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The language of capitalism isn’t just annoying, it’s dangerous

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When General Motors laid off more than 6,000 workers days after Thanksgiving, John Patrick Leary, the author of the new book Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism, tweeted out part of GM CEO Mary Barra’s statement. “The actions we are taking today continue our transformation to be highly agile, resilient, and profitable, while giving us the flexibility to invest in the future,” she said. Leary added a line of commentary to of Barra’s statement: “Language was pronounced dead at the scene.”

Why should we pay attention to the particular words used to describe, and justify, the regularly scheduled “disruptions” of late capitalism? Published last week by Haymarket Books, Leary’s Keywords explores the regime of late-capitalist language: a set of ubiquitous modern terms, drawn from the corporate world and the business press, that he argues promulgate values friendly to corporations (hierarchy, competitiveness, the unquestioning embrace of new technologies) over those friendly to human beings (democracy, solidarity, and scrutiny of new technologies’ impact on people and the planet).

These words narrow our conceptual horizons — they “manacle our imagination,” Leary writes — making it more difficult to conceive alternative ways of organizing our economy and society. We are encouraged by powerful “thought leaders” and corporate executives to accept it as the language of common sense or “normal reality.” When we understand and deploy such language to describe our own lives, we’re seen as good workers; when we fail to do so, we’re implicitly threatened with economic obsolescence. After all, if you’re not conversant in “innovation” or “collaboration,” how can you expect to thrive in this brave new economy?

Leary, an English professor at Wayne State University, brings academic rigor to this linguistic examination. Unlike the many people who casually employ the phrase “late capitalism” as a catch-all explanation for why our lives suck, Leary defines the term and explains why he chooses to use it. Calling our current economic system “late capitalism”suggests that, despite our gleaming buzzwords and technologies, what we’re living through is just the next iteration of an old system of global capitalism. In other words, he writes, “cheer up: things have always been terrible!” What is new, Leary says, quoting Marxist economic historian Ernest Mandel, is our “belief in the omnipotence of technology” and in experts. He also claims that capitalism is expanding at an unprecedented rate into previously uncommodified geographical, cultural, and spiritual realms.

Keywords was inspired by a previous work of a similar name: the Welsh Marxist theorist Raymond Williams’s 1976 book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Williams’s goal, like Leary’s, was to encourage readers to become “conscious and critical” readers and listeners, to see the language of our everyday lives “not a tradition to be learned, nor a consensus to be accepted, [but as] . . . a vocabulary to use, to find our own ways in, to change as we find it necessary to change it, as we go on making our own language and history.” Words gain their power not only from the class position of their speakers: they depend on acquiescence by the listeners. Leary takes aim at the second half of that equation, working to break the spell of myths that ultimately serve the elites. “If we understood… [these words] better,” Leary writes, “perhaps we might rob them of their seductive power.”

To that end, Leary offers a lexicon of about 40 late capitalist “keywords,” from “accountability” to “wellness.” Some straddle the work-life divide, like “coach.” Using simple tools — the Oxford English Dictionary, Google’s ngram database, and media coverage of business and the economy— Leary argues that each keyword presents something basically indefensible about late capitalist society in a sensible, neutral, and even uplifting package.

Take “grit,” a value championed by charter school administrators, C-suite execs, and Ted Talkers. On the surface, there’s nothing objectionable about insisting that success comes from hard work sustained in spite of challenges, failure, and adversity. It can even seem like an attractive idea: who doesn’t want to believe, as author of the bestselling Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance Angela Duckworth puts it, that success rests “more on our passion and perseverance than on our innate talent” — or the race and income of our parents?

What discussions of “grit” scrupulously avoid, Leary writes, is “the obviously central fact of the economy”: poverty. Duckworth and other proponents of grit nod to the limited horizon of opportunity presented to those living in poverty, but insist that grit can help people “defy the odds.” Implicitly, they accept that most will fail to do so: they simply promise elevation to the hard-working, the deserving, the grittiest — that is, to the very few.

“Grit offers an explanation for what exists,” Leary writes, “rather than giving us tools to imagine something different.” Rather than attacking the conditions that make “grit” necessary, the word’s proponents ask women, people of color, and the poor to overcompensate for the unjust world into which they’ve been born. While the need for “grit” is most often preached to urban schoolchildren and people in poverty, its “real audience,” Leary writes, is “perched atop the upper levels of our proverbial ladder,” a position from which inequality doesn’t look so bad.

Leary divides his keywords into four broad categories: first is “late-capitalist body talk,” which imbues corporations with the attributes of human bodies, like nimbleness or flexibility, and shifts focus away from the real human bodies whose labor generates its profits. “Much of the language of late capitalism,” Leary writes, “imagines workplaces as bodies in virtually every way except as a group of overworked or underpaid ones.”

