Gaslighting in the permacrisis

“Permacrisis”, which means “an extended period of instability and insecurity”, was named the Collins Dictionary word of 2022. The Merriam-Webster dictionary’s word of the year was “gaslighting”, which it defines as:

“Psychological manipulation ... that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”

Words of the year are not chosen arbitrarily by the lexicographers. They reflect an increase in usage and what is being looked up online as a result. The two terms, then, aren’t simply an apt combination describing the state of the world, but are a genuine reflection of popular inquiry into it. 

“Permacrisis”, while relatively new, is grounded in obvious, intersecting global catastrophes. 

The most recent United Nations Human Development report found that nine out of ten countries went backwards over the last two years. Global life expectancy dropped for the first time in decades due to the horrific death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic. The purportedly inexorable march of progress was reversed in even the richest, most “advanced” states.

Living standards too are declining in almost all the wealthy economies as the largest companies use the excuse of consumer price inflation to increase their profit margins. Working-class incomes are going backwards while most of the OECD economies are still growing. Central banks are pursuing monetary policies to push up unemployment, which will happen, along with recessions in some parts of the world, in the new year. Only then will we see the full extent of the attacks on workers and the poor.

Imperialist war has returned to the heart of Europe and threatens to blanket East Asia. Nuclear brinkmanship on the part of Russia has its mirror in the escalating diplomatic brinkmanship and war preparations in every major power—the US, China, Britain, Germany and Japan, to name the most obvious—and every other player jostling for position in the imperialist system (Australia, India and so on) as a global arms race intensifies.

The climate crisis is getting worse as atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to climb along with huge investments in fossil fuels. China endured the worst heatwave in modern history this year, while Pakistan was inundated by floods. Europe burned while Australia drowned. Extreme weather patterns are intensifying everywhere, from pole to pole.

“Gaslighting” is not so novel. “The term comes from the title of a 1938 play and the movie based on that play, the plot of which involves a man attempting to make his wife believe that she is going insane”, Merriam-Webster notes. It recently has been rediscovered thanks to renewed fights for women’s rights; but it has a broader application describing the orientation of both the political right and the so-called political centre to the permacrisis.

We’re told, for example, that the greatest catastrophe of the pandemic was not the millions of lives lost, but the public health measures that saved so many more. The decline in life expectancy in Australia in the year of “living with” the virus—driven by an “excess death” count 17 percent above the norm—was met with virtual silence on the part of the media and the political class. But those calling for basic public health measures have been treated by the political establishment as though they are hysterical. 

We’re told that the worst thing about consumer price inflation is the prospect of big wage rises to counter falling real incomes. Workers demanding such rises are told that they are economically illiterate and that they will only hurt themselves if they are successful in their claims.

We’re told that the required transition away from fossil fuels to protect human life will only hurt the poorest people by denying them cheap, reliable energy. We’re told that only “market friendly” solutions can work—that is, solutions that don’t disrupt the very system causing the crisis in the first place. And activists fighting for the future of humanity are now being jailed and described as “selfish”.

We’re told that the answer to murderous imperialist aggression is to divert ever more government spending to the military to prepare for ever more destructive imperialist wars. But we’re also told that such government largesse is incredibly irresponsible when it is used to save lives in the ongoing pandemic—that putting people before profit is the very definition of economic insanity.

The lexicographers at Collins and Merriam-Webster have given us a hint of something fundamental to the world in 2022: we’re copping catastrophe from several directions while being told that it’s our own fault, or that we need more of it.

Next year doesn’t seem like it will be any better. But one thing any good linguist will tell you is that our vocabulary and use of language are in a constant state of development.

The challenge, however, is not to find new words to describe the situations in which we find ourselves, or to alter the popular vocabulary as the world in which we live changes. It’s to fight to change the world knowing that, if our side has some effect, the lexicographers will follow.

So in the coming year, we need to continue to do what we can to put words and phrases such as “trade union”, “solidarity” and “socialism” at the forefront of people’s inquiries.

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