Key Words – gambling on being a Stakeholder
Gwydion M. Williams
You can define a zebra as striped grass-eating penguin, if you are new to zebras and only know penguins. You may then go on to define a lion as a gazelle-eating penguin. But at some point new words and categories are definitely needed.
My father Raymond Williams pointed out the complex changing nature of language in his book Keywords. He also intentionally kept it simple, giving the meaning and brief history without all of the philosophical pretentiousness of much left-wing thought. key words are words you need to understand so as to think coherently about modern life.
Pretentiousness unfortunately remains very common outside of the L&TUR and a few kindred journals. Also the language has moved on. So I plan to give the Keywords treatment to some newly emergent terms of political significance. Starting with stakeholder.
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that stake in the sense of pointed wooden stick is an inheritance from Old English. But from the 16th century, one also has stake as a gambling portion, “that which is placed at hazard, …. to be taken by the winner of a game, race, contest, etc.’. The Oxford English Dictionary also says that it is “Of uncertain etymology”, but may have developed from “on the stake” as a place where wagers were put.
This gambling term soon gained some additional meanings. One could have a stake in something, if one stood to gain or lose by the turn of events. Their first example, from 1784, is “with my most affectionate wishes for Dr. Johnson’s recovery, in which his friends, his country, and all mankind have so deep a stake.’ But it was more often used of those who were said to have a stake in the country, taken to be those who hold landed property. This could also mean a shareholding in a company. On a more trivial note, in US slang a stakeman was a hobo or tramp.
Up until recently, a stakeholder was one who holds the stake or stakes of a wager. Or it could be one who has a stake in something, especially a business. There seemed no good reason to differentiate stakeholder from shareholder. But words with similar meanings sometimes do differentiate and take on completely new meanings. As with three adjectives derived from terror: terrifying, terrible and terrific. For the word ‘stakeholder’, the key moment may have come in 1976, with R. E. Thomas’s Government of Business. “Three approaches are considered here, the shareholder approach advocated by free enterprise theorists ….. the stakeholders approach, as portrayed by Dahrendorf, and the Marxist approach.’ This at least is the source cited by Oxford English Dictionary. The first recognised use of the word as Will Hutton has now popularised it.
But this in turn is only necessary because of all of the changes that have happened over the last twenty years.
Up until the 1970s, Western ‘capitalism’ was much closer to the Stakeholder model than to the abstract no-nation model of capitalism described by Adam Smith and Karl Marx. The change to ‘proper capitalism’ did not bring much benefit to ordinary Britons, and certainly not to ‘the nation’ as traditionally understood. In the USA, 90% of the population have seen their living standard stagnate in what is still a very thriving and strong economy. Americans have so far blamed everyone except their own ruling class, the people who have actually profited from the breakdown of the post-war social order.
Up until the 1970s, it was assumed that there was a common ‘national interest’ that would unite Labour and Capital and the Middle Classes. But since then one has had an emerging ‘Overclass’ that doubts if it really needs the rest of Britain. Slick right-wing Tories pioneered the changes, pulling idiot patriotic Yahoos with them. Now New Labour has also capitulated to the Overclass, accepting a negative and shallow internationalism as the only possible realistic politics.
For this new class one may also need some additional new worlds. It is not really internationalist nor cosmopolitical, since any unwanted parts of the world are just ‘written off’. There is also a shallow enthusiasm for new technology, which is expected to create a new world that is just like the old world, only with more computers. The ideas of the new Overclass could be called ‘Cyberpolitical’, the viewpoint of someone living in an imaginary community.
First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, some time before 2000
Similar items can be found at the Ideas and Ideal Menu.
[Tony Blair did briefly consider applying the ideas of Stakeholding, but quickly dropped it.]