Book Review: John Patrick Leary’s “Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism”

Late last year, I linked to a review of John Patrick Leary’s Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism (Haymarket Books), and put it on my list of “one more book to read.” And now I’ve finally gotten around to it! Which is no reflection on the book, or its cover; merely on my own scattered-brained schedule.

Leary describes (page 180) the genesis of Keywords as follows:

The project began when I was walking through a downtown Chicago food court with Lara Cohen and Christine Evans, complaining at length about how the word “innovation” seemed to be everywhere.

Who among us! More:

Christine suggested that instead of just getting mad, I make some small effort at getting even by writing up my criticisms this turned into a blog chronicling the other terms that celebrated profit and the rule of the market with guileless enthusiasm. This book is the product of her suggestion. Lara has been the first reader of virtually everything in book and its most important critic.

“Getting even” is certainly a strange motivation for starting a blog! MR SUBLIMINAL [snort!] And, after the usual list of thank-yous that befit an Acknowledgements section, this:

Thank you to my Wayne State students for your hopeful example of a generation unimpressed by the promises of an innnovation economy.

Let us, indeed, hope! Here is the list of terms that Leary, er, curated; I am sure, readers, that many will provoke a thrill — or shudder — of recognition in you all:

Table 1: Leary’s Word List

Accountability Grit
Artisanal Hack
Best practices Human capital
Brand Innovation
Choice Leadership
Coach Lean
Collaboration Maker
Competency Market
Conversation Meritocracy
Content Nimble
Creative Outcome
Curator Passion
Data Pivot
Design Resilience
Disruption Robust
DIY Share
Ecosystem Smart
Empowerment Solution
Engagement Stakeholder
Entrepreneur Sustainable
Excellence Synergy
Fail Thought leader
Flexible Wellness
Free

Continuing along with those who have not run screaming from the room: From Leary’s list, I have picked three words: Our favorite, innovation, and then market, and smart. I’ll provide an extract of the definition of each term, followed by a brief comment. I’ll conclude with some remarks on the book as a whole.

Innovation

From page 114 et seq.:

For most of its early life, “innovation” was a pejorative, used to denounce false prophets and political dissidents. Thomas Hobbes used innovator in the seventeenth century as a synonym for a vain conspirator… [Joseph Schumpeter], in his 1911 book The Theory of Economic Development… used “innovation” to describe capitalism’s tendnecy toward tumult and and transformation. He understood innovation historically, as a process of economic transformation, but for him this historical process relied upon a creative, private agent to carry it out… [T]he entrepreneur. s

Other than mystifying creativity [another term] itself — which now looks like an intuitive blast of inspiration, like a epiphany, and less like work — “innovation” gives creativity a specific professional, class dimension. It almost always applies to white-collar and profit-seeking activities… Rarely do we hear of the innovative carpenter, plumber, or homemaker….

The innovator is a model capitalist citizen for our times. But the object of most innovations today is more elusive [than in the days of Bell and Edison]: you can touch a telephone or a phonograh, but who can lay hands on an Amazon algorithm, a credit default swap, a piece of proprietary Uber code, or an international free trade agreement? As an intangible, individualistic, yet strictly white-collar trait, innovation reframes the cruel fortunes of an unequal global economy as the logical products of a creative, visionary brilliance. In this new guise, the innovator retains both a touch of the prophet and the hint of the confidence man.

That’s the stuff to give the troops! I especially like the part about innovative plumbing; after all, potable water and indoor plumbing have probably saved more lives than all the Lords of Silicon Valley combined! However, I could wish for the class analysis to be sharpened with respect to finance: For credit default swaps, to the executives (not just “white collar” workers) who committed accounting control fraud; for Uber, the executive crooks and liars who run the never-to-be profitable business. The intangibles are listed without being categorized in terms of political economy.

Market

From page 132 et seq.:

The market is both a widely dispersed metaphor of exchange and an economic term often used a a shorthand for capitalist forms of exchange, especially when modified by the word free [another term].

The word’s oldest meaning is its simplest: “A place where trade is conducted,” a meaning that appears in Old English as far back as the twelfth century. This spatial menaing of the marketplaceobviously persists in farmer’s markets, stock markets, and supermarkets, but today the market is something more abstract. The most recent definition given by the OED is “the competive free market; the operation of supply and demand.” Its first example of this usage comes from 1970, at the rough beginning of the neoliberal era….

