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Is Political Language Too Contested?

Harold James laments that we’ve lost the true meanings of words like “democracy” and “capitalism.”


Democratic politics are bounded by what people allow themselves to imagine. Pundits often make this point by citing the Overton window: a concept developed in the 1990s by two libertarian Josephs, Overton and Lehman, to describe the realm of the thinkable for mainstream voters considering policies and platforms. But it sometimes happens that our civic imaginations expand and contract not in terms of policy choices (more or less regulation, spending here or cuts there) but at the level of language itself. Sometimes, we start recasting the most elemental vocabularies that we use to live together, the building blocks of our shared political reality.

The War of Words: A Glossary of Globalization
by Harold James
Yale University Press, 368 pp., $30.00

Redefine the terms, remake the world. Is heroism for soldiers and the police, or is it for teachers and nurses, too? Is safety a physical state or a psychological one? Is patriotism defined by loyalty or dissent? Must truth be validated by facts, or is it simply whatever Trump says it is? Who are “the people,” and who speaks for them? Deciding what words mean is always a political act as much as an intellectual one, subtle yet consequential.

In a pluralistic society in which people hold different values (that is to say, a human one), core political and social concepts will always be contested. The Welsh socialist critic and historian Raymond Williams knew this to be true when he published Keywords, his great encyclopedic 1976 work on the sociocultural vocabulary of modern life. What’s more, he loved the complexity. Keywords celebrated the creative “shaping and reshaping” of terms over time and scoffed at the notion that they might be reducible to a single meaning. “No single group is ‘wrong’ by any linguistic criterion,” Williams said, “though a temporarily dominant group may try to enforce its own uses as ‘correct.’” In this intensely democratic sense, political language was for people “to use, to find our own ways in, to change as we find it necessary to change it.”

The Princeton economic historian Harold James takes a rather different view in his latest book, The War of Words: A Glossary of Globalization. What Williams saw as generative democratic work, James treats as intellectual sloppiness and confused thinking. Primarily focused on how we (struggle to) debate questions of political economy and globalization, The War of Words argues that we are talking past each other because we cannot agree on the meaning of terms. Words that once had clear definitions, like capitalism or socialism, have been wrecked by misuse or replaced by “postmodern” versions. “We are drowning,” he laments, “in clashing ideas formulated in incoherently used words.” The solution is for experts like James to restore accuracy and linguistic order, clarifying what terms actually mean and helping people use them as intended. This is meant to extinguish the ferocious, muddled arguments that James despairingly calls “the war of words”—though readers are more likely to look at those disagreements and call them politics.

What James is really doing is staking a set of claims about what words mean, how ideas work in the world, and what our politics ought to look like. It’s this underlying vision of political discourse that makes The War of Words such an illuminating read, for it tells us something crucial about liberal feelings during an era of civic fracture. More seismograph than glossary, its pages record irritation as old ideas are challenged and revalued, despair as debates get rowdier and less polite, frustration with disorder, confusion as the inherited consensus thins and frays. One closes The War of Words feeling a bit alarmed. After all, James is a learned and liberally minded historian who has produced, in pursuit of clarity and linguistic order, a book on political language that is rather anti-historical and, at least temperamentally, a tad anti-liberal. How could this happen? And what does it tell us?

Exasperation is this book’s defining spirit, and the lifestyle guru Marie Kondo, somewhat curiously, is its explicit patron saint. Surveying the political landscape, James asserts that there is precious little “clear thinking” to be had on the subject of globalization—and that “imprecise vocabulary” is now “an obstacle to productive debate” and “the application of rigorous logic.” What’s needed, he proposes, is an enterprise of “intellectual decluttering” that can sweep away this accretion of mismeaning and, by turning to the past, restore first principles and best definitions. “Getting back to what really matters will require revisiting an earlier era,” he adds, “to learn what was at stake before the conceptual lexicon became so cluttered.” Original meaning sparks joy. 

Let’s start with technocracy, which isn’t what it used to be. What the term signifies today is rule by experts, typically appointed rather than elected, usually economists but perhaps also behavioral scientists or lawyers or consultants. It suggests incrementalism and status quo thinking, a preference for nudging or tweaking rather than making structural change or reimagining the world. It is not used aspirationally. To many, it seems anti-democratic.

Technocracy meant something rather different when it was invented after World War I. Then, it was revolutionary. An American engineer named William H. Smyth coined the term in 1919, defining it as “the rule of the people made effective through the agency of their servants, the scientists and engineers.” It sought to disrupt the groupthink of ruling back-slapping elites by elevating energetic and professional outsiders, bringing modern scientific knowledge to bear on problems of public interest, and breaking down the walls between departments and disciplines. In other words, technocracy was a project to make peacetime administration look more like wartime mobilization, to make change at scale. According to James, this initial heroic sense remains the term’s proper definition.

