Friday, 17 May 2013

Say What? A few thoughts on language and the Left

Here is my article in the new issue of Scottish Left Review. Some of it is adapted from previous material on Luna17.

There is one thing that most people forget about the Poll Tax: it wasn’t called the Poll Tax. It was called the Community Charge. But nobody remembers it as the Community Charge, do they? The left’s preferred name for it – Poll Tax – entered popular usage and helped create the widespread rejection of the policy. The Scottish left played a particular role in this – and more generally in initiating a mass movement – as it was introduced north of the border a year earlier than in England.

Similarly, if you do an online search for ‘bedroom tax’ you might discover that the government doesn’t call it any such thing. It is in fact the ‘under-occupancy penalty’. That’s the sort of term that you forget as soon as you have read it. ‘Bedroom tax’ is much catchier. Names and phrases like these have the capacity to mobilise people in opposition: nobody will ever join a protest against an ‘under-occupancy penalty’, but they will join protests against a bedroom tax.

The war in Iraq, too, was always a linguistic battlefield. Its supporters called it anything except a war: it was an ‘intervention’, quite possibly a ‘humanitarian intervention’. As the Stop the War Coalition’s name indicates, our side did the opposite: we rammed home the fact that it was a war, we labelled it (correctly) as ‘illegal’, and we linked words like ‘war’, ‘bombing’ and ‘invasion’ to powerful visual imagery (see, for example, David Gentleman’s powerful use of splattered blood in Stop the War posters at the time).

Language is a vital part of how political controversies are perceived and discussed by large numbers of people. It therefore makes a difference when the left successfully finds an accessible way of talking about issues, framing them in a way that increases our influence in the wider debate.

In many ways we are swimming against the stream, due to the pernicious influence of right-wing media representations and the language deployed by mainstream politicians. Notice how words like ‘welfare’, ‘benefits’ and ‘immigration’ have become so ideologically loaded – they are almost assumed to be negative, rather than merely neutral (or, for that matter, positive). But that doesn’t mean we are resigned to irrelevance – we can challenge and subvert this ‘common sense’ language, and give expression to a kind of ‘good sense’ that is widespread among millions of people.

This is not to subscribe to a kind of linguistic determinism and suggest that language is responsible for the outcome of political struggles. It is merely one factor, but it is one that can often be neglected on the contemporary left. Also, it does not mean – or shouldn’t mean – a patronising ‘dumbing down’ whereby we assume that a broad working class audience can’t possibly understand words of more than one syllable.

I would love to see three overlapping types of language consigned to history: cliches; pointlessly obscure terms and pseudo-academic expression; and retro phrase-mongering.

When I refer to cliches I’m thinking of a sort of left-wing auto-speak, i.e. things we say or write without really being conscious about whether they mean anything to our intended audience. We won’t be able to agree on which phrases do and don’t come under this category, but ‘fightback’ (as a noun) would definitely be on my list. So would ‘the class’, as in the line ‘It’s important we conduct political debates openly in front of the class’. The sentiment is fine, but if you really do want to conduct debates openly within a wider working class milieu then it would be a good start to think about how you express yourself.

Let’s also drop phrases like ‘ConDem’ which simply haven’t been picked up by anyone beyond the left. More controversially, I’d like to see the phrase ‘left unity’ ditched. Why does hardly anyone on the left realise that it is alienating to anyone who is not already part of the left? The implication, after all, is a cobbling together of the exisiting fragments of the left. Not a terribly attractive proposition, is it?

What about the problem of obscure and academic expression? I’m thinking here of writers and public speakers deploying language that is specific to the world of the academic social sciences. Most people who do this aren’t even aware they are doing it – they have become so influenced by that academic world they forget that many people are alienated by its language.

The radical left has never been more rooted in academia than it is today: most socialists who write for left-wing publications, have blogs or websites or get books published, are influenced by it. They are university lecturers, postgraduate (or sometimes undergraduate) students, or have previously been part of the academic milieu. The language they use is often, unsurprisingly, influenced by their social conditions.

Retro fetishism – the use of phrases that nobody in 2013 ever actually says – is especially problematic. A speaker at a recent anti-cuts rally in Newcastle – which was mostly characterised by superb, passionate and crystal-clear speeches – actually uttered the words “TUC general council, get off your knees” (a phrase that should not be heard outside the auditions for an Arthur Scargill biopic).

Another example: shop stewards. When almost nobody under the age of 35 has the faintest idea what a ‘shop steward’ is, why on earth would anyone on the left use the term? What’s wrong with ‘workplace reps’ or ‘grassroots activists’? Clinging to dead language is not the same thing as principled fidelity to a set of ideas for understanding the world. It is possible to remain faithful to a political tradition and communicate with people in a way they understand.

