Phil Graham on Mon, 3 Apr 2000 21:46:39 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Language in the New Capitalism

Please circulate as widely as possible.

Language in the New Capitalism

Norman Fairclough 
Lancaster University

This is a call for action on language in the new capitalism.

A ‘global’ form of capitalism is gaining ascendancy. There are winners and
there are losers. Amongst the losses: an increasing gap between rich and
poor, less security for most people, less democracy, major environmental
damage. If markets are not constrained, the results will be disastrous.
The new order needs to be challenged - especially the claim that it is
inevitable, that ‘there is no alternative’. Language is an important part
of the new order – it is partly new ways of using language: for instance
‘focus groups’, ‘quality circles’, ‘appraisal interviews’ (all of which
entail new forms of dialogue); ‘flexibility’, ‘partnership’,
‘transparency’, ‘lifelong learning’. Language is also important in
imposing, extending and legitimizing the new order: for instance the
pervasive representations of ‘globalisation’ as a natural and universal
process – disguising ways in which it is based on choices by business
corporations and governments which can be changed. The project of the new
order is partly a language project - change in language is an important
part of the socio-economic changes that are taking place. And challenging
the new order is partly a matter of challenging the new language.

Research network

There is now an international research network focused on Language in the
New Capitalism – its website is: The network is
envisaged as a resource for political action as well as analysis, and our
hope is that activists in social movements, parties, trade unions and
other areas of social life, journalists, and indeed anyone concerned about
these issues will bring their own experiences, initiatives and concerns to
the network.  The research needs these perspectives if it is to contribute
to changing social life for the better. 

What is the new capitalism? 

Capitalism is being re-organised on the basis of important new
technologies, new modes of economic coordination, and the reduction of
social life to the market. Buzzwords include: the ‘information
economy’,the ‘knowledge-based economy’, ‘globalization’, ‘flexibility’,
‘workfare’ (‘welfare-to-work’), the ‘learning economy’, the ‘enterprise
culture’.  Across much of the world, governments take it as a mere fact of
life that all must bow to the emerging logic of a globalizing
knowledge-driven economy informed by the political ideology of
neo-liberalism’. According to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu,
neo-liberalism is a political project for the reconstruction of society in
accord with the demands of an unrestrained global capitalism (Bourdieu
1998). Neo-liberalism has been adopted in fact if not in theory by social
democratic as well as conservative political parties, so that one effect
of the current scenario is, in the absence of really distinct political
policies, a weakening of democracy, a closing down of political debate.
States enter an intense competition to succeed on terms dictated by the
market. This has led to radical attacks on social welfare and the
reduction of those protections which welfare states provided against the
negative effects of markets, and the other negative effects listed above.
It has also produced a new imperialism, where international financial
agencies indiscriminately impose restructuring on less fortunate
countries, sometimes with disastrous consequences (eg Russia). (See Bauman
1998, Martin & Schumann 1997.) 

Language in the new capitalism

Our focus in on language in the new capitalism. Language is an integral
part of social life in its different aspects – economic, political,
cultural, etc. All forms of social activity are in part language activity
– though we need to understand ‘language’ in a broad way to include for
instance the language of visual images, eg in advertising. Language
figures in three broad ways: as part of the action – acting and
interacting is partly using language in particular ways; in representing
the world and social life in particular ways – differences in wording are
different ways of representing things; and as part of the constitution of
ways of being – identities. (See Chouliaraki & Fairclough 1999.) The new
capitalism is a distinctive social order part of whose distinctiveness is
the way language figures within it – in its ‘genres’ (the ways peoples act
and interact), its ‘discourses’ (ways of representing), and ‘styles’ (ways
of being).

One way of thinking about the concerns of the Language in the New
Capitalism network is in terms of: dominance, difference, and resistance. 
First, we need to identify which genres, discourses, and styles are the
dominant ones. Examples would be the genres which regulate action and
interaction in organisations (eg the sort of language which constitutes
‘teamwork’, ‘consultation’, ‘partnerships’, or ‘appraisals’); the
neo-liberal economic discourses which are internationally disseminated and
imposed by organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the
World Trade Organisation (including key words and phrases like ‘free
trade’, ‘transparency’, ‘flexibility’, ‘quality’); and the styles of key
figures in the new order – entrepreneurs, managers, political leaders,
etc. We also need to consider how these genres, discourses, and styles are
disseminated internationally, and across areas of social life (eg how the
discourse and genre of ‘negotiation’ so to speak ‘flows’ between economic,
political, military, and family life).

Second, we need to consider the range of difference, diversity, in genres,
discourses and styles – and the social structuring and restructuring of
that difference. One issue is access: who does or does not have access to
dominant forms? Another is relationships between dominant and non-dominant
forms – how are other genres, discourses and styles affected by the
imposition of new dominant ones? For instance, mainstream political
discourse has widely converged around neo-liberal discourse – what has
happened for instance to radical and socialist political discourses? How
have they been marginalised? How do they continue to sustain themselves?
An error which must be avoided is assuming that dominant forms are the
only ones that exist.

Which brings us to the third concern: resistance. Dominant genres,
discourses, and styles are colonising new domains – for instance
managerial genres, discourses and styles are rapidly colonising government
and public sector domains such as education. But colonisation is never a
simple process: the new forms are assimilated and combined in many cases
with old forms. There is a process of appropriating them, which can lead
to various outcomes – quiescent assimilation, forms of tacit or more open
resistance (eg when people ‘talk the talk’ is a consciously strategic way,
without accepting it), or indeed the search for coherent alternatives.

Language matters in the New Capitalism, and attempts to inflect, resist or
transform it need to take language seriously – to critique the dominant
genres, discourses and styles, and to project alternatives. This does not
at all imply that language is all that matters: it is one element – but an
important one - in the material social processes and practices of the New


Bauman, Z. (1998) Globalization – the Human Consequences. Cambridge:
Polity Press. 

Bourdieu, P. (1998) ‘L’essence du neo-liberalisme’, Le Monde Diplomatique,

Chouliaraki, L. and Fairclough, N. (1999) Discourse in Late Modernity: 
Rethinking Critical Discourse Analysis. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University

Martin, H-P. and Schumann, H. (1997) The Global Trap. London: Zed Books. 

Phil Graham
Lecturer (Communication)
University of Queensland

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