Sunday, 6 February 2011

5 reasons why Owen Jones is talking bollocks about language and the left

I apologise for the uncharacteristically blunt headline, but I'm taking advice from Owen Jones, whose blog post 'The left needs to watch its language' recommends blunt, direct language that people can easily digest.

While there's plenty of valid advice therein, Owen's post strikes me as a case of setting up a 'straw man' argument in order to make your views sound far more original/heretical/iconoclastic than they actually are.

1. Owen urges us to 'drop the jargon', claiming: 'you’re trying to convince people, not write a university seminar paper. Skim-read a left-wing paper (I dare you), and all too often it seems that only someone with at least one postgraduate qualification can really understand what’s been talked about.'

There are only two possibilities here. Either Owen has never read a left-wing paper or he's never read an academic essay. The fact is the language of Socialist Worker/Morning Star/The Socialist has bugger all in common with the great bulk of academic writing. A typical contributor to a socialist paper is someone who is smart enough to write an academic piece if they wanted, but they know a different style is required for a newspaper.

2. Owen writes: 'Raid the language of the right. Why not? They started it, nicking words like ‘progressive’. The cheek. They use words like ‘modernising’ (privatising stuff) and ‘reforming’ (cutting services and sacking people), because it helps paint the left as dinosaurs and the ‘real’ conservatives. So how about we start talking about bringing the railways into the 21st century, for example?'

This misses the point. The Right nicked the language of the Left because they wanted to sound more, well, 'progressive' than they actually were. In fact it's the Blairites who mastered the art of linguistic re-definition.

Why? Because they wanted to win people's consent to right-wing policies, but the people whose consent they wanted were not right-wing. Their linguistic contortions were part of the rightward shift of 'New Labour': pretty words to disguise the bullshit beneath.

So why would we want to steal their language? There's no political basis for doing so. Saying we should 'bring the railways into the 21st century' is empty and meaningless. It's supposed to be - that's the point. It's a way of evading action while sounding good.

We on the left should prioritise the specific over the vague because we actually stand for something, and have no reason to conceal what we stand for - and we want definite action, not inaction disguised as radicalism.

3. Owen claims: 'Some left-wing activists think that being radical means being contrary and iconoclastic, and waging war against mainstream culture. You get articles slagging off football, or monogamous relationships, or other things that most working-class people hold dear.'

In my 17 years as a socialist activist I've read a handful of articles that fit the category of elitist puritanism. I still recall a silly, dismissive article on sport in Socialist Worker precisely because it was ununsual, not typical.

Owen at this point links to a New Statesman piece by Helen Lewis Hasteley, who I've never heard of, as evidence. She doesn't strike me - on the basis of this article - as having anything to do with the radical left. It's like bemoaning the problems of the Labour left then offering a Richard Littlejohn rant as an examplar of what's wrong.

4. Owen tells us: 'Get your priorities straight'. He explains: 'Look, I marched against the Iraq war about a dozen times. International issues are important, particularly when they are a matter of life and death, or when a government is repressing people ‘on our behalf’. But the problem is the left often emphasises international issues at the total exclusion of things that matter to working-class people on a day-to-day basis: like housing, workers’ rights, low pay, jobs, and so on.'

There's a somewhat obvious problem here. If Owen has marched against the Iraq war a dozen times he'll know those marches could be rather big. One of them was two million, by far the largest demo in British history.

Suggesting Iraq or other international issues didn't, or don't, matter to working class people is therefore plainly absurd. It is wrong to juxtapose 'international issues' with those topics, sometimes referred to as 'bread and butter issues', which 'real people' care about.

Socialists have very good political reasons for giving prominence to key international issues, not just on occasions but consistently, and I won't patronise readers by recycling those reasons here. The radical left does of course  address - in its publications and websites, and through its activities - 'bread and butter' issues so this is in any case a rather-divorced-from-reality argument.

5. Finally, a general observation. Owen sometimes writes as if left-wing activists are a breed apart, separate from the working class. Er, no.

These activists (and the bloggers and journalists and contributors to left-wing press) are constantly interacting with the world beyond radical left activism - and the people in it. If you have a job - pretty much any job - this is unavoidable. My colleagues and the kids and teenagers I teach are a daily dose of reality (sometimes a bit much, in the case of bottom set Year 9 on a Friday afternoon).

Let's ditch the shallow caricatures of socialists, even if it is from an ostensibly sympathetic perspective. Such a shame, too, because Owen's a good writer and a number of his tips are correct. It's true there are those who could learn a few things here, but let's not pretend they are typical.


1 comment:

  1. A Concerned Lefty20 January 2012 at 02:48

    I'm sorry to say Owen Jones is correct... We on the left ponce around using all these big words and language that would be good for someone who's read up on the issues and is popping along to a University Lecture. If we are trying to ENGAGE the working class, (whom I'm sorry to say haven't had the same opportunities to many of us on the Left) you need to distill the arguments into such a form so people who AREN'T taking PhDs at UoL can understand exactly the gist of what we're saying and if they could, they'd probably agree... hell, even I find it difficult to understand what people are saying and I'm an undergrad. Because of our big long intellectual dickwaving meetings, all we attract are the same people who are more interested in pontificating and theorising than actually trying to make true change (which is what being a Socialist Revolutionary is all about, amiright?) And on point 5... we're not engaging the working class as well as we should be, a lot of socialists are worlds apart from the working class and this is completely connected to the fact that all we do is talk about all this high-brow stuff in the most complicated manner possible without trying to distill it to its simplest form that makes a hell of a lot of sense if you explain it without the fancy words and terminology.

    Secondly, He is correct in the sense that we DO need to get our priorities straight... They're about to invade Iran, the cuts are happening deep and harshly, but we're all standing around thinking we're all better than each other because they're a certain group that we're not. As Tony Benn said, we need to tie our ropes together, stop fighting each other and face the real enemy, i.e. the Tories and warmongers, instead of this infernal bickering amongst ourselves over the most stupid and banal things that don't even matter in the bigger picture. Thirdly, a point of my own... Today I attended a Stop the War meeting, now as a lefty I am aware of the sectarian issues we have with each other, but CPGB-ML members sat through the entire meeting talking over others and sighing in an affected way over people's comments of whom they felt were 'stupid' or 'wrong'. As someone who is aware (and extremely bored) of this issue on the left, I was only mildly annoyed, but extremely pissed off as to what that would look like to someone who had just turned up out of interesting in becoming involved in a united front... it would look stupid, mean nothing to them and probably drive them away. if we want to attract new people to our movement, we need to stop the sectarian bitching, start talking in a way people who aren't taking a PhD at the UoL can grasp and stick to the issues.

    I'll understand if you reject the posting of this, but I feel its good to have healthy debates about these things.