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.
Table 1: Leary’s Word List
|Best practices||Human capital|
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.
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.
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?
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 . 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.)
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
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, most of which have been erased. Starting, perhaps, with “class.”
 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.