On the debate of isms

liberalism? leftism? Why we should talk about philosophies.

As a leftwardist, I have a simple principle I follow: I want to support practical things that assist the world in becoming more equitable. One big question that follows from thisis why do I want the world to be more equitable? That is actually a very big and complex question to answer, and I will be writing many future posts as part of this newsletter. But before that, in this post, I want to answer an even more fundamental question: How does one talk about wanting the world to be a particular way? This is the question of defining political philosophies.

So how do we even come to talking about a political philosophy. There are a lot of ideas that go into an individual’s personal philosophy, and I can’t tell you which ones you should find important. However, many people try to address their thoughts on how they want the world they live in to look and whether they want to take part in shaping that world, and this is where discussion of political or social philosophy becomes important. When people get together to talk about what principles they want to see shape the world, they often start to define labels to succinctly define those principles. This label is called a political philosophy (or ideology depending on context), and the labels for different philosophies are often identified by throwing an “ism” onto the end of a word.

You might have noticed that recently there is a renewed interest in the debate between the “isms” that structure society. In particular, there is an ongoing debate between “liberalism” and “leftism.” However, one thing I’ve noticed while watching a number of debates on this playout is that although both sides seem to want to debate the philosophies, they often end up debating particular policies historically associated with each.

I wanted to take a step back from a focus on implementation in this article and remind people about what it means to believe in an “ism” in the first place. Importantly, in this post, I don’t want you to get hung up on which “ism” you support. Instead, I want to focus on (1) describing what the “ism” itself advocates, (2) how almost all “isms” can be manifested in many different ways, and finally, (3) how to tell if the core goals of an “ism” align with your own beliefs.

What do different ideologies advocate

Remember that political philosophies are systems of ideas or beliefs shared by groups of people to define how the world should operate. To understand this more concretely, lets briefly summarize two main “isms” that are being debated right now: liberalism and leftism. There are of course many many finer subdivisions of these major currents (ecosocialism, neoliberalism), as well as other widely held ideologies (conservatism, techno-utopianism) that I won’t cover since they aren’t core to the main focus of The Leftwardist newsletter.

liberalism

Liberalism is the philosophy that most heavily emphasizes liberty, consent of the governed and equality before law1. Core to this belief system is the assumption that when people are the most free to do as they please, people will follow pursuits that make the most people in society the most well off. There are many positive values associated with this, and I personally agree with many of the values of this philosophy. However, it should be noted that there are often attacks on this philosophy from those who tend to advocate for the possibility of social decisions to control or limit individual freedoms. The reasons necessitating control can come from many places, but for the purposes of this newsletter, I’ll focus on the type of control advocated by the next political philosophy of focus, leftism.

leftism

Leftism is a philosophy with a focus on reducing or eliminating inequality in material conditions and power.2 This ideology is named after a historical accident of which side of the room the members of the French legislature happened to sit who supported greater equality. This philosophy proposes that the world would operate better if imbalances in power and material conditions were abolished. In many ways, this philosophy shares important similarities with liberalism. However, important to leftism is that the means by which inequality is abolished doesn’t have any firm restrictions placed on it, as the ultimate goal is the equality itself. There are many positive aspects associated with leftism, but it should be pointed out that inherent in this “ism” is an assumption that society should have the right to take from those who may have accumulated more power or wealth to redistribute that more equitably. That this type of control over the individual is justifiable by society is the main point of contention between this philosophy and that of liberalism, mentioned above.

In full disclosure, it might be apparent from the title of this blog that leftism is the ideology to which I most closely align. Though I will point out that leftism as a philosophy can allow certain somewhat extremist manifestations that I personally oppose.

socialism and capitalism

Another way to define this debate can use the terms socialism and capitalism. In another post I will address how socialism and capitalism are similar and different from leftism and liberalism, but for now if you are more familiar with those terms you can roughly equate leftism with socialism and liberalism with capitalism.

Isms can be implemented in different ways

Now, that we’ve established the definitions and goals of these philosophies, it’s important to point out that under the umbrella of each philosophy there are many, many ways to go about carrying out those goals. To make an analogy, the philosophy is like a location you want to get to, and the implementation is the mode of transit you can use to get there. Some modes of transit will work, some may be unethical, some may not have been invented yet, but despite those constraints on implementation, where you want to go is still the same. To make this more concrete, lets look at how these two philosophies have been interpreted in different times and places.

For liberalism, there can be major differences in how freedom can be implemented. In classical liberalism, a state government establishes the rules of law that define the parameters in which freedom is defined. As another more extreme implementation, called anarcho-capitalism is a form of liberalism where even the rule of law is established by free contracts between private companies. Clearly these two manifestations are both consistent in their preeminent focus on individual freedom, despite having wildly different implementations and outcomes.

As another more subtle example of differences in implementation of liberalism, there are still different definitions of what protected freedoms should exist in different liberal parts of the world. For example, in the United States, it is believed that everyone has a fundamental right to privacy, even going so far as to allow people the right not to be forced to testify under our fifth amendment to the constitution. This right does not exist in the definitions of liberalism in other countries3.

For leftism, the space of possibilities is also very broad. Leftists throughout the world have managed to create governmental programs like social security in the US or the NHS in the UK that pool resources from everyone and redistribute services to everyone in society in an equitable manner. However, there are other forms of leftism that have advocated for doing away with accumulated private property entirely, such in certain Latin American communist countries. Similarly, there are also subtler variations among leftist implementations. As an example, the socialized healthcare in the UK is organized through a centrally run health system, while in Germany, only the payment system is centralized with hospitals managing their own care.4

Given the wide breadth of manifestations of these philosophies it becomes incredibly hard to argue the merit of the philosophy itself using specific implementations. Furthermore, in practical settings the implementations that come into existence often end up being mixtures from many different political philosophies. For this reason, it can be crucial to clearly distinguish the philosophy from the implementation.

Choose your ism based on your goals

Now we come to the main reason I’m writing this. I believe that political philosophies offer a way to decide your alignment on the philosophical goals without muddying the process with particular implementations. In this way, even if you disagree with every practical implementation of a philosophy throughout history, you can still call yourself a supporter of the philosophy’s goals. This isn’t just a thought experiment though. The reason this is important is because labeling your philosophical beliefs is an important measurable signal of what you actually want the world to look like. In addition, identifying yourself out loud with a philosophy can help you identify others who you wish to learn and develop ideas with.

For example, when deciding which political party you want to support in an election, it’s wise to make your decision not just on goals, but on things like feasibility of achieving goals in a well-defined time-frame. However, that doesn’t mean you have to change your political philosophy to match what is feasible. You can still be a leftist even if you decide that you must vote for a liberal in a two-party system or use earnings from investments to donate to a non-profit for system change. You can even still be a liberal if your source of survival is the social safety net.

So in summary, I encourage you to look at the core goals of each philosophy, decide what you find the most important, and decide where you align from there. Then once you know what you want, you can get to work discussing and helping with the implementation.

1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberalism

2

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left-wing_politics

3

https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/87224/whats-the-equivalent-phrase-in-the-uk-for-i-plead-the-fifth

4

https://www.aidan.co.uk/german-and-british-health-system-compared/