Last week’s post on political economy attracted plenty of disagreement. Now of course this came as no surprise, and it was also not exactly surprising that most of the disagreement took the shape of strident claims that I’d used the wrong definition of socialism. That’s actually worth addressing here, because it will help clear the ground for this week’s discussion.
The definition I used, for those who weren’t here last week, is that socialism is the system of political economy in which the means of production are owned by the national government. Is that the only possible definition of socialism, or the only definition that’s ever been used? Of course not. The meanings of words are not handed down from on high by God or somebody; the meanings of words are always contested among competing points of view, and when a word has become as loaded with raw emotions as the word “socialism” has, you can bet that every one of the definitions you’ll be offered is slanted in one direction or another.
That’s just as true of the definition I’ve offered, of course, as it is of any other. I want to talk about who owns the means of production in society, since this is arguably the most important issue in political economy, and it so happens that socialism, capitalism, and many other systems can be defined quite neatly in this way. A century ago, when it was still acceptable to talk about systems of political economy other than capitalism and socialism, the definition I’ve proposed was one of the most common. You don’t hear it very often now, and there’s a reason for that.
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