• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

CounterPunch needs you. piggybank-icon You need us. The cost of keeping the site alive and running is growing fast, as more and more readers visit. We want you to stick around, but it eats up bandwidth and costs us a bundle. Help us reach our modest goal (we are half way there!) so we can keep CounterPunch going. Donate today!
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Capitalist Word Play

Words make up language. Languages make cultures. They describe the world around us in ways the speaker understands. If the listeners hail from the same cultural background, they too understand the message being relayed. That being said, those meanings can change even as they are being told by one to another within the same culture. Examples that come to mind and are fairly well known are the various words US residents use to describe sandwiches. One person’s hero is another person’s sub…and so on. More specific to the point attempting to be made here and in a newly published text by John Patrick Leary titled Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism is the appropriation of words and phrases by the dominant culture that originated among members of a culture or subculture. I like to recall the phrase “Right On!” which originated as an expression of group power in the Black community of the United States. Indeed, in its original context it was often the follow up to an antiphonal call among Black radicals that went: Power Check! Right On! Somewhere along the way, the latter phrase got picked up by an advertising agency. This new use began the phrase’s journey into the mainstream culture.

The example of Right On’s journey into the mainstream is apocryphal in that it was the advertising business that appropriated the term and ultimately de-radicalized its meaning. It is quite often advertisers and their cohorts in the capitalist world that steal a piece of the “underground’s” language and redefine it to fit their needs. The success of these endeavors can be measured in how often the word is used afterwards and how removed it becomes from its original intention.

In 1976, the Marxist cultural critic Raymond Williams published a book also titled Keywords. Like Leary’s text (obviously titled in reference to Williams’ earlier work) this work discusses how words and phrases are appropriated and their meanings ultimately changed. In discussing this phenomenon, Williams examines how these changes reflect the nature of power in a society. Naturally, in a capitalist society, the appropriation of language by the capitalist class is designed to enhance and maintain its domination over the rest of us. In response, it is not unusual for the disenfranchised to take words used to oppress them and redefine them. This latter process could be seen when the LBGT community re-appropriated the word “queer.”

The text by Leary referred to above picks up where Williams book left off. Inspired by his discussion of language and (one assumes) appalled by its continued reworking by the powerful in the economy and academia, Leary’s Keywords provides a survey of words recently appropriated and redefined. This examination reflects the ongoing re-purposing of the language to serve capitalism’s newest champions—the tech industry and the motivational industry. Naturally, the longtime thieves of language are also represented: Wall Street, churches and academia.

I was at a meeting recently where the word “intersectionality” came up during a discussion regarding the text of some publicity material. One of the people at the meeting asked if we could please not use that word in the text we were considering. Their reason was not that they didn’t agree with the original intent of the word. It was that the word “intersectionality” has been appropriated by liberals and even right wing writers; in this appropriation its meaning has become something different—something quite removed from the definition proffered by those who originated the concept.

Although Leary does not discuss the word “intersectionality,” the words he does discuss have suffered similar fates. In other words, their newly created definitions have so mutated their original meanings, it is as if those first definitions never existed. With the Oxford English dictionary at his side, Leary examines the history of each word in his lexicon, it’s usage through time, and the appropriation of these words by management, government and executive boards. In doing this, he has written a clever, even witty examination of the manipulation of language in these days of neoliberal or late stage capitalism. Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism reminds the reader that those who control the language can more easily control the culture while also providing that reader with the tools needed to decipher the capitalist class’s manipulation of the words we use.

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

May 27, 2019
John Grant
Congress is Being Punked: Will They Find Their Backbone?
Robert Fisk
The Evidence We Were Never Meant to See About the Douma Gas Attack
Basav Sen
The Terrifying Global Implications of Modi’s Re-Election
Peter Certo
Pardoning War Criminals is a Terrible Way to Honor Veterans
Howard Lisnoff
When War Crimes are Pardoned
Joe Emersberger
Guillaume Long on Ecuadorian President Moreno’s betrayal of Assange and the Citizens Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
Monsanto, Scientific Deception and Cancer
Elizabeth Keyes
Demonstrating for Assange in NYC or Life on Pluto
Mike Ferner
Another Empire’s Boot Stomps on Ireland
Lizzett Talavera
Toward a Culture of Animal Protection in Cuba
Ed Sanders
Monsanto is Evil: a Glyph
Elliot Sperber
The Snow Leopards of Central Park 
Weekend Edition
May 24, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Iran, Venezuela and the Throes of Empire
Melvin Goodman
The Dangerous Demise of Disarmament
Jeffrey St. Clair
“The Army Ain’t No Place for a Black Man:” How the Wolf Got Caged
Richard Moser
War is War on Mother Earth
Andrew Levine
The (Small-d) Democrat’s Dilemma
Russell Mokhiber
The Boeing Way: Blaming Dead Pilots
Rev. William Alberts
Gaslighters of God
Phyllis Bennis
The Amputation Crisis in Gaza: a US-Funded Atrocity
David Rosen
21st Century Conglomerate Trusts 
Jonathan Latham
As a GMO Stunt, Professor Tasted a Pesticide and Gave It to Students
Binoy Kampmark
The Espionage Act and Julian Assange
Kathy Deacon
Liberals Fall Into Line: a Recurring Phenomenon
Jill Richardson
The Disparity Behind Anti-Abortion Laws
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Chelsea Manning is Showing Us What Real Resistance Looks Like
Zhivko Illeieff
Russiagate and the Dry Rot in American Journalism
Norman Solomon
Will Biden’s Dog Whistles for Racism Catch Up with Him?
Yanis Varoufakis
The Left Refuses to Get Its Act Together in the Face of Neofascism
Lawrence Davidson
Senator Schumer’s Divine Mission
Thomas Knapp
War Crimes Pardons: A Terrible Memorial Day Idea
Renee Parsons
Dump Bolton before He Starts the Next War
Yves Engler
Canada’s Meddling in Venezuela
Katie Singer
Controlling 5G: A Course in Obstacles
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Beauty of Trees
Jesse Jackson
Extremist Laws, Like Alabama’s, Will Hit Poor Women the Hardest
Andrew Bacevich
The “Forever Wars” Enshrined
Ron Jacobs
Another One Moves On: Roz Payne, Presente!
Christopher Brauchli
The Offal Office
Daniel Falcone
Where the ‘Democratic Left’ Goes to Die: Staten Island NYC and the Forgotten Primaries   
Julia Paley
Life After Deportation
Sarah Anderson
America Needs a Long-Term Care Program for Seniors
Seiji Yamada – John Witeck
Stop U.S. Funding for Human Rights Abuses in the Philippines
Shane Doyle, A.J. Not Afraid and Adrian Bird, Jr.
The Crazy Mountains Deserve Preservation
Charlie Nash
Will Generation Z Introduce a Wizard Renaissance?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail