:

Reason 1: Richard Wolff loves feudalism in a contradictory fashion.

Wolff uses a pleasant tone to describe feudalism, claiming, “Everyone had a place,” and “It was very organized.” Never mind that under feudalism, 90% of the population were commoners or peasants who had almost zero say in the system because they were stuck paying taxes to the lords and kings who had all the power. But hey, at least it wasn’t capitalism! Wolff switches to a sarcastic, aggressive tone the minute capitalism comes on the scene, and he throws in as much violent language as possible. Capitalism started a “violent revolution to destroy feudalism and open a place for itself.” Soon, they started chopping off peoples’ heads in the “individualist free-for-all” that was “dripping blood from every pore!” Things really get confusing though, when Wolff announces that capitalism is unfair because some people get to be on top making all of the money and decisions. Because…wasn’t that…what feudalism was about? This doesn’t make any sense.

Reason 2: Richard Wolff claims that I haven’t been paying attention.

He says, “This is confusing, isn’t it? So, what is socialism? There is no answer to that. People who speak about socialism in the singular haven’t been paying attention. Socialisms there are, and they have been for a long time.” And then he goes on to say, “The idea that there is a single thing called socialism (or Marxism or communism) is a fantasy in the eyes of people who don’t know very much about this.” Throughout the video though, Wolff refers to the concept of socialism in the singular, saying things like, “Capturing the state is the means to socialism,” and, “Socialism is about a different vision for how you organize and understand what society is.” If there is no answer to the question “what is socialism?” then what is Wolff even talking about? Why is he not saying, “Capturing the state is the means to Marxist Communism,” or, “Democratic Socialism is about a different vision for how you organize and understand what society is”? He continues to use the term even while claiming that it has no definition. Would a Professor of Economics who earned degrees at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford really not notice this contradiction?

I recognize that the various socialisms differ and that it is semi-impossible to prove to what degree a person has or has not been paying attention to a particular issue, but it is by no means unreasonable to speak about socialism in the singular since it is a single word. If the socialisms have nothing in common, then why do they all still use the same term to define themselves? Wolff’s comments belittle those seeking intellectual integration on an issue that is actually extremely important for humanity. If deeper, more principled sense can be made of the concept of socialism, then let those who would look for it continue to look for it, and do not insult them.

Perhaps what Wolff really means is, people who speak about socialism in the singular are inconveniently getting in the way of my desire to destroy capitalism, so I will smugly dismiss them from my position of intellectual power. It will help the public be less afraid of socialism if I convince them it doesn’t really mean anything.

Reason 3: Richard Wolff casually brushes away the horrors of the Soviet Union.

Wolff seems to think that social sacrifice is noble, and he admires the Russian people for giving up as much as they did in pursuit of their worthy goal of reorganizing society so that it would work in the interest of the whole community. But what about the famines and the gulags and the mass shootings in the streets? In response to these crimes against humanity, Wolff merely says (and I quote word for word), “But did it work that way [as they had hoped]? No. But that’s not because they are bad; it’s not because they are stupid. It’s because that’s how history works. It’s an understandable thing!”

Somehow, capitalism drips blood from every pore and needs to be obliterated, but socialism’s crimes, committed by the likes of Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Fidel Castro, and Mao Zedong, are just “an understandable thing.”

I repeat, “[The slaughter, torture, and starvation of millions of people] is an understandable thing.”


I’ll just end there. Richard Wolff sucks.

A Lengthy Discussion of the Definition of Socialism

Hello, internet. I have returned to talk about socialism. Historian and theorist Carroll Quigley once wrote, “Naturally we cannot talk intelligently unless we have a fairly clear idea of what we mean by the words we use.” Clear ideas stem from clear definitions (and evidence), and so, before I try to say anything at all about socialism, I would very much like to define the word socialism itself.

But first a definition of definition.

