Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 15, 2013

A Colossal Wreck

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn — louisproyect @ 8:51 pm

I just received a review copy of Alexander Cockburn’s 570-page “A Colossal Wreck” from Verso Press and could not be more excited. I had already ordered one from the CP website that I will present as a gift to a good friend who has been reading and supporting CP for as long as me.

“A Colossal Wreck” appears to be a journal that Cockburn kept from 1995 until a week before his death on July 21, 2012. As one might have guessed, there appears to be not a single word about his illness in the entire book.

While skimming through the book, I came across an entry that reminded me (as if I needed any reminder) about why I loved him. It was not just the politics (of course we did have our differences but as Joe E. Brown told Jack Lemmon at the very end of “Some Like it Hot”: nobody’s perfect) but also his writing that remained bracing until the very end. He hated shitty prose in the same way that he hated shitty politicians. In this exegesis on the jargonistic use of the word “grow”, he articulated what has bothered me for the longest time.

I first hear the term “growing the firm” when I was a consultant at Mobil Oil in the early 80s and thought it an assault on the English language. I am particularly irked by its use on the left, even if infrequent. When Carl Davidson talked about “growing the economy” in one of his flabby pieces on the American political scene, I gave him a piece of my mind. I only wish that I had this piece at my fingertips at the time, not that it would have made any difference.

The book can now be ordered from http://www.easycartsecure.com/CounterPunch/CounterPunch_Books.html. Be there or be square.

January 27, 2012

Last week revolutionary Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville announced the capture and imminent trial of “grow,” long sought in its counter-revolutionary mutation as a transitive verb governing an abstraction, as in “grow the economy,” a formulation popular among the Girondin faction. “Grow,” said the Prosecutor, was being held in the Conciergerie, under constant surveillance. I’ve no doubt that the Tribunal will not long delay in sending “grow” in this usage to a well-deserved rendezvous with the fatal blade. I associate the usage with the 1992 Clinton campaign, where talk about “growing the economy” was at gale force. My friends and neighbors here in Petrolia, Karen and Joe Paff, tell me that when they were starting up their coffee business, Goldrush, at the start of the 1980s, the local bank officials were already hard at it, talking about “growing the business.” I hate the usage, with its smarmy implication of virtuous horticultural effort. As CounterPuncher Michael Greenberg writes, “It sounds phony, aggressive, and even grammatically incorrect, not the nurturing ‘grow’ that one associates with living things.”

Joining “grow” in the tumbril will, I trust, be “blood and treasure,” used with great solemnity by opinion formers to describe the cost, often the supposedly worthy sacrifice, attached to America’s wars. The usage apparently goes back to Jefferson, but that’s no excuse. The catchphrase seeks to turn slaughter and the shoveling of money to arms manufacturers into a noble, almost mythic expenditure. Shackled to “blood and treasure” should be its co-conspirator, “in harm’s way:’ Jack Flannigan writes from Kerala, “Mr. Cockburn, Somebody might have beat me to it but my candidate for the squeaky old tumbril is ‘in harm’s way.’ It has, especially in the last ten years, acquired a treacly red, white, and blue patina about it that is over-whelmingly connected to the military and police. Someone sailing on a Gaza flotilla or staring down a line of sneering, rabid cops is not very likely to be referred by our political/media elites as ‘in harm’s way.’” Last week, dispatching the phrase to the tumbrils, I said the G. H. Bush campaign of 1979 for the Republican nomination hefted “It’s not over till the fat lady sings” to national prominence. Jeremy Pikser writes to say the phrase “was actually first popularized by the coach (or owner?) of the Baltimore Bullets basketball team in 1978. As usual G. H. Bush was only capable of feeble imitation when he used it, hoping to sound like a ‘real guy.’” Further research discloses its use in sports journalism has been attributed to writer/broadcaster Dan Cook around the same time, and in the mid-‘70s by a Texas Tech sports official.

From: Kevin Rath

Mr. Cockburn,

Recently I have been accosted with the phrase “reaching out to you” by sales people. While it may be inappropriate since your focus is the news, this stupid phrase people from marketing use in their email subject titles and language is really annoying.

