The Language of Economic Rationalism
from ‘The Red Heart’, Random House, 1999
The myth that economic rationalism is not so much a theory as a moral law, as unassailable and inevitable as gravity, is still believed by a significant number of people. Considering it is a rather crude economic doctrine whose basic precepts have been around for centuries, the success of the hype has been remarkable. Part of this success, I believe has been achieved by the use of jargon so mystifying that any sensible debate has been muffled and stifled in a linguistic quagmire. In is not within the scope of this essay to examine the main political and economic reasons for this extraordinary intellectual takeover by the ideologues of the new right. What I am interested in is the way they have used language to reinvent, mythologise and sanitise ideas about human nature that are both archaic and repellent. I want to look at the way language has been bent and deformed to accommodate this agenda of disinformation, and in the process, become a ‘disposable resource’ to be ‘utilised’ and just as ugly.
The notion that a language whose function is to deceive and mystify faithfully reflects the ugliness at its heart is illustrated by the sheer gracelessness of new right jargon. It is a language that has been pushed and stretched into ugly shapes by people who have no interest in or respect for language and meaning and the inextricable connections between them. Pound’s idea that ‘the fundamental accuracy of statement is the basic morality of writing’ applies just as well to the very creation of language itself, and this basic assumption has been abandoned. Without a matrix of consensual meaning to anchor them, the words have no resonance, there is a deathly flatness to them, they are a string of abstractions that make no satisfying sense. It is as if the language of economic rationalism keeps circling back on its own dark core of untruth, it can never come clean. The real meaning, vile as it often is, is hidden under layers of sanctimonious verbiage, a linguistic morass of euphemism, pretentiousness and doublespeak. The more unpalatable or callous the idea, the more impenetrable the prose becomes.
‘Deinstitutionalisation,’ for example, a favourite term of new right ideologues, shows how language in concealing an ugly intention is distorted by it. This grotesque word, that looks as if it were encased in barbed wire, conceals meaning within meaning, cynicism within ‘objectivity’ barbarity with ‘science.’ Who for instance could disagree with its apparent implication that is harmful for people to live for a long time in institutions? But the impersonal nature of its pseudo-scientific structure – ‘de….lisation’, as if it were a process more to do with chemicals than people, gives it away. Its very ugliness is like a warning sign of its real intention.
In searching for a description that best captures this deadness at its heart I found a quote from H L Mencken about President Harding’s prose style. “It reminds me of wet sponges, it reminds me of tattered washing on the line, it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abyss of pish and crawls insanely into the topmost pinnacle of posh.”
Michael Pusey describes new right jargon as “its own unified, self referential and artificial language of eco-managerial biz-speak that is used everywhere in the universities to neutralise potentially intelligent communication through ‘ordinary’ ‘raw’ ‘uncooked’ or ‘natural’ language where it can still be found.”
In fact, the pretentious complexity of the jargon is one reason for its survival, precisely because, in Pusey’s words, it ‘neutralises potentially intelligent communication.’ People generally have no reason to suspect a cynical intention, especially on the part of experts, and it is hard to credit the phrases mean what you can only suspect they mean. There is a kind of linguistic trompe-l’oeil effect – does this really mean what I think it means? Does ‘involuntarily terminating staff’ mean sacking workers and ‘market flexibility’ mean lower wages? Does this sentence, ‘in other words providing disincentive in the form of more tax on the extra income those qualifications earn them – ultimately hinders the economy’s capacity to generate other jobs requiring lesser expertise’ really mean taxing the wealthy is wrong because it cuts down on the creation of jobs for the poor?
Deliberately deceptive language is nothing new of course, but what is unusual about new right jargon is the fact that very few mainstream critics have attempted to examine it critically. The deceptive language of advertising is studied by school children and people shake their heads over generals who call killing people ‘collateral damage’, but new right jargon still continues to be eerily accepted in the media without analysis or irony. It has been drip-fed into common speech over the last decade so gradually and completely it is hard to remember that golden time when no one ever said disincentive or downsizing.
