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The Language of Capitalism in Grand Rapids: Part II – Stakeholders

April 2, 2019

Last week we kicked off a new series of articles that will look at how the economic system has transformed and co-opted language to the benefit of the capitalist class.

We mentioned the new book, Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism, by John Patrick Leary, which provides a wonderful analysis of capitalism’s use of language, along with a list of words that this system uses.

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.

Last week we looked at the term accountability in Grand Rapids. This week, lets talk about the word stakeholder, and specifically how it is used by the capitalist class here in Grand Rapids.

Leary says, “Stakeholder’s primary meaning in the OED is an independent person or organization with whom money is deposited, especially when a number of people make a bet or other financial transaction.”

Clearly, the term stakeholder is rooted in the financial world. The author notes that the word stakeholder transition during the 1930s depression, “when calls for economic planning and socialism reached a high point.”

The more contemporary way in which the term stakeholder is being used, combines the financial meaning, with the idea of planning. In Grand Rapids, I have noticed that since the 1980s, the term stakeholder is most often used by systems and structures of power to give the illusion that anyone who is a stakeholder can have a seat at the table. What this often translates to, is that those who are invited are primarily those from the business community, government officials and representatives of non-profit organizations. The “public” might be invited as well, but as we all know when the business community is invites, they take up a lot of space at meetings and they tend to have more power in conversations around issues like economic development.

The stakeholder dynamic is further explored in an article from If The River Swells, which states: 

When speaking of development or gentrification in Grand Rapids, a constant refrain heard from city leaders, developers, and even many opponents is the need for more “community involvement” or “community engagement.” Development is presented as if it is a dialog or a process in which we are all on equal footing, rather than something done by those with considerable capital and political power. The appeals for participation are repeated over and over: the city and developers allegedly want to hear from the “community”, while always looking for more ways to get people involved.

However, what is actually being encouraged is a very specific and narrow form of “involvement” that centers around the process of attending city meetings, meetings with developers, and other such similar events. It’s presented as a type of civic duty akin to voting – if you don’t do it, you don’t have a right to complain. A sort of hyper-local version of “America, Love It or Leave It.” Often when these conversations happen, they involve a considerable amount of blame being placed on those who are critical. The assumption is always that they have chosen “not to be involved” and that because they allegedly aren’t participating their voices aren’t being heard, and therefore, their concerns aren’t being addressed. It’s a charge that has been leveled at us repeatedly over the past year: that if we participated in the allegedly “important meetings” that are happening, “our voice would be heard”.

Of course, our voices, the community’s voices are rarely heard. Instead, those in the capitalist class love to hold public meetings to gain input, even thought the real decisions are being made by those who have the most money (which also means the most power), which are developers. In this sense, using the term stakeholder is merely meant to lull the public into thinking that their voice matters and to present the illusion that private economic development companies want community engagement. In the end, economic development corporations make the decision, not matter who else is “at the table.”

There are numerous examples of entities that use the term stakeholder, but this week’s example of how capitalism uses the term stakeholder is the Rockford Construction Company.

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