Signifying Bullshit

by Chris Horner

It is everywhere: the production of words designed to promote the fiction that something positive and good is happening, even though it isn’t.  It comes courtesy of the people you work for, the retail outlets you shop from, and the government organisations that regulate your life. An example: a large organisation develops and with fanfare publishes a document laying out its ‘values’ – under titles like ‘ trust’, ‘inclusivity’, ‘courage’, diversity’, and ‘respect’. It stresses how the individual is valued, the importance of diversity in the workplace, mental health, freedom from harassment and so on. This extends to recruitment and promotion: everywhere diversity, respect and fairness rule: they are ‘investing in people’. Meanwhile, workers at this place have had no real terms pay increase in a decade, overtime and overwork is commonplace, and the complaints system is bureaucratic and agonisingly slow. In the coronavirus epidemic, while desk bound staff were encouraged to work at home, catering and cleaning staff had to appear at the workplace as usual – and naturally, the lower paid stuff doing this are disproportionately female and black. Feeling stressed by the long hours and low pay? There’s an after hours yoga class for that, and a values document to read. 

The mass production of warm sounding words with minimal interest in real material outcomes is signifying bullshit (SB). It is nearly ubiquitous. A vast amount of time is spend promoting the idea to consumers that a pair of boots, or a coffee or a shampoo is somehow saving the planet or conquering hunger in Africa; the public is encouraged to tweet or post their reviews of the goods they’ve bought, as retailers and the media outlets that boost them all want your warm words, too. There’s an ocean of participation and inclusivity, although it is not clear who is reading all this stuff.

Warm and Cold Bullshit

Public relations has been with us for a long time. But something new began to develop in the 1990s and 2000s – in the period of ‘progressive neoliberalism’ we associate with Clinton and Blair (austerity economics plus social liberalism). What we see now is the attempt to create a certain feeling in the citizen-worker-consumer, a kind of community of affect in which the togetherness plays a key role. Perhaps a precursor was Live Aid, and the various charity oriented events that it spawned, which were more about people feeling good than actually engaging in any meaningful change to the terms of trade that impoverish the global south. While fund raising to help the needy is genuinely meritorious, and the generosity of people can be quite inspiring, the problematic ‘do good and have fun at the same time’ spirit now pervades everything on the high street, the workplace and the internet. 

Apart from the warm words of SB there are some cold ones, too. The chilly language of production, with its targets, its monitoring and its assessment of employees efficiency sits right alongside the warmer stuff. They are both part of a tracking and tracing ethos, in which the key term of Neoliberalism, efficiency, is paired with the core word of the affect industry: togetherness. So employees get hours of reports and forms to complete, plus dress down Friday. Since the neoliberal drive to restructure the subject as entrepreneur of the self, employees and consumers have been pushed into both tracking and monitoring others while being tracked and watched themselves. The ‘austerian’ drive to privatise, strip down, cut back and set targets has led not to the promised bonfire of red tape, but a massive increase in bureaucracy. The endless counting and tracking at work often amounts to a useless running on the spot, aimed at keeping the employee disciplined and busy. Meanwhile, like white noise, the SB of positive feeling whispers in the ears of worker-consumers, and follows them everywhere they go. But what purpose does all this bullshit serve?

The World of Half-Belief

I suggest that few people actually believe the ideology of values and togetherness. This shouldn’t surprise us, as ideology doesn’t require credulity. Ideology can be understood in all sort of ways: as delusion, false consciousness, etc. But a more useful way of thinking how it operates today would be as a kind of daydream that the society produces. For it to be effective it is not necessary that one fully believes certain things: only that one should act as if one does. Any amount of private skepticism is possible, as long the subject plays her part in keeping the machine rolling along. This applies both to the material life, the dull compulsion of the working day, and to the values talk. 

Thus we have subjects who do not quite believe their employer or the shop the they buy from when it churns out value-talk, the empty signifiers that can mean anything or nothing. The phenomenon is similar to that of much religious belief – one acts as if someone else believes it. Someone, perhaps in HR, or in marketing, or possibly the CEO, must believe it. But that person is always hard to find. The work that all this signifying is doing is that of fantasy – and that is its ideological meaning and use. Fantasy endlessly defers the point at which the Good Thing will be achieved, and gets much of its power from the semi investment of people in it. That way, the rigmarole can continue for ever, without much actually changing (and there will be those who actually enjoy the rigmarole itself and wouldn’t know what to do if it led anywhere). 

The Purpose of SB

SB has no direct utility. Nothing much issues from value statements and commitments to invest in people etc, except more words. Like a spare flywheel perched uselessly on the top of an engine, spinning in the wind, it makes nothing happen. It does, though, serve a purpose. Signifying bullshit performs the function of making up for the all too clearly ruthless and predatory capitalism that we have. The language of inclusion, diversity and respect seeks to divert attention away from what the corporations are actually doing. The mood music invites us to share with them the enjoyment of being on the right side in a moral crusade against bigotry and unfairness. This only partly succeeds because the gap between what is done and what is said is often too obvious to be completely obscured. No matter: the effect is to spread a weary cynicism about all the fine talk about values. SB spreads a patently insincere, moralistic goo over the workings of society and helps to seal off the possibility of real change. In the face of that, what should one do?

It is possible to try to not play the game of pretending. But in a universe of cynical semi detachment, this may not be effective if what one wants is a better world. There are those who excoriate ‘wokeness’ and demand a return to the good old days. The exploited and oppressed who remember what those days were like tend to find that a less attractive option. Two other ways remain if one really wants to change things for the better, but one is quite hard to do and the other is extremely difficult. The first option is a progressive one: a demand that the empty chatter about inclusion and so on be grounded in actual practices that can be assessed and made accountable. Take the claims seriously and demand that they be actually made to happen, in real time and with real and measurable results – the application of outcomes and assessment to the decent treatment of humans rather than profits. This is one way of investing more fully in the fantasy rigmarole, but taking it seriously and seeing it through to something real. The other, much more difficult one, is to confront the machine that doesn’t want to be named and which grinds on underneath the chatter: capitalism. To make the fantasy of a better society a reality we must change our attitude to the fantasy itself, see it properly for what it is and what it conceals. That would mean transcending the society and the economy we now have. Both the bullshit and the machine that pumps it out need to go. But who is ready to do that work?