Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Lazy List, part I

Now as regular readers will know, I like to debate (I like to argue, some would say. It's a fair cop).

But my strong preference, heaven help me, is to debate on the issues. Yes, I'm afraid so, rather than using certain stock words or phrases in a kind of game of Top Trumps, thinking – wrongly – that they instantly win the argument. In recent months I have taken part in a lot of online debating on leftie websites, and have been wanting for some time to try, in a public-spirited sort of way, to improve our debating for everyone’s benefit.

So, with acknowledgements to the diligent work in the field of cleaning up left-wing debate already undertaken by Julie’s Think Tank and also where John Rentoul’s iconic Banned List doing the same for lazy journalism (although “iconic” itself is banned: I’m afraid I did that on purpose), I should like to offer up the following exaggerations, misuses and misappropriations for the consideration of the Left-wing Debating Correctional Committee:

privatisation, n.

Real use:
The selloff of a public company.

Lazy use:
Any use whatsoever of private provision in the context of a public service, whether or not it might improve that service for the users, and despite use of private provision of public services having become an established model across the Western world. To be pronounced with a negative inflection (alternatively, a full sneer is also acceptable).

neo-con, n.

Real use: neo-conservatives are right-wing Americans, not Brits. They do not believe in a welfare state (which all British political parties, in contrast, do). Some Tories describe themselves as neo-cons, but they’re really just wannabes.

Lazy use: any person using an argument politically slightly to the right of whatever the writer is saying. Wholesale misuse of a word. Favoured on the left as an insult, partly because it conveniently starts with the same letters as neo-fascist. Which, while tripping nicely off the tongue, nowadays sounds a bit ridiculous (unless applied to, say, Nick Griffin). “Neo” also usefully conjures up nasty images of goose-stepping soldiers. See also neo-liberal, n.

triangulation, n., triangulate, v.i.

Real use: a very specific political necessity of policy compromise thrust on Clinton by the misfortune of being a Democrat and having to cohabit with a Republican Congress.

Lazy use: to describe any argument the writer disagrees with because it suggests a “betrayal” movement towards the other side. Can also be used on the political right for leftward moves. Also often used prefaced by the words “lazy”, “mindless”, etc. All banned.

New Labour, n., adj.

Real use: a slogan (never formally a party or even a grouping within a party), now defunct since the 2010 election, although could, through common usage, legitimately be used to describe those in Labour towards the political centre.

Lazy use: as an insult, meaning any person or argument politically to the right of what the writer is saying. Usually used in conjunction with inappropriate, negative-sounding riders such as New Labour orthodoxy (it being no longer orthodox, but a minority sport) and New Labour comfort zone (in the current context of debate, it being against the grain of, at the very least, the vocal majority of the party). See also Tory, n. (often used interchangeably by same people in debate).

capitalist, n.

Real use: orig. member of the 19th century ruling class or resulting society, as referred to by Karl Marx. Nowadays largely defined as any essentially free-market society where the state is not in charge of commerce, i.e. practically any mainstream, democratic society and/or political ethos belongs to this category. Modern politics is largely arguing about the details of how to address market failures within said system.

Lazy use: Has all but fallen out of usage except on the left, where it has become so subjective as to be largely meaningless. For example, in the context of society, America. Or Asia. Or any political party I disagree with. In the context of people, anyone who is richer than me.

That's the first tranche - I invite you all to add your own. More to follow.


  1. I'd add "left", "right" and "centre". But I'm not so sure you have defined privatisation correctly - for example, a public service could be "mutualised" - this would be private provision, but not in the sense people understand it (i.e. not geared towards providing financial returns for external investors).

    On your "real use" of capitalist -"orig. member of the 19th century ruling class" What do we call members of the 21st century ruling class? Capitalists, presumably. As capitalism has been the dominant economic system since the 19th century. In the context of social enterprise, is there not a distinction to be made between a capitalist firm which is geared towards financial returns to capital and a firm which is geared towards returns to this and other forms of capital, such as natural, human, social capital?

  2. We aren't going to agree on the pbsolescence of left and right labels (ever!) Although, in my defence, I have just pointed out to Luke Akehurst that I disagree when Tony Blair does this, as well. Re mutualisation, I think I'd agree that it's technically private provision, but not many members of the public would recognise this distinction. For clarity, I'd really prefer a third category for this.

