Politics, a dead language

Politics — in the emphatic sense — can sometimes feel like a dead language.

Terms and concepts that today should still retain some of their original descriptive purchase (like “lumpenproletariat” or “petit-bourgeois”) are only greeted with blank stares and bewildered incomprehension. It’s like you’re speaking Middle English or something. But then words and phrases that should actually raise a great deal more doubt (like “imperialism,” the “Third World,” or even “the precariat”) are taken for granted, as if everyone knows what they mean, even though it’s not clear at all if they remotely correspond to reality.

Obviously, I’m not interested in adopting some kind of false orthodoxy. Nor would I insist that everyone drop the way they’d ordinarily talk about something. It’s just that when it comes to serious discourse and debate, there needs to be at least some understanding of what these categories once meant and what they might mean today (if anything). Many of them are quite loaded, historically.

Knossos fragments, Linear A, arranged by Arthur Evans (1948)

Knossos fragments, Linear A, arranged by Arthur Evans (1948)

A couple brief examples: In the early 1950s, the bourgeois-liberal French demographer Alfred Sauvy coined the term the “Third World.” He was trying to give expression to the new political-economic “balance of power” that emerged after World War II. Of course, the idea of a “balance of power” was quite old, going back to Metternich and the Holy Alliance. For Sauvy, a defining characteristic of international affairs after the war was the stark contrast between two competing world systems: capitalism and communism. The new global system was divided into three blocs: the “First World” (the U.S. and its allies, NATO, etc.), the “Second World” (the U.S.S.R. and its allies, the Warsaw Pact, etc.), and the “Third World” (the non-affiliated countries, often ex-colonies of European nations). What can this term mean today, when the entire political order it referred to has collapsed? The “Second World” is no more. There are still holdovers of past conflicts in places like South America, national liberation fronts that have for the most part dropped their Marxist rhetoric in favor of kidnappings and selling drugs. The “Third World” was a fairly vague, tenuous concept to begin with, and today survives as just a floating signifier still charged with ideological abracadabra.

“Imperialism” is another term that’s often bandied about these days, as a generic way to refer to military interventions around the globe, usually undertaken by the U.S. and coalitions it assembles or buys off. This completely distorts the sense of what Lenin, Bukharin, and the other Marxist theorists of imperialism understood by the term. For them, it was a distinct phase (the “highest”) of capitalism, in which domestic strife stirred up by social-democratic movements along with competition between the great powers led to an expansionist logic, whereby whole sections of the globe were divvied up as different empires looked for cheap labor and new markets. Colonies with direct colonial administrations were set up. Moreover, and this was crucial, from the so-called “periphery,” imperialism redounded upon the capitalist “core,” leading to inter-imperialist conflict. This was precisely what happened with World War I, and then to a certain extent with World War II (though this was mediated by the rise of fascism and Rooseveltism, responses to the Bolshevik Revolution). Usually with military interventions now there is an almost collaborative, not competitive, spirit to the invasions or missile strikes. Or there are just protracted proxy wars. Direct colonial rule is unfashionable and too costly these days, so usually it’s just military bases and puppet regimes.

7 thoughts on “Politics, a dead language

  1. Pingback: Politics, a dead language | Research Material

  2. Old-skool marxist jargon (and the theoretical background it originates from) is not taken seriously anymore. Or even remembered by anyone under 50 & not part of a sectarian political cult. The questions is, what are you gonna do about it?

  3. Thus the need to popularize these terms once more, to make them the common language of a critical mass; and in their correct sense. . . So-called dead language of Marxist radicalism is alive in many parts, especially rural areas, of the Third World (India, Philippines, Colombia, Turkey). Such language’s widespread use or non-usage is another gauge of the strength of anti-systemic oppositional movemements.

  4. I’d argue that the marxist language tried to be language express the sigh of the oppressed creature. After 1989, it became an abstract, at best a merely academic utterance. It flourished before the October Revolution, because there was a real movement, that gave it the practical right to claim to be expression of said sigh. The October Revolution then set the framework of the 20th century, which again powered the marxist language. Now, it there isn’t any practical claim that marxist language may be the right language. And maybe the language of the political as such has died or is at least sleeping for now.

    When the “arab revolution” is called a revolution, then this is merely a reminder of what this word once meant; the vocabulary used to describe political situations is floating around, without any hope that it fits. It became seeminlgy interchangeable, not being able to make a distinction, in a society which likes to think of itself as one that is individualistic in such a way that there isn’t even a common language anymore, that could express common interests, goals or hopes in general. Politics are a theatre and everyone knows that. We do vote, still, because it provides the right to participate in the illusion of us being important, while in the inside we very well know to be dispensable. Our work, once the first way of socialisation, can be done as well by thousands of other people. What once resembled the hope for an rational political culture, the Russian Revolution, has been ruined, ironically enough, by financial problems and the uprising of those, who didn’t want to live in a society anymore, that ideally tried to provide for the common luck.

    I wonder if we shouldn’t look at the vocabulary of the Vormärz, of those days of sleep humankind had to endure after the failure of the French Revolution. Maybe there we find a certain language appropiate to this times. While marxist language still rightly describes society, it lost it’s immanent justification. Thus it seems anemic.

  5. Pingback: The Marxism of Roland Barthes | The Charnel-House

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