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.”
How Canadian churches are helping their communities cope with the wildfires
As wildfires burn across Canada, churches are finding ways to support their members and the broader community directly impacted by the crisis.
According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, as of June 13, there are 462 active fires across Canada – and 236 of them classified as out of control fires.
Whether it’s through phone calls or donations to community members, here’s how a few churches across Canada are handling active wildfires and the aftermath in their regions.
Westwood Hills, N.S.: St. Nicholas Anglican Church
In Nova Scotia, St. Nicholas Anglican Church and other churches in the area are collecting money for grocery cards to give to families impacted by the Tantallon wildfire.
The fire is now considered contained, but Tanya Moxley, the treasurer at St. Nicholas is organizing efforts to get grocery gift cards into the hands of impacted families.
As of June 12, four churches in the area – St. Nicholas, Parish of French Village, St Margaret of Scotland and St John the Evangelist – raised nearly $3,500. The money will be split for families’ groceries between five schools in the area impacted by the wildfire.
Moxley said she felt driven to raise this money after she heard the principal of her child’s school was using his own money to buy groceries for impacted families in their area.
“[For] most of those people who were evacuated, the power was off in their subdivision for three, four or five days,” she said. “Even though they went home and their house was still standing, the power was off and they lost all their groceries.”
Moxley said many people in the area are still “reeling” from the fires. She said the church has an important role to help community members during this time.
“We’re called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless and all that stuff, right? So this is it. This is like where the rubber hits the road.”
Is it ever OK to steal from a grocery store?
Mythologized in the legend of Robin Hood and lyricized in Les Misérables, it’s a debate as old as time: is it ever permissible to steal food? And if so, under what conditions? Now, amid Canada’s affordability crisis, the dilemma has extended beyond theatrical debate and into grocery stores.
Although the idea that theft is wrong is both a legally enshrined and socially accepted norm, the price of groceries can also feel criminally high to some — industry data shows that grocery stores can lose between $2,000 and $5,000 a week on average from theft. According to Statistics Canada, most grocery item price increases surged by double digits between 2021 and 2022. To no one’s surprise, grocery store theft is reportedly on the rise as a result. And if recent coverage of the issue rings true, some Canadians don’t feel bad about shoplifting. But should they?
Kieran Oberman, an associate professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom, coined the term “re-distributive theft” in his 2012 paper “Is Theft Wrong?” In simplest terms, redistributive theft is based on the idea that people with too little could ethically take from those who have too much.
“Everybody, when they think about it, accepts that theft is sometimes permissible if you make the case extreme enough,” Oberman tells me over Zoom. “The question is, when exactly is it permissible?”
Almost no one, Oberman argues, believes the current distribution of wealth across the world is just. We have an inkling that theft is bad, but that inequality is too. As more and more Canadians feel the pinch of inflation, grocery store heirs accumulate riches — Loblaw chair and president Galen Weston, for instance, received a 55 percent boost in compensation in 2022, taking in around $8.4 million for the year. Should someone struggling with rising prices feel guilty when they, say, “forget” to scan a bundle of zucchini?
The homeless refugee crisis in Toronto illustrates Canada’s broken promises
Canadians live in a time of threadbare morality. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Toronto’s entertainment district, where partygoers delight in spending disposable income while skirting refugees sleeping on sidewalks. The growing pile of luggage at the downtown corner of Peter and Richmond streets resembles the lost baggage section at Pearson airport but is the broken-hearted terminus at the centre of a cruel city.
At the crux of a refugee funding war between the municipal and federal governments are those who have fled persecution for the promise of Canada’s protection. Until June 1, asylum seekers used to arrive at the airport and be sent to Toronto’s Streets to Homes Referral Assessment Centre at 129 Peter St. in search of shelter beds. Now, Toronto’s overcrowded shelter system is closed to these newcomers, so they sleep on the street.
New mayor Olivia Chow pushed the federal government Wednesday for at least $160 million to cope with the surge of refugees in the shelter system. She rightly highlights that refugees are a federal responsibility. In response, the department of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada points to hundreds of millions in dollars already allocated to cities across Canada through the Interim Housing Assistance Program, while Ontario says it has given nearly $100 million to organizations that support refugees. But these efforts are simply not enough to deliver on Canada’s benevolent promise to the world’s most vulnerable.
The lack of federal generosity and finger-pointing by the city has orchestrated a moral crisis. It’s reminiscent of the crisis south of the border, where Texas governor Greg Abbott keeps bussing migrants to cities located in northern Democratic states. Without the necessary resources, information, and sometimes the language skills needed to navigate the bureaucratic mazes, those who fled turbulent homelands for Canada have become political pawns.
But Torontonians haven’t always been this callous.
In Ireland Park, at Lake Ontario’s edge, five statues of gaunt and grateful refugees gaze at their new home: Toronto circa 1847. These statues honour a time when Toronto, with a population of only 20,000 people, welcomed 38,500 famine-stricken migrants from Ireland. It paralleled the “Come From Away” event of 9/11 in Gander, N.L., where the population doubled overnight, and the people discovered there was indeed more than enough for all. It was a time when the city lived up to its moniker as “Toronto, The Good.”
Now, as a wealthy city of three million people, the city’s residents are tasked with supporting far fewer newcomers. Can we not recognize the absurdity in claiming scarcity?
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