When politicians speak of “market forces” they presume their autonomy; we are creatures of the market rather than the other way around. [But] in key moments of recent economic history — the United States Troubled Asset Relief Program, the European austerity measures to enforce “market discipline” on Greece — market autonomy is nowhere to be seen…

A synonym for exchange, whether intellectual or economic, an ontological feature of human social, an implacable natural force, or a cybernetic network reliant on a strong state: The market can be whatever you need it to be.

Once again, I would quarrel with the financial detail of the glossary item; the Treasury’s TARP, at $700 billion, was dwarfed by the real bailout outlay from the Fed, which has been estimated at $7.7 (Bloomberg) to $29 trillion (Levy Institute). Further, European austerity measures damaged not only Greece, but the EU’s entire southern tier, most definitely including Italy and Spain. Finally — although this may seem like a debater’s point — if “market” can be “whatever you need it to be,” then why can’t the left repurpose it? Leary himself instances the Communist Party of the USA’s ludicrous coinage of “the marketplace of ideas”; on the editorial pages of the New York Times, no less!) So “market” may be malleable, but it’s not that malleable. Why?

Smart

Finally, from page 158 et seq.:

Smart, used as an adjective modifying a technology, connotes an efficeint, clean, orderly pragmatism…. Smartness just works. Smart technologies, from munitions to ID cards to refrigerators to mattresses, usually do one of three related things, and often all three: they allow (or require) a user to remotely access a computer-linked network, they generate data [a term] about that user, and they act autonomously, or seem to do so…. In addition, smart means moderr. The six thousand dollar smart refrigerator that tells you when you’re out of milk shows that the key to a smart technology isn’t whether it is, in fact, a wise idea. To be smart is simply to belong ti the new age,…. Smart therefore presumes the political neutrality of the technologies we use.

I think Leary could have leaned a little harder on how crapified most “smart” technology is; readers will be familiar with the material we periodically post on the Internet of Sh*t. More centrally, I’m a bit stunned that Leary has limited smart to technology, foregoing the opportunity to perform a class analysis, as Thomas Frank did in Listen, Liberal!. From page 22:

Professionals are a high-status group, but what gives them their lofty position is learning, not income. They rule because they are talented, because they are smart. A good sociological definition of professionalism is “a second hierarchy” — second to the main hierarchy of money, that is — “based on credentialed expertise…

… presumed to be politically neutral, exactly as smart technology is. I think expanding the glossary to “smart” in Frank’s sense would have enriched the book. (Frank goes on to use “smart” throughout the book, with varying degrees of scorn and derision; used without irony, it’s a veritable tocsin of bad faith.)

Conclusion

Leary’s Keywords is definitely stimulating and well worth a read (and at $16.00, within reach for most). At the very least, you should run a mile from any public figure — whether executive or politician — who takes the words listed in Leary’s keywords (see Table 1) seriously.

My criticism takes the form of Table 2, which is the list of terms from the great Raymond Williams, whose book, also entiitled Keywords (PDF), was published in 1977, in the Eoneoliberal Period, and which Leary describes as a “classic”. Here are the terms defined by Williams:

Table 2: Williams’ Word List

Aesthetic Exploitation Originality
Alienation Family Peasant
Anarchism Fiction Personality
Anthropology Folk Philosophy
Art Formalist Popular
Behaviour Generation Positivist
Bibliography Genetic Pragmatic
Bourgeois Genius Private
Bureaucracy Hegemony Progressive
Capitalism History Psychologica
Career Humanity Racial
Charity Idealism Radical
City Ideology Rational
Civilization Image Reactionary
Class Imperialism Reader’s
Collective Improve Realism
Commercialism Individual References
Common Industry Reform
Communication Institution Regional
Communism Intellectual Representative
Community Interest Revolution
Consensus Isms Romantic
Consumer Jargon Science
Conventional Labour Select
Country Liberal Sensibility
Creative Liberation Sex
Criticism Literaturw Socialist
Culture Man Society
Democracy Management Sociology
Determine Masses Standards
Development Materialism Status
Dialect Mechanical Structural
Dialectic Media Subjective
Doctrinaire Mediation Taste
Dramatic Medieval Technology
Ecology Modern Theory
Educated Monopoly Tradition
Elite Myth Unconscious
Empirical Nationalist Underprivileged
Equality Native Unemployment
Ethnic Naturalism Utilitarian
Evolution Nature Violence
Existential Notes Wealth
Experience Ordinary Welfare
Expert Organic Western
Work

If you compare the tables, you will see that Williams’ list of keywords is both more abstract and more powerful, although some that we would expect to see today (“identity,” “rentier”) are missing. Of course, it’s extremely unfair of me to make compare Leary’s and Williams’ lists in this way; in fact, I admonish others not to complain that the author did not write a book about penguins, when the author plainly intended to write a book about crows. Leary promised a “field guide to the capitalist present, and he has delivered. Nevertheless, it would be nice to have a second edition of Keywords, written with Leary’s clarity, knowledgeability, and verve, and containing more powerful terms[1], most of which have been erased. Starting, perhaps, with “class.”