Definition: A concise, exact statement that sets the boundaries or limits of the subject matter to include what belongs to it and exclude what does not. Its objective is to give the subject matter a distinctive identity and precise meaning to prevent conflict, confusion, or overlap.

Or, to put it more simply:

Definition: A statement expressing the essential nature of something.

Productive conversation is impossible without a shared understanding of what exactly is being discussed. If I am talking about a tree, and you are talking about a sloth, and we are both using the word “cumulus cloud” to refer to these things, debates about the weather become extremely frustrating and pointless. Since I hope to discuss socialism in depth in further posts on this blog, the concept itself should be clearly defined so that I don’t start comparing sloths and trees and cumulus clouds while no one has any idea what I am actually talking about.

Here is the definition of socialism according to Wikipedia:

Socialism: A range of economic and social systems characterized by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production, as well as the political ideologies, theories, and movements that aim at their establishment.

……okay. But what…does that mean…exactly? In an attempt to resolve some of the initial confusion I had with this definition, I did some further digging:

Social ownership (also referred to as public ownership) is a type of ownership that is not the private kind, meaning rather than individuals or companies owning private property and making personal decisions about it, “the collective” (whatever that is) or the state will own and control that property democratically. But is it just me, or is it not quite clear based on the definition who this “collective” will be who will own and control the things? Is it the government, specifically? Is it the community as a whole? The workers at every factory? The definition of social ownership does not designate who the group will be, but it is clear that it will not be private individuals.

Means of production are the various pieces of stuff that, when acted upon by a creative idea and some tools, cause new kinds of stuff to come into existence in an economy. This could mean (emphasis on the word could) factories, blocks of iron, crude oil, water, hammers, roads, sewer systems, airports, public schools, sunlight, hospitals, prisons, vegetation, phone service, the internet, minerals, lumber, and coconuts. Means of production are basically the physical, non-human things that play any sort of role in producing economic value. Everything that exists on this entire planet has some sort of economic value though, and is therefore a means of production in some sense. For example, my toothbrush helps keep my teeth healthy and free from cavities, which in turn affects my ability to go to work as opposed to lying at home in pain, and my tooth health impacts the amount of money my dentist will be making this month. If we are going to follow the idea of social ownership of the means of production to its logical end, only the most totalitarian society in which every hair on one’s toothbrush is owned by “the collective” would qualify as true socialism in the most complete sense. No society in all of human history has yet achieved this level of absolutism.

I am still confused. Collective ownership by some vague and unnamed group of every piece of stuff that exists in society is not what most people act like the word socialism means. Bernie Sanders has never mentioned a totalitarian toothbrush dictatorship, and the countries of Europe today do not seem to be striving for a 1984 society either. Many people, it seems, view the idea of socialism simply as this:


But what about Joseph Stalin of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics? Or Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party? Or Chairman Mao of the Communist Party of China? Were they in favor of sharing, too? How can socialism be about Feeling the Bern while also being about starving 7.5 million Ukranians until they eat each other?

If the purpose of a definition is to prevent conflict, confusion, and overlap, the general definition of socialism totally fails. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being completely clear and concise, removing all conflict, confusion, and overlap, and with 1 being the entity being described is indistinguishable from every other thing that exists in the universe, and I have no idea what the thing even is, I give the definition of socialism a score of about 3. I can now say with confidence that a radish is not socialism, but that’s it.

The problems that I have with the definition of socialism are as follows:

  1. Without knowing exactly what social ownership entails and who specifically gets to own things (the government, the neighborhood, or the workers at Google), how can we discern precisely what it is we are talking about? Are we referring to trees or sloths or neither?
  2. Without drawing a line in the sand to designate exactly which items qualify as “means of production” and which items do not, how can we know the kind of society we are dealing with? Is this a world where I get to own my own toothbrush or one where the government will own it for me along with my hypothetical children? And how can I be sure?
  3. How can a single concept called socialism be one idea while also being a range of ideas that are held together by a common thread that has not been made clear? How can it be both one thing and everything?
  4. If socialism is many different things, why are we calling all of the things socialism and not naming them uniquely? Is there anything more specific than the vague notion of the “social ownership of the means of production” that holds all of the elements together?

