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“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

– Through the Looking Glass

Lawrence Lessig has written a lengthy retort to Kevin Kelly’s article, which I just wrote about, describing the open-source movement as a form of socialism. Lessig, leading theorist of the open-source movement and a respectable legal scholar (whom I’ve blogged about here), says no way, but his argument, which he admits is a “rant,” is as sloppy as he accuses Kelly of being.

Lessig’s argument is essentially that one cannot redefine a word at will:

“Words have meaning. We don’t get to choose their meaning. If you call something “X” people will hear the equation. They won’t read the fine-print which says (“By X, I mean really not-X).”

and that the word “socialism” has a clear meaning and Kelly’s redefinition of it plays into the wrong hands. Kelly’s “sloppiness” here, as he calls it,

“has serious political consequences. When a founder of the movement which we all now celebrate calls this movement ‘socialist,’ that plays right in the hand of those would attack everything this movement has built. [...] I do think that now is not the time to engage in a playful redefinition of a term that has such a distinctive and clear sense. Whatever ‘socialism’ could have become, had it not been hijacked by revolutions in the east, what it is in the minds of 95% of America is not what Wikipedia is.”

The irony here is that Lessig writes as if he hasn’t a clue of the historical meaning of the word “socialism” beyond its use as an epithet by American conservatives. He is, in effect, choosing the meaning of a word even as he diallows others from doing that. “At the core of socialism,” he writes, “is coercion”:


“Coercive government action is — IMHO — a necessary condition of something being ‘socialism.’ [...] But if you’re calling something ‘socialist,’ then a requirement for using that term correctly — meaning in the way it is understood at least by people who don’t take the time to read a 3,500 word essay that redefines the term — is to be able to point to the coercive state action that produces the thing you’re talking about.”

Okay, so how should socialism be defined? The Merriam Webster Dictionary refers to “collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods,” but says nothing about “coercion.” Most socialists define it as a system in which the means of production are owned collectively by society (thus the “social” of the -ism) and managed for the good of all, not by private individuals or groups who are in a position to control and exploit others. Einstein describes it as a way of “overcom[ing] and advanc[ing] beyond the predatory phase of human development.” The Socialist International, which includes over 170 parties and organizations from around the world including Britain’s governing Labour Party, France’s formerly governing Socialist Party, and many others that have governed at national and state levels, defines its unifying “vision” as that of “a peaceful and democratic world society combining freedom, justice and solidarity.”

Of course, socialism has gotten a bad rep because some of its representatives have taken an authoritarian route to implementing those goals, or at least goals that they have described as “socialist.” But if socialism is essentially about coercion, as Lessig suggests, what do we make of the 170 democratic socialist parties (representing an awful lot of people) around the world? What do we do with “libertarian socialists” — whose philosophical position can be critiqued as unrealistic, but whose historical pedigree is longstanding, from many of the utopian socialists who gave the word its meaning in the nineteenth century to prominent social critics like Noam Chomsky today?

Lessig seems to equate socialism with coercion and capitalism with freedom from coercion, which tells us he’s probably unaware of the ways in which the system of private property rights that we call capitalism was built, in part, by “enclosing” and expropriating the “commons” and evicting those who had lived and worked on them (“commoners”), forcing them to find work in the cities of early modern and industrializing England. Those who resisted these land enclosures — with picks and shovels, in the case of Gerald Winstanley’s Diggers — are the ones traditionally considered “socialists.” Where was the coercion then? There is no inherent equation of capitalism with democracy or freedom, other than the freedom for individuals to own things that didn’t used to be owned at all. There have been authoritarian and libertarian forms of both (Pinochet’s Chile being the best example of authoritarian capitalism, today’s China being second best), and there have been egalitarian and highly inegalitarian forms of both. At its origins, socialism began as a critique of the inequality that grew to grotesque proportions in industrial capitalism.

My point isn’t that the meanings of words don’t change; they do. Nor is it that socialism is good and capitalism is bad. Both come in many shapes and sizes; both have strengths and weaknesses; and the most (socially) advanced nations today tend to have mixed economies with features of both. But Lessig’s siding with those in the US who define a basic political term as inaccurately as this is a politically convenient move that may be riskier, and more wrong, in the long run than Kelly’s argument. Kevin Kelly need not cave in to this particular rant; he is actually right on this point.

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