Friday, 23 October 2015

Language Works/Globalisation Works

The phrase “we need to make Globalisation work for poor people”, on first hearing, sounds utterly vacuous – a marketing term, devoid of real meaning.
Like almost anything Tony Blair has ever said in public.
On closer inspection, however, it is far, far worse.
Like almost anything Tony Blair has ever said in public.
My immediate reaction was to assume that what Blair actually meant to say was “We need to make poor people work for Globalisation.”
Because the opposite, what he actually said, would be akin to declaring “We need to make slavery work for slaves.”

Tony Blair, in fact, caused something of an existential (or, at least, academic) crisis for me, around the turn of the century.  I was relatively comfortable with the notion that little or nothing in art or social interaction could be sincere or literal…it was a laugh, or allegorical, or ironic or abstract.  But, in politics?  In international relations?  In trade treaties?  Surely to hold the powerful to account we need to understand the language they use. 

The turn of the century was a politically dangerous time. 
The end of the 20th century, the bloodiest and most destructive ever (so far) brought some self-congratulatory claims about how NATO and the UK military were a force for good in the world, apparently taken seriously by those writers and political/military leaders who proclaimed it.  This shook my previous Media Studies Bullshit belief in the aforementioned hip flippancy of language.  Did these motherfuckers actually believe this shit?  Is it possible that Tony Blair really believed that “globalisation” could work for “poor people”, even as he planned to restrict immigration (for poor people), bomb countries (full of poor people) and participated in huge trade deals (not generally designed for the benefit of poor people)?
If so, I thought, I need to re-assess this postmodern “fluid meaning” idea.  It was like white people using the N-Word to describe themselves: it felt subversive, at first, like those who did it were edgy and cool and controversial.  Then those people thought about it for five minutes and mostly discarded it, after having had some “subversive” fun for a short while.  And then maybe thought about it a bit more and realised that, given the history, maybe those on the sharp, receiving end of that word could re-claim it for themselves, but that was not really the business of white suburban Brits, however interesting it might be academically. 
In short, it was a laugh for a while, and then we all thought about it and grew up.  Academia is not the world, and neither is y/our wee suburb.
(The comedian Richard Pryor said once “I don’t like these hip white dudes that try to say ‘Nigger’”.)

So, in my head, or in a seminar discussion, it’s perfectly plausible to argue that what politicians say in public doesn’t mean anything at all, but the more I listen to them, the more I realise this is bollocks.  They are absolutely meaningful, it’s just that such pronouncements can never be taken at face value.  Powerful people speak in symbolic language, they don’t need – and/or can’t afford – to be explicit.

The phrase “we need to make Globalisation work for poor people” was, in fact, the sub-heading of a white paper on ‘Eliminating World Poverty’.  The Orwellian language notwithstanding, the plan seemed to be (and this goes right to the heart of Tony Blair’s “philosophy”, if that’s not too elevated a term (narcissistic, megalomaniacal psychosis might be more appropriate, but I’m no psychiatrist)) to make poor people richer by carrying on with all the same policies that had made them poor in the first place, but giving a bit more aid money.  (Whilst simultaneously – and, apparently, coincidentally – also making very rich and powerful people even more rich and powerful.)

That this policy/pronouncement was taken even remotely seriously by the press, and public discourse in general, is indicative of the narrow parameters of debate in these circles.  The fact that by this decade, the new hammy actor playing the Prime Minister felt the need to publicly defend Capitalism, is indicative of the changing discourse around the economy.  All the “we need a new politics” talk of the last two elections was mostly an attempt to make minor adjustments in personality and public relations, while leaving vital policies and structures un-questioned.  Protest, I would argue, played a huge role in shifting the terms of the debate.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating:

It was Classic Blair: it caught his critics between critiquing the policy, as if it were a Real Thing, and denouncing it out of hand, as if it were mere sophistry.  And it challenged – taunted, even – anyone who would contradict it, with the implicit rhetorical question: “What, so you don’t want to help poor people?”  As political critics rushed to declare how much they want to help the poor, they were diverted from questioning the policy, busy answering un-asked (and less significant) questions about the sincerity of this mission.

Blair did a similar thing with regard to the Iraq War – another area in which activism, popular opinion and the media combined to shift the debate from “Is Saddam Hussein’s regime a threat?” to “Should we invade Iraq?” to “How can we stop the invasion of Iraq?” to “Are you fucking mental?  DON’T attack Iraq”.

In one interview, batting away the question of oil, and its relevance to the war, Blair said “If it were about oil, I could just negotiate a deal with Saddam”, as if it were just a question of two businessmen concluding a deal, with no geopolitical considerations, and no others involved.  The important point about that, which nobody (not even Paxman) pushed, was that no one ever accused Blair of trying to get cheaper Castrol GTX to put in his limo – the suspicion was that he was helping the US government, and more to the point, US corporations, carve up Iraq, install a client government and control the resources of the country.  The issue was never access, it was control, as everyone (at least in retrospect) surely knows.
Now that even The Daily Mail has got in on the act, revealing what lots and lots of people were saying in 2002/2003, that particular debate is presumably concluded, and we can move on to arrest and prosecution.
The 1960s US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara famously said “Never answer the question you’ve been asked; answer the question you wish you’d been asked.”  Blair employed this approach by being exasperated with supposedly stupid questions about oil that he wasn’t asked, and then going into great details about those he was asked, always careful to avoid the most important points he was being asked about.
“Globalisation is a euphemism for imperialism” is a phrase I have used before, first delivered by a lecturer of mine.  (A lecturer, incidentally, in a class on ‘Third World Studies’, a name which in itself provides another neat example of how language changes over time.  The same class now would presumably be called Development Studies.)
That said, I still roll my eyes every time someone says “It’s a bit random, isn’t it?”, or “I literally just got here.  Literally.”
The assault of powerful people on language will continue; do we really want to join in with it?

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