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The Language of Neoliberalism

by Sebastian Friedrich Friday, May. 20, 2016 at 5:51 AM

Knowledge enables people to interpret reality. Metaphors and pictures give things a new meaning and can change reality. Capital isn't so frightened and isn't the same as a deer. The financial crisis is compared to a thunderstorm that is not man-made.


By Sebastian Friedrich

[This book review of “Imagine Economy. Neoliberal Metaphors in Political-Economic Discourse” by Beigewum (ed) is translated from the German on the Internet.]

This anthology analyzes neoliberal metaphors and the implications behind the language patterns.

Germany was not the European master but celebrated export world championships or at least the vice title for years. Bailout parachutes should be unfurled and debt brakes installed. On all sides there was fear of tax avalanches, a reform jam on the labor market and rejection of people in social hammocks with a cradle-to-grave mentality. These current metaphors communicate a certain knowledge.


Knowledge enables people to interpret reality. Chronologically and spatially dependent knowledge is supported by discourse that structures the hierarchies in a society. With Michel Foucault, discourse could be understood as a power/ knowledge complex that creates realities by structuring ways of looking at the world and doesn’t only reflect an existing reality. Metaphors and language-pictures offer a possibility for this structuring. In different ways, language played a role in the past in oppressive relations. In his “Lingua Tortii Imperii,” Victor Klemperer focused on language in National Socialism. He referred extensively to the connection of language and racism in the German-speaking area…Racism is reproduced through racist terms and gives jarring interpretations to alternative terms.

Only a few publications in the area of economic policy analyze the connection of language and neoliberalism. One book from the Locker publishing house tries to fill this gap, the anthology “Imagine Economy” edited by Beigewum, the advisory council for social-, economic- and environmental alternatives describes neoliberal metaphors in political-economic discourse in 13 short essays and tries to create alternative metaphorical expressions through more than a dozen illustrations. In the introduction, Beat Weber presents relational theories and emphasizes the power of metaphors. Metaphors unite reason and imagination and transport ordering systems consciously or unconsciously for recipients. Metaphors are not only images but powerfully illuminate some particulars and fade out others. “Metaphors give things a new meaning and can change reality when people act in accord with the meaning bestowed by the metaphor” (p.12).

The essays could serve as an introduction to political-economic questions like the article on “Hard and Soft Currency.” Elisabeth Springler clarifies that a high exchange rate does not automatically led to a strong purchasing power as in economies with a trifling share in foreign trade. Moreover contrary to dominant interpretations, inflation is in no way always deserving condemnation. The redistribution effects between creditors and debtors would be ignored through slight inflation. Altogether an excessive rating is given to “hard currency” in the political-economic discourse.


The functions of the metaphors are emphasized and the statements behind the metaphors revealed. For example, Katharina Muhr shows how capital appears as a poor creature needing protection in the picture of capital as a “frightened deer.” Thus demands of businesses are de-legitimated. The picture is flanked by the intimated fears that fears could leave the customary locations. For that reason, they often only need to pay trifling taxes. Muhr shows that capital isn’t so frightened and is not the same as a deer. Different forms of capital must be distinguished. For example, real estate can hardly flee from today to tomorrow. That is also true for businesses. Many factors that stand for the attractiveness of the current location despite higher taxes face the prospect of lower taxes at another location.

As with capital portrayed as a deer, the social relation between capital and labor is naturalized directly or indirectly in other metaphors. A naturalized picture is hidden behind the term bailout umbrella as Anita Roitner notes. The financial crisis before which states and banks must be protected is compared to a thunderstorm that as everybody knows is not manmade. The term “trim state” implied in the demand for “more market and less state” is physical or bodily. The state is seen as “too fat.” Oliver Prausmueller criticizes this picture for three reasons. Firstly, nature analogies run the risk of fading out necessary political discussions and stressing the ideal of human bodies as sleek and fit. Secondly, distribution questions are faded out by the metaphor. Costs for the population rise parallel to the trimming of the state that is lowering expenses on the expenditure side of the state is very problematic from a gender-critical perspective. Men profit above all from a sleek state through the shift from paid labor to private informal work which is mostly done by women. Thirdly, liberalizations and privatizations in no way automatically lead to reduced bureaucracy. Rather a reorganization of the social state could result instead of a dismantling of the social state. Altogether the emphasis on a sleek state according to Prausmueller helps cover up social shifts of power and intensifying social inequalities” (p.104).


Similar distortions mark the term “achiever,” Armin Fuller explains. The term contains the idea that achievers are the motor of society and a group of unproductives face the “achievers”… Sloterdijk is concerned for the achievers whoa re the truly exploited ones because they must pay a high tax. But Sloterdijk’s fears of shriveling achievers ignore the structure of tax revenues. Those who don’t pay any income tax would pay a higher share of indirect taxes. The tax burden on those with comparatively low and mid-level incomes is much higher since there is a trifling burden on wealth and inheritances…

The term “export world master” analyzed by Hans Asenbaum has a similar function. The notion that exports benefit the public welfare is strengthened according to the fallacy “if the economy is good, everything is good for us.” This is by no means true. The export world championship is at the expense of millions of workers employed in low wage sectors and makes possible the inexpensive prices of exports. “The powerful metaphor of `export world champion’ serves to make policy in the interest of a minority appear as oriented in the public interest and desirable for the majority.”… “Thus liberalization was successful in forcing down wages without bringing increased job possibilities.” Other economies beyond Germany were under massive pressure through the low wage policy. The results can be seen in present-day Greece and Spain.


… In her article, Katharina Meichenitsh discusses the term “social hammock” on a superficial plane since she does not grapple with the function of the metaphor. Occasionally she introduces hegemonial ways of looking at the world when she says: “A society shows its face in dealing with its weakest members and people with handicaps, people living in poverty, persons addicted to games and people with a migration background.” The author should have explained that these and other groups are made weak and are not weak.

The critical points should not detract from the merit of “Imagine Economy.” The book shows the political functions and in the same breath deconstructs current political-economic language. The book does not remain on a mere lingual plane. The articles help break through the far-reaching silence of parts of the left on political-economic questions.

In the articles, the pictures and associations transported with neoliberal metaphors are made explicit and their connotations and narrowings critically illumined. In the political-economic debate, certain interpretations and assessments of economic facts are carried out with metaphors like “bailout parachutes,” “debt brake,” “trim state,” “social hammocks,” “achievers” etc. Certain measures are legitimated and others discredited. This book offers a little glossary of the most important metaphors in the political-economic discourse. Mostly they transport a neoliberal view of the world and a neoliberal agenda. The author collective also supplies examples of metaphors and pictures that give a form to an emancipative change. Alternative pictures oppose the projections of neoliberals and businesses. Imagine the economy…differently!


Marc Batko, “Alternative Economics: Reversing Stagnation,’, April 2016, 159-page eBook with appendix “Myths of the Economy.” The state is not a business or a household but can become indebted to help future generations. What is rational from a micro-economic perspective can be disastrous from a macro-economic perspective. Wages are also demand and not only a cost-factor.

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