Monday, June 12, 2017

Worn out metaphors and tired politics

Tensions in the South China Sea

[This article was originally written on May 27 making it slightly out date. As of today (June 11) the number of WSWS articles with "tensions" in the headline is 568 while the total number of articles containing the word "tensions" also went up. There were no less than 5 such articles on June 2.]

I did a search of all WSWS (World Socialist Web Site) articles with the word "tensions" in the heading. I came up with 564 such articles.  They go back to 1998 when the WSWS first started online publication to the present.  Here is the earliest article that came up:

And here are the two most recent from May 27

Of course there are many other articles that use that word - a total of 8,437 according to the WSWS search engine. Multiple uses of the same keyword in the same article are not counted by the WSWS search engine so the use of the word is actually much higher than the figure of 8,437 would indicate.   That's an awful lot of tension registered by WSWS authors since 1998.

The WSWS authors and editors are very creative in coming up with adjectives to qualify these tensions.  While I could not find a single instance where tensions were stabilizing or diminishing, I found numerous descriptions of how they are getting worse and worse.

Besides the ever popular "rising" you will also find that tensions  are "mounting", "growing", "heightening", "escalating", "dominating", "intensifying", "destabilizing", "deepening", "continuing", "exacerbating", "seething", "erupting", "fueling", "ramping up", "surging", "sharpening", "at the breaking point", "surfacing", "inflaming", "flaring", "stoking", and many other creative uses of the English language. (Could some of adjectives - "erupting", "surging", "flaring" be indicative of male sexual fantasies?) Occasionally the metaphor of rising tensions is described in negative terms such as the impossibility of "papering over" these tensions or some international conference that produces a statement of common goals and solidarity "fails to cover up" rising tensions seething beneath the surface.

This is not to say that every one of those 8,437 articles is wrong to point to rising tensions in the global arena. I expect that, clichés aside, many of them are probably correct though perhaps somewhat exaggerated.  But certainly all 8,437 cannot be correct and it is hardly credible that not a single instance of stabilizing or diminishing tensions, however temporary and evanescent, cannot be reported on in the past 20 years. 

I have no doubt that if I did a similar search on keywords such "threat of war", "class conflict", I would find similar results. For the WSWS events always only go in one direction and if something indicates the contrary it is only because the true situation is being "papered over" or "covered up".   Again, I am not saying there is no truth to this; just that it cannot be true 100% of the time. 

One further note: not only are tensions always rising, but their upward trend is accelerating.  A sample of statistics for every year since the WSWS was launched in 1998 shows a steady and sometimes dramatic increase in the rate of "tension" usage each year of publication.

First let us look at a sample of the total number of articles per year.

There were 139 instances of "tensions" in 1998,
 231 in 1999,
 256 in 2001,
 305 in 2005,
 413 in 2008,
 535 in 2010,
 555 in 2012,
 740 in 2014,
 702 in 2015,
 and 834 in 2016,
 the last full year of publication.

Even with the statistical anomaly of 2015, the trend is very clear: usage of the "tension" metaphor is not only rising and appears to be an ever more dominant theme in WSWS articles. Further insight can be gained by checking the percentage of articles using that term per year against the total number of articles written. Is it rising, staying the same or going down? A graphical representation of the yearly percentage of WSWS articles using "tensions" compared to the total number of WSWS articles shows a line going upwards, with some fluctuations, from a low of 8% in 1998 to a high of 15.8% in 2016. There is a rise from 2014 till the present when the percentage hovers between 13% and 16% as compared to the relatively stable years between 2005 and 2013 when it stood between 11% and 13%. And prior to 2004 it was lower still, mostly between 10 % and 11% with a couple of anomalous years where it went to 13%.

Here are the year by year statistics rounded up to the nearest tenth of a percent:

1998=    8.0%
1999=    10.0%
2000=   10.7%
2001=   13.0%
2002=  12.9%
2003=  10.4%
2004=  11.3%
2005 = 12.8%
2006=  12.5%
2007=  12.6%
2008 = 12.8%
2009 = 12.3%
2010 = 12.2%
2011 =  11.6%
2012 =  11.4%
2013 =  12.0 %
2014 =  14.2%
2015 =  13.4%
2016 =  15.8%
2017 =  15.2%

The percentage of articles referencing “rising tensions” of various sorts has almost doubled since the WSWS was launched in 1998.

