Politics and language

13 Oct

Every once in a while a discussion below the line on this site prompts an above the line post. This one came easy since it required no further work. The exchange is between Chet and me, apropos my post, Where’s my final Assange report?

The exchange speaks for itself. Forgive if you can my professorial stance. I’m really not trying to impart my superior wisdom. Rather, I’m taking the opportunity – as one for whom self doubt is a bi-weekly experience – to think out loud about what it is I’m doing. All writers seem to end up writing about writing, though the main culprits tend to be novelists. I’ve entertained for some time now the notion of an extended post on the challenges, aims and objectives of a polemical writer. This might be seen as laying down a marker.

Chet:

[citing my reference to our rulers as] “… sociopaths, the criminally insane …”

Sociopaths, yes, but the criminally insane? If the latter, by mistake, the common folk might benefit, but those who rule are becoming obscenely wealthy.

Me:

Hi Chet. I’ve been using “the criminally insane” for years. As my blogging became more intensely political, reflecting my own journey of discovery, I wanted a term that expressed my understanding but unlike the more accurate “ruling class” – defined by monopoly ownership of something essential to wealth creation – had not become stale. I wanted to reach people through reasoned and evidence based content, yes, but also by fresh rather than hackneyed language. People are easily turned off by the latter.

So it was conceived in a spirit of expedience but I now think I was nearer the mark than I’d realised. By accident I’d stumbled on a term which, in its way, is as accurate as ‘ruling class’. But to see this you have to make a distinction between ‘insane’ and ‘stupid’. They are not at all the same thing.

I still use ‘ruling class’, of course. Sometimes its accuracy makes it indispensable!

Chet:

I suppose the problem I have is that for me neither “ruling class” nor “criminally insane” convey the relentless evil of those in power. There’s probably a superb noun hanging around the fringes, but it’s beyond me, so perhaps “criminally insane” is the best way to describe “them.”

Me:

Each to their own, Chet. On the whole I steer clear of “evil” because for a materialist like me its connotations are too metaphysical. (And it fails to capture the truth that many individual members of that class may be brave, warm, decent human beings.) That said, I’d never say never. I see where ‘evil’ may well apply in specific situations. The appalling cynicism on show in the trial of Julian Assange, for instance.

Here though we’re speaking of descriptors for those in whose interests the planet is run. I wouldn’t insist on my terminology, it ain’t a falling out matter, but I see ‘ruling class’ as the least problematic term. Defined by monopoly ownership of some essential of wealth creation – human beings under slavery, arable land under feudalism, the various forms of capital under capitalism – it has to my mind the greatest explanatory power. All other aspects of class rule flow from that monopoly ownership.

This despite the fact I do not regard ‘ruling class’ as completely accurate. In an essay written three years ago to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I wrote:

I start as Luther pace Wycliffe did, with injustice rationalised by cant. The idea of a soul sped to heaven by cash payment to a priesthood now unites believer and non believer alike in aghast incredulity. T’was ever thus. The crimes and absurdities of times gone by are crystal clear to our so clever, end-of-history gaze – what wolves and sheep they were; what rogues and fools! – but should humanity survive, a time will come when faith in the superiority of blind market forces over wealth creation planned by and for humankind will evoke a similar response. Ditto the fact of fewer than a dozen men owning half the world, while scores of millions die in destitution and arms profits in and of themselves drive industrialised carnage. Cry Godwin’s Law if you will, but why would these things not seem as monstrous to our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s age as the nazi holocaust to ours?

There is an answer to that but it’s not good news. Not only is every generation desensitised to greater or lesser degree to the horrors of its day. And not only are we in the West sheltered from those endured by peoples at best not psychologically real to us and at worst out of sight and out of mind. The horrors I speak of flow from laws of motion few understand (least of all economists, their salaries dependent on their not understanding) and which leave us with clear beneficiaries, yes, but not identifiable agents in the sense of individuals who by making other choices could reverse those laws of motion. On the contrary, by making different choices those agents would see their ‘power’ evaporate in an instant. I call them a ruling class, and with good reason, but ultimately that’s no more than a useful fiction when they too are enslaved. In our day the Henry Tudors and Heinrich Himmlers, ogres whose humanity we must deny to reaffirm our own, are thin on the ground but their elusiveness is that of a world amok: an Isaac Asimov dystopia without the robots.

Emphasis added.

