Is the political language too contested?


Of all the concepts put forward in The war of words democracy is surely the richest and the most genuinely contested. When we talk about it, is it liberal democracy or its illiberal cousin? Labor democracy or constitutional democracy? Market democracy or social democracy? Does it live in the practice of elections and voting, in the language of law and rights, or in everyday habits? Is it a substantive achievement or a procedural achievement? Democracy would seem like an ideal candidate for the Jamesian approach, which makes it all the stranger because he has so little to say about it. Democracy, he explains vividly, but without too much reference to a specific time or place, has a “strong normative definition”, by which he seems to mean that it is an aspiration to govern by, by and for the people. All political ideas are normative, of course, and so this is not a particularly distinctive feature. Rather than breaking the concept down into its constituent parts or analyzing its competing components (in the way, say, Astra Taylor), James instead draws 10 vague and clichéd “lessons” from Weimar Germany about democratic failure – a poor man Timothy Snyderand not entirely relevant to the decluttering job at hand.

How, exactly, are citizens being misled and mistaken about James’ chosen terms? The book takes for granted that we are all irritated by the delusional state of current political debate, but does little to explain how, more specifically, people are locked into conceptual impasses around notions like hegemony or geopolitics, not to mention socialism or capitalism. What James is suggesting is that some of our best terms have bloated in their metaphorical meaning and moralizing charge. He writes ruefully about how words that once referred neutrally to “concrete political or social phenomena” are now “easy, usually condemnatory labels,” full of “quasi-metaphorical meanings” that introduce ethical judgment. in intellectual or political discussions. The title of his own book is, of course, a metaphor, and The war of words draws on a series of others to make his point: describing political discourse as a market, words in terms of money, and language as a kind of blockchain technology. The irony here is well and truly lost.

There’s perhaps a useful distinction to be made, which James doesn’t, between technical terms that need fixed definitions and universal readability to work, and political ideas for which this sort of thing is genetically hopeless. The most interesting words here fall into the latter category. Ideas like capitalism and socialism relate to the things we value the most and therefore tend not to have single or universal semantic meanings. In fact, terms like democracy Where freedom Where Europe Where liberalism (strangely omitted from this book) are politically resonant exactly because of the chameleon quality that annoys James so much, because they can be used to channel so many varied desires, because they can do so much work in the world. In their slipperiness lies their charm.

For words like these, Raymond Williams recognized in the 1970s, “it is not only an impossible procedure but also an irrelevant procedure” to fix meanings with such authority. It is rather “the range that counts”. Political words resist being frozen by elites because they “embodie different experiences and readings of experience”, Williams asserted, a fact that remains true despite “exercises of clarification by academics or committees”.


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