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  • Vocabularies of the economy
  • Doreen Massey (bio)

The language we use is one of the sources of the political straitjacket we are in.

At an art exhibition last summer I engaged in a very interesting conversation with one of the young people employed by the gallery. As she turned to walk off I saw she had on the back of her t-shirt 'Customer Liaison'. I felt flat. Our whole conversation seemed somehow reduced, my experience of it belittled into one of commercial transaction; my relation to the gallery and to this engaging person had become one of market exchange. The very language positioned us, the gallery, and our relationship, in a very particular way.

We know about this practice, and its potential effects, in many arenas. On trains and buses, and sometimes in hospitals and universities too, we have become customers, not passengers, readers, patients or students. In all these cases a specific activity and relationship is erased by a general relationship of buying and selling that is given precedence over it.

The language we use has effects in moulding identities and characterising social relationships. It is crucial to the formation of the ideological scaffolding of the hegemonic common sense. Discourse matters. Moreover it changes, and it can - through political work - be changed. We have been enjoined to become consumers rather than workers, customers where once we were passengers. (And indeed the process is never complete. Although the young person in the gallery had no choice but to wear this t-shirt, our conversation was nonetheless authentic and engaged, even to the extent of overflowing our assigned roles - maybe even resisting them.) [End Page 9] The point is that attempts to mould our identities through language and naming take political work, and may be contested. In the 1950s the adjective 'public' (worker, sector, sphere) designated something to be respected and relied upon. It had, if only vaguely, something to do with our collectivity. It took a labour of persistent denigration of 'the public' to turn things around. And that labour has been crucial to the ability to pursue the economic strategies we are currently enduring. 'Equality' too was once a term to be used with unquestioned positivity; under New Labour the very word became unsayable. And so on.

The vocabulary we use, to talk about the economy in particular, has been crucial to the establishment of neoliberal hegemony.

There is a whole world view - and economic theory - behind that meeting in the gallery. It is one in which the majority of us are primarily consumers, whose prime duty (and source of power and pleasure) is to make choices.

The so-called truth underpinning this change of descriptions - which has been brought about in everyday life through managerial instruction and the thoroughgoing renaming of institutional practices in their allowed forms of writing, address and speech - is that, in the end, individual interests are the only reality that matters; that those interests are purely monetary; and that so-called values are only a means of pursuing selfish ends by other means. And behind this in turn, the theoretical justification of this now nearly-dominant system is the idea of a world of independent agents whose choices, made for their own advantage, paradoxically benefit all. Moreover, for this to 'work' no individual agent can have sufficient power to determine what happens to the whole.

That the world is not like that is evident. There are monopolies and vastly differential powers. There is far more to life than individual self interest. Markets in practice need vast apparatuses of regulation, propping-up and policing - a 'bureaucracy' indeed. Moreover, this privileging of self interest, market relations and choice in each sphere of economic and social life leads inexorably to increased inequality. And this now glaring inequality (globally as well as intranationally) is protected from political contest by another shift in our vocabulary. Every liberal democratic society needs to negotiate some kind of articulation between the liberal tradition and the democratic tradition. In our present society that articulation is quite specific: 'liberty' has come to be defined simply as self interest and freedom from restraint by the state, and that reduced form of liberty has become...