Where to start with Anat Shenker-Osorio’s Don’t Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About The Economy?
This review seems redundant, because literally every person I’ve encountered in the past year has been subjected to my near-evangelist recommendation of it. I don’t know every lefty in New Zealand (despite what Matthew Hooton might think); I just feel like I’ve said this all before.
And I have. Even before I read Don’t Buy It, or developed my slightly unhealthy adoration of its author. If you’ve read many of my posts about narrative and language and rejecting centrism, you’ll hear a lot of the same themes. I flatter myself that great minds think alike.
That’s my bias: I agree with pretty much everything Anat Shenker-Osorio has ever said, and firmly believe that unless the mainstream leftwing movement starts doing things differently, we’re not going to build the mass support we need to fundamentally change our world.
Anat Shenker-Osorio is a strategic communications expert and research from the USA, who’s worked with American and Australian trade unions, our own CTU, and a range of progressive organisations in the US. In October 2015 she ran workshops in New Zealand with commsy-type people from the CTU, trade unions, and the Green Party. That’s where I first met her, and the rest is fangirl history.
The book is fundamentally about language. The messages we send, not just with our policies or campaigns, but the metaphor and subtext of every slogan, speech and press release.
The point is we’re doing it wrong.
Look at the global financial crisis of 2008. A tremendous opportunity to highlight the basic problems of capitalism. A time when practically everyone on Earth was ready to do things differently because the system was clearly broken. What happened? The banks got bailed out. The world kept turning.
Why? Because the content of our messages might have been bang on, but the delivery wasn’t. As an example, Shenker-Osorio addresses the “global financial crisis” itself:
We often think about crises as sudden, unpredictable turns of events. Think of the common usages of this concept, like midlife crisis and identity crisis. These are generally unanticipated alterations of behaviour. … We never saw that coming.
We don’t necessarily look for a solution to emerge … nor are we out looking for someone to blame for what happened. In fact, we might be tempted to believe the situation will right itself …
Thus, our frequent reliance on the phrase “economic crisis” most likely does not establish the necessary idea that this was a long time coming, people in power made it happen, and we need to act deliberately to change course.
It seems pedantic. It’s very word-nerdy. And the kinds of people who always get up in arms when progressives start critiquing language may ask “who even cares?”
It’s true. Most people don’t think this deeply about the language they hear. But they’re still picking up the subtext, and if the subtext is reinforcing the right’s way of thinking about how the world works – that the 2008 crash just happened, that nothing’s fundamentally wrong, that no one could have seen it coming – they’re never going to find our solutions credible. We’re fighting “that’s just the way things are.”
Think about the naturalistic ways we talk about “the economy”: it grew. It shrank. Jobs were lost. Wages sank. All this just happens for no reason. There’s nothing we can do about it.
Think about “the top 10%”. How strongly we associate “top” with “good”. It’s much easier for the right to say the wealthy are more hardworking and deserving when we reinforce the idea that they’re better than us.
It’s not just metaphors. The left loves the passive voice – “inequality must be addressed”, “reforms are needed”, “the policy will need to be reviewed”. We feel like we’ve taken a real stand – yet said nothing. We don’t name the villains – we paint people as victims of a terrible faceless system.
At the end (because language is vital, but it isn’t the only thing) Shenker-Osorio presents a set of four powerful policies to redefine key parts of the economy – and re-set our expectations of how it should work and who it should work for. They’re US-specific, but the idea of putting forward audacious, groundbreaking strategies backed up by strong, coherent messages is immensely important.
Because we’ve been afraid for too long. Buying into the language and framing of our opponents has felt lovely and safe. We want to sound grown-up and mature like those serious businessmen politicians. But that’s why we’re losing, and that’s why we have to change how we do things. As the book concludes:
Progressives must stop humming in a blandly nonoffensive alto. Regardless of what we do or say, our opponents will call us wildly out of touch and wacky, so we might as well have some fun and say what we actually mean. It’s shockingly difficult for us to speak from our worldview, accustomed as we’ve become to walking the fictional middle line. We’re losing so much ground in every battle, it feels scary to “go out on a limb” and come out swinging for what we believe. But make no mistake: continuing to do the same things and expecting different outcomes is a madness we don’t have the time to indulge.
For such detailed and challenging subject matter, Don’t Buy It is an immensely readable book. It’s optimistic, even as it tells us that we’re doing things wrong. It offers a clear path forward. I hope progressives here and all over the world choose to take it.
Bookdepository link here; also available from Unity Books.
More about Anat Shenker-Osorio at her website.
Watch her address to the 2015 CTU conference on YouTube.