The other problem with ‘ruling class’, of course, is that due to what Gramsci rightly called ‘false consciousness’, the term turns people off. There’s only so far you can go in pandering to that but it seems to me that writers who wish to reach people have an imperative to make their words vivid and engaging, ever in search of new ways to communicate old truths. Some five years ago I hit upon ‘criminally insane’, thinking it good for a post or two. But like a fortuitous accident it has to my mind proved more durable, in its versatility of explanatory power, than I’d ever expected. As I say in footnote 1 to my July reads post:

I don’t mean to imply our rulers are all twenty-four carat, frothing at the mouth loony tunes. Indeed, they may be charming, passionate about improving the lot of the poor, devoted parents and all round good eggs. It’s just that the decisions they – or those who act on their behalf – make are driven by an insane and life negating imperative. I speak of the pursuit of profits which, however vehemently this class may protest to the contrary, trumps all other considerations; all those things that sane people hold dear. I don’t say our rulers don’t care about the environment, peace, the eradication of dire poverty etc etc. I say that actions speak louder than words and the choices our rulers make are overridingly driven by none of these things but by the remorseless logic of capital accumulation: a logic of which they – and the theoretically bereft economists ultimately in their pay – are and always have been in deepest denial.

Chet:

Thank you for your explanation: You’ve evidently have thought longer and deeper on the subject than I have.

Maybe I’ll just go along with “criminally insane” and “ruling class” too.

Me:

Well you know, Chet, I get plenty of flak so will take compliments wherever I can get ’em!

More seriously, I’d hate to get hung up on terminology. Words are vital and we who are brought together by recognition of a world run by gangsters (a more recent addition to my lexicon) should strive for both freshness and precision in those we use.

But I’ve seen half a century of some form or other of political dissent. In that period I’ve watched again and again the prioritisation of language over action, map over terrain. I saw it in the big identity movements; most visibly in feminism and disability rights but to lesser degree black consciousness and gay rights. And I saw it in the far left, where we had the absurd spectacle – only apparent to me in hindsight – of avowed materialists in screaming matches over ideas that could never be tested given the participants’ disconnect from the realities of class struggle – not, as was sometimes said, due to our being almost entirely drawn from the petit-bourgeois. Rather, because we were would be revolutionaries in non revolutionary times.

But see how easily I digress! I seek not to persuade others to adopt my superior terminology. (I have my vanities but that’s not one of them.) It suffices that, without fetishising language, we all of us strive for greater precision and bounce in the relatively few words that will always matter.

Thanks for an invigorating discussion.

 

8 Replies to “Politics and language

  1. You’re very welcome, Phil, and little did I foresee where my comment (starting with the original one) would lead. I’ve enjoyed following your logic.

    Writing is never simple. I’ve notice over the years (as a freelance editor and copy editor and in story critique groups) what often trips people up is their personal definition of words or phrases. However, you’ve a strong basis and communicate well.

  2. Yes, freelance, in book production. Once in production there isn’t too much to be done with any manuscript, although over the years I did cause a few books to be taken off production.

    But for all my years of experience, all I have to do is glance through Fowler’s Modern English Usage (second edition!) to appreciate how much I don’t know.

    Hey! We could also talk photography!

  3. On the topic of language – and how it changes: I previously mentioned, in connection with something else, a fictitious condition I invented called AOGS (Arrogant Old Git Syndrome) where you feel an intense irritation for anything that came after “your time”. “Sociopath” does it for me. I always felt it was a watering down of “Psychopath” which had a really ominous ring.

    And then I recall having a bad reaction to the term “postmodernism” when I first heard it, assuming up till then that “modern” simply meant what was up to date at any time. Thus, it would make sense to talk of what was “modern” in e.g. the Middle Ages. Perhaps my irritation wasn’t unfounded considering how much mileage there was to be gained out of “postmodern”. Fredric Jameson’s book on the subject contains many passages which imply that the new term was a cynical attempt to present the old as the new.

    I share your aversion to the word “evil”. It’s such a cheap way of stirring up animosity without having to explain yourself. Although if I were to attempt to define “evil” I would say the ultimate example would be one who cynically manipulates others purely for his own advantage with no concern at all for the impact on said others. Which may well be the definition of a psychopath!

    I have noticed that this use of an unexplained word seems to been transferred from “evil” to “hate” which now has the same contextless abstract connotations.

