Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism chronicles the rise of a new vocabulary in the twenty-first century. From Silicon Valley to the White House, from kindergarten to college, and from the factory floor to the church pulpit, we are all called to be innovators and entrepreneurs, to be curators of an ever-expanding roster of competencies, and to become resilient and flexible in the face of the insults and injuries we confront at work. In the midst of increasing inequality, these keywords teach us to thrive by applying the lessons of a competitive marketplace to every sphere of life. What’s more, by celebrating the values of grit, creativity, and passion at school and at work, they assure us that economic success is nothing less than a moral virtue.
Organized alphabetically as a lexicon, Keywords explores the history and common usage of major terms in the everyday language of capitalism. Because the words in this book have successfully infiltrated everyday life in the English-speaking world, their meanings often seem self-evident, even benign. Who could be against empowerment, after all? Keywords uncovers the unexpected histories of words like innovation, which was once synonymous with “false prophecy” before it became the prevailing faith of Silicon Valley. Other words, like best practices and human capital, are relatively new coinages that promise us a kind of freedom within a marketplace extending its reach across the public sector and into our private lives. The new language of capitalism burnishes hierarchy, competition, and exploitation as leadership, collaboration, and sharing, modeling for us the habits of the economically successful person: be visionary, be self-reliant, and never, ever stop working.
What People Are Saying
"As [Leary] explores what our language has looked like, and the ugliness now embedded in it, [he] invites us to imagine what our language could emphasize, what values it might reflect. What if we fought “for free time, not ‘flexibility’; for free health care, not ‘wellness’; and for free universities, not the ‘marketplace of ideas”?
His book reminds us of the alternatives that persist behind these keywords: our managers may call us as “human capital,” but we are also workers. We are also people. “Language is not merely a passive reflection of things as they are,” Leary writes. “[It is] also a tool for imagining and making things as they could be.” The Outline
"[Leary] has written a clever, even witty examination of the manipulation of language in these days of neoliberal or late stage capitalism. Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism reminds the reader that those who control the language can more easily control the culture while also providing that reader with the tools needed to decipher the capitalist class’s manipulation of the words we use." Counterpunch
"John Patrick Leary’s bracing study of the market regime’s signature catchphrases and word clouds allows us to see how the dogmas of late capitalism increasingly shape not merely the taken-for-granted order of things but also the very language we might otherwise employ to challenge that order. Still, even as Leary’s dogged philology points us toward grim conclusions, his critical voice also showcases the best uses our common tongue can serve—calling out the lies and cruelties of the patois of the capitalist market for what they are. Keywords is a worthy successor to the groundbreaking work of Raymond Williams, and deserves just as wide a readership." Chris Lehmann, author of Rich People Things
"John Pat Leary has written a history of the present in the form of lexicon of its keywords. Resilience, flexibility, passion, wellness, synergy, and dozens more – he explains the political work done by words that fuel and beset our imaginations, that hail and exhort us to keep working and buying things and paying our debts in times of crisis, decline, and uncertainty about the future. We don’t have nearly enough bulwarks against despair. This book is it!" Sarah Brouillette, Professor, Department of English, Carleton University
"In this masterful dissection of capitalism's modern lexicon, John Patrick Leary elucidates the ideas—and ideology—shaping our contemporary political moment." Nicole Aschoff
"If you feel like you’re drowning in the endless torrent of capitalist bullshit, turn to this excellent glossary which explains what all those terms really mean. Dip into it, use it as a reference, or read it cover to cover - however you approach it, you’ll find it immensely clarifying (and sanity-restoring)." Doug Henwood
"[This book]...pulls no punches. [It] shows, with a mordant analysis, how the words used in modern business culture disguise inequality, a false meritocracy, and the new ideology that finds the bosses of Silicon Valley in bed with the politicians in the White House." El Confidencial