Even at the most basic level there is a constant Orwellian blurring of the meanings of words; truth and half-truth becoming confusingly jumbled in the stream of propaganda, rationalisation and righteous hyperbole. The word “reform” for instance recurs constantly in articles, TV news grabs and speeches when any new policy is being sold to the public. In my dictionary it means ‘to improve, abandon evil practices’ so it definitely has a moral ring to it. Reform is used to describe policies which advocate among other measures; legislation to weaken unions, the closing of schools, psychiatric hospitals and institutions for the care of adolescents and the homeless. The use of this word has the obvious function of placing an unarguably positive value on all these changes while simultaneously portraying critics of them as churlish reactionaries. If you take an overview of the context, it is clear that the meaning of reform has mutated to something like ‘the process of returning to the social practice of 19th century England.’
The ‘reform’ of the Children’s Services in Victoria for instance has a distinctly Dickensian ring to it. The number of state wards was reduced from 9000 to 2000 by 1993 while in the same period these same children’s applications to the state for shelter rose by 150%. As one young man, who looked rather like Oliver, a lucky recipient of this ‘reform’ said in a recent television interview, ‘at least when I was a state ward I got meals and somewhere to stay.’ Similarly, the ‘deinstitutionalisation’ of psychiatric patients, another much-touted ‘reform’ is bringing us perilously close to the situation in America where new right policies have been in full force for years – and a large proportion of the 4 million homeless are ex-psychiatric patients. Anyone who has an inkling of the terrors of conditions like schizophrenia would marvel at the use of the word reform to describe a policy which leaves these people to the tender care of the streets. The recent Burdekin Report is a passionate indictment of a callousness which is really only the logical outcome of new right ideology; let the weak go to the wall and the rest of us will benefit.
Having been immersed for so long in this language as all media junkies are, I have absorbed by osmosis its surprisingly specific code. I believe this code could easily be proved by an analysis of the frequency of use of a word or phrase in specific contexts. The underlying meanings of the code often have no connection to the code word, in the time-honoured Orwellian way. In a recent editorial on union ‘reform’ for instance, the writer has this to say, ‘unless working conditions, actual organisation of work and the wage system itself can respond quickly and flexibly to the demands of international competition, then frictions will result that lead to job loses, factories closures and the loss of mobile investment funds offshore.’
To crack the code, the key word here is ‘flexibility’ a great favourite of economic rationalists. Obviously it is imperative that the system be flexible and no reasonable person could oppose this. However, does ‘flexible’ mean genuinely flexible, or does it simply mean lower wages and less stringently enforced working conditions? And do the ‘demands of international competition’ mean legitimate competition with more efficient countries, or does it mean competing with countries like the Philippines or China where grinding poverty has rendered ‘labour cost’, (that is, wages and conditions) negligible? And if so, is this what the writer wants in Australia? And if not, why doesn’t he, in the inimitable and ever-relevant worlds of the Queen in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ say what he means?
In this exhausting process of code-cracking, it gradually emerges that ‘market flexibility’ usually means low wages and unregulated working conditions, ‘freeing up the market’ means removal of all laws that impede profit-making, except for sympathetic tax laws, subsidies, and procedures for bailing out troubled companies, and ‘tax reform’ means reducing tax on company profits and the salaries of the wealthy, while increasing it on small businesses and the poor.
One interesting example coming closest as it does to the very core of new right thinking, is the extraordinary variety of euphemisms available for sacking workers. There is, shedding workers as if they were so much dead skin, there is demanning, cutting staff, retrenchment, labour rationalisation and restructuring. In a recent competition in the USA for Doublespeak Awards, for language that is ‘grossly deceptive, evasive and euphemistic’ there was a prize-winning entry for the terms used for laying off workers. They included involuntary termination, reposition, reshape, realign, payroll adjustment, permanent downsizing, and , my two favourites, reducing duplication through release of resources and progressing towards an employee non-retention mode.
