Programming Our Vocabulary

We cannot create what we cannot name
Progressives continue to groan that the Far Right has spun together its own language, creating a frame that resonates across the heartland. "How forcible are right words," said Job 6:25. Yet progressives insist on defining our vision using the words of our opponents, clinging to terms that mean to most people the opposite of what we intend.

Among progressives, a big ah-ha of 2005 was the need to get serious about "framing" our message. But here we are, 2006 is moving on and we still aren't doing the hard work of honing our message with the words we use.

We have a language of Marxism, historian Lawrence Goodwyn once said, and we have a language of capitalism, but we have no language of democracy.

And we cannot create what we cannot name.

Progressives continue to groan that the Far Right has spun together its own language, creating a frame that resonates across the heartland. "How forcible are right words," said Job 6:25. Yet progressives insist on defining our vision using the words of our opponents, clinging to terms that mean to most people the opposite of what we intend.

So what might be "right" words? In my book Democracy's Edge, I offer a bunch. Here let me toss out a few current, deadly ones and propose alternatives. My goal is to get us thinking, arguing, defining, and, ultimately, determined to stick to words that communicate what we really mean.

Globalization or Globalizing Corporate Power?

To most Americans, globalization equals great Indian food, cool music from Mali, and cheap jeans from China. Economist Joseph Stiglitz in Globalization and Its Discontents defines globalization as "the closer integration of the countries and peoples of the world." Who in their right mind would oppose that?

Pulitzer-winning columnist Thomas Friedman tells us that the current stage of globalization is "shrinking the world from size small to size tiny." Distances are evaporating, he suggests. How positive! And even to those who lament the downside of outsourcing, this increasingly interconnected world is unstoppable.

But the term globalization focuses attention narrowly on the scope of activity. It diverts us from asking who is in control of that activity and therefore who benefits.

In other words, "globalization" jumps right over the question of power. Its defenders swoon over growing interdependence -- suggesting mutuality in power relations. But reality is deepening dependence -- that is, a widening power imbalance as more and more people are forced to live with the consequences of decisions made by distant boards of global corporations and by decision makers from the International Monetary Fund to World Trade Organization, dominated by corporate interests.

Putting the power question front and center, what if progressives were to consistently link the term globalization to centralizing corporate control? "Corporate globalization" or "globalizing corporate power" -- both better capture what is really going on. These terms begin to alert listeners that the power of governments -- of which 122 of 192 are now elected and therefore at least nominally accountable to citizens -- is giving way (or being given away) to centralizing corporate power, directed by unelected boards and managers accountable (at best) only to shareholders.

And what about those movements countering globalizing corporate power? What do we call them?

In the corporate media they are "anti-globalization activists," which probably strikes most people as an utterly futile and knee-jerk negative. Let's self-identify instead as "pro-democracy advocates." Or, even better "living democracy advocates." We must make clear that our vision and programs are the essence of realism; it's globalizing corporate control that's unsustainable.

Free Market/free trade or Fair market/fair trade?

From the International Forum on Globalization to the World Social Forum, progressives rail against "free market" policies.


The free market is no more real than the tooth fairy. "There isn't one grain of anything in the world that is sold in a free market. Not one! The only place you see a free market is in the speeches of politicians." So said not an irate farmer but the CEO of the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. He should know, his company, along with others including Cargill and Tate & Lyle, has paid over $1 billion to settle price-fixing lawsuits.

Markets are either fair or unfair; they are never "free" or "unfettered" -- i.e., functioning on their own without rules. Today, market rules are written to serve the interests of global corporations, and there are plenty: The full text of the North American Free Trade Agreement runs 1,700 pages. Open, fair markets result not from keeping "hands off" but from creating rules democratically.

Today's single-rule economics -- highest return to existing wealth -- inexorably concentrates wealth and power, undermining competitive markets. Just two companies dominate the world's grain trade; six control most global media; and five oil giants account for almost two-thirds of U.S. gasoline sales.

