On The Psychology and Language of Power

The language of contemporary politics, and of politics in general, is fascinating to me. Mainstream politics, particularly in the media, seems to be filled with deceptive and meaningless verbiage. There are a lot of buzzwords meant to spark an emotional reaction in people, and the meaning of certain terms has flip-flopped to almost their polar opposite over the course of the decades and centuries (for example, the term liberalism used to signify a dedication to individual liberty, while in contemporary politics it is almost completely detached from its original meaning, and simply means someone associated with the Democratic party or someone with a vague set of ideas associated with "the left"). There are also a lot of false dichotomies that try to force us to choose between two irrational positions (liberal/conservative, republican/democrat, capitalist/socialist, and so on).

Political power, particularly in our modern sham democracies, seems to be dependant on such an abuse of language in order to control the ideological atmosphere. Political identity is largely constructed on the basis of preconcieved and ill-defined terms. Political philosophy is not discussed in any significant manner, everything is more or less reduced to a matter of petty identity politics. It's all about appealing to cultural preferances. The appeal to emotion and short-term or more petty personal interests is common. And words that typically have a positive connotation are used to get people to support politicians and win them over to certain specific ideologies. Even a perfectly good word like "freedom" can be used as a weapon to justify tyranny.

George Bush and Dick Cheney are perfect examples of this, with their justification of mass-violence in the name of freedom. I favor freedom, but it doesn't follow that I should favor them and their policies. Barack Obama is another example of this, with his justification for his authority by appealing to "hope" and "change". I have hope and want change, but it doesn't follow that I should favor Obama and his policies. These are perfect examples of the abuse of language as a weapon. I can have totally irrational premises, and bully someone with phrases such as "the truth", "morality", "the good", "the people", "the workers", "personal responsibility", and so on, as my authority to get them to agree or comply with me.

Consequentially, modern politics seems to have devolved into a confusing haze of words and signs that don't have much of a context or any significant content to them. Power elites can justify just about anything they want in the name of good-sounding things. And even then, sometimes the assumption that these good-sounding things are so good in the grand scheme of things isn't quite accurate. Appeals to things like national entity and altruism are essentially meaningless to me. So I come to reject even many of the phrases and concepts that are relied on. I reject the implicit assumptions of mainstream politics, and am unfortunately lead into a cynical attitude when I see the masses hooray for such things.

Being somewhat of an adherant of analytical philosophy, clarity is an important thing to me, and it seems like most political language completely undermines clarity. Everything breaks down into vast overgeneralizations and arbitrary categories that noone could possibly fit into as an absolute. Assumptions are made about people's beliefs based on a few terms they use, which ends up being a strawman. For example, if I talk about "free markets", some might assume I'm just some sort of Republican or conservative. I'm actually very hostile to conservatism. Or if I express concerns about corporate power and racism, some might assume I'm some kind of Marxist and politically correct. I'm actually very hostile to Marx. In a sense, mainstream politics has stolen perfectly good words and taken them out of context. In another sense, it has invented new words that we are forced to accept as a way to categorize ourselves. This confusion has to stop. Clarity is called for.

Published Tue, Feb 17 2009 7:20 AM by Brainpolice


# Thedesolateone said on 17 February, 2009 06:51 AM

Capitalism an irrational position?

# Brainpolice said on 17 February, 2009 09:14 AM

Define your terms.

# Brainpolice said on 17 February, 2009 10:23 AM

Where did you get that impression? No, I'm not an anarcho-syndicalist. I don't see how that follows from anything I've said.

# Brainpolice said on 17 February, 2009 10:25 AM

As for the term "capitalism", if anything, the people here should know exactly what I'm talking about. George Bush calls himself a "capitalist", as do tons of interventionists. The conception of "capitalism" in mainstream politics is that "capitalism" is the status quo. There is endless semantic confusion over the word. If you call yourself a "capitalist", many people knee-jerkedly associate you with support for a corporate state. This just reinforces the basic point of my post here.

# nirgrahamUK said on 17 February, 2009 01:56 PM

but George Bush is lying/mistaken when he calls himself a capitalist. people dont always announce what they truly are. many thieves in front of judges say 'not guilty' but thats just a claim.....

# Just wondering said on 17 February, 2009 02:32 PM

I was just curious, sheesh.

As far as capitalism goes, anything that produces goods or services can be used as "capital." People and tools are both uses of capital.

But you can have free-market capital or state-sponsored capital...I'm assuming you're the latter? (Again just wondering because I'm relatively new to reading your material).

# Brainpolice said on 17 February, 2009 03:05 PM

NirgrahamUK: That's sort of exactly my point. These words have been eroded to meaninglessness. Any old joe with just about any old set of beliefs can apply these terms to themselves based on mere superficialities. I really wonder if the point of this blog post went over everyone's heads, which kind of proves the point of the article.

Just wondering: You're assuming I'm for state-sponsored capital?Where are you getting this? I am emphatically against state-capitalism. I'm an individualist anarchist or market anarchist!