It is sometimes suggested that we should learn about political language from right-wingers. Here’s what Owen Jones once wrote:

‘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?’

There is something to be said for this, but we need to be careful. The right stole the language of the left because they wanted to sound more ‘progressive’ than they actually were. It was the Blairites who mastered the art of linguistic re-definition: 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.

Saying we should ‘bring the railways into the 21st century’ is valid if we then go on to outline what that means in policy terms, i.e. renationalisation. On its own it is empty and meaningless. It is an example of the vagueness characteristic of modern political language, which is hollow, managerial and devoid of ideas.

We on the left should prioritise the specific over the vague because we actually stand for something. We have no reason to conceal what we stand for – we want definite action, not inaction disguised as radicalism. We need to be concrete: language that lives and breathes, not dead or retro clichés and empty phrases.

Different styles are appropriate for different audiences. An accessible writing style is a greater priority when trying to reach a wide audience. But even in more theoretical or academic writing, perhaps targeted at a niche audience, it is surely better to write clearly and succinctly than to be convoluted and tedious.

Some jargon, however, is unavoidable. If someone writes about physics they must inevitably use some technical and scientific vocabulary, even if they are writing a popular science book or article for a lay, non-specialist audience. The same applies to politics. There are good reasons for having specialist vocabulary. A good example is the word ‘neoliberal’ – you can’t avoid using it. This is because there’s simply no other, better-known, word that describes the same thing. Of course, a good writer catering for readers unfamiliar with the concept will provide relevant examples or elaborate on what they mean with more familiar concepts.

Also, it’s good to expand our vocabulary. As children we learn and broaden our horizons precisely by picking up on new words and working out their meanings – not normally by looking them up in a dictionary, but by figuring them out from context or, quite simply, asking someone bigger than us the question ‘Why?’ The same is true for adults; and it applies to politics as it does to anything else. We therefore shouldn’t be afraid of sometimes using words our readers may not be familiar with.

It’s essential we avoid the trap of thinking ‘clear, direct and accessible’ has to mean basic, plain and unimaginative. When reading online it isn’t terribly difficult to look up an unfamiliar or obscure word. The problem comes when there’s so much arcane vocabulary that your reading is disrupted by frequently switching to Google search.

In general the weaknesses in left-wing language come from long years of relative isolation, which encourages defensive dogmatism and an insular focus on communicating with each other rather than reaching out. Hence the sterile vocabulary, pointlessly obscure references, and hopelessly dated expressions. But let’s not wait until an upturn in mass resistance before we give ourselves a language reality check. How we communicate is of paramount importance if we are to influence the direction of mass politics and shape a new left.



  1. This is a very interesting and thought-provoking article written in a very accessible style. Thanks!

    Can I suggest we include the words 'comrade' 'revolution' and... dare I say it, 'precariat' too? Not really sure about the last one it has some legitimacy I suppose. Even the use of the word 'left' should not be immune from scrutiny.

    1. It's not really possible to do without 'revolution' though - it retains such political significance. Also, it remains a dynamic and lively word. I don't think the same is true of 'fightback', for example, which just sounds flat and clichéd. And there's always the question of whether there's a better alternative.

      'Precariat' is a funny one. I don't like it, as it's part of a trend in analysing class that I simply disagree with, i.e. versions of class that dismiss the notion of the working class. I prefer to talk in terms of 'precariousness' being an important feature of modern working life: temporary contracts, insecurity, 'flexibility'. Rather than being a stale part of the left's vocabulary, 'precariat' is actually quite new. It is, though, one of those rather academic words that I bristle at, though if its proponents seriously think it represents a real social phenomenon then I suppose they consider it useful.

      As for 'comrades': it's a word I only use among comrades!

    2. OK you can keep 'revolution' with the proviso that Hannah Arendt's 'On Revolution' is taken into account - I think she is quite accessible and gives no examination of the Russian Revolution. I think we need to understand the word 'revolution' in the national context as much as if not more than the international context ... it is very interesting to look at the use of the word 'revolution' in British history ... . i.e. I don't think the Russian story is as useful as the British/English story in this country, it opens up an interesting dialectic between our positive and negative understandings of the way the word 'revolution' has been used and abused.

      Sorry but 'comrades' just reminds me of 'siblings' in 'The Life of Brian' a film that should certainly be watched by all 'revolutionaries'.

  2. Yep, some words make me cringe , hate "comrade", don't like "demand", do like "fightback", but will have to think about that one now! "The class" makes me want to hit someone. Am usually very peaceful.