NOTES

[1] To be fair, Leary writes (page 5): “The words in my collection are generally more specific to the contemporary moment. They can also be understood as blockages — that is, they are the words we use when we aren’t calling things by their proper name. William’s collection has “management” and “labor”; this one has “leadership” and “human capital.” Tacklage is, I suppose, what happens, in addition to blockage, if some prole of an analyst uses the wrong (that is, the right) words. That said, can the truth be reverse engineered out of bullshit? One for the judges.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

63 comments

  1. Carolinian

    What, no “muscular”? Hillary probably like muscular because it made her sound more threatening. Nikki Haley took up the same gig with her stilletto heels.

    Reply
  2. flora

    Thanks for this post. Leary’s list looks like TED talk word cloud, imo. Ad speak. ha.

    I don’t know if Williams’ word list was based on ad speak of the 1970s. Maybe not.

    Many of Williams’ words place people in relation to each other or to the society, within society. Not getting that same larger society idea from the words in Leary’s ad speak list; it’s more ‘rational man’ alone against the world. Maybe that’s the essence of ad speak. “Army of one.” “Be all YOU can be.” etc.

    Or now: Be all the smart, innovative, creative, nimble, passionate leader YOU can be.” ;)

    Reply
  3. a different chris

    >Continuing along with those who have not run screaming from the room

    After the first couple words I averted my eyes and scrolled madly. So I’m still here!

    Reply
  4. Socal Rhino

    I think I’ve seen powerpoint presentations composed of just those words, almost.

    “Cadence” is one i do not see here.

    Reply
  5. ShamanicFallout

    I like ‘leverage’ and ‘drive’. I hear that a lot. Like ‘leveraging innovation to drive sales’. So smart!

    Reply
      1. Tom

        To leverage sth. means to use it, afaict.

        There’s something taboo about use. Even reasonable people will prefer usage over use.

        Reply
        1. Mark Anderlik

          My teeth grind when I hear the word “utilize.” It has been known to send me out of a room.

          Reply
  6. Amfortas the hippie

    please include in yer Language things like this:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbWRfBZY-ng

    for those who need it spelled out:
    https://www.thenation.com/article/we-cant-make-it-here/

    “And that’s how it is
    That’s what we got
    If the president wants to admit it or not
    You can read it in the paper
    Read it on the wall
    Hear it on the wind
    If you’re listening at all
    Get out of that limo
    Look us in the eye
    Call us on the cell phone
    Tell us all why”

    read the whole fucking thing.
    https://genius.com/James-mcmurtry-we-cant-make-it-here-anymore-lyrics

    more than ten years ago.
    things are much worse, now
    LISTEN

    Reply
    1. Hopelb

      They play this on wyep quite often and I am always thankful that my daughter is familiar with it because of that.

      Reply
  7. Susan the other`

    Thank you Lambert. You manage to keep me sane. This exposure to and of nonsense is very timely now. In the end all we have is a set of words which allow us to trust each other. We need to find them.

    Reply
  8. LifelongLib

    Most of Leary’s list is familiar from events I occasionally attended as a government IT specialist. “Wellness” overlaps with what I call the language of therapy (don’t know the “correct” term) e.g. “conversation”, “healing” which if anything is even more grating…

    Reply
  9. The Rev Kev

    Never thought about it before but in the use of the word ‘market’ today, it is like it is trying to replace the word ‘society’ and how it was used before. Is that what Thatcher meant? That there was no society but a ‘market’ instead?

    Reply
  10. ShamanicFallout

    I was just thinking that maybe we need rehabilitate the phrase (which appears in some famous document which we in theory revere) ‘promote the general welfare’. This connotes of course citizenship, commons, community. Everything that we desperately need.

    Reply
    1. Arizona Slim

      Nowadays, “community” really means something that you pay for. Or, if you’re not paying for it, well, you’re the product.

      Take, for example, online groups. They’re often called communities. You may have to pay to belong, but if you don’t, the data that you and your fellow “members” produce is being sold and resold.