# nirgrahamUK said on 17 February, 2009 03:11 PM

what is the diference between market anarchy and capitalism ?

more people have confused understandings of the latter than the former. but thats an accident of history. why not a campaign to REDEEM the meaning of the word, aligning the popular misconceptions with the proper usage.

# hayekianxyz said on 17 February, 2009 03:16 PM

Have you read Politics and the English Language by Orwell?

# Brainpolice said on 17 February, 2009 03:59 PM

"what is the diference between market anarchy and capitalism ?"

Generally, "capitalism" is a broader term applying to state-capitalist societies, with a state that establishes property titles. The use of the term "capitalism" to refer to statelessness is an obscure definition that didn't exist until Rothbard and a handful of Austrian economists associated with him decided to start using it that way. Even Mises and Rand did not use the term capitalism to describe a purely stateless economy.

You're merely shooting yourself in the foot by using the term to describe yourself. As I see the matter, a fetish for a word rather than concern for clarity in specific concepts is not healthy. The term "capitalism" is never going to be reedemed, and it never initially meant what anarcho-capitalists use it to mean. The anarcho-capitalist definition is ahistorical and just confuses people.

# Solomon said on 17 February, 2009 04:09 PM

You speak the truth, BP.

The reason behind the obfuscatory nature of political language is, of course, because without it the state could not sustain itself.

# nirgrahamUK said on 17 February, 2009 04:15 PM

fine i wil abandon the use of all terminology that my ideological enemies misrepresent. i will be constantly on the defence. i will coin new words to mean the precise things i want them to mean, then when they are filtered through the minds of socialist and they come to adopt a different common usage i will start over, and on , ad infinitum

# Brainpolice said on 17 February, 2009 04:30 PM

This isn't about mere slogans, nirgrahamuk. You're still thinking in terms of a mere blanket label. My point is that you should specifically outline what you support to people (which is going to entail a whole slew of specific concepts and how they relate), not just simply say "I'm an X" and expect them to know what you mean.

# Brainpolice said on 17 February, 2009 04:41 PM

If you are going to call yourself a "capitalist", you should at least very specifically outline what you mean by that. Understanding isn't created by merely labeling yourself with a short maxim or term, and then stopping there. You need to have specific discussions with people in a socratic manner in order to get them to better understand your position.

# Thedesolateone said on 17 February, 2009 05:33 PM

I'm sure most people here have articulated their conception of "capitalism" quite thoroughly.

Moreover, I was under the impressive it was defined in the dictionary as "private ownership of the means of production". Taken plainly, that implies a free market with private property a.k.a. anarcho-capitalism.

# Brainpolice said on 17 February, 2009 06:22 PM

Even the definition of "capitalism" as "private ownership of the means of production" is vague enough to encompass both anarcho-capitalist and state-capitalist interpretations. We certainly largely have an economy that involves "private ownership of the means of production", yet there is also state ownership and a degree of synergy between the state and private owners. So even these definitions alone don't suffice from my perspective.

# Brainpolice said on 17 February, 2009 06:27 PM

State-capitalism perfectly fits the vague definition of "capitalism" as "private ownership of the means of production", with a state in place to protect it. "Private ownership of the means of production" by itself doesn't even say anything about the details of property theory and a theory of justice in general. So things need to be even more specific than that.

# nirgrahamUK said on 17 February, 2009 06:40 PM

no state-capitalism can be ejected as an oxymoron, as the state necessarily contradicts the ethic of private property and imposes a deadweight loss

# Brainpolice said on 17 February, 2009 07:08 PM

"no state-capitalism can be ejected as an oxymoron, as the state necessarily contradicts the ethic of private property and imposes a deadweight loss"

This is the exact same line of argument that communists use to say that state-communism is an oxymoron, since it doesn't represent their ideal of a stateless classless society. Rothbard himself used the term state-capitalism, btw, to distinguish a corporate state from a genuine free market.

You need to define things more specifically. "Private ownership of the means of production", as a standalone statement, says nothing about concepts like free competition, it says nothing about the criterion for just ownership, it says nothing about the relation of the state to private property. It says zilch about the specifics of property theory.

I disagree with the statement that the state necessarily contradicts private property. The state can be used as an instrument to uphold particular private property claims. In fact, this is the default of what actually existing "capitalism" has always been, with a state in place to legally define private property titles. You can also have a private state, I.E. monarchy.

# Brainpolice said on 17 February, 2009 07:16 PM

There is nothing intrinsic to the fact that a given example of property is "private" that necessarily means that it is consistant with more specific and relevant libertarian concepts such as the non-aggression principle and personal sovereignty.

There is nothing intrinsic to the fact that a given individual is a "private owner" that their behavior with that property and their methods of obtaining and maintaining that property is consistant with a specifically libertarian concept of justice.

