Language and social change

At dinner last night someone mentioned that a local village had changed the name of its village hall to “the People’s Hall”, and it suddenly made me think about how some words lose their resonance as society changes. “The People’s Hall” has a whiff of Marxist — or at any rate socialist — ideology. Likewise, nobody talks about “workers” (as in, say, the Workers’ Educational Association) any more. Come to think of it, when was the last time you heard anyone use the term “socialism” with approval? Or “progressive”? And then it just so happened that the next item on my iPod playlist was that wonderful satirical song by the Strawbs — Part of the Union.

LATER: I remembered something Ross McKibben once wrote about Margaret Thatcher:

Her fundamental aim was to destroy the Labour Party and ‘socialism’, not to transform the British economy. If the destruction of socialism also transformed the economy, well and good, but that was for her a second-order achievement. Socialism was to be destroyed by a major restructuring of the electorate: in effect, the destruction of the old industrial working class. Its destruction was not at first consciously willed. The disappearance of much of British industry in the early 1980s was not intended, but it was an acceptable result of the policies of deflation and deregulation; and was then turned to advantage. The ideological attack on the working class was, I think, willed. It involved an attack on the idea of the working class – indeed, on class as a concept. People were, via home ownership or popular capitalism, encouraged to think of themselves as not working class, whatever they actually were. The market thus disciplined some, and provided a bonanza for others. The economy was treated not as a productive mechanism but as a lottery, with many winners. The problem with such a policy was that it created a wildly unstable economy which Thatcher’s chancellors found increasingly difficult to control, and in which many of the apparent winners later became aggrieved losers.

In that sense, we’re all living in a world — linguistic and otherwise — that Thatcher created. Which means, I guess, that I will just have to go and see the damned movie.