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Richard D. Wolff: What is Politics? What are Conservatives, Liberals, Socialists and Communists? | acTVism Munich

A piggy bank represents economics
Written by JoAnn Chateau

What are we really talking about when we use political terms like Conservative, Liberal, Socialist and Communist? It’s mostly about the piggy bank. Prof. Richard D. Wolff gives a brief summary of the economic “rules” that distinguish these political perspectives.

A Continuum of Political & Economic “Rules”

As Wolff explains, these four political systems may be distinguished by their economic “rules.” It’s about the degree of involvement that occurs between politics and Capitalism.

  • Conservatives – The Capitalist economic system is sacrosanct. Example: No minimum wage.
  • Liberals – They make some rules to regulate Capitalism. Example: Minimum wage required.
  • Socialists – They regulate Capitalism a lot. Example: Both minimum and maximum wages are set.
  • Communists – No Capitalism. They want a different economic system. Example: Government owned enterprises.

All the political systems listed above endorse political democracy. Can you see which systems may also allow economic democracy — in the workplace, for instance? In what different ways might these political and economic systems utilize checks and balances to temper power, to manage inequality, to preserve the public commons?

As I look at the list, from Conservatives to Communists, it is obvious which political systems rest on the extreme ends of the continuum. That is something to think about.

For instance, Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders (whom some say is not a “real” socialist), lands in the exact middle of the continuum — making Sanders the most balanced politician on American soil.

Where do your political favorites fall on the continuum?

Know what it means.


About the author

JoAnn Chateau

JoAnn Chateau likes progressive politics and loves the canines. She sometimes writes fiction about Chester (the Alpha Bichon) and his friends -- with a dash of humor and dab of Poli-Sci. JoAnn's views and insights are tinted by her past profession in Counseling, Christian theological studies, and Library and Information Science training. Retired now, JoAnn enjoys the creative life.


  • Both comments are right on. Robert explained the (confusing to too many people) differences in systems very well and JoAnn, you explained how these ideas, though technically different, actually overlap in a way that creates huge grey areas and confuses far too many intellectually lazy people.

    When people complain to me that modern society is very complicated and that it’s close to impossible to stay on top of important issues I tell them: “Well then, simplify. We don’t all need a huge house, a few personal vehicles, a television the size of a pool table, huge closets full of overpriced clothes, animal products to eat every day and all the other items of modern life that so many people have learned they can’t live without.”

    Almost without exception, I get a confused look followed by a frown, then a bit of a grimace.

    Since I’ve been on the road for a while and travel by trains and buses, I rarely have internet access these days, and when I do, I’m unable to view videos. I’ll have to get back to this video. However, I thoroughly enjoyed your summary, JoAnn.

    Also, I haven’t obeyed our masters. My iPad is second hand and very old. So my wait time for loading is somewhere around the late 1990s and early 2000s. 😆

    Great discussion. Peace.

  • Wolff is essentially correct, economic ideology does determine the political system. Although, his omission of fascism demands explanation. There is no ideology more antithetical to communism than fascism (a.k.a. conservatism on steroids).

    However, this nomenclature can be confusing. Capitalism, socialism, and communism define economic systems. Fascism, conservatism, liberalism, progressivism, and collectivism are philosophical constructs; that is, they are simply political ideologies. Monarchy, oligarchy, theocracy, democracy, republicanism, dictatorship, and totalitarianism represent political systems. For example:

    Both Nazi Germany (fascist, capitalistic) and the U.S.S.R. (collectivist, communist) utilized totalitarian political systems.
    The U.S. is a constitutional republic, whereas the U.K. is a constitutional monarchy. Both are capitalistic and ideologically centrist in their politics.
    Sweden is also a constitutional monarchy, but is an example of more liberal/progressive European politics (a.k.a “social democracies”).
    Iran is a theocratic republic where the rule of law must conform to the precepts of Islam as defined by its Shiite majority.

    Because there are no examples of direct democracies, the actual practice of democracy is extremely variable. Generally speaking, the more authoritarian the political system, the less it is democratic.

    • Political, economic, and ideological systems are certainly multi-layered subjects and tend to overlap quite a bit. Thanks for bringing some focus to the big picture, Robert.

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