Saturday, 27 December 2014

Orwell's "Newspeak" has arrived, and few of us notice.

My first appointment as a teacher was in the late 50s, to a school in Northolt, outer London.  There discipline was maintained  by the award to any pupil who offended against the school's ethos of a "black mark."  Recipients of these were made to stand up in one of the daily  assemblies and were were given a public lambasting by our somewhat ferocious Scottish headmaster. I don't recall any corresponding "white mark" for achievements of which the school approved, but maybe there was one.

However, when in the early 70 I took over my post as deputy headmaster of Port Moresby High School, then in the Australian sphere of influence  a more liberal regime operated. Although misdeeds were noted by a "demerit," good works received  a "credit."  I worked on this system by urging the "demeriters" in private to adopt more virtuous paths, but praising the "top credit winners" publicly in the weekly assembly.  I like to think that this was instrumental in improving the "tone" of the school.

In his very readable book "How to Speak Money"* novelist and critic John Lanchester, who claims not to be an economist, attempts to unravel the language of economics for the general reader. To facilitate this he has invented the word "reversification:" a way in which economists in general, but monetarists is particular, turn the meaning of a word into its opposite in order to make the concept it describes more acceptable.

To me the most striking example is the use of reversification to make the concept of debt respectable.  Debt used to be a "black mark" or "demerit":  a condition entered into by only the most feckless of people.  In extreme cases, they were put into prisons.  A common form of debt in my youth was called "hire purchase" and my parents were very proud of the fact that, to furnish their home, they never descended  to this disreputable device.  "Every stick was paid for."

So to make debt respectable we have changed its name to "credit"  What was laudable at Port Moresby High School is now the superficially  respectable condition which, in what turned out to be its  unsustainable private form, brought  the western economic system to a halt  in the mid 2000s.  And if, in Britain, the system is recovering, it is largely the consequence of the accumulation of yet more private debt based on yet another housing boom, the very conditions which brought the system down in the first place.

John Lanchester's book* is a excellent read, even for those who think they know quite a lot  about economics.

* How to Speak Money, pub Faber and Faber, 2014

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