The Power of Language and the Language of Power


Geekery Today reminds us of the following marvelous quotation from George Orwell's 1946 essay 'Politics and the English Language':

 George Orwell, 1903-1950 In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, 'I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.' Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

My only quibble with what Orwell says here is the qualification 'In our time.' Though admittedly the vague, mushy sort of writing that Orwell criticises here is quintessentially contemporary, euphemism of some sort is a pervasive and universal feature of (nonlibertarian) political speech ' and not accidentally so. Government, by its nature as a coercive monopoly, necessarily violates the norms of peaceful cooperation and reciprocity whose approximate observance is a precondition for social existence. As Ludwig von Mises writes in Human Action:

It is important to remember that government interference always means either violent action or the threat of such action. The funds that a government spends for whatever purposes are levied by taxation. And taxes are paid because the taxpayers are afraid of offering resistance to the tax gatherers. They know that any disobedience or resistance is hopeless. As long as this is the state of affairs, the government is able to collect the money that it wants to spend. Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom.

This is why in political speech it is always necessary to 'name things without calling up mental pictures of them.' Admittedly, however, the rise of democratic and egalitarian ideologies has made the state's need for obfuscatory language all the more urgent, since such ideologies have largely disabled traditional appeals to natural social hierarchies. Even less than its predecessors can the modern democratic state afford to acknowledge its essential role as instrument of the ruling class. Yet in the end it is not quite in the interests of state power for its basis in violence and exploitation to be entirely obscured. After all, the state's being known to command vast coercive means is crucial to its influence in the first place. Hence the need for language that mystifies the violence of the state. As I wrote in Equality: The Unknown Ideal:

On the one hand, statist ideology must render the violence of the state invisible, in order to disguise the affront to equality it represents. Hence statists tend to treat governmental edicts as though they were incantations, passing directly from decree to result, without the inconvenience of means; since in the real world the chief means employed by government is violence, threatened and actual, cloaking state decrees and their violent implementation in the garb of incantation disguises both the immorality and the inefficiency of statism by ignoring the messy path from decree to result. Yet on the other hand, the effectiveness of governmental edicts depends precisely on people being all too aware of the force backing up those edicts. Hence statism can maintain its plausibility only by implicitly projecting a kind of grotesque parody of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation: just as bread and wine must be transformed in their essence into the body and blood of Christ in order to play their necessary spiritual role, whilst at the same time they must retain the external accidents of bread and wine in order to play their necessary practical role, so the violence of the state, to be justified, must be transubstantiated in its essence into peaceful incantation, yet at the same time, to be effective, it must retain the external accidents of violence. (This sacralization of state violence explains how proponents of gun control, for example, can regard themselves as opponents of violence whilst at the same time threatening massive and systematic violence against peaceful citizens.) But to ignore or mask the violence upon which socioeconomic legislation necessarily rests is to acquiesce in the unconscionable subordination and subjection that such violence embodies. It is to treat those subordinated and subjected as mere means to the ends of those doing the subordinating, and thus to assume a legitimate inequality in power and jurisdiction between the two groups.

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Roderick Long's picture
Columns on STR: 22

Roderick T. Long is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University; President of the Molinari Institute; Editor of the Libertarian Nation Foundation newsletter Formulations; and an Adjunct Scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.  He received his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1992.  His last book was Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand; his next book will be Wittgenstein, Austrian Economics, and the Logic of Action.  He maintains a blog on his website,