Capitalism and words

Be a user, not a consumer: how capitalism has changed our language | Owen Hatherley
Guardian Unlimited Books / by Owen Hatherley / 40min ago

Capitalism is altering our language – and Raymond Williams saw it coming more than 50 years ago

According to a report by researchers at the University of Los Angeles, English has become a peculiarly capitalist language – though they don’t quite put it like that. They used the somewhat blunt instrument of feeding 1.5m English-language books into Ngram Viewer, a tool that catalogues phrase usage, in order to count the frequency that words were used. The results proved that over the last 200 years there has been an ever-increasing use of particularly acquisitive words: “get”, “unique”, “individual”, “self”, “choose”; while over the same period “give” and “obliged” decreased. The pattern was only broken briefly in the relatively egalitarian years between the 40s and 70s. For the researchers, this shows the results of the English-speaking countries moving from “a predominantly rural, low-tech society to a predominantly urban, hi-tech society”.

Some academics would rather not use the c-word. What has happened over those 200 years was the rise to dominance of capitalism, which obviously changed, and changes, our language and thinking. The researchers discovered a more algorithmic and superficial version of something that the Welsh socialist writer Raymond Williams had already tried to uncover – the way that English had become a class language, where loaded words (and, as he often pointed out, pronunciations) were accepted as “standard”.

In Culture and Society (1958) Williams forced the reader to think about certain keywords whose meaning was usually assumed: “class”, “democracy”, “art” and “industry” were old terms which had acquired almost entirely new meanings. Over the same 200 years studied by the LA researchers, “artist”, for instance, had gone from meaning “a skilled person” to signifying “a special kind of person”, working in the “imaginative” or “creative” arts.

In The Long Revolution (1961), Williams left literature behind to find the roots of class discourse in the English language itself, where French and Anglo-Saxon words were always weighted differently: “we can trace the minor relics of class prejudice in the lasting equation of moral qualities with class names: base, villain, boor and churl for the poor” – mostly terms suggesting “low” birth – while “gentle”, “proud” and “rich” were aristocratic terms of French origin (from gentil, prud and riche).

In Communications (1962), Williams looked more closely at the use of martial metaphors in the press – “bomb”, “hit”, “battle”, “bout” – macho terms that immediately attempt to determine the reader’s opinion on a given subject without explicitly doing so. In The Long Revolution, Williams also took a closer look at the word “consumer”, a word we now use entirely unthinkingly to describe the “consumption” of everything from shoes to food to health care. “It is clear why ‘consumer’ as a description is so popular … a considerable and increasing part of our economic activity goes to ensuring that we consume what industry finds it convenient for us to produce. As this tendency strengthens, it becomes increasingly obvious that society is not controlling its economic life, but is in part being controlled by it.”

Other terms, seemingly equivalent, would not actually mean the same thing – if we were “users” instead of “consumers”, he argues, “we might look at society very differently, for the concept of use involves general human judgments – we need to know how to use things and what we are using them for… whereas consumption, with its crude hand-to-mouth patterns, tends to cancel these questions, replacing them by the stimulated and controlled absorption of the products of an external and autonomous system”.

Williams expanded this into Keywords (1976), an entire “vocabulary” of political English. What would a contemporary edition of Keywords look like? I suspect it would find “consumer” used to an even more all-encompassing degree, and a menagerie of strange positive terms, appearing unquestioned in the language without their implications being obvious. Nowadays we use words like “regeneration”, “social network”, “social enterprise” frequently and often without thinking – all of them bestow particular moral qualities as soon as the word has been said.

Even a word as central to the current debate as “austerity” comes with its own bias: originally from the Old French austerite meaning “harshness or cruelty”, it carries in Britain also a positive meaning, being associated with the self-restraint at the expense of the public good which was required by the wartime economy, when nowadays it is used to justify policies that effect the exact opposite. But to reveal the pernicious assumptions behind these professedly innocuous words will take more than a sophisticated search engine.

Owen Hatherley


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