      In the offline world, there are businesses that refer to their customers as members. And what are they members of? Well, my dear, that is a community.

      So, add these two words to the list of words that need to be taken outside and shot:

      Community
      Member

      Reply
  11. Alfred

    Sounds like a great book; anyhow a superb post. I’d have liked to see what Mr Leary has to say about ‘associate’ (noun; see also employee [archaic]) and service (noun; as in “software as a service”). Perhaps also “industry” (as in “the payday loans industry”) – which now I think has senses that Williams could not have imagined. Oh, and why not “Crapification?” On a more serious note, there is “Inequality.” (Hat tip to Tom, above, for the peerless “Vibrant.”)

    Reply
  12. dbk

    Perhaps worth adding: “gig economy,” “[education/health care, etc.] reform.”

    Yesterday I read a story in the NYT [“Love” section, formerly “Weddings”] about an Instagram “Influencer couple.”

    Some terms are euphemisms; others are buzzwords for the increasing privatization / shrinking of public space/services/goods (what was once known in some circles as the “theft of the commons,” but hey, I’m old).

    Such terms deserve to be called out repeatedly, with their actual meaning helpfully provided in (). Thus “ed reformers” (i.e. privatizers through various means such as ESAs, ETCs, vouchers) or “right to work,” which I finally decided to define as “right to fire at will.” Far-right think tanks are great sources of such terms; the bills ALEC writes for state legislatures are, too.

    My own special bugbear is “grit” (someone who still demonstrates faith in the system which has betrayed them).

    OTOH, such words are helpful in identifying the ideological perspective an author is coming from.

    Reply
  13. Jack Lifton

    I was wondering where the use of the phrase, “We need to have a conversation about…” In place of ” we should discuss” or “let’s talk about” came from. I find it ” to be a given” that anything that Kamala Harris says is meaningless noise these days. She seems to have acquired this mea!y mouth way of avoiding taking a position after only a short time in the Senate. She’s well on her way to being permanently inconsequential.

    Reply
    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      “We need to” or “you need to” is one of my pet peeves, because of the power-tripping assumption that my interlocutor gets to determine my needs (all for the greater good, of course! Always for the good!)

      Reply
  14. herman_sampson

    Need to add “competition”: the competitors implied are other businesses but what management means are their own employees.

    Reply
  15. La Peruse

    Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard was both pilloried and held in uncertain awe for his contribution to the English lexicon of ‘incentivising’, as in ‘incentivising and rewarding hard work’.

    Reply
  16. Steve H.

    Etymology shows that word meanings can change and even invert over time. Floyd Merrell looked at the poetics of ambiguity, where 1:1 is unambiguous, 1:2 can have two meanings (a dog growling may be warning or playing), to n:n where meaning is entirely contextual.

    There are people, and places, and objects which have changed in affect for me, usually through an aversive experience. We see this with words; for example, ‘socialist’ will always carry resonances of fascism since Adolph called his thing ‘National Socialism’. As useful as ‘class’ is it, carries Marxist overtones, which causes reflexive affect for some. ‘Well’ carries positive connotation in some evangelical circles.

    Words can get stink on them from dogwhistles. Will you argue about old words, or avoid quagmires with Smart Innovative people by creating clever and fresh new words with less historical accretion? That’s what Shakespeare did and we’re still looking at him four hundred years later. As a friend said to me in a conversation about demented mothers, “You’ve got to let’em go.” You can still love them, but if they control the conversation, there madness lies.

    Reply
  17. Svante

    All the BEST werds?

    I’m guessing: aside from acceptance, involvement & touch from loving, comforting, equanamous parents (community integration amongst disparate peers), the sociopathic/ somatic neuroses evinced in this addiction to euphamism, platitude and obfuscatory pleonasm as glib, off-handed, day-to-day BS subterfuge, reflects cytokine imbalances, resulting from unresolved childhood trauma and fast-food diets, deficient in pre-biotics? Not enough roughage, huh?

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507254/

    https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/7b7xz9/the-unbearable-neurosis-of-the-modern-eater

    Reply
  18. Alexandra

    The ones that turn my stomach the most are “influencer,” “maker,” and “ask” as a noun (as in, “Hey, I know it’s a big ask, but I’m gonna need you to come in on Saturday…”). Oh! And also “content” used to mean information. A friend who is a university professor said the administration are now referring to faculty as “content distributors.” Barf.

    Reply
    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > A friend who is a university professor said the administration are now referring to faculty as “content distributors.”

