I. Language War: The Use of Euphemisms To Avoid Hard Political Discussions

Waste. Fat. Gravy.

It goes by many different names. All of them mean the same thing: government spending on social programs. Government spending for such purposes has become so odious as we lurch through the reconstruction of neoliberalism after the Great Recession of 2008-09, that it has gained euphemisms. The end game is apparently the reduction of government spending through found efficiencies so plain and obvious that opposition politicians pose themselves as aghast that such bloat has not been curbed.

In this post I take up the following issue:

• The use of euphemisms when discussing the cutting of government spending. This, I argue, serves to obscure the use of the state as a method of achieving and maintaining political, economic and biological power through absurdly reductive reasoning.

On Euphemisms

Euphemisms are tools for attempting to broadcast an awkward or embarrassing thought without being explicit. Children are often taught euphemisms for certain body parts, for example. But the upshot is that such language obscures the thrust and often-graphic nature of the topic. And that is the point. It is, I propose, no different when talking about cutting government spending. The euphemisms that are currently in use by politicians (among them, “gravy”, “fat” and “waste”), position government spending as unnecessary to a great degree. If we proceed from a position that government spending on social programs such as health, housing and education, has long-term benefits the conversation is no longer about cutting fat but cutting bone. By adopting these euphemisms, even ostensibly progressive political parties align themselves with neoliberal types who believe waste to be endemic to the public sector and easily eradicated.

From there, the use of these euphemisms enters an arguably endless cycle that gathers speed as the terminology crosses the state/civil society boundary and infiltrates common parlance. This is not to presuppose that state-destroying euphemisms are the exclusively statist in origin. Neoliberalism itself was a product of academia that eventually was endorsed by the state. At this juncture, however, I believe it is objectively difficult to deny that neoliberal language warfare is being waged primarily by the state itself.

But to what end? Keynesians may note that the state can play a positive role in attacking inequality, unemployment and illness through a variety of social programs, which require spending. This, they argue, is about fairness and universality — a relative newcomer philosophy in western governance, which via poor laws once punished the impoverished for character flaws. The whittling away of those programs serves to undermine the fairness net built after the Great Recession. Marxians may argue that reductions in social programs designed to even the playing field leaves in its wake a desperate pool of workers needing to sell their labour to reproduce privately the insurance they were once provided by the state.

Analysis

I do not quibble with either the Keynesians or the Marxians. I see value in both analyses and believe that they speak to significant ramifications for specific categories of society. However, the control that the state seeks and obscures through its use of euphemisms does not act in the interest of any particular class — be it the needy, the unemployed or the workers, I argue. These groups are horizontally linked with intersectional considerations, among them race, sex and sexuality, which bring with them specific power relations vis-à-vis the state and civil society. These are categories traditional neoliberal theories have been unable or worse, unwilling, to locate in the discussion of exclusion and power. What impact does cutting education or health care or Cabinet representation have for a trans* person of colour? Is it significantly more negative than a white cisgendered person? Discussions about the cutting of government spending are currently occurring at the provincial level in Ontario. These discussions are, by the very nature of our diverse society, post-structuralist. We cannot equally quantify the impact of cuts. Such an approach disables discussions about who enjoys privilege and thus, based on that privilege, which segments of the population will be disproportionately injured by government spending reductions. Those chasing the power of the state, I propose, know this. Hence, I argue, we see the use of euphemisms to avoid the hard parts of such a debate. But why? Power, I suggest, chases the path of least resistance. An appearance of social cohesion promulgated by the immense power of the state makes power easier to obtain. Reductive platforms such as cutting “government waste” can be calculated only in subjective political terms. Roadblocks to such reductive platforms such as discussions about intersectional social relations are hard and thus ignored. It is, I put to you, a short-term approach lacking in vision and corrupted by language that betrays cowardice on the part of those seeking to control the political, economic and biological.

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