It is possible that economic rationalists are themselves aware of the human suffering unemployment causes, and some kind of shame is being expressed in this constant linguistic circling. If so, there is no sign that this has deflected them from their shining path. The reduction of duplication through release of resources must go on for the good of the nation.
The term ‘economic rationalism’ itself reflects the limitations and confusions of the doctrine. A rational approach to economics is clearly imperative but it can only be the beginning. The study of buying and selling, dealing as it does with the vagaries of human nature, the need for balance between, and regulation of individual greed and the social contract, is a complex one. Like all social studies, breadth of vision, compassion and spirituality are needed to flesh out its parameters and connect it with the world of human beings which is its source. As D. H. Lawrence said ‘make any people mainly rational in their life and their inner activity will be the activity of destruction.’
Many economic rationalists actually believe that economic rationalism is ‘positive economics’ that is value-free fact, rather than ‘normative economics’ that is the study of the world as it ought to be. This arrogance is nicely illustrated in a recent statement of Bronwyn Bishop’s that ‘the principles of free enterprise are as immutable as the laws of gravity.’ Even Professor Neville of the N.S.W. University, himself an economic rationalist, pointed out the speciousness of this idea. He said, ‘economic rationalists should not claim as they often do that their advocacy of regulation and reliance on the private market is based on the laws of economics not their value judgement about the nature of freedom.’ Economics in fact is only ‘scientific’ insofar as it roughly conforms to Heisenberg’s Theory of Uncertainty; examination of the subject is affected by the examiner and the act of examining. ‘Value-free’ in this context is as meaningless as the outrageously pretentious pseudo-scientific terms used to posit the ‘laws’ of economic rationalism.
Nevertheless this belief confirms the absolute moral righteousness of economic rationalism and the ‘scientific’ language required to describe it. A jargon stripped of humour, emotion or colour in the best tradition of scientism not only has the function of mystification, it can also keep those who use it safely ‘objective’, emotionally removed from the meanings and implications of their own words, their consciences presumably clear because they are engaged in objective scientific inquiry. The Nobel prize winning economist Professor Vogel caused great controversy by using statistical analysis to argue slavery was economically viable. My economics professor, now a top official in the New Zealand government, warned us not to attach emotive value to the man lying destitute in the gutter because he was a component of the economic machine.
Gareth Morgan, an economic rationalist in New Zealand wrote a work called ‘Mitigating Misery’: A Preliminary Assessment of New Zealand’s capacity to absorb cuts in Real Incomes’ which is another extraordinary example. Like Dorothy Parker and A. A. Milne I find it very difficult not to quote him forever. He writes, ‘it is important the government consider the impact on economic efficiency in the household sector of its policies to establish appropriate levels of social welfare payments… if payments are set too high they will suppress economic efficiency.. ‘Government spending should not pursue policies that increase the supply of labour to the market economy at a time when there is excess supply.’
Among other measures, Morgan suggests that ‘there should be a change to cheaper cleaning materials… given the employment of more labour-intensive techniques by a home worker labour savings appliances are not accommodated. Labour and entertainment must be simple pleasures. A car is out. Walking or public transport are substituted… the incorporation of an elderly relative into the home can reduce her shelter cost… household furnishing for separate households are dispensed with… the transport costs of visiting grandma or the communication costs of mail and telephone are eliminated… As more people withdraw from the market economy the substitution of alternate trading, education and even health structures could become significant… As some community doctors find their patients’ markets incomes declining and thus the demand for health services receding that may be forced to adjust their own business…’
Another possibility Morgan mentions is that ‘the relevance of a traditional education may diminish for many if the market economy is unable to provide paid work for them.. the skills required for home production are quite different to those required in the market economy… The corollary of this is that the government may well be spending too much on delivery of present education outputs… the trend for more women to participate in the money economy may well be reversed.’