Now it is certainly true in general that inter-imperialist rivalries have intensified in the past 20 years and war has become an increasingly common option of the American bourgeoisie in its efforts to maintain its economic dominance in the face of its deteriorating international position.  This was in contrast to the decade from 1991 to 2001 when tensions actually subsided as a result of Russia being turned into a semi-protectorate of the United States. That ended with the rise of Putin and the emergence of Russia and China as new imperialist powers as well as the events of 9/11. But that does not mean there have been no fluctuations or lulls or attempts to  return to workable agreements in the last 20 years either. None of that is captured in the ever rising tensions clichés of the WSWS authors. Which I suppose is the point of using this cliché in the first place.

I also do not mean to suggest that the WSWS is alone guilty of substituting reasoned analysis with worn out clichés.  The great majority of organizations calling themselves "Marxist"  do the same thing, sometimes with more, sometimes with less subtlety. I select the WSWS as a prime exemplar of this methodology because their 5,000 articles per year and their search engine make it relatively easy to provide some statistical analysis of their work. And their sectarianism and isolation from the real struggles of the working class is a balm that reinforces the worst aspects of left political analysis.

Other left wing organizations publish far less and what they do publish consists of little more than slogans. Their analysis of events is largely confined to manifestos and resolutions that are published once a year or so.  A nice example of the abuse of language, where clichés are interspersed with insults, is this gem from a manifesto of the Spartacist League,

"Unlike the erstwhile Stalinists and other revisionists, joined today by numerous dilettantes and political bandits ensconced in the virtual reality of cyberspace, who rotate through contradictory programmatic positions and even alleged principles in order to conform to changing opportunist appetites, authentic Marxists prize revolutionary continuity and programmatic consistency." 

Nor do I mean to suggest that this butchery of language and meaning is confined to the left. Right wing publications and web sites are if anything far worse than those of the left in this regard.

Mainstream publications like the New York Times and Washington Post are of course far more sophisticated and circumspect, but they too employ their fair share of trite phrases. But that being said, an analysis of right wing and mainstream publications is best left for another occasion.

All this reminds me of a famous essay by George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, written at the end of World War II. Orwell's point was that political writing had become hackneyed and stale due to the increasing tendency of political writers to substitute clichés for genuine analysis. Orwell provided several examples of this trend, from all spheres of the political spectrum, but perhaps the best one is the following that he copied from a publication of the Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain,

"All the best people from the gentlemen's clubs and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to found incendiaries, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoisie to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis"

Orwell comments about this and other examples of political writings,

"The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a pre-fabricated hen house." 

Later Orwell gives a striking example of the kind of rhetoric frequently found in left wing political writing:

"The sole aim of a metaphor [for example, the metaphor of 'rising tensions'  with its numerous permutations as in WSWS writing, or 'rising tide' as in the Stalinist publication] is to call up a visual image. When these images clash- as in the The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot - it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming, in other words he is not really thinking." 

(George Orwell, All Art is Propaganda, "Politics and the English Language", p. 270. First Mariner Books, 2009.)

I am not suggesting that left political analysis has no basis in objective reality, whether one is talking about the "rising tensions" metaphor of the WSWS or the "rising tide" metaphor cited by Orwell. Indeed the writers of these tropes are reacting to real events, but "without thinking", ie. impressionistically and shorn of any serious investigation. In the final analysis the butchery of language is a symptom of the butchery of thought.

In the case of the WSWS the writer is "not really thinking" because he or she already has a worked out scenario in advance regardless of the ups and downs of a dynamically changing situation. It's the product of a sectarian mindset that wishes to see everything as a confirmation of a dogma that they call a "science of perspectives"; one that always and everywhere sees tensions rising. So when events such as 9/11 happen, or a retired military leader warns of the danger of nuclear war, this is just grist for their journalistic mill - if I may borrow another worn out metaphor. Other events, that qualify or add nuance or even question their basic assumptions are simply ignored or explained away. Such schematic formalism and cherry picking of ones focus is the very opposite of a dialectical understanding of the forces that shape our world today.

Alex Steiner 


Anonymous said...

Meh, too abstract. Need to look at the "definitions in use" of a word. Totally random weirdo stuff there about male sex fantasy.

Alex Steiner said...

According to Freud nothing that is said or written is completely random. Freud may have overstated the case a bit but I think there is a grain of truth to that observation. In any case, this was just an aside. Do you have anything to say about the substance of this piece?

Thomas Cain said...


I was surprised by the sheer amount of articles that are guilty of using weasel words. Of course, the WSWS is of course known for their ritualistic invocation of revolution at the end of most articles--one commenter recently pointed out how absurd it was ( Fortunately, there are still individual Trotskyists putting out good analysis. Here's one that I highly recommend: