George Bernard Shaw’s well-known aphorism on the Anglo-US relationship… “two countries divided by a common language” …has been much in mind in the days since the recent election. Except that, in the more parochial ‘UK only’ scenario, the language and understanding problem is between the so-called ‘left’ and ‘right’ of the new UK political spectrum, with a disenchanted electorate looking on.
Arts Social Action stays firm in the hope that a keen eye for the nuance of language is a characteristic of people in the arts; so you will have noticed that, in its renewed ascendancy, our predominantly ‘rightist’ governing regime has lost no time in imposing its preferred agenda on a dispirited ‘left’. And, as ever, it is doing it first by re-defining the permitted language – with, regrettably, some early success among the more gullible of the candidates for the Labour succession.
In first place is the innocent-looking but evocative little word ‘business’.
Oddly, the ‘conservative’ right has long assumed a lien on the word, to which it has no current, past, legal or moral entitlement; given that the creation of ‘business’ wealth and the heaviest burden of its labour has always been down to the greater proportion of its employees who are not, by nature, in sympathetic affiliation to Conservative Central Office, or even CBI.
Yet we have been here before – in the wake of equivalent Thatcher/Reagan attempts to re-politicise ‘business’ and annexe it permanently to the right; resisting far more widespread pressures, from employees, but also many senior professional managers and directors, to liberalise its restrictive language and regimes in the late 80s and early 90s.
This is a story more fully told elsewhere, and which helped change attitudes to the role of women, enhanced human relations and sought to open up the business language beyond the stock-exchange closing figures. For what is ‘business’ anyway ? I had asked…
It’s a good, Old English word that has been progressively wrenched away from its core meanings – task, work, occupation, profession, trade – toward a more narrow concept of dealing, buying, selling and, more recently, the thin financial and accounting veneer of business activities. We need ‘business’ back for that richer diversity of activities by which we all barter our work and skills for our pittances. Tycoons and top people are not the only ones in ‘business’ even though, in the age of the image-makers and business pages, they have become obtrusively dominant.
The Poetry of Business Life. 1994
Nothing has done more to subvert this more wholesome and democratic concept of business than the rapid development of the so-called ‘revolving door’ between Government and corporations. It is concisely and accurately described by economic historian David Marquand.
This now plays a dual role in British government. Through it, former public servants and politicians make their way into the corporate sector (‘revolving out’ in the jargon). Meanwhile, businessmen of varying degrees of eminence ‘revolve in’ to posts in the public service. Both powerfully reinforce the hold that private corporations exert on the machinery and policies of the state.
Mammon’s Kingdom. Penguin 2013
This has gone way beyond the innocent swapping of experience and has become, among other things, a highly questionable money and influence gravy train. As a prescription for ‘being on the side of business’ it is hardly one to which leaders of the future left should aspire. More imminently, this process is undermining the notion of an objective civil service working for the public interest and converting them into ‘agents of a market state‘ (Marquand’s phrase).
In the end, we need to be assured that aspirants for the leadership of the left are not so naïve as to allow the conservative right to set both the agenda and the language for the future. It requires the skill and courage to occupy the moral higher ground within the growing decadence of the ‘market’ jungle.
Michael Sandel has it right…
Altruism, generosity, solidarity and civic spirit are not like commodities which are depleted in use. They are more like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise. One of the defects of a market-driven society is that it lets these virtues languish. To renew our public life we need to exercise them more strenuously…
And so, in the end, the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?
What Money Can’t Buy. The Moral Limits of Markets. Penguin 2012
We listen and hope…