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On the Calming Idiom of Social Violence

The Language of Neoliberalism

by JASON HIRTHLER

Outsource. Streamline. Downsize. Liberalize. Flexibilise. Get lean. Offshore. Lay off.

If you use the Google Ngram Viewer to research the use of any of these words in American or British English publications over the last fifty years, you’ll see a sudden spike in their use in the early to mid nineteen eighties. Why? Probably because some of the words were invented or untombed fairly recently, in order to accompany the trajectory of neoliberal economics. Likewise, the advent of offshoring and a corollary collapse of the American economy took control of the C-suite at about the same time. Neoliberalism has for its primary tenets ‘downsizing’, which means firing; along with the benign ‘privatize’, which in the free market vernacular means the private theft of common wealth; and the innocuous ‘deregulate,’ which means to remove laws or, in its particular application, to make lawless.

What is behind the rise in the use of these terms? Why not instead use those like ‘fire’ and ‘dislocate’ and ‘steal’ and other more lucid descriptions of the cold-blooded work of corporate chieftains to fire millions of American workers and replace them with Asians at a pittance wage in unregulated environments? Doesn’t their use suggest that the people who use them are uncomfortable with more candid descriptions of what is happening? Why has The New York Times, for years now, used “enhanced interrogation techniques” instead of “torture”? Why has “shell shock” been replaced by progressively more obscure terminology, such as, “war fatigue” and “combat stress reaction” and “post traumatic stress disorder,” now rendered as simply “PTSD”? (How much verbal unpacking is necessary before the nucleus of that temporizing acronym is discovered?)

Is this lexicon not the herald of a people deeply troubled by their reality? Or is it simply the unconscious response of the human mind to a horror of its own making? Is it our fumbling attempts to tolerate the intolerable? To mask terror, cloak slaughter, and refabricate misery in a slightly more palatable tongue—with expressions that ask little more from us than a sonorous groan as we reach for the steaming cup of Earl Grey on the breakfast table? So that, in time, we can forget the epoch entirely, dismissing it as one of the countless misfortunes of history, which is, after all, we tell our dinner guests with tolerant gazes, simply the story of a fallible species striving to improve itself. Naturally mistakes will be made, however regrettable. Nods all around. But this opaque language—much like “traffic calming” street furniture slows the pace of traffic—becalms the public mind by disguising the ferocity of social violence it putatively describes.

It is accompanied by a macro ideology that also assuages public outrage by shifting guilt away from individuals onto a faceless superstructure. Author Gilad Atzmon, in a recent article on the 2012 movie, “Hannah Arendt”, relates how the Jewish establishment slandered Arendt after she covered the Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker. What Arendt had reported was the infamous “banality of evil”, by which she appeared to mean the way immoral behavior becomes institutionalized, its purveyors reduced to necessary cogs is a machinery of oppression, and in which actors are blandly executing the bureaucratic tasks of a state whose ambitions they are committed to by dint of nationality if not patriotism. The Jewish community, like many others, wanted a figurehead of evil to emerge from the Eichmann trial, a sharply sketched image of horror—the profile of Savonarola comes to mind—against which victim populations could aim and vent their fury.

Needless to say, caricatures help fulminating victims unburden themselves of some of their ire. Targets are always produced. Epithets hurled. Maxims inscribed. But Arendt had undermined this process by suggesting that Eichmann was little more than an apparatchik of an evil system, not its distilled representation. This is a sinister concept for some, since it removes, in a recondite sense, responsibility from the individual and places it on the system. Thus the crime is depersonalized, thinned out over a systemic architecture the outlines of which are mind-boggling to unwind. The clarity of blame is lost in the fog of bureaucracy, much like fury loses its force when its focus is diffused. Although Arendt did insist on the actor’s moral choice, and his subsequent culpability in his crime, she said Eichmann was not a monster, which is what the masses craved.

