From Socialist Voice, January–February 2009

The hegemony of English

Donaldo Macedo, with Panayota Gounari and Bessie Dendrinos, The Hegemony of English (Series in Critical Narrative), Boulder (Colo.): Paradigm, 2003; ISBN 978-1-59451-000-7; 978-1-59451-001-4 (paperback).
     The Hegemony of English is a timely Marxist-Gramscian response both to the language issue in the multilingual United States and to the worldwide hegemony of neo-liberal ideology. Its critique of measures proposed by the “English Only” movement—which proposes eliminating all non-English-language schoolroom activity and thence the USA’s minority languages—will be familiar to those acquainted with language discourse in Ireland.
     Language is seen by the authors as being not only “simple communication” but rather as a repository of historical experience from “how speakers organize and build their world, develop an understanding of social reality, and come to regard some things as valuable and others as worthless.” To adopt the colonising or dominant language is to accept in large measure the history, cultural terms of reference and general ethos implicit in it—and to reject one’s own essential heritage and history.
     The effects of such loss are spelled out by Pierre Bourdieu: “We accept the present as given, bereft of historicity. Because we have so little comprehension of our past, we have no appreciation of its meaningful inter-relation with the present.”
     The adoption of English, far from being a value-free act, “imposes upon the subordinate speakers a feeling of subordination, as their life experience, history, and language are ignored, if not sacrificed. One can safely argue that English today represents a tool, par excellence, for cultural invasion, with its monopoly of the internet, international commerce, the dissemination of the celluloid culture, and its role in the Disneyfication of world cultures.”
     The book draws attention to an aspect of language that is a bugbear for social and cultural activists the world over. “Those who are able to gain control over meanings and conventions of discourse are also able to promote their views of the world, their norms, their values, and ultimately their interests.” Hence “an understanding of the nature and functions of language is crucial in order to locate areas of public life and institutions that reproduce the so-called legitimate language . . . Jürgen Habermas urges us to extend our critique . . . to those areas of life in which power is hidden behind the amiable countenance of cultural familiarity.”
     Such an interrogation constitutes the highly valuable final chapter of this book, in which the development of neo-liberal hegemony, with its accompanying deformation of ordinary language, is traced from its Chicago roots to its current enthronement as the embodiment of common sense.
     Attention is drawn to the ability of neo-liberal discourse to sidestep criticism by redefining meaning. By redefining “truth” in terms of operationalist quantifiers, say “freedom” as “free market,” “democracy” as “free movement of capital” (and nary a peep about human rights), we note redefinitions that have sunk deep into contemporary (and dehistoricised) consciousness.
     Hence “what we are witnessing is a hypnosis of dissident discourses, a ‘crisis of critique,’ that is, a degradation, trivialization and closure of meanings that shut down any and all questions. At the same time, language is redefined with a view to suffocating dissent and endorsing the dominant market discourse . . . Neoliberal politics pretends to provide the answers for concepts and ideas that should remain perpetually open and be constantly questioned and redefined if they are to contribute to a vital political culture and a process of democratization. Nothing is more threatening to a democracy and the political existence of its citizens than the illusion that all questions have been answered, that there are no meanings to struggle over, [that] words are transparent and speak for themselves.”
     So, the misery that lies behind rationally ordered columns of statistics is no longer relevant. Such anguish, stifled by the “statisticisation” and “de-ethicisation” of American society, detailed in The Hegemony of English, are duplicated in all societies infected by the neo-liberal virus, such as Ireland.
     This book helps us to get a handle on the ideological immobility of the “hypnotised” left, too scared to stray outside the bounds of conventional “common sense” and to push, for example (to name but one), for replacement of the present inept—if not criminal—banking set-up with a publicly responsible National Development Bank.
     Now that the economic base of neo-liberalism is disintegrating, and its postmodernist superstructure is already in disarray, it is time for the left to break the neo-liberal spell and demonstrate that there are other ways and that the language of critique and intervention can help to build a social alternative to the now redundant neo-liberal order.
     The ever-prescient Fidel Castro proclaimed eight years ago: “The market will dry up some day for the industry of lies; it is drying up already. If you really delve into the truth, you will realise that the political conception of imperialism, as well as the neo-liberal economic order and globalisation process imposed on the world, is orphaned and defenceless when it comes to ideas and ethics. It is in this field that the main struggle of our times will be decided. And the final result of this battle, with no possible alternative, will be on the side of truth, and thus on the side of humanity.”

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