Then there’s the “moral vocabulary of late capitalism,” which often uses words with older, religious meanings; Leary cites a nineteenth-century poem that refers to Jesus as a “thought leader.” These moral values, Leary says, are generally taken to be indistinguishable from economic ones. “Passion,” for example, is prized for its value to your boss: if you love what you do, you’ll work harder and demand less compensation. Some are words, like “artisanal,” that reflect capitalism’s absorption of the countercultural critique that it failed to provide workers with a sense of purpose and autonomy. Finally, there is the category of words that reflexively celebrate the possibilities of new technologies, like “smart”: smart fridge, smart toaster, smart toilet.

As Leary shows, these keywords reflect and shore up the interests of the dominant class. For the tech overlords of Silicon Valley, an “entrepreneur” is someone innovative and savvy, who “moves fast and breaks things.” The entrepreneur alone creates his company’s exorbitant wealth — not his workers, nor any taxpayers who may fund the innovations his company sells. (Elon Musk, for example, has received nearly $5 million in government subsidies). It’s a very useful concept for billionaires: after all, why redistribute that wealth, through taxes or higher wages, to those who didn’t create it?

In these short essays, Leary undermines what Soviet linguist Valentin Voloshinov describes as the aim of the dominant class: to “impart an…eternal character to the ideological sign, to extinguish or drive inward the struggle between social value judgements which occurs in it. ” And in the case of “entrepreneur,” for example, Leary shows that quite a lot of struggle between social judgements is contained in the word.

First defined around 1800 by French economist Jean-Baptiste Say as one who “shifts economic resources . . . into an area of higher productivity and greater yield,” the word was given a dramatically different inflection by political economist Joseph Schumpeter. According to Leary, our contemporary view of entrepreneurship comes from Schumpeter, who believed that the entrepreneur was “the historical agent for capitalism’s creative, world-making turbulence.” When we talk about “entrepreneurs” with an uncritical acceptance, we implicitly accept Schumpeter’s view that wealth was created by entrepreneurs via a process of innovation and creative destruction — rather than Marx’s belief that wealth is appropriated to the bourgeois class by exploitation.

By demonstrating how dramatically these words’ meanings have transformed, Leary suggests that they might change further, that the definitions put in place by the ruling class aren’t permanent or beyond dispute. As he explores what our language has looked like, and the ugliness now embedded in it, Leary invites us to imagine what our language could emphasize, what values it might reflect. What if we fought “for free time, not ‘flexibility’; for free health care, not ‘wellness’; and for free universities, not the ‘marketplace of ideas”?

His book reminds us of the alternatives that persist behind these keywords: our managers may call us as “human capital,” but we are also workers. We are also people. “Language is not merely a passive reflection of things as they are,” Leary writes. “[It is] also a tool for imagining and making things as they could be.”

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India’s VIP culture: Forget Lincoln’s definition of democracy. India’s government is of VIPs, by VIPs and for VIPs

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Last week, the Madras high court ordered the National Highways Authority of India to separate ordinary citizens from VIPs at toll gates, with a dedicated lane for the latter. Of course, high court judges are included in the list of VIPs. The court held it to be ‘disheartening’ and ‘very unfortunate’ that judges are ‘compelled to wait in the toll plaza for 10 to 15 minutes’.

NHAI decided to challenge the directive. One might have expected the judges to be rather more concerned that more than a million cases have been pending in 24 high courts across India for over a decade. According to CJI Dipak Misra, the total backlog of cases at all levels of the judiciary is a staggering 33 million! The impact of this delay should weigh a bit more heavily in the minds of the learned judges while they leave matters of administration in the hands of the executive branch of government.

Uday Deb

What is telling about the directive is the VIP mentality that has become part of the DNA of India’s ruling elite. Contrary to Abraham Lincoln’s famous definition of democracy, India has a government of VIPs, by VIPs and for VIPs. They do what they can, the people suffer what they must. In the heyday of European empires, colonial masters ruled imperiously over conquered subjects. During the Raj, the British class system fused seamlessly with India’s caste system to entrench social divisions even more rigidly.

After independence, India proudly declared itself a sovereign democratic republic and added the word ‘socialist’ in the Constitution. The central tenet of the four words taken together – sovereign, democratic, socialist, republic – is the sovereignty of the people. Politicians and officials are their servants. But as in other self-described socialist and communist paradises, India’s ruling elites captured all the privileges while the disempowered populace was saddled with poverty, scarcity and general misery.

