The Peace and Justice Files: WANTED: NEW ISMS

Conservatism… Liberalism… Centrism… Socialism… Communalism… Leninism … Marxism… Maotseism… Communism… Trotskyism… Fidelism… Fascism…

— from “Under Heavy Manners” by David Byrne and Robert Fripp

The Nasty Word of the Day was… “socialism.”

The day before Election Day found me in Honesdale’s Central Park, hanging out with some members of CLEAR, the local “Tea Party” group (clear4teaparty.com).  In keeping with the saying of one of my teachers that “people who make you squirm probably have something to teach you,” I had decided to come to their rally, say a few uncontroversial words, and mostly listen.

It was, as you might imagine, a very interesting experience – and yes, I did learn a few things.  I learned some things about the Tea Party view of the world, about their fears, and about their internal contradictions and paradoxes.

Here’s how the Wayne Independent described one of the other speeches: “Sue Ubertini warned of a perceived slide towards socialism in this country, where the Christian foundation of worth in the individual is replaced with the worth of the collective. A socialist regime, she said, is run by an elite class that decided what is best for you, anathema to our Nation’s Founding Fathers.”

That seemed to be one of the themes of the day – that there were two choices to be had, and only two: “collectivism” (under which the Tea Partiers lump “socialism” “communism,” “fascism,” “atheism,” “liberalism” etc.) and “individualism” (a/k/a “capitalism,” “patriotism,” “Americanism,” “conservatism” etc.).  One was good, one was evil.  You’re with us, or you’re against us.

The only problem being, of course, that both concepts are oversimplified, insufficient – and perhaps even obsolete.

To sociologists, each has two aspects: “horizontal” (emphasizing equality) or “vertical” (emphasizing hierarchy and order).  Under “horizontal collectivism,” which is based on the assumption that each individual is more or less equal, people engage in sharing and cooperation.  “Vertical collectivism” assumes that individuals are fundamentally different from each other, and people are made to submit to authority, even to the point of self-sacrifice.  (It will be immediately clear that anti-collectivists get a lot of mileage out of conflating these two.)

Similarly, “horizontal” individualists might be characterized by the phrase “live and let live,” while “vertical” individualists strive not only to excel – but to dominate.

Individualism and collectivism, in their vertical aspects, can both lead to oppression and tyranny.  Neither really addresses the question of how society should adapt to changing circumstances, or how to balance our rights and our responsibilities as citizens.  Neither is up to the task of maintaining sufficiency, let alone prosperity, in an environmentally and economically interconnected world of growing population and shrinking resources.

But still we seem to be trapped in this old, outdated, 19th-century argument.  I want some new isms.

I want some new isms
Thoughts that might make some sense
That don’t make the world too simple
That don’t make the world too dense

I want some new isms
Ones that might do some good
That might bring about a better time
Without shedding all that blood

Ones that don’t make me frantic
Wondering who to blame
Ones that give me hope that things won’t always be the same
Always be the same…

— with apologies to Huey Lewis

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