Language of Capitalism

A Problem of Definitions: the Keywords of Capitalism

It’s hard to have a conversation about the future if the words we’re using to discuss it hold different meanings for those involved. On James Patrick Leary’s Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism.

Verso Books, 2019

D. Saint Germain

With alarm, the media continues to discuss how growing numbers of Millennials find socialism more favorable than capitalism – opinion polls show support for socialism growing stronger every year. And the phenomenon isn't just among Millennials; capitalism as a concept is getting a bad rap across age groups in America. Meanwhile, Republicans are planning a red-baiting campaign around “Socialism bad” for 2020.

We seem to be at a strange moment in basic concept definitions.

Capitalism and socialism are forms of economic organization, not political organization. Socialism, by definition, is when the government owns the means of production – factories, farms, etc, and centrally plans economic activity – i.e. the government is the employer which decides what the factory produces, when it produces it, sets prices for the factory output, and sets the wages for the factory workers. It decides what farmers plant and harvest, sets the price for that harvest and distributes it.

Some of the more harrowing images from the USSR in the 80s had people lining up for blocks and days for simple items such as bread and jars of pickles, entering grocery stories whose shelves were nearly empty, as the government mismanaged the production and supply logistics of basic foodstuffs.

Capitalism, on the other hand, is decentralized economic production that allows for individuals and firms to organize themselves, within the social confines on the market. As Robert Reich reminds us, “The market is a human creation. It is based on rules that human beings devise. The central question is who shapes those rules and for what purpose.”

It seems highly unlikely that Americans feeling positively about socialism want the government to be their employer or organize the grocery store. God knows the store would end up looking like a tax form. Yet the right has repeated these definitions of capitalism and socialism so loudly for so long they've come to define the terms. The result is that many people who've been severely burned by “unfettered capitalism” are opting for the alternative in a false dichotomy of “alternative definitions.”

James Patrick Leary's book Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism looks at how several words around capitalism and economic production are defined by the loudest user, and how those definitions narrow our ideas of what is possible in how we organize society. It's a history of the use of words; and as language shapes our concept of reality, words, as Leary notes, can “manacle our imagination” by narrowing the frame around which we talk about ideas.

“The language we have to understand and describe our era's inequality is itself one of the instruments of perpetuating it.”

Specifically, he writes, “identifying what makes our moment unique (or not) is no easy task, ... because the language we have to understand and describe our era's inequality is itself one of the instruments of perpetuating it. How can we think and act critically in the present when the very medium of the present, language, constantly betrays us? One way to address this question is to go to the words themselves--to their histories and their present-day semantics.”

Take for example “smart” – as in smart phones, smart refrigerators, smart homes. The term first appears during Vietnam, when the military introduced laser-guided bombs which used technology to reach its target, removing human guidance from the equation, an advance that referred to as a “technological revolution” promising to dramatically change warfare in part by automating the job of bombing, allowing the military to replace jobs with technology. So in this sense “smart” was used to imply autonomy or automatic functioning of the thing in question.

Smart also can describe technologies that generate data about a user automatically and/or connect to a computer network. The next generation of “smart technologies” after bombs were buildings, as Leary writes, when in 1985 the National Association of Homebuilders marketed the concepts of smart homes that could be cooled or otherwise controlled remotely, “show that the smartness of a device lies in the possibility of efficient, remote manipulation.”

But also, smart technologies don't always equal wise ones, as he gives the example of a $6000 refrigerator that can tell you when you are out of milk.

Take also the example of the sharing economy – “share” and “sharing”. We clearly all understand the definition of sharing resources, and that the new technologies that enable sharing – car sharing, ride sharing, home sharing, labor sharing – use the term to describe the end results achieved through the use of their tools. But as Leary points out, the companies that comprise the “sharing economy” don't produce or own any of the items being shared; they are extracting rents from people with underproductive assets. As he notes, “this is less of a technological novelty than a return to older economic models--whether you're using a smartphone or an oxcart, it's still tenant labor.”

The section on meritocracy is pertinent after the recent school bribes scandal had America in an uproar; I wished it was a longer (though it might be my desire for a renewed discussion of meritocracy in America in general). Leary points out that the initial term derives from a satirical novel from 1958, set in a dystopic future when the aristocracy comprises those people society has deemed worthy of “merit” via their academic achievements. In his later years the author lamented his term's misuse and how “those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.” Leary also references Chris Hayes' Twilight of the Elites revelation that the concept is most convenient in helping to ignore conversations about class and inherited privilege.

There's definitely a point of view in this book, and it often seems written for people who who already agree with that point of view; there are some mental shortcuts in explanations. I found the closing statements for a few entries irksome in their glibness.

This book was primarily written on the internet, for the internet, in the blog-to-book method. What works on the internet (pithy, flip, for an audience of your friends and peers) does not always translate directly to book form, which generally includes more meditation and substantiation, less let's-get-to-a-quick-conclusion. It could use some additional editing to be appropriate for format and a wider audience. (Leary does not try to hide that this project started when a friend “suggested that instead of just getting mad, I make some small effort at getting even by writing up my criticisms; [and] this turned into a blog.” Yet I wished this confession had come at the beginning of the book, and not the end; it would have better contextualized his manner of wrapping up each entry.)

Nonetheless, Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism is an interesting inquiry into the etymology of our oft repeated lexicon of capital.


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