I quote Morgan at such length because under this insanely ‘rational’ euphemistic weight of new right cliches lies the chilling reality of new right realpolitik. The poor will have to cut back further on their standards of living, measures to reduce unemployment must be abandoned, while free universal education, equal opportunity, women’s and worker’s rights, a society which cares for its disadvantaged are all ideas of the past, they are no longer relevant or necessary to the new world order. Morgan’s language reflects the heartlessness at the centre of economic rational thought, the arid landscape of the cost accounting mentality, a world where ordinary people’s lives, national institutions, cultural treasures, rights that have been painfully gained over generations, compassion for the poor, the dispossessed and the sick are all squashed flat by the bulldozer of profit and loss. If the reader can hang in there and decipher the code, all of this is made abundantly and sickeningly clear.
And yet this kind of doublespeak could even be seen as a bizarre kind of moral progress when you look at the forefathers of the movement. In earlier times, economic rationalists or their equivalent saw no need to hide the brutality of their message in a linguistic soup. There are two parallel issues involved here, the bluntness of these earlier writers in stating their savage intentions in clear language in comparison with present day evasiveness, and the fact that modern economic rationalists would have us believe that these earlier ‘new’ right thinkers did not exist at all. A vital component of marketing hype about new right thinking has always been its ‘newness.’ Economic rationalism is portrayed as an innovative and sophisticated economic theory developed especially for the ‘now’ generation of the 80’s and 90’s. This is an effective way of dismissing the opposition as people who want to turn the clock back to the hippy dippy sixties. Economic rationalism is promoted as the wave of the future, an exciting new economic direction thought up in those heady idealistic days of the 80’s by such profound and innovative thinkers as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan or Roger Douglas.
In fact ‘new’ right thinking is about as new as say, irrigation, though of course a great deal more unpleasant. The basic principles of economic rationalism have appeared under many names through the centuries, as even a cursory glance at western economic theory will reveal, from classic liberal economics to new classical economics, Social Darwinism, laissez faire doctrine and free market. The basic assumptions are pretty well intact in varying degrees of severity; that the poor are to blame for their condition, the wealthy are to be praised and rewarded for their superiority in rising about mediocrity, government should not interfere in the cleansing forces of market except when profit-making is being interfered with, and that social justice and compassion for the less fortunate are not only unpraiseworthy but could well be socially harmful. These assumptions are made very clear in the early literature.
In his “Wealth of Nations’ Adam Smith wrote in 1770 ‘by pursuing his own interest (the producer) frequently promotes that of society more effectively than when he really intends to promote it,’ a mild version of one of the fundamental assumptions of this school of economic thought, that humans are ‘egoistic, coldly calculating, inert and atomistic’ and that this is the only realistic way to proceed in any social, political and economic organisation of society. These views were shared by other speakers, most of whom were more outspoken. The Reverend Joseph Townsend, a social ‘reformer’ of the same persuasion wrote at about the same time, ‘only the experience of hunger would goad labourers to labour… hunger is not only peacable, silent and unremitted pressure, but as the most natural motive to industry and labour it calls for the most powerful exertions.’
Malthus, whose population theory was an integral part of classical liberal economic doctrine wrote in the early nineteenth century, ‘instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor… we should make the streets narrower, crowds more people into the house and court the return of the plague… build their villages near stagnant pools. But about all we should repobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases.’ Herbert Spencer, the father of Social Darwinism took up the refrain when he wrote around the end of the nineteenth century, ‘the poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the impudent, the starvation of the idle and the shouldering aside of the weak by the strong.. are the duress of a large far-seeing benevolence.’
