John P. O’Regan on his book, Global English and Political Economy

Interview by Bonnie Urciuoli

Bonnie Urciuoli: Can you say a bit about how your Marx reading group led to this book.

John O’Regan: The Marx reading group came together as a result of conversations I was having with colleagues at the IOE and at other London universities in 2009-10 as the aftershocks of the global financial crisis were being felt and absorbed. The group included myself, David Block, Catherine Wallace, Siân Preece, John Gray, Melanie Cooke and Tom Morton. I had read a fair bit of Marx in my time and had a reasonable acquaintance with many of the key texts and ideas, but I had never properly sat down and read Capital (Vols. I, II and III) and Grundrisse. So, this is what we set out to do. Of great assistance to us was David Harvey and his companions to Capital and the 1973 Foreword to Grundrisse by Martin Nicolaus. At the start of this process, some of us felt more like novices than others, but it seemed to us that it was necessary to explore materialist political economy and Marx particularly when for so long everything in our fields had seemed to be about discourse and Foucault.

Throughout, we attempted to apply what we were reading not only to our areas of scholarship, but also to how the crisis and the response to it was unfolding and being experienced in the UK and in the wider world. In Capital and Grundrisse the key insight to be grasped is the ceaseless motion of capital. In Marx’s words, “Capital is not a simple relation, but a process, in whose moments it is always capital” (1973: 258). Marx presents this movement as a relation between money and commodity production, M-C-M¢, and as a speculative relationship of money itself, M-M¢, in which the M that comes out at the end of the process, M¢, has been incrementally enhanced in comparison with what went in at the beginning. The process is then endlessly repeated again and again. It was largely thanks to the discussions that we had in our group that the ceaseless motion of capital emerged as the basis for the proposition in my book that the explanation for the global dominance of English as well as its elite forms lay fundamentally with capital and not elsewhere.

Bonnie Urciuoli: A central point in your book is the free riding of English on capital circulation. Can you explain what that is and how that allows you to show how English has become hegemonic in ways that other approaches to the hegemony of English have not gotten at?

John O’Regan: To answer this question in a way that would offer the most clarity, it is necessary to work up to the free riding concept. I took the concept from my knowledge of international relations (IR) and of theories like world-systems analysis and development theory which I studied in some depth in the 1980s. In IR it is used to refer to how one state can gain benefits from another state’s actions at no cost to itself. Although I do not use it in precisely this way, free riding was a concept that came back to me when I set out to write the book knowing all along that I would start with capital circulation and Marx. It was one of those concepts that floated into my head and then took a firmer hold as I looked back at the literature on free riding and its origins in the work of Mancur Olsen. It occurred to me that free riding was an apt concept to use given that the dominant capitalisms of the world-system (as per Wallerstein’s conception) over several hundred years had been the anglophone capitalisms of first Britain and then the United States. Moreover, this was not simply a question of colonialism or formal territorial acquisition alone – that is, having empires (as use values – accumulation of land, power, mineral deposits, and so on within limits); it was far greater than that. This was about the origins of capitalism as an entire world-system involving hegemonic world-economies (as exchange values – endless accumulation of value without limits), one dominated by Britain and British capital up to 1918 and then another dominated by the US and US capital thereafter, with absolute US dominance arriving after 1945.

The details are in the book but suffice to say that colonial occupation and annexation are only partial aspects of a hegemon’s dominance. Of greater significance and global extent is the hegemon’s structural authority over global security, production, finance and knowledge, all of which the hegemon dedicates to the accumulation of capital in its own interests. Essential elements in enacting this authority are that the hegemon’s currency dominate global finance and trade and that its language become a dominant language in global commerce and diplomacy. The pound sterling gave English linguistic seignorage in the era of the British hegemony (1688-1918), the greenback does the same for English in the era of the US hegemony (1918-). By being the dominant currencies in which capital has circulated in the world-system, English has derived immense linguistic seignorage and ideological power from this fact, such that it has become the favoured language of capital and its accumulation. In a capitalist world-system that has been dominated by anglophone hegemons, that English is the dominant default language of capital and capital accumulation does not seem so surprising, yet few have looked at it in this way. Nevertheless, it is because of the reality of capital in motion that English and elite articulations of English have gained a free ride. In my book there seemed no better way to visualize this than to take Marx’s formulae for capital circulation and accumulation and to add an E for English. Hence ME-CE-M¢E and ME-M¢E are the formulae I have used to show this – while also emphasizing their symbiotic entwinement and mutual facilitation. Other approaches have looked to imperialism, colonialism and globalization theory, and some others to plain human irrationalism. But whichever perspective one favours, what best explains the spread and dominance of the forms being observed – especially the standard elite form – is the endless accumulation of capital. This is the underlying generative framework for English spread and also for its insinuation into global distinctions of class, culture and taste.

