More Than Words

22 Feb
Last week, I wrote a pretty lengthy post about capitalism, but I’m still sceptical about a lot of modern socio-economic practices, so I thought I’d do a bit of comparative reading. I read a chunk of the “Communist Manifesto” by Marx and Engels, since that seemed like an obvious contrast. And, just out of curiosity, I also read some of Mikhael Bakunin’s writing on Anarchism ( I highly recommend reading both!)
It was pretty cool to be able to compare Capitalism with Communism with Anarchism, and each reading challenged my values and assumptions in different ways. I found that all three readings were highly persuasive and pertinent to current political movements. Each author had their own proposal for driving societal change, but many of their values and goals were similar. Although discussions of left-wing vs. right-wing policies tend to be highly polarized, the truly powerful discussion points come from the areas of commonality. I could summarize each work, and draw out a comparison of similarities and differences, but I’d rather just show you:
(For those unfamiliar with Wordle: relative size of words = frequency of the word in a particular text)
Wordle created from text sample of  Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations"
Wordle created from text sample of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”
Wordle created from Ch.2 of the “Communist Manifesto”
Wordle created from text sample of  Mikhail Bakunin's "Where I Stand"
Wordle created from text sample of Mikhail Bakunin’s “Where I Stand”
Here’s what I see when I look at these graphics together:
Each writer has their own favourite ideas and words, which are repeated frequently, and therefore dominate our understanding of their work. But, if we look at the less pushy underlying themes, there are a number of shared trends in their ideas and values. For instance, the words society/humanity/mankind  appear with moderate frequency, alongside the words development/progress/improvement  in all three works. This shows how, as a part of their proposals for new economic and social orders, each author expressed their concerns for the greater well-being of society. Another trend worth noting, is the way in which these works discuss society in terms of  resources and control, with words such as: capital, property, ideas, labour, people/man, equality, freedom, organization, division, production, and exploitation. These are all words of power and ownership, but not explicitly “money”; it is as if each author tacitly acknowledges that what a person can buy (money) is not nearly as important as what a person controls (power).
All three works propose that there will be greater stability and contentment within a society, if members of the society are provided with equal opportunity, are able to meet their own needs as a result of their own labour, and are allowed to contribute in the ways they are best suited to. When there is extreme disparity of opportunity, power, and wealth within the hierarchies of a society, it is detrimental to the progress of the society as a whole, and creates instability and the desire for revolution.
These conclusions are necessarily over-simplified, but I want to emphasize that all of these men had similar goals and hopes for humankind. What distinguished them were the methods that they advocated for, and the words that they chose to express their ideologies. The three philosophies have been implemented in various powerful ways throughout history. They have motivated and influenced many people, and are still quite relevant today, but they have also led to some terrible outcomes. They show the great power that words can have, and are proof that rhetorical flourishes can change the course of history. However, the real-world outcomes of these ideas remind us that persuasion is not equivalent to proof.
We are at a point in history where we need to move away from paradigms of ideology and subjective values. In the 21st century, big ideas need to be supported by data, not just eloquent arguments. This is especially true for development work, where the livelihoods of vulnerable communities are at stake.
This is a topic for another post, but I just want to touch on why using data and scientific thought processes are EWB-relevant and important for international development: 1)Data can help us to understand the complex systems we operate within, and reveal unexpected relationships and power dynamics. An interesting example of this is “The Network of Global Corporate Control“, which examines how the structure of the control network of transnational corporations affects global market competition and financial stability. 2) Evidence-based decision making allows us to design more effective solutions based on past projects and experiences, so that benefits are maximized, and harmful failures are minimized. For an example from the education system, check out “4 surprising lessons about education learned from data collected around the world“.
To sum up, I am finding it useful to read the works of political theorists from the past because it challenges my assumptions, provides insight into how our existing systems were formed, and highlights important lessons we have learned since the initial ideas were put forth. All three of these works were fascinating to read, but they also reminded me of why it’s important to look further than the eloquent opinions of privileged, white men, for facts and alternative perspectives.
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