These questions leave me wondering how the people of Facebook can speak about socialism with such apparent confidence. One reason, it turns out, may be because beneath the wide and vague umbrella of socialism exist a number of various and opposing branches called the Types of Socialism or the socialisms. I guess these could be considered “denominations” or diverse manifestations branching off of the concept of socialism at different eras in history. Each of the types redefines the notion of socialism in its own specific way, and each attempts to provide answers to the questions I have listed above, although their answers do not always mesh. One of the most disagreed-upon issues among socialists, for example, is the particular method by which a socialist system should be implemented. Should it be by vote? By seizure of the government? By worker action? By mass execution of the infidels? Each type of socialism answers this question differently.

What makes things complicated, however, is that because the groups’ answers to the questions differ, the word socialism has meant different things at different moments in history depending on which group was and is doing the talking. The Wikipedia page on the Types of Socialism acknowledges this confusion, saying, “Some definitions of socialism are very vague, while others are so specific that they only include a small minority of the things that have been described as ‘socialism’ in the past. There have been numerous political movements which called themselves socialist under some definition of the term. Some of these interpretations are mutually exclusive, and all of them have generated debates over the true meaning of socialism.” Well, great. That clears things up, then! I am now feeling confident in my understanding of socialism. Wait…no.

Also, many people allege that the specific manifestations of socialism are as unique and un-integratable with one another as caesar salad is with potato or fruit salad, implying that there is absolutely nothing similar among the groups apart from the sharing of a vague utopian goal, the specific nature of which floats around in the ether like a wind-blown ghost. I am extremely skeptical of this allegation of un-integratable-ness, but the issue may need to be a discussion for a future blog post. Check back later.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the specific types of socialism that have existed in past and present:

  1. Marxist Communism: Marxists aspire to create a classless, stateless social organization based on common ownership of the means of production. This will be achieved by capturing the state, which will later evolve into a non-governmental commune. Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were Marxists.
  2. Autonomism: Through an everyday working class resistance to capitalism, workers will overthrow the system through self-organized, bottom-up action.
  3. Collectivist Anarchism: Collectivist anarchists believe that the economy and most or all property should be collectively owned by society. Historically, this was initiated by acts of violence and “propaganda of the deed” meant to inspire the workers to revolt.
  4. Anarchist Communism:  Self-governing communes use democracy to collectively dispense the means of production. Individuals do not receive direct compensation for labor, but rather have free access to resources.
  5. Anarcho-syndicalism: Labor unions are the source for revolutionary social change, replacing capitalism and the state with a network of democratically-managed workers.
  6. Social Democracy: Capitalism will be reformed from within, and the welfare state will be achieved through democratic vote. However, capitalism will not be totally destroyed but rather will be greatly “humanized” so as to support the values of freedom, equality, social justice, and solidarity.
  7. Democratic Socialism: A socialist economic system will be achieved through democratic vote. Capitalism is inherently incompatible with the values of liberty, equality, and solidarity and therefore cannot be “humanized” in the way social democrats desire. Ultimately, capitalism must be replaced with socialism through a democratic management of enterprises. Some people claim that Hitler was a Democratic Socialist.
  8. Liberal Socialism: The values of liberty and equality are compatible and can be achieved through a mixed economy that includes both private and public property. Some people claim that Hitler was a Liberal Socialist.
  9. Religious Socialism: A form of communism centered on religious principles, usually practiced by utopian societies through the voluntary dissolution of private property so as to meet everyone’s needs.
  10. Eco-socialism: Eco-socialists (also known as Green socialists) believe that capitalism is to be blamed for environmental degradation, social marginalization, and inequality, and they seek to dismantle capitalism by advocating for common ownership of the means of production.