Bonnie Urciuoli: Can you address the importance of distinguishing between empire in a political sense and empire in a world economy sense? 

John O’Regan: I have sought to address this above, but in short empire is too much associated with territorial annexation and colonial rule to be a suitable referent for the exercise of structural hegemony within the capitalist world-system. In the capitalist world-system a world-economy is a multi-state system having a single division of labour (exchange based on private accumulation) in which one state is structurally dominant. A capitalist world-empire if it existed would be a single-state system. The nineteenth-century empires of Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and so on, were not empires at all, but nation states with colonial appendages within a world-economy dominated by Britain. References to a US empire while commonplace are misleading as a description of the current US world-economy into which the rising hegemon China and all other states in the capitalist inter-state system are also incorporated.

Bonnie Urciuoli: Chapters 2 through 6 segment the history of English into 1688-1850, 1850-1914, 1918-1979, 1979-2008, and since. What dynamics did you want to capture in so doing?

John O’Regan: With this periodization I primarily wanted to capture specific broad phases of capitalism and of global capital circulation during the past 400 years, and with it how English under the hegemonies of first Britain (1688-1918) and then the United States (1918-2008) was implicated in each phase. The period 1688-1850 in Britain is the period of transition from agricultural capitalism to industrial capitalism with the increased presence of City of London capital overseas, and of relevance for global English, the rise of gentlemanly capitalism as a unifying ideology, which I explain in the book. It is also a period in which Britain moves from being a rising hegemon to being an unrivalled hegemon. The period 1850-1914 is the period of unparalleled British dominance in global manufacturing and finance. It is also the era of free trade and the classical period of capitalist imperialism; all of which gave an enormous boost to English. In this period Germany and the United States also begin to challenge the British hegemony, but Germany’s attempt ends in ruinous defeat in the first world war (1914-18). The war leaves Britain financially broken and deeply in debt, but with its capital networks still spread around the world. It is at this juncture that the United States begins the process of transitioning to become the next unrivalled hegemon, in part by building upon the networks that Britain had already established.

This is a process which reaches its apotheosis after the second great defeat of Germany along with its axis ally Japan in 1945 and is consolidated through the post-war era up to 1979. Overseas, in the pursuit of Cold War supremacy and financial domination in its world-economy, the US practised a militarized global Keynesianism through the Federal Reserve, the IMF and the World Bank. This in its own way involved the further global consolidation of English. But the period of sustained global capital expansion faltered in multiple economic shocks and high inflation in the 1970s that led to a questioning of the Keynesian economic orthodoxy which had dominated since 1945. The crises of the 1970s ushered in a new orthodoxy that claimed to be based on classical principles but was in fact nothing of the sort. Sometimes associated with the Chicago School of Milton Friedman but having its intellectual roots in the Mont Pelerin Society of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, this return to supposed classical prescriptions sounded the death knell of social contract capitalism and the birth of what became known as neoliberalism. 1979 is the watershed moment when this transition occurs, while also coinciding with China’s move to the so-called open door. This is why I took this year as a natural cut-off point for this phase of accumulation.

The period from 1979 to 2008 is the era of unbridled neoliberal capitalism and of accumulation by dispossession – that is, of the wholesale transfer of national assets from public into private hands and of wealth from South to North, and as part of that of US insistence on the opening up to the greatest possible extent the economies of the world to inward capital investment and speculation. The 1979-2008 period is distinctive because of the way the global accumulation of capital changed. Due to technological advances this became still more financialized, allowing the generation of greatly increased volumes of accumulation utilizing ever more complex financial instruments. The period was also a geopolitically significant one that included the opening up of China (1978-9) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991). These events in combination with the undimmed drive to accumulate contributed to a veritable explosion in the global demand for English (1991-2008).