And of course our modern counterparts do occasionally accidentally slip into clear English, as John Hewson did when he warned that if you lean down to pull someone else up you’ll be pulled down yourself, or Mike Moore in New Zealand when he said ‘we stand for the winners not the whingers.’ Then there was the businessman described as an ‘unwavering admirer’ of the system in New Zealand because ‘an onerous welfare system and union power have virtually disappeared… Bolger is unashamedly selling off anything… I’d say he’d sell his office,’ he chortled.’
As well as the clarity of the language, this last statement is also unusual in that is was the first evidence of humour I found in all my reading of economic rationalist texts. Humour and clarity, traditionally anathema to the totalitarian mind are rare oases in the desert of new right prose. The fact that this man is so light-hearted about a place that used to be ‘one of the world’s most enlightened social democracies’ and now after ‘eight years of stringent monetarism’ is ‘a country of massive unemployment, rising crime rates, a widening gap between rich and poor and declining GDP’ (according to a recent UNICEF Report,) is probably more characteristic.
When you compare these earlier writings and occasional outbursts of clarity, with the full blown new right jargon of the last decade it is easy to see why the latter has played such an important part in shoring up the credibility of the doctrine. In modern democratic times such crude sentiments could not be expressed without some reaction at the ballot box. It is well known that lying is part of the job description for most politicians, but new right jargon allows for dizzying and probably unprecedented heights of mendacity, and a systemised, cynical way of concealing the real intentions of those who speak its language. In the bleak moral flatlands of the world of economic rationalism, where value is seen purely in terms of monetary worth, there can ultimately be no other serious criterion. Truth or beauty have no relevance in this context unless they can be bought and sold and an inevitable flattening of effect, an awful Stalinist greyness descends as a result. In a world where people know the price of everything and the value of nothing and Alan Bond can buy Van Gogh’s ‘Irises,’ honesty in language is as meaningless as anything else and just as disposable. Colour, richness, subtlety, truth are nothing beside the all important ‘fumble in the greasy till’, in language as well as life.
All the same, there are clear signs that an increasing majority of people are becoming impatient with ‘sado-monetarism’ as Bob Ellis calls it. The gap between promise and delivery never seems to narrow, while other gaps; those between poor and rich, country and city, white and black, women and men, are all widening into chasms. And as Patrick White said, ‘Most people hunger after spirituality, even if that hunger remains unconscious … the sense of real purpose – the life force – could be expelled from society whose leaders are obsessed by money, muscle and machinery.’ In particular, the tyranny of new right speak, like all tyrannies, has produced a kind of blowback effect, a real scepticism amongst people. Janine Haines speaks for many of us when she wrote, ‘I’d love a clever country/ completely cliche-free/ No J curve and no jargon/ No child in poverty.’
The stubborn irreverence of ordinary people, their understanding of the nuances and undercurrents of language and wisdom in deciphering its meaning has always been a great deal more sophisticated than professional elitists have ever given credit for. Baudelaire noted in his diary that ‘immense depths of thought are found in expressions of common speech, holes dug by generations of ants’ a compelling idea about the ultimate ‘truthfulness’ of language over time, a reassurance that in the end new right cliches have no real connection with the depths of human experience and the human psyche. Just as the long and honourable tradition of Pravda-reading evolved in Russia, so people anywhere, under any tyranny, eventually crack the code and decipher the real intentions of propagandists. The language of propaganda has a way of perpetuating the required myths but at the same time uncannily mirroring the deception and bad faith which lie at their heart, and new right jargon is no exception.
SOURCES FOR QUOTES AND GENERAL BACKGROUND
Hunt and Sherman ‘Economics: An Introduction to Traditional and Radical Views’, Harper 1975
Michael Pusey, ‘Economic Rationalism in Canberra’, Cambridge University Press 1991
W. Rosenburg, ‘New Zealand can be Different’, New Zealand Monthly Review Society 1993
The Curse of Economic Rationalism’ Paper from Reworking Australia, 1993
W B Yeats, September 1913
Quotes and background from The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age, ABC’s ‘Attitude’, New Zealand Herald, Green Left and New Zealand Alliance Party.