Reaching out to your tumbril cart,

Kevin Rath, a CP member

16 Comments »

  1. Yes, such phrases as “growing the firm”, “growing the economy,” and “reaching out for you” are all all pretty tiresome, but I’m surprised that Ace didn’t make mention of even more loathsome catchphrases like “thinking outside the box” (which apparently is done by people who couldn’t think their way outside of a paper bag, and “taking things to the next level,” which whenever I hear that makes me want to shoot the person who uttered it.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — July 15, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

  2. Not to speak of “at the end of the day”, “the 800 pound gorilla”, or “throwing xxx under the bus”, things you hear on MSNBC and CNN 10 times per hour–more than any commercial for GEICO in fact.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 15, 2013 @ 9:05 pm

  3. Pwogwessives have plenty of cotton-ball vocabulary, like “collaborative,” “contextualize,” and “grounded.”

    Comment by Monotone — July 15, 2013 @ 9:52 pm

  4. The New Left Review recently had some excerpts from his writings last summer. An wonderful excerpt from a mid-1970s gem, “How to Be a Foreign Correspondent”:

    “Japan. You can be much more racist about the Japanese than most other people, e.g. they can only copy—albeit superbly—Western inventions. Fearful pollution. No street maps. Workers are intensely loyal to their companies. (Ignore labour militancy.) Tanaka is dynamic but beset by problems. (The proper adjectival adornment for leaders is a vast and complex subject. If he is one of our dictators then use words like dynamic, strong man, able. He laughs a great deal, is always on the move, in a hurry. He brushes impatiently aside questions about franchise and civil liberties: ‘My people are not yet ready for these amenities you in the West feel free to enjoy.’ If, on the other hand, he is one of their dictators, then use words like unstable, brooding, erratic, bloodthirsty, indolent. He seldom ventures out of his palace unless under heavy guard. He is rumoured to be ailing. Oddly enough he is often charismatic. At the moment it is particularly dangerous to use any adjectives about Arab leaders. Stick to general concepts in this case, like converted to Western ways or deeply religious.) Back to Japan. What about militarism? What about soy sauce? Stress unease about Western intentions.”

    Comment by Richard Estes — July 16, 2013 @ 1:02 am

  5. I’m so glad to hear a leftist critique of such hideous corporate terms!

    I loathe to remember the first time I heard the phrase “grow the company” in the mid-90’s re: the satellite dish industry I was involved in — it struck me sickeningly — like wrongly crossing the red & black cables of a car battery.

    Another one that makes me puke is the phrase “going forward”.

    It instantly implies this: never mind all the crimes, injustices & grievances of the past because “going forward” we’re ignoring the past, just like Obama when it came to prosecuting torture.

    It was used in the satellite industry when dealer contracts were unilaterally terminated — meaning the dealers’ residuals got nixed overnight by some corporate nightmare like DIRECTV GROUP, which was formerly owned by GM.

    You couldn’t even lodge a class action suit against such treacherous bastards. Instead you were forced into “arbitration” — the biggest scourge on legal recourse in favor of big corporations there ever was.

    It’s like when pundits say so & so is not “in the United State’s interests”. As if the Pentagon’s interests are the same as working peoples’ interests — for crying out loud.

    Albeit these are mostly right wing reactionary terms there are similar ones on the left. In particularl the term “sustainability”.

    Think about it, especially in academic circles. Lately we think of “sustainability” as a fairly progressive concept but I shit you not, in the academic milieu, particularly the social democratic New School left, it almost always winds up in some anti-communist worldview, where the Zapatistas or whoever cannot continue armed struggle because it does not promote “sustainable” agriculture or whatever the fuck?

    I know this may strike many as counterintuitive because it’s become such a popular environmental catch phrase of late but believe me this catch phrase of “sustainability” has lots of dubious connotations, particularly for the 3rd Worlders & revolutionary movements.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 16, 2013 @ 1:14 am

  6. “”I know this may strike many as counterintuitive because it’s become such a popular environmental catch phrase of late but believe me this catch phrase of “sustainability” has lots of dubious connotations, particularly for the 3rd Worlders & revolutionary movements.””

