Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Protectionism: the power of a suffix

As political leaders feel the sand slip between their fingers and start to panic, pronouncements are made about what must not be done. An oft-heard soundbite is that there must be no return to protectionism.

What amazes is how this very word has acquired a power to close off debate. There really is no need for debate once it has been uttered. If something can be called protectionism, it must simply be bad - very bad. Isn't that just obvious?

Hang on, though. Isn't this a bit odd? Protectionism is about protecting things and isn't this - prima facie - good? Since the verb "protect" is not short of positive connotations, how have they managed to make such a closely related noun into a word that sounds so bad?

An odd sort of language game (would Wittgenstein recognise it as such?) is being played which puts the onus where it ought not to be. Because it is so easy to label a policy protectionist without any argument to justify such a slur, the onus immediately falls on the person who would protect - they have to justify curtailing economic liberties (known simply as "freedom" - another dubious identification that has also been pulled off by another linguistic sleight of hand (strange how spin gets so firmly sedimented in language)). The game is set up in such a way that there is no assumption about anything being worthy of protection. "Protect what?" The forces of this dubious "freedom" are on the offensive - they set the terms of the debate - and who are you to stand in their way? "A detour? Why? Justify yourself? Try and justify diverting the course of world history?" The attempt to justify it has come to sound almost blasphemous.

This was a topic that came up very briefly yesterday in a paintshop. Somehow my joking complaint about the price of five litres of undercoat (25 euros) touched off a short exchange about globalisation and the free market. The shopkeeper indicated gruffly that he was having none of it. The spin had not got to him. But he was a man of very few words - very firm opinions but with little to say about them. Perhaps those most affected are those who play the language game - those who inevitably have to accept the terms of the debate that have already been established by the mysterious forces of linguistic imperialism (hegemony someone said - was it Laclau?).

At the risk of mixing up too many metaphors, the shoe should really be on the other foot. If people are in work in a country and feel some sense of security and some sense that life is not the bitch that elsewhere it is said to be, then whoever wants to throw the borders open and make a mess of the situation ought to be grilled long and hard and forced to come up with a bloody good explanation for why this is necessary. Why does this not occur? It is simply announced that these are the Forces of Freedom and it is taken for granted that the gates must be opened.

Despite the recent harranging of that blackguard protectionism, it is to be hoped that the present catastrophe will provide an opportunity for the terms of the debate to shift somewhat. The promise of unending economic growth, which was always twinkl ing in the eye of the economic libertarian, has proved to be a deceit. Greed has lost its theoretical underpinning and is now seen for what it really is. Is the ideology not going to collapse? Is the table on which the language game is played not going to be turned?

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