The forces of financialized accumulation that were unleashed led inexorably to the 2007-8 financial crash, which I argue was largely mediated in English. The period since then I have referred to as one of endism, where no new solutions to the crisis created by unbridled accumulation are forthcoming, only a financial resetting so that the accumulation that wrought the crisis in the first place can start anew. Of course, by the 2000s, the global dominance of English and its imbrication in the structures and institutions of the US world-economy had become such unassailable givens that outside of language scholarship circles and the occasional surfacing of official angst (for example, China, France) this was barely ever questioned.

Bonnie Urciuoli: What aspects of the movement of English through the world over time do you think have been most ignored or misunderstood?

John O’Regan: A main issue was to draw attention to the fact that this was not just about the dominance of English in general, nor was it about the specific dominance of native-speaker English either. The obsessive singling out of native-speaker English by its objectors has been an unfortunate distraction in relation to discussions of global English. At the same time, this is not to deny that native-speakerism as Robert Phillipson refers to it exists. It does indeed exist and what Phillipson has to say on this is valuable and worth listening to. But a distinction needs to be made between deference to native-speaker English norms and the employment of standard English in global capitalism. Those who are globally most responsible for reproducing this form and for pursuing it are not native speakers. At the most elite levels of the capitalist world-economy, in the global financial markets, in transnational corporations and in the world’s global governance institutions, including international alternatives sponsored by the Chinese government, the lingua franca of preference for all linguistic outputs is standard English, primarily in a written or what one might call read out form, regardless of whatever other languages or forms of English are spoken and used as well. One can call it native-speakerism if one wishes to, but I feel this is to miss the point, which is the hegemonic institutionalization of standard English under the specific historical conditions of capitalism and of processes of capital accumulation in a US-dominated world-economy. The US and other nations that view themselves as members of the anglosphere naturally have an interest in this, and gain a free ride in consequence of it, but it is not native-speaker norms which are at issue, or at least not any longer; that is far too simplistic and imprecise. Rather, the capitalist world-system for specific historical reasons has selected standard English as its elite form and today it is multilingual users of this form within the elite circles of global capitalism who are most responsible for its reproduction and dissemination. That this form is also mostly indistinguishable from standard English as used in elite circles in the anglosphere and promoted by its billion-dollar ELT and testing industries is not to be denied or ignored, but to locate responsibility for this form’s continued global dominance in these circles is to miss its ongoing intersection with the functioning of the capitalist world-system as a whole.

Bonnie Urciuoli: What should analysts keep in mind about applying the notion of commodification to language?

John O’Regan: There is not much wrong with referring to language as acting like a commodity or it appearing to have been commodified if one’s interest is only to metaphorize – to say that language seems like a commodity. Having the ability to use another language is also an evident skill and to that extent it can be deemed marketable – as if it were a commodity – and at a diverse price depending on where one is in the world and the specific political and economic conditions that locally pertain between capital and labour. But that is about as far as you can go with that kind of analogy because commodities are very specific things that have peculiar properties. There are two related problems with the language commodification argument. The first is that those who have made this argument have chosen to invoke a particular theorization of capitalism as the basis of their claim. But if one really is going to deal with capitalism and how commodities function in relation to that, simply metaphorizing the commodity as being applicable to anything that is desired, or to any kind of skill, is to do a singular disservice to established theory concerning commodities under the conditions of market capitalism. It therefore appears an oversight not to look at the economic theories that have analyzed this. My own route into this for the reasons of the reading group I belonged to was to look at how Marx defined the commodity, and also at how he determined what were and were not commodities. But I could just as easily have turned to more recent economic theory and done the same. Language economists, such as François Grin, who are working from a distinctly non-Marxist perspective have long been pointing out that language is not a commodity and cannot be economically determined as such. But it seems that in the rush to commodify language this basic due diligence has been overlooked. The second problem, which ensues from the first, is that by making language a commodity the real processes of exploitation which language workers experience – such as in telephone banking, phone sex chats and other kinds of paid-for call services – are obscured because what is being sold in the exchange has been misidentified, so instead of dealing with the material underlying causes of the language worker’s exploitation – the systemic extraction of surplus value  –  the focus is instead on surface appearances. For, as I argue in the book, it is not language that is being sold in the exchange, but the language worker’s capacity to labour. This is averagely unitized and charged to the customer as labour time: ‘all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour time’ Marx tells us (1976/1867: 130). It is therefore not language that is being sold but the worker’s labour time, and it follows from this that it is the call, not language, that is the commodity.