Book Notes: Leary’s Keywords: the New Language of Capitalism

The idea behind this book by John Patrick Leary is brilliant. Take the buzzwords of today’s life – accountability, empowerment, disruption, sustainability, wellness – and show the economic realities that they mask. It could have been such a good book. Leary starts Keywords in a very promising way by offering the smartest definition of neoliberalism I’ve seen in a while. Neoliberalism, he says, is used as shorthand “to name everything bad about the contemporary world.” This is funny and true. Yet Leary makes it very clear that the neoliberal economic transformation of the planet definitely needs to be discussed and the language that normalises many of its negatives should be studied.

Unfortunately, Leary is still a very typical Leftist academic who can’t bring himself to notice that the neoliberal revolution has found its biggest champion in the Left. He studiously avoids some of the favorite lefty buzzwords that point to the merging of Leftism and neoliberalism.

For instance, Leary pays a lot of attention to the ways words like “flexible” and “nimble” are used in the world of business to facilitate neoliberal goals. But he never mentions their much more popular synonym “fluid.” The centrality of fluidity to neoliberalism equals only the term’s importance to Leftism. So of course, Leary has to pretend he never heard of the word.

Things get more complicated when he gets to the word “choice.” It would be impossible not to mention it at all because there’s no single word that means more to the neoliberal worldview. But how to account for the same concept being at the center of the “pro-choice” movement? Leary does what seems to come naturally to him and refuses to acknowledge the existence of the Lefty use of the term altogether.

Similarly, Leary can allow himself to notice how concepts such as creativity and imagination are commodified but pretends that things like “activism” and “anti-racism” haven’t become marketing tools.

There’s a conventional nod toward the “freedom of speech is evil” slogan, too. And an equally conventional effort to insert class markers about the chi-chi fru-fru shopping tastes of the very Marxist Leary that set him apart from the despicable right-wing plebs that is so stupid it believes that speech is really free.

It’s not all bad, of course. Some chapters are good and useful. But any discussion of neoliberalism that doesn’t take into account how completely the Left has been coopted by it is useless. You have to be either completely oblivious or deeply dishonest not to see how the Left is doing the work of, for instance, intimidating the workers and facilitating their exploitation.

As I mentioned before, a small group of our most Leftist colleagues yesterday forced the administration to shut down the discussion board that we have used for years to debate and oppose many of the administration’s mandates. We are currently living in an environment where union work, for instance, is severely compromised because of the intolerable environment created by these extremely left-wing people.

The new favorite cause of the Left is “anti-racism.” The way this cause is being imposed leads to fracturing the working class along the lines of skin tone. It doesn’t allow for any solidarity because it positions some workers’ very existence as an egregious wrong to other workers. This movement legitimizes continued exploitation of workers as long as employers spout the correct slogans and pay for a bunch of reeducation classes. Moreover, the Left is advancing the cause of austerity by forcing the government to deny welfare to the people.

Leary’s book was published in 2018, before the current insanity. But this trend was already obvious to anybody who could lift their eyes up from their “basket of seltzer water and soy-based meat substitutes… in a co-op grocery store” for wealthy brats and pay attention. Leary chose not to notice because co-ops are expensive and you gotta make a living. It’s going to bite him on the ass because there is about a hundred ways his book can be accused of “not centering the BIPOC voices” (it’s the new favorite word soup slogan, in case anybody wonders). He won’t get it, of course, until the mob comes for him. I hope it never happens but well-meaning yet oblivious people like Leary make the triumph of the neoliberal Lefty mobs all but inevitable.