Conceptualizing Capitalism Through Language

Language is the door through which we gain a more nuanced access to culture. The better our language skills are, the more people and their culture begin to truly evanesce.

It is an immediately grasped reality that in Denmark there is no pretense of apology in daily life. You do not say “I’m sorry,” if someone passes you on the street. You do not apologize for all the perceived, minute inconveniences that seem to dominate cursory American discourse. In the United States, pedestrians are constant inhibitions, reconciling their inconvenience in knee-jerk apologies. In Denmark, there is no public dialogue about obstruction. As it concerns travel and transport, Danish existence is a more or less quiet one. Do not confuse this with morbidity or a pretext of being anti-social. It is simply a lack of inane dialogue, an exclusion of the superficial vocabulary of public apology.

What is interesting about this phenomenon is how it mimics each country’s economic system. American hyper-capitalism developed a language based on freedom, while the Danish social-welfare state developed an egalitarian vocabulary that mirrors its social-democratic condition.

American experience is one that propels itself forward through tenacious fulfillment of freedom. It is an existence predicated upon an equal opportunity to climb, to improve economic station and with it social strata. The public iteration of this capitalist ideology manifests in our constant appraisal of each other, which leads to a sphere of perceived impediment. We apologize for walking too slow in front of someone because we believe, implicitly, that we may be impeding their right to self-improve.

However minute or ultimately inconsequential, each public action is perceived not only as an action towards something, but as a specific and permanent, perpetual and determined, entrepreneurism.

There is no permanence to anyone, no foundational equality besides equal opportunity to differentiate. We are seen as being in constant, positive flux, sweating and scheming in rightful attempts to improve. It is our right, a word so fetishized and sacred, that in the public mind has transformed into apology for something as innocuous as pace of step. We only have the equal opportunity to move and change. Any impedimenta in the face of this inalienable right is an essential affront. Therefore, we have developed, in America, a public lexicon of perpetual apology.

Just as the economic mode in America has developed a unique linguistic attitude, Denmark’s social-welfare state has also contributed to the daily phraseology of the nation. Since Denmark’s economic system guarantees certain things to all of its citizens — free medical care, public transit and education that is well-funded and maintained — there is, instead of a universal disposition towards apology, many ways of saying tak, or “thank you,” each befitting a specific situation. There is an egalitarian vocabulary that does not react to impediment but instead recognizes the social-welfare system’s redistributive nature, and uses this fact to diversify the many thanks the citizens owe each other. Richard Jenkins, in his book Being Danish, cites a Skive businessman, who says “Everything just goes round in a big circle. You take it out of your pocket and it goes into mine. And then I take it out of my pocket and put it into yours. And so on, in a big circle.” Jenkins goes on to say himself that this mindset reflects a linguistic attitude that “asserts and insists on at least an appearance of equality.”

One can criticize each country’s economic mode, and in turn each’s vocabulary developed as a result. Danish social democracy and its many “taks” has been called “lilliput chauvinism” and “flat-hill self-satisfaction” by Uffe Østergård, a system built on smug naiveté and indulgent navel-gazing. American capitalism could also easily be deemed an absurd concern with nonsensical minutia and a selfishness that manifests in civic irresponsibility. I have instead tried to focus on the ontological consequences of each economic mode, and have taken an interest in how strict ideologies shape linguistic attitudes towards each other, both privately and publicly.

The easy answer is that it may be best to have a healthy mix of both attitudes. And this may be true, but for the time being each phenomenon is a point of interest, perhaps a point of departure, for the improvement of relations to come.