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The Language of Capitalism in Grand Rapids

March 25, 2019

I recently got a copy of the new book, Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism, by John Patrick Leary.

Leary’s book is delightful to read, but also serves as an important guide for how to think about how the system of capitalism has co-opted, even transformed the language we use to describe things.

The author states in his introduction that, “A notable feature of contemporary capitalist discourse is its embrace of what earlier ruling classes never hesitated to repress: dissent and heterodoxy, the stuff of innovation in the old, seventeenth-century sense.”

Just think about the terms that capitalism has created or transformed in recent years to give it an edgy, almost counter-cultural feeling. Words like place making, robust, stakeholder, thought leader, creative class, human capital, curator, best practices and empowerment. All of these words used to mean something else, but now they are used by the capitalist class as the language that best describes what it is they seek to achieve.

Leary also makes the point that, “the managerial tenor of the terms in this book, also reflect s the way that capitalist ideology renders labor invisible, just as it has always done.”

What I would like to do in the coming weeks and months, is to use some of the words found in Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism, and apply them to organizations and structures in Grand Rapids. This is an important task, since the application of language and analysis is particularly relevant when we can use it in our own locale, to name and identify that which we are most familiar with.

Therefore, we will take one of capitalist words included in Leary’s book and use it to describe an organization, an entity or a system in Grand Rapids that embraces capitalist on neoliberal capitalist values.

Today’s capitalist word is, accountability.

This is what Leary says about the word accountability:

Accountability is a term that has exploded in popularity over the last five decades after remaining relatively consistent for centuries. It shares with innovation a deep and mostly forgotten religious background. With the combination of moral responsibility it retains from its Christian origins and the now dominant meaning of task-based counting, accountability captures the popular fantasy of quantifying virtue.

There are plenty of organizations or systems of power that the capitalist use of the word accountability would apply to in Grand Rapids. However, considering what has been happening in the past few years and even the past few weeks, maybe the word accountability would best fit with the GRPD.

Now, many people would think that “holding the GRPD accountable” is a good thing. But what exactly does that mean? Policing scholar Alex Vitale, in his most recent book, The End of Policing, states:

“accountability measures, like body cameras and civilian complaint boards, are not only subject to the authority of the police – who can turn off the camera or stonewall the board – but also leave intact the basic institutional functions of the police, which have never really been about public safety or crime control.”

Indeed, the GRPD union has been making the claims that the public video taping of their actions against people of color in recent weeks has “altered public perception.” Of course it has, because it is in direct conflict with the GRPD version of what happened. More importantly, as Vitale points out, accountability with the GRPD is near impossible when the police are allowed to police themselves, when they use one-third of the City’s budget and when the police union contract allows them to remove formal complaints from individual officer files.

The notion of accountability with the GRPD is almost a joke. What is needed, is not accountability, but a completely different conversation on the fundamental nature of policing and whether or not its primary functions is to protect systems of power and to manage certain populations, specifically communities of color and any communities of dissent.

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