Our liberty lies in the choice of words we use
This interview was originally published in French. Click here to read the original link.
What do you think of the incessant use of adjectives such as "green", "responsible", "sustainable", "ethical", especially when talking about capitalism, consumption or growth?
A.D: In the examples that you just cited, the use of adjectives is simply intended to distract us from the nouns of capitalism, growth or consumption, when these are terms that are strong and do not require the addition of an adjective. In another manner, when we say of a revolution that it is digital, creative, or managerial, the mind will tend to fixate on the qualifying term, rather than on the name: the revolution.
There can be no green, sustainable capitalism, or anything else: capitalism is capitalism.
Is this incessant use of adjectives a way of emphasizing the scope of concepts?
A.D: Yes: the adjective has the ability to minimise the importance of the noun, even to make it forgotten in favour of the element it highlights. When you point out that something is sustainable, the speaker is invited to be enchanted by this adjective. If he's not critical, he will succumb to the expression as if it made sense.
The adjective is adjustable: its importance is determined by the speaker himself. For example, friendship is friendship and if you're a friend, you're a friend, period. While being friendly is measurable, you can be a little, a lot, or not at all. What the adjective allows is leeway for the speaker, and this is its great strength. Whereas with a noun alone, one is obliged to assume the thing as such.
By passing off ideas as something they are not, individuals are required to take responsibility for themselves.
I am also interested in nouns from their root: governance, migrance, etc. The ending “ance” marks the present participle, a tense that does not punctuate any moment in French. This is an ahistorical time, which hovers above history, as the neologisms “migrance”, “survival”, “militance” clearly show. The creation of nouns from the present participle and the systematic addition of adjectives to strong terms stem from the same desire to do away with everything that can get in the way in a word, everything that is not smooth and does not consensus.
In searching for a consensus, these statements could therefore mean anything... and their opposite?
A.D: The use of these nouns and adjectives makes it possible to express antithetical ideas. When we talk about green, sustainable, responsible or compassionate capitalism, we attach adjectives to "capitalism" that are absolutely foreign to it! Capitalism consists of concentrating capital and allowing its unlimited growth within a concerted and organized regulatory, legislative and jurisdictional framework. This accumulation benefits an oligarchy: there cannot therefore be a capitalism dominated by a majority. And neither can there be green, sustainable capitalism, or anything else: capitalism is capitalism. The unlimited recourse to adjectives therefore makes it possible to qualify capitalism for what it is not and in doing so, it is protected.
What are the consequences of using this type of process?
A.D: By passing off ideas as something they are not, individuals are required to take responsibility for themselves. People are told to "take it upon yourself to accept these instructions as if you were giving them to yourself". And yet, in reality, people cannot make their own decisions because their room for manoeuvre is so limited.
Those who manipulate us are not so much the words as those who have the intention and the power to sow words in the public space.
We see this for "self-employed" or salaried workers, for example, who are misrepresented as associates or partners. We tell them “I will hire you, minimum wage or little more, here are your constraints in terms of availability and flexibility and then the rest: see yourself as a small SME. Take it upon yourself to be efficient, set yourself targets, determine your objectives, develop your own methods and basically free us - us authorities and us employers - to give you instructions, free us to be responsible for orders that you would be given, the responsibility of governing you. Dominate yourselves in addition to being subject to domination”. And this is presented as a given, as a step forward and even as a mark of respect, a kind of openness, horizontality. We are going to talk to each other ... We can see that this is an abuse in terms of morality and honesty. There is something about manipulation.
Is it that words manipulate us?
A.D: Words are without intention. They are in tension with memory, uses, etymologies. In this sense, we do not have the words, we do not have them, they are the ones who have us. When we use a word, we come to terms with a whole network of meanings and logical chains. The terms we use every day - like "democracy", "nation", "race", "capitalism" - take us beyond what we want to use them. But we are obliged to speak and it is not a question of liquidating these terms. Rather, it's about understanding that our freedom lies in the choice of words we use. To choose a word is to come to terms with it. And not to believe that you are doing what you want with words, believing yourself to be smarter.
Those who manipulate us are therefore not so many words as those who have the intention and the power to sow words in public space and on a very large scale, passing them off as obvious. Even though they are the result of choices: they have been privileged over others and embody biases that are passed off as the order of things. We can see that politics, especially in France, is a matter of semantics.
Is this the newspeak? The deliberate use of new terms on purpose in order to gain insidious acceptance of the biases they incorporate?
A.D: We talk about novlangue (newspeak) today without necessarily being aware of the origin of the word, which was developed by George Orwell in his novel 1984. However, this term is part of a particular context, that of a coarse dystopia. In this totalitarian world, which operates in a brutal, domineering and manipulative manner, the aim is to remove certain realities from people's consciousness by inverting the meaning of terms into their opposite. This is like saying that "war is peace", for example.
It is true that this phenomenon can be observed to some extent today. To say, for example, that France is a country that respects human rights when we see the way the police beat up demonstrators who have their hands torn off or are blindfolded is to use a term to designate its opposite. But the concept of novlangue (newspeak) is not sufficient to describe the processes by which power leads us to think, speak and decide through a single prism: its own.
Does the language of politics govern our understanding and perception of reality?
A.D: Our relationship with the world is today biased, not so much by the use of words that say the opposite, but simply by the use of one vocabulary to the detriment of another. For example, the word governance replaces the word politics. As soon as we speak of governance, we are drawn into a whole series of premises and implicit meanings which lead us to erase the whole question of public services, citizenship and rights, in favour of a managerial relationship to the world.
Words thus lead the gaze in a certain direction and produce blind spots: elements that we are unable to see. It is therefore essential to take an interest in their history, their evolution and their connotations, otherwise we are condemned to a form of ignorance.
Do you have an example? A word whose history and evolution of meaning have had major consequences?
A.D: Precisely: the word governance. By taking an interest in this notion, I went back to the Middle Ages, when the term fell into oblivion. It was Margaret Thatcher who marked a turning point in the use of the term in public discourse, a few years after it was reinvest by private enterprise theorists like Richard Eells. For multinationals, governance makes it possible to think about the organization and distribution of power with new actors commonly called “stakeholders”: shareholders, directors, middle managers, employees, contractors, etc. etc. Applying "governance" to the state is therefore to assimilate it to a business. The organization of society and public services - public health, land use planning, culture, etc. - is designed on the model of private enterprise. For my part, I consider that to be completely unsuitable. It's like trying to learn tennis from a cookbook…
A Quebecoise philosopher and economist, Alain Deneault has written several books, including Noir Canada, Offshore, Faire l'économie de la haine, Paradis sous terre, "Gouvernance", Paradis fiscaux: la filière canadienne, Médiocratie, Une escroquerie légalisée and De quoi Total est-elle la somme? Since 2016, he has been programme director at the Collège international de philosophie in Paris.