Marnie Holborow, who lectures in Applied Linguistics at DCU and is author of a new book on ‘Neoliberalism and Language’, discusses the political uses of words.
Language is a powerful weapon. Collateral damage was used during the Gulf War to describe dead or wounded civilians. Israel military commanders described the massacre of 1,200 Palestinians as mowing the lawn. Drone operators, from the safety of the Creech Air Force base outside Las Vegas, describe the humans that they kill as bug splats. The US military talks about shaking and baking for flushing people out with phosphorus and then killing them with high explosives.
These ways of using language remove the human element; dehumanising acts require dehumanising language.
And everyday language is used to make us think about the world in ways that suit those that run it. When an illness like rheumatoid arthritis is described as a competitive market, a medicine like insulin as a market- leader, or when we are told that Dublin Bus is in need of competitive tension from private operators, language is being used to turn sickness, medicine or a public transport system into a commodity with a price tag.
People are defined in terms of buying and selling. Everyone is now a customer: patients, passengers, phone users, students and school children. Even asylum seekers are described by the Irish Immigration Service as their customers, although they must be the worst treated customers in the world.
Irish Water carefully chooses to speak of its customers because they want to make it natural to think that we have to pay for water. In this language the market is elevated to the status of god. The government must listen to the markets, the election of the Tories has reassured the markets. Market entrepreneurs now drive public policy.
The old Department of Labour has morphed in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. The Taoiseach tells us that ‘after one of the darkest periods in the history of the state’ (caused, by the way, by a mad market) ‘entrepreneurship has never been more important to the country, its people and its future’.
Richard Bruton wants Ireland to be ‘one of the most entrepreneurial nations in the world’. We have the Irish Entrepreneur of the Year courtesy of giant multinational Ernst and Young and on TV the budding entrepreneurs of Dragons’ Den. Students are encouraged to take entrepreneurship modules as part of their degrees and university staff told to think of themselves, even if they teach literature, as entrepreneurs. The latest thing is social entrepreneurship promoted by the government to allow the shortfall of public services to be met by willing local people.
The use of language to pull the wool over our eyes comes to the fore in times of crisis because more is at stake. Austerity is according to Brendan Howlin ‘not a choice’, but ‘learning to live within our means’, as if austerity is the logical response to everyone having over-spent and lost the run of themselves during the boom.
A more spectacular linguistic trick was the translation of the toxic debts of six private banks into sovereign debt and, in one fell swoop, into our responsibility. This paved the way for the cause of the national debt being attributed to public sector spending. Still today, the myth continues. Restoration of public sector pay, we are warned, must not return to pre-crash unsustainable levels as if it was the cause of the problem.
In other words, language, as it is put across in public speech, is one of the main ways that the ruling class gets their ideas across. Neoliberal language makes it seem that the capitalist market is the only possible way society can be organised.
So when we hear the need to be entrepreneurial or market competitive we should remember that this is the language of capital and capitalists, not ours. That is why in periods of struggle, their language is challenged across society.
As a result of the social struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s racist and sexist words were ditched and black and women became universally adopted. In the anti- capitalist movement, the language of social values and solidarity were taken up by political movements from Latin America to Europe. Our world is not for sale was a popular slogan because it expressed an alternative to the profit-seeking market, just as Right to Water in Ireland or People over Markets in Greece do today.
Slogans are an important way of taking on capitalist ‘common sense’ and forging for ourselves words with meanings that reflect the kind of world we want to build.