Freedom is slavery

As a young adult, my world view was profoundly influenced by Orwell’s 1984. I was always particularly fascinated by the concept of “Newspeak”. In case you have not read the book — which you should — the basic idea is that language regulates thought. To think about anything more complex than simple hunger or fear, you need a “voice in your head” to express it; that is, you need language. You also need language to assemble any kind of coherent chain of reasoning, whether for yourself or for discussion with others.

(This idea is not original to Orwell; it is called the “Bashir-Worf Hypothesis” or something like that. But I digress.)

Consequently, if some idea or argument is inexpressible in your language, you will be unable to think it. In Orwell’s vision, the totalitarian state has embraced this concept, and one of the main character’s friends is working on the “Newspeak” dictionary. In Newspeak, anti-government concepts simply have no means of expression. Teach one generation of children Newspeak, and even the idea of revolution becomes unthinkable, forever.

The guy working on the Newspeak dictionary spends a lot of his time removing words. As it turns out, it is more efficient to add different (or contradictory) meanings to existing words.

Recently, I have noticed that when I attempt to express my opinion on certain topics, the words I try to use do not mean what I want. Words that once meant one thing have been hijacked to mean something completely different.

Example #1: Market. This used to be a place where people came together to exchange goods, as in “farmer’s market”. Contrast with “stock market”, which is where gamblers who produce nothing come together with other gamblers who produce nothing in order to dodge in and out of positions multiple times per day or per second or per millisecond. How do I explain that I think one of these fortifies society while the other corrupts it, when they now have the same name? How do I express my appreciation for one and my contempt for the other?

Example #2: Trader. Once upon a time, every town had too much of one thing and too little of something else. A “trader” was a guy who made his living riding from town to town on his ass, filling deficits in one place with surpluses from another. Today, it just means an ass who thinks he’s smart when he out-gambles the other gamblers. Also, he occasionally gets his own show on CNBC.

I believe in trade. No, no, not that kind of trade, the other kind of… Oh never mind.

Example #3: Productive. Goldman Sachs is about to hand out six-, seven-, and eight-figure bonuses to its employees. Lloyd Blankfein justifies this by saying, “The people of Goldman Sachs are among the most productive in the world.” This is a lie, of course; nobody working for Goldman has ever produced anything, and they never will. If you actually produce something worth millions of dollars, I believe you deserve to keep millions of dollars. If you work in the financial sector pushing around the money that makes the real economy move, working on the “problem” of maximizing the amount that sticks to your fingers, then I believe you should be taxed north of 95%. It is very hard to find the words to express my position concisely.

Example #4: Value. This is supposed to mean what something is worth, as opposed to whatever some idiot will pay for it right now. Value is not price. Whether the house next door sells for $1 million or $100,000, the value of your house has not changed.

Example #5: Investment (and the related investor). Supposed to mean something that aids in the production of something else, not something you buy because you are hoping it will go up in price. Consider a house. A house is a bunch of wood and brick that produces nothing; it just sits there, slowly rotting away. That so many people can look at something just sitting there, slowly rotting away, and see an “investment” is a symptom of the pathology I am describing. An entire generation has already been raised on Newspeak…

Example #6: Industry. The phrase “financial industry” is self-contradictory; shuffling paper around is the opposite of industry. Yet everyone uses this phrase without a moment’s hesitation. Call it doublethink.

Example #7: Entrepreneur. Go read this one for yourself because I am getting tired of typing.

And so I must conclude that I am living in Oceania, where everyone only knows Newspeak. I am unable to say what I believe without sounding either like an apologist for financial sector parasites or like some lefty pinko hippie freak.

But at least I am starting to understand. When I read an article that bothers me, but I cannot quite explain why, it often comes down to some modern version of Newspeak.

Watch for this yourself. Send me examples. I am pretty sure I have only begun to scratch the surface.

2 comments to Freedom is slavery

  • jus me

    Nemo – I like this post, it’s an important topic that doesn’t get much play.

    On Calculated Risk, you have coined new meaning for at least one word (“Nemo”, now universally regarded
    as meaning “look at me, I am the first person to make a comment on a CR thread!”)

    The (partial) solution involves coining new phrases and words to express your meanings.
    One can of course talk of “financial markets” versus “farmer’s markets,” as you just have. And if “farmer’s
    market” doesn’t quite capture “real” markets (heck, practically nowhere today do people “exchange goods” w/o some kind of financial exchange) then we need to think more about what the difference is, and figure out how to articulate it. Are gas stations, Walmart, the shoe store the components of the “real” markets? Maybe “retail market” (or just “retail”) is what’s meant. Does the “real” market include sending of bulldozer parts to Caterpillar and selling software instructions to a router company? Maybe a different word (“industrial”? “industrial & retail”?) is applicable. But it will help to think of how much one means to encompass in the “real” market; to me it would probably include some of the transactions that GS performs, to you it may not.

    To express your admiration and contempt for the different market parts, you will have to define them, and of course, name them. Otherwise, yes, we’re wordlessly adrift, but in our own, not Mr. Blair’s, Oceania.

  • mittelwerk

    abstraction of the social relationships implied by those words is perhaps the fundamental feature of capitalism — if not of modernity itself.

    you’re also showing a pronounced bias for the “ought” as opposed to the “is” versions — which generally means the ones that no longer exist. that’s a kind of slavery, too.

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