The elite moved into the newly-vacated opulent bungalows of Lutyens’ New Delhi, even as the growing mass of destitute citizens lived in slums that sprang up along the city’s outskirts. Gradually political office became the fastest route to miraculous wealth acquisition and conspicuous consumption. In time the brazenness of privileged behaviour spread to an all-encompassing sense of entitlement as the political and bureaucratic elite, in that order, began to act like feudal overlords over citizens.

The more that the quality of public services (health, education, infrastructure) decayed and institutions were degraded and corrupted, the greater was the distance between the lifestyle of the closed circle of the elite and ordinary citizens. Inevitably this morphed into the VIP culture that Indians by and large detest with a depth of contempt, anger and resentment that is difficult for foreigners to fathom.

The Congress party bears particular responsibility for this sorry state of affairs as the party of government in New Delhi and most states after independence. One of the great attractions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election winning slogan of good governance in 2014 was it promised to restore the rightful balance in relations between citizens, officials and politicians. ‘Twas not to be. In this as in most other respects, the gap between boastful rhetoric and actual practice remains distressingly wide: the 56-inch chest has been overshadowed by a 96-inch tongue.

Modi has tried to lead by example in some respects and is not in the least bit ostentatious himself. Nor has he given any indication so far of abusing his office for private gain or mistreating citizens. But this was the defence that his predecessor Manmohan Singh adopted without success: that the sea of corruption in which so many of his ministers were drowning was no indictment of his performance, for he himself was squeaky clean.

Similarly, although Modi himself has not been seduced by the VIP culture, he has failed to assert himself against those from within his and allied parties who have very publicly abused their offices. Perhaps he did learn the trick of bathing with a raincoat from Dr Saheb after all.

An obvious display of VIP culture that strikes foreign visitors is the list, in full public display at airports, of more than 30 categories of VIPs exempt from pre-boarding security screening. And how else other than a deeply instilled VIP culture do we explain Shiv Sena’s MP Ravindra Gaikwad’s air rage last year when he boasted he’d used his slippers to hit a 60-year old Air India staffer 25 times?

In a civilised country Gaikwad would have been expelled from the party, charged with assault and lost his seat. The party would have moved quickly to apologise to the attendant and the people and promised that such appallingly thuggish behaviour is neither condoned by nor acceptable to the party. But not in India’s corrupted political culture. Instead, Shiv Sena threatened to disrupt air travel. The Centre capitulated to this mobster-like blackmail and ordered Air India to take Gaikwad off the no-fly-list. Throughout the highly publicised episode, Modi’s silence was as eloquent as his predecessor’s on maha-scandals.

Compare this to a notorious incident in Pakistan – supposedly a less robust democracy – where on 15 September 2014, former interior minister Rehman Malik held up a plane for two hours. When he finally boarded, angry passengers harangued him and refused to let the plane take off until he had been thrown off. A passenger uploaded a video of the incident to YouTube. Two weeks later he was sacked from his unrelated job but not before his video was widely shared and praised by a public sick to death of Pakistan’s VIP culture.

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Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into UP politics has sent political opponents into tizzy

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Conventional political wisdom, in the absence of credible caste Census data, classifies 52 per cent of the state’s population as ‘Backward Classes’, 18 per cent as Dalits, 5 per cent each of Brahmins and Thakurs and Muslims as 17 per cent of the people. Smaller castes and sub castes are said to constitute the remaining three per cent.

The caste cauldron of eastern Uttar Pradesh has witnessed Kurmis float the ‘Apna Dal’ and the Rajbhars forming the Bharat Samaj Party. Boatmen and fishermen in eastern UP also are clamouring for better representation in politics. They will want their pound of flesh and bargain hard for seats. The small parties have small pockets of influence but are said to be important. Some say they are more important in 2019 than they were in 2014. Can they win half a dozen seats on their own or play the spoiler and, if so, for whom?

Eastern Uttar Pradesh took an active part in the freedom struggle and has been a hot bed of politics for long. With the passage of time, people have become politically aware and have responded to leaders like Ram Manohar Lohia and Chaudhary Charan Singh in the past.

“But as you can imagine, this is a snakepit,” quips a regional Congress leader. “It is going to be an uphill task for Priyanka Ji. She has very little time, less than two months, before the general election and it would certainly require a Herculean effort on her part,” he quips.

But that she means business became evident in less than 48 hours of her arrival in Lucknow, when she, flanked by the general secretary in charge of western UP Jyotiraditya Scindia and Keshav Deo Maurya of Mahan Dal, announced a poll alliance with the small party active in western UP.

“I welcome Keshav Maurya ji. We will fight the elections jointly. Rahul ji has given us the task of creating a political atmosphere in which everyone is taken along and all sections of the society are represented,” Priyanka said. “We will contest with full might,” she asserted.

