The expression “skin in the game” was coined by Warren Buffett to describe the most desirable form of corporate governance—one in which senior management invest personally in the stock of the company they are running. The idea is that if executives have as much of a personal stake in the company as outside investors, they will do a better, more responsible job. As a prescription for sound corporate management, the idea is unexceptionable, if radical only in the context of the casino capitalism of the past 30 years. Indeed, as contemporary business credos go, it’s pretty mild; and as a use of language, it is less of a con than most. After all, the trajectory of the language of business—and of its un-indicted co-conspirator, advertising—is toward the Big Lie. Stalin’s Russia was like that. So is Goldman Sachs’ America. Re-read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, and instead of thinking of the world of politics, think about the world of business. I think you will find that, if anything, I am understating the matter.
Here is the management guru Tom Peters writing in Fast Company in early 2009: “Today, in the Age of the Individual, you have to be your own brand. Here’s what it takes to be the CEO of Me Inc.” Of course, what he writes makes no sense. Individuals cannot be brands. It’s not even an oxymoron, like the marketing term, “mass customization,” it’s a category mistake pure and simple, and the political implications (not to mention the ideological agenda, whether conscious, or, far more probably, unconscious) of it are of real consequence. To be human is, very precisely, not to be a corporation. To write as if it were, to “shape” language in this way, as Orwell put it, has tremendous consequences. Language matters, and the dominant language of our time is Peters’, not Orwell’s. We are paying dearly for that. We will pay more dearly still.
Here is Orwell again. Language, he wrote, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” And he was writing in a time when the reach of advertising was far narrower, though it was already expanding rapidly. Unable to resist this cultural transformation, the Liberal-Left has instead increasingly embraced it, as the influence within the Democratic Party of the cognitive scientist George Lakoff demonstrates all too depressingly. Lakoff’s theory of “framing” is nothing of the sort: Despite his indignant denials, it is spin and propaganda, which boil down to the preposterous claim that when Republicans use framing it’s propaganda, but when Democrats use it they are finding effective ways of communicating their moral views to the public. But given that almost everything in or culture is pushing in this direction, it would be unreasonable to expect the Democrats not to sign on. As Brecht wrote:
“Such is the rule; an eye for an eye
Only a fool waits for an exception.”
What Orwell identified as being at the core of our collective resignation regarding the debasement of language—that we believe language develops “naturally”, whereas, he wrote, in reality it is an instrument “which we shape to our own purposes”—does much to explain why the triumph of the lie in our time has been so complete. If there is not more push-back, it is because the more language is debased, the more difficult it becomes even to remember what honest language sounds or reads like. This is because of the enduring idea—original to the United States, but now increasingly globalized (particularly in northeast Asia and in the Indian upper middle class)— that, to paraphrase the old cliché about youth, the new must be served. The contamination of our politics, our tastes, our morals, even of our fears by the language of advertising has thus proceeded largely unopposed. Compared with the harm it has caused, evidence of such contemporary cultural nihilism—as the elevation of The Godfather, a film glorifying the Mafia into an icon of our culture that we are expected to know and admire, when the truth of those beasts is even worse than it is in Roberto Saviano’s already devastating portrait in Gomorrah, or the free pass rap music gets in our culture, so desperate to be cool—pales by comparison.
Anyone who has read Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool, the definitive account of how Madison Avenue co-opted the supposedly oppositional language and attitudes of the young people of the 1960s, will not be surprised by any of this. It is just that it is now clear that the damage extends much, much further than Madison Avenue. All language is not a virus, despite Laurie Anderson’s great song. Ours is. And it is killing us.