Thursday 29 September 2016

The Uses of Words in Politics

Yesterday CU wrote on the use / abuse made by Corbyn of the phrase "so-called free market", with several comments ensuing around whether he was in fact challenging the degree to which markets are indeed free. 

I suspect there is something else going on, it's an Orwellian thing to shift the terms of trade (as part of the McDonnell strategy), and thus the whole political framework, or Overton Window if you prefer .

In particular they are trying to overturn the Blairite list of shibboleths** - under which the Labour Party member on the rostrum at Conference wasn't to permit criticism of free markets, nuclear deterrent, council house sales, etc to cross their lips: and, of course, not even allowed to utter the word 'socialism' at all.  I'd say that last one has been quite effectively resuscitated now, just this very week.

It's hardly new: we see more-or-less successful manifestations this strategy going on all the time, not least in the attempts to ram home the 'PC' ethos.  Orwell, of course, (in the famous Newspeak essay at the end of 1984) claimed that if the word 'freedom' was never used, the proles wouldn't have access to the very concept.  From wiki (first quotation is from Orwell himself):
"the purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever."  For example, the word "free" still existed in Newspeak but could only be used in terms of something not being possessed, as in "the dog is free from lice," or "this field is free from weeds." It could not be used in terms of being able to do as one pleases, as in "free choice" or "free will" since these concepts no longer existed. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of though.
Of course, the flipside is the coinage of clever new phrases - an American speciality - to facilitate whatever it is your are pushing, be that by advertising copywriters or political speechwriters.

As it happens, I'd dispute the assertion that this kind of linguistic endeavour could successfully eradicate concepts: although of course (a) that doesn't stop people trying and (b) the lack of a handle or helpful phrase can certainly inhibit dicussion etc.  But - to use Orwell's own example against him - if a Newspeak user knows the meaning of the dog is free from lice, then at very least I'd like to be free from the Party is something a subtle language-user could understand by metaphorical extension, even if it were to be a novel and even alien usage.  That's how poetry works: and explanations of complex new ideas in science, etc etc.  Happens all the time. 

** Bizarrely, Gordon Brown banned the use of the phrase 'market failure' in connection with anything that happened in the economy while he was in charge. I know this sounds odd but it is true: I was once asked to advise the government of that period on a strange incident in the UK energy market, and was solemnly told by the civil servants that whatever I concluded, the report must not contain those dreaded words ...


Anonymous said...

Noticed this when they were discussing Brexit last evening. Everyone seems to be doing it.

Gone is "the single market" and hello to "Zero Tariff Area". Perfectly correct in that they want to be able to sell at no additional cost while not necessarily producing goods and services to a EU norm / standard.

It's a funny old world

dearieme said...

BritRevKomJez is a hoot, isn't he?

Nick Drew said...

I think you may have started something there, dearieme

Electro-Kevin said...

The word 'extreme' is used casually. Conservative backbenchers are now classed as 'extreme right'.

This is a wilful and dishonest smear calculated to put ordinary opinions off limits.

Electro-Kevin said...

Anon - The 'Zero Tariff' area may be tariff free but it is not cost free.

To be part of it we already have to be prepared to import EU poverty, in the form of freedom of movement of its unemployed.

Soon there will be redistributive taxation via fiscal union and EU bank bailouts.

K said...

"Zero Tariff Area" = tariffs = customs = EUCU

Did you know that even Turkey is in the EUCU?

The customs union, the single market, and the EU are not the same things.