    Great catch. “Sustainability” is a term redolent of new age capitalism. Just look at the ads where corporations tout their “sustainable” practices. BP, with its sun logo, was a trendsetter. Who about cares how the workers are treated as long as the corporation is environmentally “sustainable”? After all, “sustainable”, if one relies upon the dictionary definition, necessarily entails the preservation of the status quo. Forget socialism. A net zero greenhouse gas release and a net zero landfill disposal, achieved through market credits, is the new utopia.

    Comment by Richard Estes — July 16, 2013 @ 1:29 am

  7. I don’t know about how others use the term but we have to recognize that certain practices are unsustainable. There’s a truly disturbing article in the latest Harper’s titled “Emptying the World’s Aquarium”. Here’s a quote:

    Jacques Cousteau once called the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, the “Aquarium of the World,” citing both its extraordinary variety of life and its accessible bounty. In many ways, the sprawling sea is the world’s ocean writ small. The west is deep and rocky; the east, shallow and sandy. In the Upper Gulf, temperatures can swing from chilly in the winter to hot and tropical in the summer. The water is crystal clear in some places, murky in others. It hosts an astounding 950 fish species, 10 percent of which are found nowhere else in the world, including the world’s most endangered marine mammal—a diminutive porpoise called the vaquita (“little cow”).

    This very abundance, of course, has ensured the Sea of Cortez a key role in Mexico’s economy. It supports 80 percent of the nation’s commercial fishing and almost 90 percent of its shrimp catch, and directly employs 60,000 people. Fishermen working the sea’s 26,000 boats are both rich and poor, newcomers and inheritors of thousands of years of tradition. The sea is perfectly situated to supply the hungriest markets—the United States, Japan, and now China—and over the past few decades it has seen one of the world’s largest drops in biomass. Eighty-five percent of its species either are being fished at their maximum or are over-exploited. Consequently, there is no better place on earth to look at the future of global fishing and the crisis facing the oceans.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 16, 2013 @ 1:36 am

  8. Run with it Richard (or somebody else) because I cannot quite articulate the “sustainability” critique as effectively as I’d wish for 2 reasons: 1) the time constraints of a worn out grease monkey prol working in 110 degree heat — & 2) because it was only a gut reaction I had when I was an undergrad in 1989 when I heard this very smart, progressive grad student use the phrase “sustainable agriculture” against my class struggle worldview.

    Since then I’ve heard it a thousand times through my own grad school sociology days in ways that wound up completely alien & actually dismissive of a class struggle/Marxist worldview.

    I’ve never been able to put my finger precisely on the ideological problem in a way I can articulate in writing but now is the time & this is the forum.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 16, 2013 @ 1:49 am

  9. Clearly there’s a difference between the term “unsustainable” & “sustainable”, that is, they’re not necessarily obverse.

    A sometime contributor here “Vince” lives & works on the Sea of Cortez for the last 1/4 century & has documented (in multiple videos he’s produced) practices in the Sea of Cortez that are “unsustainable”.

    Virtually every account of “unsustainable” environmental practices throughout the globe are accurate and can be traced willy nilly to individual profit motivation and/or corporate greed.

    The difference is in the phrase “sustainable”.

    That’s where things get murky.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 16, 2013 @ 2:07 am

  10. There’s a big difference between “sustainable” and “unsustainable”. “Sustainable” assumes that the current forms of resource extraction can be moderated so that they can be preserved as permanent forms of profit. A sort of smoothed out form of capitalism, and, as such, an unattainable idealized aspiration. Conversely, “unsustainable” assumes the rapacious exhaustion of people and resources, an essential feature of capitalism.

    I first recall encountering “sustainable” in relation to logging, as in Pacific Lumber, as a privately held company, practiced “sustainable” logging practices, but after Milken engineered Hurwitz’s takeover, PL abandoned it in favor of “unsustainable” clear cutting. Clearly, the former was better than the latter, but both had significant environmental consequences, and both operated under capitalist rules.

    Or, to put it less pretentiously, “sustainable” has become an advertising term drained of any legitimate content, like “clean” coal and Internet “privacy”. So, when you use the word in conversation consistent with its historic, commonly understood meaning you have to make sure that the listener is doing so as well.

