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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.

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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.

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