What I am seeing is a thing called socialism which seems to mean something slightly or extremely different depending on who you talk to. Under the umbrella of socialism live the socialisms, under which live the people of the socialisms who don’t necessarily believe that the other people of the other socialisms should be considered true socialists at all because few agree on what the word socialism actually means in the first place. But don’t worry! There is nothing strange or concerning about this! Socialism is just too complex, ha ha ha, and it doesn’t need to be limited to rational models that dominate modern academic economics. After all, why should we bind ourselves to dogma? Socialism is definitely awesome, and YOU SHOULD BE A SOCIALIST even though nothing in this paragraph makes sense and even though the definition of socialism will probably change at least three times in the next twenty years.


Now that I have proceeded this far, is there anything to be gleaned about socialism as a whole from the explanations of the types above? Do the definitions of the types reveal anything that the general definition of socialism does not? One thing that jumps out right away that all of the types seem to share is a strong dislike of capitalism. Phrases like, “resistance to capitalism,” “property should be collectively owned by society,” “replace capitalism,” “humanize capitalism,” “mix capitalism with socialism to make it better,” “dissolve private property,” and “blame capitalism for earthly degradation” are present in each and every instance listed above. What exactly is capitalism though? This seems important.

According to Merriam-Webster:

Capitalism: An economic system characterized by private ownership of the means of production, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined by competition in a free market.

To further expand on this definition, private ownership of the means of production refers to lone individuals and private companies having exclusive possession and decision-making power over the stuff that belongs specifically to them. Additionally, a free market is an economic system characterized by unrestricted competition between privately owned businesses, where the forces of supply and demand are free from intervention by a government. The opposite of a free market would be a regulated market, where a government intervenes in supply and demand through laws creating barriers to entry, price fixing, requirements to comply with environmental standards, product-safety specifications, information disclosure requirements, regulations that privilege special interests, and other tactics. While socialism advocates economic regulation and collectivism, capitalism advocates economic freedom and individuality.

If you follow the definition to its logical end, the essence of “true capitalism” is not particularly difficult to pin down. Capitalism in its most complete sense would be a society where there is no such thing as public property whatsoever and where the government has absolutely zero say in economic affairs, not even to impose the tiniest regulation or requirement. Has true, full capitalism ever actually existed? The answer is no. Since birth, capitalism has always been regulated or mixed with other systems to some degree, although there have been periods of time where the economy has been freer and more capitalistic than it was during other eras.

Are the capitalistic notions of private property and unregulated markets completely antithetical to the theories held by the various types of socialism? YES. Most definitely. But why, exactly? Why do the socialisms oppose these ideas?

Several weeks ago I sat through the full 49:45 minutes of this incredibly patronizing video lecture on socialism given by Richard D. Wolff, Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The video’s title is, “As Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens, Thoughts of Socialism Return Again.” I will discuss this video in greater detail in a future blog post because some of his comments on the Soviet Union are so gag-inspiring that my sense of justice requires that I write about them further; but for the purposes of today, I will reference the video only to explain Wolff’s account of why socialists seek to overthrow capitalism. According to Wolff, “capitalism promised so much and delivered so much less” because it created an individualistic, violent, and unfair free-for-all within Western civilization, “dripping blood from every pore.” Essentially, socialists saw capitalism as a system that exploited workers and fostered inequality, with some people having a lot while others had only a little. Socialism by contrast, which sprang up in the 1840’s as a reaction against the supposed evils of capitalism declared, “We are not for the individual first and foremost; we are for the community first and foremost.” Wolff expressed this notion as a “brotherhood first, individual second” sort of idea. He went on to say, “It’s about a different vision for how you organize and understand what society is.” Where capitalism sought to create an individualistic society of private property with each person responsible for pursuing his or her own best interest, socialism wanted a world where everyone was roughly equal with everyone else and where the interests of the collective were managed by all rather than by a privileged few.