James gives a variety of prominent concepts in political economy the same treatment in The War of Words. Multilateralism, a hotly contested term in 2003 as the United States invaded Iraq, was born during postwar trade negotiations in the 1940s as a way to distinguish new structures of inclusive global bargaining from cliquey coalitions once thrown together by great powers. The word capitalism, James stresses, was specifically used in the middle of the nineteenth century to criticize excessive financial accumulation, not a full economic system. Globalism, a term now used by the conspiratorial and white supremacist right, was first a description of Hitlerian-Germanic dreams to conquer the world—and then foreign policy shorthand for international engagement and responsibility. Other ideas James singles out for clarification include crisis, debt, populism, socialism, and neoliberalism.

Of all the concepts spotlighted in The War of Words, democracy is surely the richest and most genuinely contested. When we speak about it, do we mean liberal democracy or its illiberal cousin? Workplace democracy or constitutional democracy? Market democracy or social democracy? Does it live in the practice of elections and voting, in the language of law and rights, or in daily habits? Is it a substantive achievement or a procedural one? Democracy would appear to be an ideal candidate for the Jamesian approach, making it all the stranger that he has so little to say about it. Democracy, he explains briskly, but without much reference to any specific time or place, has a “strong normative definition,” by which he seems to mean that it is aspirationally about rule of, by, and for the people. All political ideas are normative, of course, and so this is not an especially distinguishing characteristic. Rather than breaking the concept down into constituent parts or analyzing its competing components (in the manner of, say, Astra Taylor), James instead dashes off 10 vague and clichéd “lessons” from Weimar Germany about democratic failure—a poor man’s Timothy Snyder, and not all that relevant to the decluttering work at hand.

How, exactly, are citizens bamboozled and mistaken about the terms James has selected? The book takes for granted that we’re all irritated by the delirious state of current political discussion, but doesn’t do much to explain how, more specifically, people are locked into conceptual impasses around notions like hegemony or geopolitics, let alone socialism or capitalism. What James does propose is that some of our best terms have swollen in their metaphorical meaning and moralistic charge. He writes regretfully about how words that once referred neutrally to “concrete political or social phenomena” are now “easy labels, usually of condemnation,” rife with “quasi-metaphorical meanings” that smuggle ethical judgment into intellectual or policy discussions. The title of his own book is, naturally, a metaphor, and The War of Words relies on a range of others to make its case: describing political discourse as a marketplace, words in terms of currency, and language as a kind of blockchain technology. The irony here is well and truly lost. 

There is perhaps a useful distinction to be drawn, which James doesn’t, between technical terms that need fixed definitions and universal legibility in order to function, and political ideas for which that kind of thing is genetically hopeless. The most interesting words here fall in this latter category. Ideas like capitalism and socialism relate to the things we most value, and therefore tend not to have single or universal semantic meanings. In fact, terms like democracy or freedom or Europe or liberalism (strangely omitted from this book) are politically resonant exactly because of the chameleon quality that so badly annoys James, because they can be used to channel so many varied desires, because they can do so much work in the world. In their slipperiness lies their charm.

For words like these ones, Raymond Williams recognized in the 1970s, “it is not only an impossible but also an irrelevant procedure” to fix meanings so authoritatively. Rather, it is “the range that matters.” Political words resist being flash-frozen by elites because they “embody different experiences and readings of experience,” claimed Williams, a fact that remains true in spite of “the clarifying exercises of scholars or committees.”

The words in this “glossary of globalization” have not grown misunderstood or confused. It’s just that their social meaning and cultural significance have changed over time. Debt, for instance, has come to seem less like a freely chosen burden and more like a cruel and inescapable consequence of yawning inequality. It is still a moral concept. People are not, I think, confused about the concept of owing money (to payday lenders or prisons, banks or student loan administrators). But it’s true that the word’s valence has changed: Now, to many, it evokes neither personal duty nor recklessness but rather injustice and indenture. Socialism, despite the best efforts of many leftover Cold Warriors, now suggests to many not totalitarian state control or Stalinist repression but simply a society in which nobody is bankrupted by their own bodies or finds themselves “too poor to live.” Globalization is no longer just a promise of more and easier; it is an experience for many that has brought dislocation and vulnerability and the feeling of having lost. 

All of this represents a kind of linguistic Fall for James: a painful, damaging decline from a state of conceptual clarity and grace. Change is treated throughout The War of Words as deviation from truth rather than a neutral historical force. It is a kind of reverse Whiggism that traces not progress but degeneration and intellectual stagnation. It’s almost as though James is insulted by history’s foundational premise, that the world shifts over time. As he writes, “questions of unfairness have haunted every political debate of the past millennia. None of the issues … are fundamentally new—can there be new answers?”

This is altogether a rather bizarre position for a contemporary historian to adopt. To think that ideas and language are best preserved in amber and that such a thing is even possible, to see time as a kind of adversary. Masters of the historian’s craft tend to contextualize, to explore how and why the world made sense to people in a given time and place, to dissect processes of historical change and peer closely at the interlocking gears. James, it must be said, is an accomplished historian of European business and finance, known for his books on firms and banks. All the more surprising that there are only trace amounts of historical sensibility to be found here. James is more interested in universals. The accurate meaning of words doesn’t vary over time. Capitalism was not invented but is timeless, the result of an “instinct deeply embedded in the human psyche” that’s “practically universal.” Maybe most startling, however, is what James has to say about narrative, the bread and butter of historical interpretation. “The human mind is hardwired to be receptive to stories,” James writes, before proposing that this is really a kind of cognitive bias, a “narrative addiction” that we can’t help but greedily indulge at the expense of thinking clearly or fixing things. “Narratives,” he concludes, somewhat oddly for a historian who has crafted many of his own, typically “stand in the way of concrete and effective solutions. The most compelling and comprehensive ones … lock us in a mental prison.”