    Nevertheless, “evil” carries more weight than “wicked” which suggests a fairy tale background. I notice that those who may be called “paleoconservatives” have a fondness for “wicked”. Roger Scruton for example. (My most hated word that I associate with the Right is “robust” YUK!)

    At the risk of veering off into irrelevance I was intrigued when I saw a Dostoevsky book called “Demons” and realised it was a new translation of the book normally referred to as “The Devils” or “The Possessed”. “Demons” has a far darker and more archaic sound than “The Devils” The latter has a far softer and more “domesticated” sound and could even be taken as a term of endearment (“The Little Devils”?)

    A recent translation of “War & Peace” had an afterword that explained why occasional updated translations became necessary i.e. that old English expressions tend to change their meaning over time and now provoke an inappropriate smile. It gave a few amusing examples: “He met with a few gay friends”, “She went round the house flushing” and – my favourite – “He ejaculated with a grimace”!

  4. Ha ha – I like the examples in your final paragraph, George. But I’m not convinced that this aspect alone would merit a new translation of a tome now, however unfairly, a byword for weightiness: “a simple yes or no would have done, but you had to give me war and fucking peace didn’t you?”

    I recall the term post-moderism as coined by a detractor. My views are complex and largely but not wholly negative. It did much harm but a modicum of good. If I hadn’t enough on my plate I’d write a post on the matter.

    One aspect I’ll touch on though. A strand of what we now call postmodernism can be traced back to structuralism and the French intelligentsia of the sixties through to the eighties: Barthes through Lacan and Derrida to (the best of them) Foucault. A less cerebral strand can be seen in the hippie rejection (fuelled not just by acid and India but also Frankfurt School, disenchantment with ‘technological determinism’ and the near universal perception, hastened by Hungary 1956, of the USSR as offering no useful answers to a growing sense of malaise in a prosperous West).

    I sense a climate of pessimism and cynicism. Here we return to your early response, and Fredric Jameson’s, to a post-modernism which holds objectivity to be unattainable. So why wouldn’t old be revamped as new? Why would shamanic accounts of the world be seen as inferior to those of physics?

    And why be arsed with understanding the laws of motion of capitalism, when we can without breaking a sweat brand it all as evil? “Thinking”, said that renowned Marxist, Henry Ford, “is hard work. That’s why people don’t like doing it.” Me included. Constantly I’m tripped up by intellectual laziness and the comforts of yesterday’s truths. Who said life is easy?

  5. I may have misread the Jameson passage as more cynical than it is meant to be. Here it is:

    “…if “Postmodernism” corresponds to what Raymond Williams meant by his fundamental cultural category, a “structure of feeling” (and one that has become “hegemonic” at that, to use another of Williams’s crucial categories), then it can only enjoy that status by dint of profound collective self-transformation, a reworking and rewriting of an older system. That ensures novelty and gives intellectuals and ideologues fresh and socially useful tasks: something also marked by the new term, with its vague, ominous or exhilarating, promise to get rid of whatever you found confining, unsatisfying, or boring about the modern, modernism, or modernity (however you understand those words): in other words, a very modest or mild apocalypse, the merest sea breeze (that has the additional advantage of having already taken place). But this prodigious rewriting operation — which can lead to whole new perspectives on subjectivity as well as on the object world — has the additional result, already touched on above, that everything is grist for its mill and that analyses like the one proposed here are easily reabsorbed into the project as a set of usefully unfamiliar transcoding rubrics.”

    I was focussing on that “a very modest or mild apocalypse, the merest sea breeze (that has the additional advantage of having already taken place)”.

    David Harvey has a few interesting things to say in his book on the subject. Something about space/time compression in the new psychology of late capitalism.

    • The Harvey book “The Condition of Post Modernity” is written in a more straightforward way than the Jameson – who writes in a style I feel tempted to describe as “Adornese” after Theodore Adorno. (I have a love/hate feeling towards Adorno whose prose, I find, alternates between the eloquent and the insufferable.)

      A book I’d recommend – and which I have just started is Stuart Jeffries’ “Grand Hotel Abyss: The Live of the Frankfurt School”. I’m just reading about the poignantly recalled childhood of Walter Benjamin and I have an eerie sense of recognition i.e. that his early tragic awareness of the beauty and the transience of the affluent world he was brought up in may have parallels with the world I personally recall i.e. that comfortable post WW2 Western sphere which now seems to be in decline and in a process of revealing its own rotten foundation.

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