In our high tech and cyberspace age a few old metaphors remain, from the time when work was mostly physical; metaphors still current in my childhood but now rare. You might still put a shoulder to the wheel, a nose to the grindstone, or die in harness. You might also be told there are lots of fish in the sea (no longer true). Much old speech has been supplanted by the jargon of the social sciences and that of telecommunications. We no longer meet, we network, etc. But what is most dominant, and most striking, in our daily speech is the language of the ‘marketplace’, that faceless god of the neocons who rule our world.
It began decades ago with the phrase, “I’ll buy that,” the response to anything the speaker approved. It has progressed to where we no longer implement policies or fulfil or keep promises; we only ‘deliver’ like a grocery van. To deliver a promise, taken literally, means no more than making that promise – an ambiguity convenient for politicians.
No one now makes decisions; only choices. Politicians make lots of ‘tough choices’, projecting an image at once macho and empathetic, when the only toughness for them is deciding what is more likely to win the next election and the actual toughness will fall on someone else. And the adjective for serious wrong-doing is often ‘unacceptable’, like the defective gadget the customer had to return.
We are no longer clients, hotel guests, diners or passengers. We are all only customers. If railways had kept the old term, there might be more recognition that the job of a railway is to get people from one place to another and on time, not merely to sell them tickets and provide income for shareholders. Our banks no longer offer a service but a product; even healthcare has been called a product, as has education, and students and patients are called customers. The distinction between goods and services is vanishing. A whole country can be described as a (tourism) product and in need of rebranding, like Britain after the epidemic of Foot and Mouth.
Styles, ideas, theories, customs and yes, also people, can be dismissed as ‘past their sell-by-date’ or said to have only ‘limited shelf life’. We no longer display or exhibit anything; we ‘showcase’ it, surely the ugliest and clumsiest of all verbed nouns – as if only the image of a glass-topped counter makes what is on offer valid and real. I admit I have yet to hear, “Mr Smith was arrested for showcasing himself to women in the park.”
In the past, I remember from geography lessons, textbooks referred to the ‘agriculture and industry’ of a region or country. Now there is only one word. Agriculture is an industry, as indeed it has become. While ‘industry’ and ‘product’ take over our language, manufacture itself dwindles, moved to the cheap labour of the third world. It is as if the use of those words cloak the fact that in the West, most jobs are becoming those of middlemen, of buying and selling, making (except money) nothing at all.
The old terms boyfriend, girlfriend and lover have been dropped for ‘partner’ which used to refer to business relationships. There may be no more suitable word for the varied relationships of today but other languages cope differently; German for instance says ‘my friend’ as opposed to ‘a friend’ for that special one. As our words for close relationships have changed, so have our insults. In the great supermarket of the world, where competition rules, there are of course winners and losers. Past their sell-by date, it seems, are the old epithets which impugned the chastity of one’s mother or the legitimacy of one’s birth. I recently witnessed a furious row between two drivers. “You – you – you loser,” one screamed at the other as he roared off, that being evidently the worst insult of all.
The market, where all values are relative and competition is all, sets standards not only for business but for life. We have the ‘marketplace of ideas’, the ‘verdict of the market’ and ‘the rule of the market’ or of the ‘global market’ that ultimate arbiter. Our world consists wholly of ‘resources’ – for the market, of course. Loggers ‘harvest’ thousand-year-old trees. Farmers ‘harvest’ pigs and sheep as if they were ears of corn, though even the EU has finally classified animals as ‘sentient beings’. The use of ‘harvest’ does not merely de-animate and degrade the living creatures involved, it implies the whole planet is one big crop, there for our taking, as if we had planted it ourselves – as indeed, with genetic engineering, we hope to do.
It is not only animals. We are now all, unless ‘past our sell-by date’, ‘human capital’ and ‘human resources’. So no doubt do slave owners regard their slaves; we use the terms for ourselves. We made the market; it has become a force as independent and powerful as nature or God. Human capital? Human resources? When next you hear those phrases, think about what they mean.

Francis Oliver

Book Editor

Volume 33 no 3 January / February 2019 pp23-24

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