    Comment by Richard Estes — July 16, 2013 @ 5:43 am

  11. What is happening in the Sea of Cortes is done for greed. Our greed and ignorance is what is unsustainable…….. and actually tomorrow morning I will be out on the Worlds Aquarium documenting once again that we homos are not nearly as sapien as we believe we are. Funny that Luis mentions La Vaquita since just tonight we started a crowd funding campaign to go up and do a short film on La Vaquita, here is the link, http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/la-vaquita-has-time-run-out/x/3890932?c=home, can’t wait to get the book, Cockburn was da man!

    Comment by Vince — July 16, 2013 @ 6:50 am

  12. ‘Can’t we just move on’, infamously used by that pond life Tony Blair after the 2005 British General Election, when millions of former Labour supporters took their votes elsewhere (or nowhere), largely due to the Iraq War. In other words, the slimey entreaty of a politician who’s been exposed but can’t even have the guts to admit it.

    Re terms used on the left, I reach for my gun when I hear/read the word ‘hegemony’, the word of choice for pseudo-intellectuals either on a trajectory from class politics (or already left it behind). What these low rent Gramsci parrots don’t grasp is that Gramsci used words like this to get past the jailhouse censors, not to show how clever he was.

    A word that journalists and their ilk seemingly never tire of these days – ‘iconic’. Anything and everything is now described as ‘iconic’ by people who clearly have neither the wit nor imagination to use other words or phrases. Hardly surprising really since most so-called journalists seem to consider their profession to consist of copying and pasting stuff from Wikipedia and/or parroting press releases.

    Finally, people on a variety of TV programmes can only express sympathy for grieving people in any situation by saying ‘I’m sorry for your loss’. Is this standard practice for writers now or do the police etc actually use this phrase? Is it me or does it sound patently robotic and insincere?

    Comment by Doug — July 17, 2013 @ 3:37 pm

  13. I particularly hate “low hanging fruit.”

    Comment by chacmool — July 17, 2013 @ 7:27 pm

  14. Since we’re mentioning our pet peeves in the new phrases appearing everywhere (been to FB lately?) I think “touch base” is just about right nowadays in pointing to the “contactless sociability” (wilhelm reich) the corporate world wants to spread. And “sustainable” is empty of meaning except to imply a kind of eco-friendly outlook. I recently saw an ad for the new “sustainable” prisons being built! Sounds ominous to me.

    Comment by uh...clem — July 18, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

  15. “Closure” Can anyone really have it or do they just say the word so that they can pretend not to think about what ever the hell it is that they can not stop thinking about…………..

    Comment by Vince — July 19, 2013 @ 5:25 pm

  16. Joining “grow” in the tumbril will, I trust, be “blood and treasure,” used with great solemnity by opinion formers to describe the cost, often the supposedly worthy sacrifice, attached to America’s wars. The usage apparently goes back to Jefferson, but that’s no excuse. The catchphrase seeks to turn slaughter and the shoveling of money to arms manufacturers into a noble, almost mythic expenditure. Shackled to “blood and treasure” should be its co-conspirator, “in harm’s way:’ Jack Flannigan writes from Kerala, “Mr. Cockburn, Somebody might have beat me to it but my candidate for the squeaky old tumbril is ‘in harm’s way.’ It has, especially in the last ten years, acquired a treacly red, white, and blue patina about it that is over-whelmingly connected to the military and police. Someone sailing on a Gaza flotilla or staring down a line of sneering, rabid cops is not very likely to be referred by our political/media elites as ‘in harm’s way.’” Last week, dispatching the phrase to the tumbrils, I said the G. H. Bush campaign of 1979 for the Republican nomination hefted “It’s not over till the fat lady sings” to national prominence. Jeremy Pikser writes to say the phrase “was actually first popularized by the coach (or owner?) of the Baltimore Bullets basketball team in 1978. As usual G. H. Bush was only capable of feeble imitation when he used it, hoping to sound like a ‘real guy.’” Further research discloses its use in sports journalism has been attributed to writer/broadcaster Dan Cook around the same time, and in the mid-‘70s by a Texas Tech sports official.

    Comment by Joel I. Torres — July 22, 2013 @ 3:58 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: