I WOULD like to talk about work. It is a perennial trope that we do what we must in order to pay the bills, but this necessary duty comes with terms and conditions increasingly conducive to misery. Why is this the case?
In case you haven’t noticed yet, everything is management. This claim can be proved by what I call the acronym test. Wherever you find unexplained clumps of letters you will also find jargon, which is the product of the modern idea of professionalism.
This professionalism is new. It has nothing to do with the old one, which meant something like ‘being able to do your job on your own’. Professionalism is the command and control of consensus through codewords. It obscures the obvious and prefers policy to practice. Its goal is to replace the difficult and challenging world of things with an easily manipulated word map. This results in a parallel perception of reality.
It might sound a touch dramatic to style the modern workplace as an exercise in mind control, where only the unbroken dare to notice out loud that the managerial slogans are simply camouflage for an ongoing mess. Yet it is simply the wider effect of the social patterning of the individual upon the abstract, which is enabled by our reliance on screens, social media and the idea of the self as a series of curated images more than simply a person.
To some, these word games are a property of the radical Left, where a man becomes a woman by saying so, and tortured explanations which sidestep the facts are offered for every social ill. In fact it is a function of managerialism, which is the principle on which our politics is predicated. This principle is a matter of maintaining a brand in the mind of the consumer, be that of the legitimacy of the State, the credibility of its placeholder leaders, or of the superiority of this box of snacks to another.
Why do people accept this if it is so contradictory to their experience? The unpleasantness of the world at present is compounded by a sense that nothing can be changed. We do not feel in charge – of our government, of our nations, of our own lives – but are instead more like spectators in the documentary of our lives. Heavily edited, it raises no questions about the reasons why we feel so impotent and alone, instead suggesting that the fault lies with us. This is also the impact of failing to keep up with the latest acronyms. No matter how good you are at what you do, the moment you miss such a trick you are diminished.
There is an attraction in this for those in need of consolation. It confers a sense of superiority to be able to explain to someone what this or that needless acronym may mean. Again, regardless of how competent you are at your job, if you have mastered its handbook of jargon you will experience the same brief, glowing and smug reward in your brain as you do when someone taps ‘like’ on your Facebook feed. It is a peevish kind of reward structure, whose function is to make broken people feel rather haughty about the fact they have surrendered their mind to the robot-voiced dictionary of Newspeak.
We are all familiar with the conceited expression of these custodians of cant, for whom it seems a major feature of their lives to wait for just this moment, when you are one abbreviation short of acceptance. It is a test you have failed. The explanation then given will not explain but simply list the words the acronyms stand for, whose meaning will still be unclear.
I suggest when you are next subjected to this miserable ritual that you politely and warmly ask what the words themselves mean. It is a safe bet that the smile will vanish from the face of your tormentor, to be replaced by a frown. This reveals a second order function of the language of the modern workplace – it is intended to secure submission. Its definitions contradict or at best obscure what is actually there, so it entails a degree of humiliation to accept them knowingly as true.
To fail to submit in this way, even innocently, is to remind those who have of the embarrassing gap between what they utter and meaning. It becomes apparent, when jargon is exposed in this way, that it is an obstruction between understanding and the individual. It is a kind of obligatory handicap made out of clever-sounding words, which have a science-y, professional ring to them. The reason they resonate so is because they are empty.
Publicly accepting known falsehoods as true – and to be compelled to live by them – is a well-known means of repression. It was especially beloved of the Bolsheviks, who would make their victims read out preposterous confessions, and attest to the plenitude of the socialist state whilst citizens ate the remains of their dead children.
It is a technique which breaks the will of the target, and to some degree is present in every modern workplace. Medicine, the law and academia all have their argots. This is different from the former professional culture, where each had its own perspective. This is a universalist project, and it is the same in our schools as it is in our infantry sections.
This is the ideology behind the bogeyman of woke. It is life dictated by Microsoft Word, which now edits your thoughts in real time. This is the power of the New Speech. It compels the speaker to use only licensed terms. It deletes unacceptable thoughts by refusing any phrases in which they may be honestly described. It is the verbal and cognitive machinery of compliance, a subtle replacement for the use of force, which allows us once more to champion one of our favourite words – freedom – as the fact of it recedes from real life, everywhere.