Oversimplifying things to a mere vague reverance for "private property", without much in the way of a context, is to obfuscate some more precise and complex issues involved in a libertarian social theory.

# nirgrahamUK said on 17 February, 2009 07:18 PM

you must admit it cant protect some property claims without riding roughshod over others, be it through taxation to fund its activity, or the prohibiting of other firms from providing justice services.

# Brainpolice said on 17 February, 2009 07:22 PM

"you must admit it cant protect some property claims without riding roughshod over others, be it through taxation to fund its activity, or the prohibiting of other firms from providing justice services."

I never argued otherwise. But you're missing the point, which is that the general and vague notion of "private ownership of the means of production" or "private property" (as a mere descriptor in particular) does not inherently contradict the Weberian definition of a state.

# Brainpolice said on 17 February, 2009 07:37 PM

In other words, without a sufficient libertarian social theory and definition of one's terms, the vague phrase "private property" or "private ownership of the means of production" can imply or be used to mean a whole slew of things that involve statism. The state could define "private property" and legally construct the distribution of "private property" titles, and hence we'd have state-capitalism. Or, alternatively, the state itself could be constructed on the basis of a "private property" claim, which is really just inherited stolen property, and hence we'd have monarchy.

# Brainpolice said on 17 February, 2009 07:51 PM

The process or category of state-socialism is what occurs when, from such a point onwards, the state's own property claims expand. Fascism is what occurs when state and corporate power merge from that power onwards. State-communism is what occurs when this goes to the extreme, with defacto state ownership over virtually everything.

Most western nations are either state-capitalist/state-socialist hybrids (centrist statism or interventionism, often with a fascistic element) or fairly state-socialist but not communist.

# Brainpolice said on 17 February, 2009 07:58 PM

In a sense, the all-powerful communist state is the ultimate end of the path of state-capitalism. Initially, state-capitalism might be something comparatively benign, like minarchism (as defined by either Rand or Mises, or in more moderate form as defined by Constitutionalists and many earlier classical liberals). But as the general trend of power to consolodate continues, buisiness and state tend to slowly begin to merge, and the state itself begins to expand its legal domain (based on territorial monopoly) and the powers that this legal domain entails. When we get to the point when business and state have merged to the point where they are hardly distinguishable, we've reached the point of state-communism.

# nirgrahamUK said on 17 February, 2009 08:05 PM

one could argue that without appropriate definitions of rationality, genetics, animals, etc. one cant bandy about the word 'human being'. but one would be annoying and ridiculous.

# Brainpolice said on 17 February, 2009 08:57 PM

There's nothing annoying and ridiculous about this, it's about fleshing out a rational elaboration on libertarianism that is consistant and specific.

# nirgrahamUK said on 18 February, 2009 02:50 AM

wait, you just used 'libertarianism' without defining hundreds of interrelated terms and presenting a thorough context for me to understand it. so im going to need to deride and ignore your last comment post.

thats the way brainpolice told me to do things.

# Brainpolice said on 18 February, 2009 11:45 AM

Now you're simply being a ridiculous antagonist.

# nirgrahamUK said on 18 February, 2009 12:00 PM

earlier on thats what you were being.

hoisted on your own petard?

# eliotn said on 03 March, 2009 01:33 PM

Very good article.

It would be interesting to add some refrence to a book like "The Giver" or "1984".  In it, terms are distorted to control the people.  For example, people use the term "release" to mean "death", and certain language is restricted, like "love", to prevent people from knowing about it.

# Voluminous Xylophones said on 20 March, 2009 01:11 PM

Brainpolice, have you heard of "English-Prime" (E-Prime)? I just recently discovered it, and it has already caused a bit of a revolution in my thinking. I urge you (and anyone reading this) to give it an honest try. I think it will do wonders to clarify not only your writing, but (perhaps more importantly), your thinking. It has caused me to rethink not only my communication style, but my very beliefs (for the better, I think).

You'll probably want to start with the Wikipedia article: en.wikipedia.org/.../E-Prime

But PLEASE also read the following: www.xenodochy.org/.../e-prime.html

I quickly noticed, as you may, that the ability to "cheat" by adhering to the E-Prime "rules" while ignoring their intent could render the whole thing pointless. So pay particularly close attention to the second link, and refer back to it often.

I think you would benefit from E-Prime. I don't mean that as criticism; I think your writing would really shine through the E-Prime lens. Even if you think it sounds hokey, give it a shot. Try it for a day, then if it hasn't killed you, try a week, then a month. I bet you'll find it so beneficial that you'll adopt it permanently, at least in writing if not everyday speech (I find the latter a bit too much, personally).

The following tool might help you get a feel for rewording things (but remember that it checks only the letter, not the spirit of the "laws"): www.manifestation.com/.../eprime.pl

If you find that you love E-Prime and want to hone your writing even more, then "P-Prime" might also interest you (I haven't tackled it yet; I've only just got started with E-Prime!): www.lhup.edu/.../pprime.htm

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