Socialism in all of its forms is anti-capitalism. It is a reaction against the capitalistic principles of private property, individualism, and unrestricted economic freedom on the grounds that capitalism is cruel and unfair. Even though the types of socialism disagree on how exactly a collective whole working together for the best interest of the group will actually be achieved or maintained, they do all agree that capitalism needs to be replaced with something more “humane” (aka collectivist). The specifics beyond this one point of agreement are still vague and subjective as I have already discussed, but the anti-capitalist nature of socialism is clear and shared by all. As a whole, socialism, from Marx to Stalin to Anarcho-syndicalism to the Democratic Socialists of America, seeks to oppose and overthrow capitalism, whether that means destroying it through revolution, democratic process, or worker strike, and whether it means “humanizing” capitalism, mixing it with other systems, or wiping it off the face of the planet for all eternity.

The last time I had this much difficulty locating an objective definition for a concept was back when I was teetering on the verge of atheism for the first time, grasping desperately onto the last vestiges of my Christian faith. Christianity just did not make real sense to me, and no matter how I looked at it the concept remained nebulous, floating without anchor in a twilight world of feelings, meaning whatever religious people wanted the word to mean at any given era in history. Traced through time there are thousands of different manifestations of Christianity, all of them contradictory and many of them mutually exclusive, and yet the idea of Christianity persists in all of its subjective glory, morphing shapelessly from one version of itself to the next as civilization reroutes itself toward new goals. When people use the single word Christianity to talk about their belief system, what are they specifically referring to? With its coat of many colors, how exactly does one judge Christianity on its rightness or wrongness if the religion stands for thousands of different ideas that simply shift in and out of popularity as people’s perspectives change over time?

The further I dig into socialism, a suspicion builds. Socialism, like Christianity, has a certain religious feel to it. It appears to mean whatever people feel in their hearts that it means. It morphs. It changes. It starts out as one thing and then becomes another without too much fuss being made. People try it one way, and when that one way fails, they move on to try it another way without concern for the fact that the second way is contradictory to the first, and despite the fact that the literature does not seem to make sense all together as a cohesive whole. Socialism is open for interpretation. It is open to your feelings, and isn’t that nice?

Capitalism, by contrast, is not like this. There is no range of capitalism; there is just capitalism, and it means one specific economic system that could concretely be pointed to were it ever to be implemented in its fullest sense. When and if the ultimate version of capitalism ever does have its moment (meaning all public property has been abolished and all restrictions on business have been lifted), its final judgment day will also have arrived, and that will be that. If in the end, when held up to the light, capitalism fails, honest capitalists will have no choice but to admit they were wrong, slink embarrassingly away into a corner, and think up some entirely different idea.

But not so for the socialists. Due to the floating, quasi-religious nature of the concept at the center of their system, when the next so-called socialist system fails, socialists will have the option to claim, “Well, that system that failed was not real socialism because [fill in the blank],” and who could prove them wrong? If one cannot point to what socialism specifically is, one can never know for sure when one has actually tried it. If socialists have not and will not set limits around the essential nature of their system, the boundary can just keep shifting, creeping out further and further until the socialism of the future is so unlike its original manifestation that it is literally unrecognizable. Without a boundary, anyone can logically claim that almost any brand of socialism arrived at at some future date both is and isn’t real socialism. And so, by these methods socialism can mean or not mean virtually anything as long as it does not mean capitalism.

When all is said and done, capitalism is a clearly defined economic method, but socialism, the system that seeks to overthrow it, is not. Does the lack of clarity prove that socialism is wrong? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it does. But the ambiguity is reason to pay close attention, as it leads to the possibility of the socialist goalposts being moved in any debate. As a concept, the word socialism in all of its haziness is ripe and ready for equivocation, and its sub-types are bursting at the seams with contradictions. What unites them is a mutual understanding that in order to achieve the ideal human society, capitalism must not be left to its own devices. But is that actually true? Must capitalism be crushed in order for human life on earth to reach its highest potential? In order to answer that, I’ll have to do more research. Thanks. Bye.