On the Political Theft of Ethical Discourse (April 26th, 2012)

I was sorry to see that in last Tuesday’s edition of The Morning Star even Tom Gill, in his article ‘Portugal’s contract to kill the European social model’, fell for the neat ploy, carefully promoted by the establishment media, of using ‘reform’ as though it were a neutral term meaning nothing more than ‘change’. Tom writes, ‘Portugal’s austerity package has included … deeply negative reforms to employment laws and a rise in taxes, including the socially regressive value-added tax.’

If ‘reforms’ can be ‘negative’, then no wonder we are told, endlessly, in the mainstream press and on the BBC, about (for example) ‘reforming’ employment law, meaning reducing employees’ right to appeal against unfair dismissal), ‘reforming’ the provision of healthcare (by placing it in the hands of private companies that add their profit-taking to medical costs), ‘reforming’ pension arrangements (i.e. substituting annuities dependent on market fluctuations for guarantees of a decent income after retirement) and ‘reforming’ university funding (by abolishing grants and increasing fees, so that higher education becomes once more a privilege of the well-off).

But if such measures are, like Portugal’s austerity package, ‘deeply negative’ then they are not ‘reforms’. According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary the term ‘reform’ means (and for at least the last 500 years has meant): ‘to improve (an arrangement, state of things, institution, etc.) by removal of faults or abuses; to put a stop or end to (an abuse, an abuse, disorder, malpractice, etc.) by enforcing or introducing a better procedure or conduct’; to abandon wrong-doing or error; to free oneself from misconduct or fault’.

One of the many ways in which the ruling class steals citizens’ rights is to steal their language. So let us beware: ‘The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.’

Published in The Morning Star Thursday, April 26th, 2012, 'Letters' (p.14)

A writer in The Guardian (Thursday, April 26th, p.15) advised the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he should ‘ease up on the pace of austerity’. According to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, ‘austerity’ means not simply ‘harshness’ or ‘severity’ of treatment, but ‘self-discipline’ and ‘abstinence’. It thus carries echoes of the sort of positive values that will enable a society to survive adversity through an effort of puritan moral fortitude. But what current governments are urging upon us is not ‘self-discipline’ but acquiescence in being disciplined from above. And those who enforce ‘abstinence’ on others are certainly not practising it themselves. On the contrary, ruling elites self-indulgently promote their own interests at others’ expense, with the result that the gap between the richest and the poorest in our society is getting wider and wider, so that the sale of luxury goods is expanding many have to choose between feeding their children and heating their homes. To call this state of affairs ‘austerity’ is to use a term implying moral rectitude within a shared collective experience for a situation of aggressive exploitation and polarising difference. It is a use of language that (either cynically or thoughtlessly) serves the political purposes of the wealthy and powerful by concealing and mystifying reality.