It takes democracy – real, living democracy - to shape and enforce rules to keep wealth and power widely distributed - from progressive taxation to a floor under wages to anti-trust enforcement -- so that markets stay fair and open. And it takes living democracy -- citizens deliberating over shared values -- to decide what should and should not be a commodity in the market in the first place.

So "free trade" and "free market" must never pass our lips. And we can insist that it's not progressives who are anti-market. Hardly. We support fair markets. Actually, it's the Right who kill markets. Their policies concentrating wealth destroy competition and close market access to all but the better off.

Regulation or Standards?

No one wants regulation; no one likes it. It's a downer. I hear "regulation" and I tighten up: I think constraint, Big Brother, red tape, inefficiency. On the other hand, most of us warm to the idea of standards; we especially love "high standards." So in addressing our needs as citizens for clean air, water, soil, for example, what if we were to substitute "standards" every time "regulation" started to pop out of our mouths?

In January Maine didn't pass new regulations requiring electronics manufacturers to take responsibility for recycling TVs and computer monitors. No. Maine raised the bar, embracing a higher standard, one in which an industry is now responsible for the life cycle of what it produces.

Sounds really different, doesn't it?

Pro-Choice or Pro-Child & Mother?

Even many who strongly support a woman's right to an abortion use the term "pro-life" to describe those working to deny that right. Instead, let's be specific and accurate by calling theirs a movement to "criminalize abortion." And let's establish our approach as the "pro-child & mother" movement.

Making abortion illegal simply does not work. It does not promote life. Latin America, where abortion is a crime, has among the highest abortion rates in the world, and these illegal abortions rank among the top three causes of maternal death in the region. "Twenty million of the 46 million abortions performed annually worldwide occur in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws," notes the Guttmacher Institute. "At the same time, abortion rates are quite low throughout Western Europe, where the procedure is legal and widely available."

We who defend the right to abortion are not pro-abortion, or anti-life, or even narrowly pro-choice. We are pro-life, that is, for life, too, and that means working to ensure that all children have a life in which they feel wanted and are provided the nurturance, health care and education they need to thrive. (Harm to children from forcing unwanted pregnancies to term might be glimpsed in this fact: Falling crime rates followed the legalization of abortion state by state. Why? Fewer children damaged by feeling unwanted and being inadequately cared for helps explain the drop, postulates Freakonomics' lead author Steven D. Levitt.) We are also pro-mother -- advocates for the right of women to be willing and ready to before taking on the wondrous responsibilities of parenthood.

Political Will or the Power of Living Democracy?

Okay. "Political will," I admit, isn't a term you likely used today, but it pops up often enough in left/liberal writing -- and has for at least three decades. What's missing is political will, we're told, whether it's in ending hunger, getting serious about AIDS, or stopping the slaughter in Darfur.

When I hear "political will," I imagine some high-level (white, male) leader gritting his teeth, trying to muster some will power to Do the Right Thing. This image reflects a "dispositional" diagnosis of our problems, as social psychologists would call it: Our problem is the weak (lacking in will) disposition of people. At its worst, a dispositional stance blames the evil bin Laden or the immoral Bush.

Psychologists call the alternative a "situationist" diagnosis: The situation we as a society create -- the rules and social conditions -- makes certain behaviors almost inevitable. Looking for situational rather than dispositional causes of our planet's suffering is empowering. We're called to ask: Just what are the rules, norms, and expectations of a society in which brutality and injustice become less and less likely to surface?

Living democracy -- an evolving culture of inclusion, accountability and fairness across political, economic and cultural life -- is my answer. No longer do we understand or describe democracy simply as a certain structure of government plus a one-rule market economy. We realize that democracy strong enough to address our crises is not something we have; it is something we do -- a rewarding, everyday practice in all our public-life roles, from shopper to voter. Rather than bolstering individual "will" or simply ousting the bad guys, we can move democracy to this next historical stage. It starts with our own experience of living -- and naming -- it.

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