The Politics of Language and the Language of Political Regression

May 23rd, 2012

Published on Dissident Voice, by James Petras, May 19, 2012.

Capitalism and its defenders maintain dominance through the ‘material resources’ at their command, especially the state apparatus, and their productive, financial and commercial enterprises, as well as through the manipulation of popular consciousness via ideologues, journalists, academics and publicists who fabricate the arguments and the language to frame the issues of the day.  

Today, material conditions for the vast majority of working people have sharply deteriorated as the capitalist class shifts the entire burden of the crisis and the recovery of their profits onto the backs of wage and salaried classes. One of the striking aspects of this sustained and on-going roll-back of living standards is the absence of a major social upheaval so far … //

… The capitalist class has cultivated a crop of economists and journalists who peddle brutal policies in bland, evasive and deceptive language in order to neutralize popular opposition. Unfortunately, many of their ‘leftist’ critics tend to rely on the same terminology.

Given the widespread corruption of language so pervasive in contemporary discussions about the crisis of capitalism the left should stop relying on this deceptive set of euphemisms co-opted by the ruling class. It is frustrating to see how easily the following terms enter our discourse:

Market discipline – The euphemism ‘discipline’ connotes serious, conscientious strength of character in the face of challenges as opposed to irresponsible, escapist behavior. In reality, when paired with ‘market’, it refers to capitalists taking advantage of unemployed workers and using their political influence and power lay-off masses workers and intimidate those remaining employees into greater exploitation and overwork, thereby producing more profit for less pay. It also covers the capacity of capitalist overlords to raise their rate of profit by slashing the social costs of production, such as worker and environmental protection, health coverage and pensions.

Market shock – This refers to capitalists engaging in brutal massive, abrupt firings, cuts in wages and slashing of health plans and pensions in order to improve stock quotations, augment profits and secure bigger bonuses for the bosses. By linking the bland, neutral term, ‘market’ to ‘shock’, the apologists of capital disguise the identity of those responsible for these measures, their brutal consequences and the immense benefits enjoyed by the elite.

Market Demands – This euphemistic phrase is designed to anthropomorphize an economic category, to diffuse criticism away from real flesh and blood power-holders, their class interests and their despotic strangle-hold over labor. Instead of ‘market demands’, the phrase should read: ‘the capitalist class commands the workers to sacrifice their own wages and health to secure more profit for the multi-national corporations’ – a clear concept more likely to arouse the ire of those adversely affected.

Free Enterprise – An euphemism spliced together from two real concepts: private enterprise for private profit and free competition. By eliminating the underlying image of private gain for the few against the interests of the many, the apologists of capital have invented a concept that emphasizes individual virtues of ‘enterprise’ and ‘freedom’ as opposed to the real economic vices of greed and exploitation.

Free Market – A euphemism implying free, fair and equal competition in unregulated markets glossing over the reality of market domination by monopolies and oligopolies dependent on massive state bailouts in times of capitalist crisis. ‘Free’ refers specifically to the absence of public regulations and state intervention to defend workers safety as well as consumer and environmental protection. In other words, ‘freedom’ masks the wanton destruction of the civic order by private capitalists through their unbridled exercise of economic and political power. ‘Free market’ is the euphemism for the absolute rule of capitalists over the rights and livelihood of millions of citizens, in essence, a true denial of freedom.

Economic Recovery – This euphemistic phrase means the recovery of profits by the major corporations. It disguises the total absence of recovery of living standards for the working and middle classes, the reversal of social benefits and the economic losses of mortgage holders, debtors, the long-term unemployed and bankrupted small business owners. What is glossed over in the term ‘economic recovery’ is how mass immiseration became a key condition for the recovery of corporate profits.

Privatization – This describes the transfer of public enterprises, usually the profitable ones, to well-connected, large scale private capitalists at prices well below their real value, leading to the loss of public services, stable public employment and higher costs to consumers as the new private owners jack up prices and lay-off workers — all in the name of another euphemism, ‘efficiency’.

Efficiency – Efficiency here refers only to the balance sheets of an enterprise; it does not reflect the heavy costs of ‘privatization’ borne by related sectors of the economy. For example, ‘privatization’ of transport adds costs to upstream and downstream businesses by making them less competitive compared with competitors in other countries; ‘privatization’ eliminates services in regions that are less profitable, leading to local economic collapse and isolation from national markets. Frequently, public officials, who are aligned with private capitalists, will deliberately disinvest in public enterprises and appoint incompetent political cronies as part of patronage politics, in order to degrade services and foment public discontent. This creates a public opinion favorable to ‘privatizing’ the enterprise. In other words ‘privatization’ is not a result of the inherent inefficiencies of public enterprises, as the capitalist ideologues like to argue, but a deliberate political act designed to enhance private capital gain at the cost of public welfare.

Conclusion:

Language, concepts, and euphemisms are important weapons in the class struggle ‘from above’ designed by capitalist journalists and economists to maximize the wealth and power of capital. To the degree that progressive and leftist critics adopt these euphemisms and their frame of reference, their own critiques and the alternatives they propose are limited by the rhetoric of capital. Putting ‘quotation marks’ around the euphemisms may be a mark of disapproval but this does nothing to advance a different analytical framework necessary for successful class struggle ‘from below’. Equally important, it side-steps the need for a fundamental break with the capitalist system including its corrupted language and deceptive concepts. Capitalists have overturned the most fundamental gains of the working class and we are falling back toward the absolute rule of capital. This must raise anew the issue of a socialist transformation of the state, economy and class structure. An integral part of that process must be the complete rejection of the euphemisms used by capitalist ideologues and their systematic replacement by terms and concepts that truly reflect the harsh reality, that clearly identify the perpetrators of this decline and that define the social agencies for political transformation.
(full long text).

(James Petras, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50-year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in Brazil and Argentina, and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed Books). Petras’ most recent book is The Arab Revolt and the Imperialist Counterattack. He can be reached here.  Read other articles by James, or visit James’s website).

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