Predictably, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which desperately wants to ensure that it does not lose too many of the 71 constituencies it won in 2014, has reacted with disdain in public. But its growing concern at Priyanka Gandhi Vadra catching eyeballs, time and space in the media, especially Television, is manifest in even casual conversations.

“Television has been Modi Ji’s turf and we have milked it for the past five years and more. But suddenly TV channels are devoting considerable time following Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and discussing the impact she may have,” admitted an old BJP hand. While the BJP has largely bought media space, he grudgingly conceded that the Congress was receiving ‘ free publicity’ ever since it was announced that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra would formally hold charge of eastern UP.

The party is divided on how to counter the threat posed by her. While knives are clearly being sharpened to launch vicious attacks as and when she starts moving out and address public meetings, there are doubts that the move might boomerang and fail to yield much political dividend.

Ignoring her is another option that has been discussed, confide BJP insiders. But the thinking is to evolve a strategy as and when she slips. BJP leaders believe that while she possibly has a better command over Hindi, she eventually may not prove to be much of an orator.

“Election rallies require rousing speeches, sharp barbs, an ability to get the crowd to laugh and rage – and there is no match for Narendra Modi,” says a BJP leader with satisfaction, convinced that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is far too polished to make much of a difference on public platforms.

Another BJP strategy is to belittle her experience and performance in the pocket boroughs of the Congress in Amethi and Rae Bareli. “How many Assembly seats could she win for the Congress,” is what BJP workers have been advised to ask in public in an attempt to play down her impact.

But the worry shows and notwithstanding their stance in public, on Monday Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath abandoned a review meeting with district magistrates to huddle with senior party leaders following the six-hour road show in Lucknow by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

Says Alok Kumar Rai of the Faculty of Management Studies at BHU (Varanasi), “The strategy of playing down Priyanka Gandhi may actually have the opposite effect.” The attack on the dynasty, say observers, is stale and weak and the other approach, of saying that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has been inducted to cover up the failure of her brother, may actually enhance her public stature.

By all reckoning, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s entry into UP politics seems to have upset all political applecarts, at least for now. Keshav Dev Maurya of Mahan Dal (right), a small party in western Uttar Pradesh, announced on Wednesday that it would contest the election in alliance with the Indian National Congress. He is seen in this picture with Jyotiradiya Scindia ( left) and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra

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Partners again: Pragmatic compulsions push BJP into making up with estranged ally Shiv Sena

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The seat sharing deal between BJP and Shiv Sena ends over four years of public bickering between old allies, stemming from BJP’s unwillingness to settle for junior partner status in the 2014 Maharashtra assembly polls. Both parties fought separately and BJP came on top winning 122 seats against Shiv Sena’s 63. Later, Sena joined the state government but its resentment at not being the dominant partner showed, as it continued hurling barbs at BJP.

Sena’s barbs would have hurt BJP more than the opposition’s because both parties’ bases overlap significantly. Yet both needed each other and this kept the alliance in place. The seat sharing deal with Sena is an acknowledgment by BJP that the downside risks of fighting Lok Sabha elections without its ally-cum-foe are too forbidding to ignore. A similar situation forced BJP to part with 17 seats for JD(U) in Bihar. In making peace with former critics like Uddhav Thackeray and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, BJP appears to have concluded that 2019 is too close to call.

Anti-incumbency and the newfound resolve among opposition parties to prevent division of their vote could be behind BJP’s mellowing, as it shores up alliances through generous seat sharing arrangements. In Maharashtra, Congress and NCP are reviving their alliance and reportedly wooing smaller parties led by Prakash Ambedkar, Raju Shetti and Raj Thackeray. Recall that the Congress-NCP alliance won three successive assembly elections before being felled by the Modi wave of 2014. BJP may rue the surrender of gains it made vis-a-vis the Sena in Maharashtra but coalition arithmetic demands such sacrifices.

In the 1990s it was BJP that propped up Nitish after his split with Lalu Prasad. The investment paid handsome dividends when the JD(U)-BJP coalition stormed to power in Bihar in 2005. In 2017, when JD(U) was again on a weak wicket, BJP played a masterstroke to woo it back. As a result, NDA may fare better in Bihar after the lashing in the 2015 assembly polls. BJP president Amit Shah had preferred a maximalist approach to politics earlier, but that is taking a backseat now due to pragmatic compulsions. Recall that the north-east was also won through alliances. Both BJP and Shiv Sena have an opportunity to put the past behind them. But selling the alliance to voters after Sena’s incessant criticism will be a tricky proposition.

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