The War of Words is a reminder that swimming in the past to make an argument is not the same thing as doing history. The Jamesian approach to political language is historical in the way that legal originalism is historical: It describes events that took place long ago and offers dates and makes claims about what happened in centuries past, but it seeks to arrest change and fix meaning rather than understand variation over time as legitimate and interesting. Like originalism, too, defined by Antonin Scalia as a mode of inquiry focused on “the meaning that … words were understood to bear at the time they were promulgated,” James’s way is not scientifically objective so much as quietly and determinedly political. His approach to political language values most of all “the debates that took place when the concepts were born.” Everything that happened afterward is just in the way. 

It’s hard not to feel that this “sacral approach to words” (Williams again, anticipating The War of Words by half a century) shares more with authoritative scriptural exegesis than it does with democratic practice. And many of its assumptions—that the meaning of words should not fluctuate or that there are single correct answers to what are essentially political questions—collide with James’s own professed liberalism. He accurately writes that “liberal politics requires debating and contesting” and that “everyone should be free to develop, express, examine, revise, contradict, refute and confound ideas.” Yet when James gazes out from Princeton upon exactly the kind of freewheeling contestation he ought to revere, he sees debate and disagreement as illegitimate conflict: a war of words rather than a civilized public sphere, in which “weaponized” ideas are used disgracefully as “munition” to blame and shame others. 

Most unsettling, however, is the way that James frames our disordered political-economic thinking in terms of deviance, illness, and contagion. Alternate or new meanings of words (say, for instance, neoliberalism or socialism) don’t enrich or expand our vocabularies but instead “pervert” them. These errors “infect the political debate” and become what James bewilderingly and hysterically calls “demon words.” His highest and best hope is that the messiness of our public thinking can be expunged via a process of “intellectual hygiene,” which implies, to be sure, not decluttering so much as cleansing. Presumably, a purified and exorcised body politic awaits. A more sterile one, too.

What becomes clear when reading The War of Words is that James, understandably, has a horse in this race. He seems to hanker for a less political world, smooth and technocratic. Toward the end of the book, he sketches this aspirational near-future. Instead of wasting time with disagreement and discord, James imagines, we shall embrace new technologies that let us “know more, learn more, and do more.” We should “harness those possibilities by creating new connections” and cold-shouldering all the ideologues. Techno-optimistic to the extreme, the whole thing is at turns jejune (automation is exciting and great; facial-recognition scans and algorithms could make policing less racist); sadly funny (he praises the fintech startup Robinhood for democratizing finance; last year, the platform was fined $70 million after it misled its users); and a little terrifying (Starbucks cards could become a global currency; a nonstop flow of data about one’s coffee or sugar consumption habits could go straight to doctors and affect your health insurance premiums). Above all, James is a chipper evangelist for blockchain and cryptocurrency. 

These bland predictions and technocratic schemes make sense, I think, as the outcome of the Jamesian approach to political language. What he thinks we need is a new vocabulary that “promotes understanding, not confusion; community, not division.” Really what he is asking for is a new consensus, established on his preferred terms. This vision of language and political action is one in which progress is measured, as the nineteenth-century liberal John Stuart Mill wrote, by “the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted” plus the “gravity of truths which have reached the point of being uncontested.” As James quotes these words, he concedes that they’re unrealistic. But it’s difficult not to wonder if he is disappointed; to detect, perhaps, a slight twinge of regret.

Cast your eye across the starry firmament of Anglo-American intellectual and literary life, and it’s possible to make out a constellation of liberal centrist figures, from Steven Pinker and J.K. Rowling to Adam Gopnik and Mark Lilla and Yascha Mounk and the signatories of that Harper’s letter, who seem to have met this consensus-rattling period by tipping, at least temperamentally, to the right. Some are put off by the polite requests of trans people to use their preferred pronouns, others have been singed by wokeness or “cancel culture,” others continue to fret about the left’s incivilities. When, one day, a great book is written about twenty-first-century liberal pique and the emotional experience of late-American centrism, The War of Words will be an invaluable primary source. For beneath its certainty and the scholarly confidence of its definitions, this is, at its heart, a nervous book, a restorationist project intended to shore up a consensus that is slipping away. That enterprise is bound to be a quixotic one. Experts don’t do these things single-handedly anymore. 

“Some people, when they see a word, think the first thing to do is to define it.” Raymond Williams again, for the last time. Very often, he recognized, definitions are imposed from above as a form of possession, excluding “those meanings which were inconvenient” to a powerful class or group “but which some benighted person had been so foolish as to use.” But Williams, who spent 15 years teaching evening adult education classes to workers in Sussex before assuming a post at Cambridge, knew better. The business of deciding what words mean and where the consensus ends is work that belongs, dauntingly, to all of us.