The Elephant in the Corner

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Archive for January 2010

Reclaiming the Lexicon

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In his very readable and informative book on “Cultural Revolution and Culture Wars”, Dr. Sean Gabb offers a helpful survey of the work of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the man who pioneered Cultural Marxism. Gramsci (and more particularly his followers) concluded that Marx was right about the destination of human society, but that it would be easier and quicker to get there by engaging in “culture struggle” rather than “class struggle” as traditionally understood by the Marxists.

“Culture struggle” entails using the levers of power to undermine the cohesion of a dominant culture in any given country, and especially to try to make traditional manifestations of that culture not merely illegal in the eyes of the law but also socially unacceptable. The latter is essential in order to deter political opponents from merely reversing the programme if and when they resume power within a multi-party democratic context.

One of the key ways to ensure that something becomes culturally unacceptable is to use the law, the courts and the mass media to either subvert the meaning of a given word or phrase or to make it socially unacceptable to say. A clear and double-edged example of the latter may be seen in the fact that it is now more socially acceptable to use sexually explicit profanity in the mass media and in public than it is for white people to use what newspapers now call “the n-word” about black people.

On the one hand, the right to free speech is used to ridicule and undermine the culturally dominant, traditional desire for courtesy, creativity and precision in public discourse. While sexual profanity is inevitably precise in a sexual sense, its use in non-sexual contexts often masks what exactly the subject finds so objectionable or vexing about the object of the description.

On the other hand, the virtual banishment of colour or culture-based pejoratives from mixed-race (or even all-white) public contexts is unmistakably an assault on the freedom of speech so lauded with regard to sexual profanity. And lest we forget, the ban has both legal teeth in the form of legislation against “incitement to racial hatred”, and social teeth in terms of the professional and personal consequences for those brave or foolhardy enough to challenge the ethnic taboo head-on.

But what about the subversion of established words? If anything, this is even more dangerous than mere criminalization or ostracism, and in the rest of this post, I’d like to look at one of the most serious casualties in the Gramscian culture struggle: the word “democracy”. In terms of foreign policy, democracy has now been well and truly absorbed into the wonderland of Lewis Carroll’s Humpty-Dumpty. In the world of international relations, democracy currently means whatever the United States Government of the day and its political supporters want it to mean. As long as some sort of charade involving elections is eventually carried out, the most destructive actions imaginable are sanctified with the anointing oil of “democracy”.

Lest we forget, it’s time for a brief primer on the word “democracy”. It’s a compound word from two Greek words and literally means “people-rule”. One of the reasons why the study of ancient cultures is now firmly discouraged in our state education system is that even a failing classicist soon learns “democracy” was in fact a widely feared and distrusted form of government. Aristotle, for instance, noted in “The Politics” that democracy was normally a precursor via mob rule to tyranny, and that the first sign the transition was underway was the persecution of the rich.

This might sound strange until we remember that this is exactly what happened in both ancient Athens and Weimar Germany. Granted, in Weimar Germany “the rich” were given an ethnic label to wear: they were called “Jews”. But in each case, the pattern was the same. Follow a dictator, and let him dispossess the rich of their wealth for the good of the people. Interestingly, both contexts were played out amidst ruinously expensive wars, and in each case the result was a national disaster. War, of course, is the ideal context for governments to indulge in such wasteful and murderous behaviour. “National security” has always been seen as a political passe-partout, provided that enough people can be convinced the emergency exists. Goering pointed out as much from the dock at Nuremburg.

But wouldn’t you think, after repeated and bloody failures in a variety of contexts, that the “war socialists” would by now be thoroughly discredited? Well, they probably would be, except for one small detail. Every time they’ve been discredited in the past, they’ve simply changed labels. In the USA, the Trotskyite-sympathizing Straussians of yesteryear became the neo-conservative movement of today. In western Europe, the German National Socialists became business leaders and civil servants, eventually helping to create the European Economic Community.

So, how can we respond when the words we’ve used to distance ourselves from our opponents are being appropriated by them? Look out for a modest proposal concerning the word “democracy” in the next post. I look forward to the pleasure of your company there.


Written by salternlight

January 20, 2010 at 8:29 pm