I’m trying to quit ism’s but it’s proving more difficult than I imagined. The problem is that ism’s like socialism, capitalism, liberalism and Marxism have become so charged that one has to spend an inordinate amount of time unpacking the specific meaning intended.
That’s because ism’s are ever sensitive to ideology, our ever shifting belief system, which is largely socially constructed and largely imposed on us from outside. This ideology frames experiences for us, adding a hidden layer of interpretation that encourages us to make sense of the world in useful ways. The most liberating question one can ask, therefore, is: to whom is any particular ideology or ism useful?
But ideology and ism’s are not static. They are infinitely adaptive. Our assumptions, beliefs and values subtly change over time. And they change precisely as the needs of our ruling elite change. The most powerful among us are powerful because they create the dominant ideologies or ism’s–the thread of narrative that ties together what we imagine to be our personal understanding of why the world is as it is. That is why elites, whether the state or corporations, prioritise capturing the main channels of communication. They make sure to own and control the mass media so that they can control how we are indoctrinated.
Let’s examine socialism to illustrate how this works. Thanks to decades of pro-capital propaganda, Americans have been trained to view socialism as abhorrent. Not just that but US foreign policy was geared towards attacking any government that inhibited any signs of socialism during the Cold War and ever since. Afghanistan, where the Taliban are poised to resume control, is a pertinent and topical example.
Afghanistan in the 1970’s was a secular, moderate, yet vaguely socialist country before the US weaponized the Mujahideen as part of Operation Cyclone, designed to draw the Soviets into their own Vietnam. These weaponized Islamic fighters would go on to become the Taliban and the al Qaeda that attacked the Twin Towers. Don’t let the monsters who designed and implemented these policies obscure the crucial point that the US created the Taliban and al Qaeda as a way to destroy socialism in the Islamic world. Indeed, for US planners the alternative to socialism was Wahabi fanaticism, solidifying America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia. Mary Beth Shelly, the author of Frankenstein, would see the irony.
Socialism still remains a bugbear to the ruling class. For instance, the Democratic Socialists and Bernie Sanders only proposed a return to the New Deal, hardly socialism with its seizure of the means of production. Yet Bernie and the Democratic Socialists were resoundingly opposed by not only Republicans but by Democrats as well.
Then there’s liberalism. Traditionally it meant a Laissez-faire economic system in which transactions between private groups of people are free from economic interventionism such as regulation and subsidies. Today “liberal” means a bunch of woke PMC’s living on the Upper East Side, driving Volvo’s, drinking latte’s and voting for Hillary Clinton. Hardly the same thing.
As you can see, ism’s are supremely complicated and require endless explanation. However, through this exercise I’m realizing just how important ism’s are for making sense of our world.
This is nowhere more evident than with neoliberalism as it has become our economic and cultural operating system over the last 40 odd years. Neoliberalism is the ideological orthodoxy which holds that introducing market dynamics to sectors that were closed to global markets generates prosperity for all. Neoliberalism is a term often misunderstood and overused, but which remains the best shorthand for the policies that have shaped the global economy as we know it: privatization, tax cuts, inflation targeting and anti-trade union laws. Rather than being subject to democratic pressures – such as elections – these measures were portrayed as irreversible. Instead of democracy, under the regime of neoliberalism the world is governed by market forces. Going further, neoliberalism has become a religion, resulting in the mass acceptance of capitalist realism, the belief that there is no alternative to a market based system.
Even though neoliberalism has embedded itself in every corner of our lives it remains little understood, or even acknowledged. Indeed, the original neoliberal intellectuals went out of their way to muddy the waters, denying that there ever was such an ideological movement. Many modern economic and political writers help contribute to the vast misunderstanding, claiming that critics use the term simply as a pejorative. Luckily, economic historians like Phillip Mirowski have chronicled the history and ideological roots of neoliberalism while demonstrating its pernicious effects.
I think the key point to understand is that neoliberalism has ultimately been a vicious counter attack in the class war, allowing the wealthy to reassert control. That didn’t happen by accident, it happened because of concerted efforts to manipulate the system which gradually widened the wealth gap to what it is today. The deliberate advancement of agendas like deregulation, globalization, federal ops to sabotage leftist movements, union busting, and the methodical legalization of more and more money in politics were brought about by the concerted efforts of the neoliberals.
Recent events in Afghanistan have only reaffirmed that there’s an ism that’s equal or more powerful than neoliberalism for our ruling elite–militarism. If you watched any corporate media this last week you were treated to the spectacle of a parade of generals and national security types gravely opining on the tragedy of an American withdrawal from our longest running war. There demands for resignation and cries of “shame” are not being directed at the many failed architects of the campaign but instead at the officials who terminated an intervention that was intrinsically doomed.
What’s extremely illustrative is how the Beltway political class and corporate media talking heads treat war. If you will recall from the mists of time it was President Trump who negotiated a withdrawal arrangement with the Taliban. After enduring 5 years of Russia-gate I have no doubt that if Trump had followed through on his stated desire to finally end the war, the chaotic scenes emerging out of Kabul would’ve been portrayed as the secret plans of Vladimir Putin and the evil Russians. The media outrage would have been even more unhinged and conspiratorial. With brings us back to religion of militarism. The corporate media never criticizes a president for starting wars yet the minute they try to end one they arouse hyper-animosity. That’s how fucked-up US political and media culture is, and how distorted the incentives are. Remember when Trump bombed Syria, and for one wonderful night was no longer the new Hitler, but noble and “presidential”? And then when he announced his intention to withdraw troops from Syria–later aborted–the media had a near-fatal panic attack?
Like I said at the beginning, I’m trying to quit ism’s but I don’t think it will happen any time soon.
Maybe I’ll start a chapter of Isms Anonymous.