The (very) French philosopher Alain Badiou describes capitalism as a system which is worldless, by which I understand him to mean that it has broken free of all historical and cultural moorings and can shapeshift into any social formation; witness the success of authoritarian China, a society unencumbered with liberal democratic baggage and/but which has forged ahead economically.
Now, a lot of people struggle with Badiou’s ineffably complex ideas, but I have to confess that I do not. I simply treat them as one is supposed to deal with a shark attack – stay completely still and pretend I haven’t seen them, hoping they will go away without causing me any harm. To try to fight back would in either situation be sheer suicide, so I just accept that well over 100% of the time I have not got a clue what he is on about. ‘More than 100%’ may be Bad Maths, I accept, which is another reason for me to swim well clear of Badiou’s work, given that it involves very dense mathematical theory, whereas I failed GCSE Maths twice; I would have taken it a third time but back then I only had a very vague notion of the number 3, a bit like the indigenous Brazilian tribe which Alex Bellos writes about in his book ‘Adventures in Numberland’, which I have read, but only because it was written in words rather than numbers.
Also said to have detached itself from its historical, geographic and cultural roots is the English language, which in global terms is now used regularly by more non-native speakers than by those who speak it as a first language. It has, cliché dictates, become a global language. However, the conversations I have time and time again in a professional capacity with young people certainly suggest to me that although the language may have lost its anchor, it has a very clear sense of direction, navigating us to a future in which the only conceivable priorities are economic ones. I shall explain what I mean.
Among the young people I teach from around the world, it is very rare nowadays to encounter one who is not studying Business in some capacity. I did recently come across someone who said he had been studying Business Administration, but had stopped, which raised my hopes briefly – but then he said that he had transferred to Business Management, but had found it boring, so was planning to move back to Business Administration. I can affirm that this is the singlemost confusing and possibly absolutely meaningless statement I have ever heard anyone make in my presence.
Most of these young people can pretty fairly be called the children of neoliberalism; their parents have invested a great deal of money in them and they are under a lot of pressure to succeed in very competitive environments. In order to help them do so, the kind of English they most want to learn is Business English. This is basically a mixture of English for the workplace and neoliberal Business philosophy taught more slowly. Of course it is not just the children of the global elites who are taught to look at the world through dollargreen tinted spectacles. The mostly young people I examine in my other job are often from much poorer backgrounds, but the worldview tends to be the same: all things, experiences, people and places are increasingly valued in terms of their instrumental contribution to economic growth, whether individual or collective. In an entirely typical (and typically depressing) response, one candidate, when I asked him about the importance of parks, responded that if a city has a lot of parks, then more tourists will visit, and it will be good for the economy…I have heard similar thoughts expressed in relation to flowers, music, cultural traditions and pretty much every aspect of our lives. It seems that everything has to be reduced to its essential economic utility.
This is very obviously not restricted to young people taking English language courses and English language exams. It is simply the way in which we are all encouraged, even compelled, to look at reality these days. It is ideology at work in even the most banal of conversations. The fact that I am paid to pay very close attention to what people are saying means I notice it more in this context. To hear twelve separate individuals in a single afternoon say that the world is now a global village and implying that competition is the ultimate goal of all human activity is a salutary experience. It has nothing to do with the structural properties of the English language but is merely evidence of the extent to which neoliberal discourse has transformed our attitudes to things which were never before valued in this way. It is proof that the age through which I have lived has been subject to profound changes in the way we relate to one another and to the world.
It also suggests to me, however, that these deep changes have most obviously manifested themselves in the way that we speak, and that increasingly the world language is not English, but Business English. To illustrate this I want to use another example from my own personal experience.
I found it frustrating after a few weeks in China that I seemed to be having the same conversations again and again. They would begin with the same questions – which university did I go to, how much did I earn, what kind of car did I drive – and rarely go anywhere interesting. I can hardly entirely absolve myself of blame for this of course, but my attempts to take the conversation elsewhere didn’t usually work, especially given that I wanted to ask about details of everyday life and how it related to the political and social context, which was not a popular area of conversation when I was around. If I had stayed there longer and/or got beyond transactional Chinese, I presumably would have been able to hold deeper conversations, but I didn’t. I’m aware too that this is a common bugbear of foreigners resident in China, one of whom made a list of the top ten questions he was asked, put it on a t-shirt, and was roundly beaten up for his efforts (to be scrupulously fair, he almost certainly deserved it).
I quickly came to the conclusion that this phenomenon was due to the way in which people in China are taught English, which is I think mostly by rote. This explains why completely different people in totally different parts of the country all tended to know the same often quite odd bits of idiomatic vocabulary, none of which I am able to remember now seven years later. I presumed that it was all down to living in a party dictatorship. I recognise looking back that my outlook was largely orientalist in nature.
Perhaps it still is now. Certainly it seems easier to detect ideology in the discourse of someone different from you, especially if they are not in full command of the language they are using. Nevertheless it remains the case that ideology, whether formal or otherwise, determines which kinds of terms we use and which ones we do not, and which questions we ask about the world and which ones we do not. I spend a great deal more time talking to younger people from other parts of the world than I do talking to 18-24 year-olds from the UK, but when I do do so, I tend to find similar attitudes. Economic necessity is to a very large extent the basis of ideology, as someone once pointed out. We live in an age where everything of value must be sacrificed to the great god of competition, and of course this fundamental precept can be identified in the way that we speak of each other and of the world.
I don’t think that what follows is based purely on personal supposition. In the last few months, something has shifted. In the revolts in North Africa and the protest movements in Europe, not to mention in the anti-globalisation movement ten or so years ago, English has played a different role. It is the language of shared experience between movements in different parts of the world, and sometimes, as in London right now, in the same city. It emphatically rejects neoliberal categories and introduces radical new concepts and slogans. It explicitly challenges the neoliberal notion of what ‘democracy’ means, for example.
I am dimly aware that in writing this I am largely repeating certain ideas which have been around for some time, in relation to post-colonial literature, for example. The language of the oppressor can be put to our own uses. Capitalism may be ‘worldless’ (although within the limits of my understanding, I feel some doubt about the validity of such a term), but it certainly behaves like a colonial power, appropriating our intimate moments and common spaces, our bodies, our hopes and fears, and restructuring our perceptions of the world, as manifested in language. But in rejecting categories such as the ‘free market’, ‘competition’, ‘labour flexibility’ and ‘the needs of the economy’, we reclaim our language and escape the colonial net that had been cast over us. The Spanish indignados proclaim that ‘We are not commodities’, and counterpose this to the neoliberal dogma that ‘there is no alternative’. Discussions of words like precarity, austerity and solidarity is beginning in some places to take precedence over attempts to reduce the global debate to terms such as markets, privatisation, and flexibility. Business English is increasingly locked in a struggle against Radical English.