    If the word were not used in such a negative way, I wouldn't mind people who have lots of capital being called capitalists. But it was a label invented by Marx, whose ideas now lie almost entirely disused. It is a label which has always been perjorative. Why we on the left retain his perjorative lexicon but not his ideas, I really don't know.

    Capitalism has, as you rightly observe, been dominant since Marx invented the term (and before). However, the change today is that is now the ONLY (and not the dominant) system in the Western world.

    In the context of social enterprise, I concur there is certainly a difference. But we could use a more neutral term to distinguish, such as "profit-making", which would also have the advantage of not sounding so terribly old-fashioned...;)

  3. I'm not that bothered by Blair's refusal to do right/left talk - it's probably sensible in that a) it's not familiar to most voters and b) it's not in our interests that voters think about politics in such terms.

    Actually, the term "capitalist" to refer to an owner of capital pre-dates Marx by at least two hundred years - he no doubt got the term from the political economists like Ricardo and Smith who described the rising power of capital-owners.

    It might be that rule by capital-owners is the only game in town - but we should describe it as such. We are after all, members of a "democratic socialist party" as the revised Clause Four has it.

    One of the greatest regrets about Blair is that the early enthusiasm for a "stakeholder society" was quickly killed off, only to re-emerge in other forms like Supporters Direct.

    As regards social enterprise - to describe it as profit-making does little to distinguish from capitalist enterprise. Social enterprise is profit-making, or at least not-for-loss - but it isn't "profit maximising". In this, I'm influenced by the disctinction made by Muhammad Yunus in his "Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism".

  4. Left and right not that familiar to most voters? And you think most talk about labour and capital instead? Come on. Whether it's in our interests is more of a moot point (Blair obviously didn't think so).

    Also social enterprise can be profit-making and indeed -maximising, but it is within the framework defined by the business which can have ethical components.

    Social *business*, as defined by Yunus, is a different ballgame, he eschews profit altogether. I don't think this narrowing of the field is necessary, or even necessarily helpful.

    The Body Shop was a profit-making company which did very good things for ethical business (in their early days, at least).

  5. "And you think most talk about labour and capital instead?"

    No, of course I don't. But most people understand Labour as a party of the many and the Tories as a party of the few.

    "Whether it's in our interests is more of a moot point (Blair obviously didn't think so)."

    Blair didn't talk about left, right or centre to win office as an MP, as Labour leader, or as PM. He talked about what he believed and what he wanted to change. When he stopped doing this, he lost trust - and Labour started losing support as a result.

    "social enterprise can be profit-making and indeed -maximising, but it is within the framework defined by the business which can have ethical components"

    If a social enterprise was profit-maximising, it wouldn't have ethical components - it would focus on prices rather than ethical values, surely? That's perhaps why the Body Show could not live up to the aspirations of its founders as it grew - the need to reward capital owners beyond a capped level of interest.

  6. Ok happy with the many not the few definition, we can all sign up to that.

    "He talked about what he believed and what he wanted to change." That's quite an accurate, and a rather good, analysis. However, the rest of that para is, I'm afraid, just conjecture.

    Re the Body Shop, I think you can say that, in the West at least, there have been few, if any, examples of *without* profits enterprises which achieved as much as they did *with* profits. They put the whole idea on the map.

    And, on the contrary, they didn't change its direction because it was unsustainable, but mainly because Anita Roddick was bored and became a bit too controversial for the company. I studied the case.

    The other argument, by the way, in favour of with-profits companies is that the use of external capital allows a startup to expand much more quickly. In some product spaces (e.g. software), you would never be able to make a no-profits model work, competitors would outmanoeuvre too easily.

    In short, I think it's sensible to be relaxed about the profit motive, what should drive the business model is whether it works or not.

  7. "In short, I think it's sensible to be relaxed about the profit motive, what should drive the business model is whether it works or not."

    But this isn't a resolution to the issue of who profits, either at the microeconomic level or at the macro. And this is bound to be an issue with increased private provision of public services, for example, and with the involvement of external capital in social enterprise where dividends are not capped.


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