      First thing we do, let’s kill all the college administrators. Or take away their titles, perks, and money, which will do worse than kill them.

      Reply
  19. Mael Colium

    Ever had a conversation with a Teacher? Oh excuse me; an “educator” LOL. They use so many sucky phrases and words that you can’t even remember what the discussions were about in the first place. It’s bad enough in secondary schools but now in pre-school (early learning centres) you need an interpretation booklet to make any sense of what your child is up to in the damn place. I must confess that my MBA taught me a whole bunch of weasel words and obscure terminology so that my management reports were rarely tested for veracity. And therein lies the issue. Words were once used to impart knowledge, whereas now, as the article alludes to, words and phrases are redesigned and reoriented to avoid, obfuscate, marginalise, confuse etc … you get the picture.. Look no further than your local politician for tricky word speak – it makes Trump’s burbling seem almost sensible by contrast. At least we know what a pussy is now!

    Reply
    1. Arizona Slim

      My mother is a retired public school teacher. And I won’t say that she’s 93 years young because she would smite me. Y’know, for misuse of the word “young.”

      Any-hoo, her opinion of educational jargon cannot be repeated on this particular blog. Because it uses a lot of naughty words.

      Reply
  20. JCC

    Here is one left off the list: handcrafted

    I took a trip last weekend to Palm Springs, CA. and Laughlin, NV. and everywhere I went I was inundated with offers for “handcrafted” margaritas and coffees and various food stuffs.

    It is right up there with artisanal.

    Reply
  21. HomoSapiensWannaBe

    They left out “sound”, as in “sound science,” which is, of course, “science” which supports profit seeking.

    For example, “Pesky environmental regulations are an undue, unfair burden on business, and aren’t backed by sound science.”

    Ka-Ching!

    Reply
    1. hunkerdown

      Good catch. Also, “sound” finance as opposed to functional finance, function being antithetical to the thaumaturge’s very role.

      Reply
    1. Svante

      Spot-ON! “Henceforth,” I shall slather my Indeed CV with euphemistic keywords enumerated above, enhancing synergistically serendipitous synchronicity (with some souless web crawling bot?) but aware of class/ racial-profiling algorithms: Assertive/ aggressive, stalwart/ uppity, rebel/ traitor, free spirit/ whore, independent/ troublemaker, fastidious/ whistleblower, dependable/ obsequious bitch, prescient / substance abuser

      Reply
    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      “Men make their own history vocabulary, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

      Reply
    1. eg

      I was going to say, Ambrose Bierce’s “The Devil’s Dictionary” makes a timeless companion for a contemporary list such as this one.

      Reply
  22. ambrit

    Re. “Can the truth be reverse engineered out of bulls–t?”
    I’d suggest that ‘engineered’ is the wrong metaphor to use. Taking the “organic” nature of human society into account, I’ll say that a medical metaphor would be more appropriate. In that vein, then the ‘buls–t’ would be akin to an infection. Infections can often be impossible to ‘remove’ from the organism. Often, such as with malaria, management of the symptoms is the standard treatment. Hence, with human language, management of the symptoms would be the optimal course of action. In that regard, language can be managed using an inoculation approach. In inoculation, a killed version of a pathogen is introduced into the organism to stimulate an immune response. To follow my example to it’s logical end point, then intensive education in the uses and misuses of language is mandatory for the production of an informed and self aware citizenry.
    Do as all competent revolutionaries do. Sieze control of the educational system. I’ll suggest that this is exactly what the Charter School Projecktors are doing. That group is, after all, comprised mainly of the Radical Reactionary Cadres of our society.
    Burn them with fire. Preferably in a Wicker Man on Mayday.

    Reply
  23. Mary Wehrheim

    Weasel words always seem to just suddenly appear, everywhere out of nowhere. Is the main source CEO weekend retreats on tricks as to how to motivate the workers in non-monetary ways? The first one I noticed was the use of the word “issues” instead of problem. “Houston, we have issues” would have sounded like the latte machine on the ship went on the fritz.

    Reply
  24. Alternate Delegate

    The critical analysis of a list of words that have been used to deliberately obfuscate, confuse, or reverse meanings has seldom been done so well as by Michael Hudson in his 2017 book titled “J is for Junk Economics”.

    In that case, of course, the listed words are used specifically to sabotage the meaning of economic concepts, while here the sabotage is a general broadside against all cultural, workplace, and political meanings – basically to stop us from communicating with each other.

    Reply

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