New Keywords review published

Thanks to Oliver Eagleton and Counterfire for this insightful review of Keywords.

I appreciated Eagleton’s serious engagement with the book, and for this critique in particular:

While Williams chose to analyse words which could be reclaimed for the left, his inheritor seem to think that ‘the new language of capitalism’ must be rejected wholesale. His introduction urges us to argue ‘for free time, not “flexibility”; for free health care, not “wellness”; and for free universities, not “the marketplace of ideas”’ (p.19), all of which sounds unobjectionable. But Leary loses something by simply pitting one vocabulary against another, or contrasting the old with the new. He ignores the extent to which the dominant lexicon can generate values and ideas which undermine its own foundations.

This was always a worry of mine, that the project would become a list of “bad words” or office jargon to avoid. But at the same time, I don’t know what good can come from reclaiming “flexibility,” given how insidiously it already preys upon a desire for freedom. Yet I also think Eagleton’s basic comparison with Williams’ project is correct: the original Keywords was a lexicon of modern society in its contradictions, and so it included words, like “city” and “labor,” whose political ramifications were either ambiguous or potentially socialist. In this way my Keywords is different: words like “wellness,” “flexibility,” or “innovation” are blockages, words we use when we really mean something else. When we say “human capital,” for example, what we are really describing is “labor.” And to get to the bottom of that word, we have Raymond Williams’ Keywords.

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