The need for scapegoats, on the one hand, and the need to deflect blame, on the other, continues to haunt us. Part of the failure of Occupy Wall Street to galvanize a broader population of restive citizens might be traced to its unwillingness to furnish recognizable targets of popular outrage. A list of public enemies, for instance, composed of CEOs behind the mortgage meltdown, might have inspired far more indignation that the somewhat vague symbol of Wall Street, which conjures less an image of traitorous behavior than a cinematic wash of numbers, a tickertape, bespoke suits, Ivy League hubris, and emptied martini glasses. Eventually you throw your hands in the air. What can be done? What was perhaps feared in Arendt’s insight, was just this loss of focused culpability, and its companion fury, which might, over time, instance another Holocaust. The swapping of individual targets for institutional ones can sometimes summon a feeling of helplessness, of being overmatched or ranged against a corporate Cyclops. The result is often resignation and—as we’ve seen along the liberal spectrum—a retreat into dangerously comfortable mythologies.

There’s a hint of the same in the liberal response to Barack Obama. Many liberal defenders of Obamacare characterized it as the best that was possible under the circumstances, despite the fact that Obama never pursued single payer even backed by stupendous popular support and a pliant Congress (even after Scott Brown was sworn in, since reconciliation might have been used to pass single payer as it was to pass Obamacare). This argument, that Obama was blocked by the irrational bellicosity of the right, unburdens the progressive folk hero of his hypocrisy and flings it onto the broad shoulders of “the system,” for which no one is ultimately responsible and which was dropped in our laps by our misguided forbears. We just inherited the system. Behold our ill-shaped bequeath. Best to settle for incremental wins.

This might be part of the descriptive difference between leftists and liberals—one primarily blames the human being, the other the system. (Even if the left is clear-eyed about the system and liberals concede the moral failings of the individual.) And it shows. Liberals are far more forgiving of Obama’s failure to live up to his promises. They hustle the imperfections of democracy to the foreground of the conversation, where they elicit shrugs and concessions that defuse the conflict. He was handcuffed. He was stonewalled. Is this true, or is this an elaborate conflict-avoidance strategy, the subtlest of methodologies by which we assure the mainstream of our complicity while maintaining a veneer of principle? The conscientious reformer’s middle ground: Sure, we want single-payer healthcare, but we have to be pragmatic. This is probably why so much mention is made about whether or not Obama means well. In the “imperfect world” ideology, motive is all. He tried. He failed. Give the guy a break. Here the conciliatory debater shifts the guilt from human to history, from individual to infrastructure. But, the leftist replies, he didn’t try. He never meant to try. He meant to advance the interests of capital and placate the masses with his populist rhetoric. Veneer. Façade. Whitewash. The vocabulary of hypocrisy is rich; choose your label. Here the leftist tries to bring the guilt back to the man, the crime back to the criminal.

Language is critical to this process of calming the anger of the people. In the detail it obfuscates; in the macro, it depersonalizes. Words like “PTSD” and “outsourcing” remove the clarity and even the human element from the description, serving—at a granular level—the same purpose as the “imperfect world” rhetoric serves at a macro level. Where we assign the blame—and the idiom we use to apply it—is decisive in the character of our politics.

This is a central reason why thirty years of offshoring was so effortlessly conducted in the public space. The language softened the appearance of the violent reality, and the systemic nature of the process decriminalized the actions of the outsourcer. How little protest emerged when Jack Welch and his ilk were lionized in the pages of the USA Today as our admirable captains of industry. Even as they were shredding the American working class, and the middle class in its wake. Thanks in part to the nuance of neoliberal prose, to the blandishments of a nonthreatening corporate vocabulary, it all passed largely without comment. Times change. We must accept the harsh realities of global competition. The knowledge economy will manifest itself soon enough. Just hang on. A few fairy tales were enough to disarm a population of three hundred million. Nobody blinked when shareholder value was elevated above stakeholder value. Nor when corporate health was prioritized over human health. We swallowed it with our morning joe. This is the impetus of the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword. Rather it is the rationalizer of the sword, the court historian and profiler of the sword. Orwell warned of this and mapped its outline in his fiction. Even Confucius declared that any form of social reclamation must begin by “rectifying the language.”

When will we rectify ours? When will Kissinger be tried as a Machiavelli? When will “former U.S. President George Bush” be replaced with “fugitive war criminal George Bush” and the welfare-reforming friend-of-the-poor Bill Clinton be unmasked as a welfare-destroying foe-of-the-poor? Not any time soon, if we can judge by our thesaurus of common usage.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.