Capitalist Realism in Academia

By Van Blevins

A Marxist Analysis of the Ideology of English in the Anglosphere


The age of globalisation has given rise to an unprecedented "reinvigoration of Western imperialism,"[1] proving it to be one of the most trying times for the development of nations in the Global South which have been subject to a relentless "creative destruction" of their home cultures through ruthless economic and political repression spearheaded by the American war machine and its unremorseful capitalist agenda.[2] Moreover, the prevalence of neoliberal ideology in academia presents perspectives that often lead to "loss of control and political agency"[3] for those outside of the realm of political or intellectual influence and have proven to shape a warped view of 'progress' that discludes the most exploited peoples from discussions concerning issues that warrant sociological inquiry. These sociological inquiries can only be "correctly solved by the application of a scientific theory of the working class,"[4] that is, Karl Marx's theory of historical-materialism. It should be said that the broader history of English's spread and propagation is extremely complex and multi-faceted with some instances that could be considered less evasive, but here there will be a primary focus on modern contexts where it can almost unquestionably considered a form of imperialism.

While much of the work on the subject of neoliberalism’s complacency with capitalism's seemingly never-ending reach focuses on environmental and economic repercussions, the social and cultural implications are often overlooked; moreover, "scholars in cultural globalization generally show a relatively modest interest in language-related issues," thus there exists very little literature specifically focussing on the link between second language adoption and its impact on individual societies.[5] In an act of resistance and preservation, many people the world over now "seek to protect national cultures, ethnic identities, indigenous peoples, and local knowledge"[6] from the expanding sphere of western (American) influence. Language spread that has been a result of this Western expansionism is of particular interest in the field of applied linguistics where a new term, World Englishes, has sought to normalize the spread of the cultural influence of western nations by normalizing and promoting it. This neoliberal rationalisation of western imperialism can only be described as a side effect of capitalist realist ideology which has limited the general "capacity to imagine alternative futures" after "more than two decades of neoliberal hegemony."[7]

The rhetoric behind much of the push behind the spread of English seems to stem from this imagined reality where English is 'given' to the people of a certain region for their own betterment, similarly to how European powers justified colonialism in the 20th century by claiming to bring civilisation and Americans have justified non-linguistic imperialism in the Middle East by claiming to bring democracy while simultaneously genociding entire populations for capital gain.

Literature Review

The Marxist perspective on issues regarding socio-historical development, such as language spread and the development of history, primarily concerns itself with the material conditions from which they arise. The perspective of 'World Englishes' is thus first problematic because it attempts to divorce the English language from the material circumstances which led to its spread and in so doing attempts to claim that it is 'neutral.'[8] This approach has proven problematic as it spreads the "hegemonic and ideological influence" of English while simultaneously claiming that English is divorced from cultural practices and can be adapted to express any identity.[9] The same linguists who have once claimed that culture and language are intrinsically tied are now claiming that this same rule doesn't apply to English, or that English has spread so far beyond its home continent (s) by way of colonisation and the adoption of capitalism that it no longer matters because Western culture now constitutes world culture.[10]

The spread of English and English media are "both vehicles of [Anglo-American] culture, and contribut[ors] to the anglicization of global culture"[11] and thus it is irresponsible to separate English from its origins because it plays a pivotal role in forming (inter)national character. The departure from the classical understanding of relations between language and culture posits the idea that our current understanding of circumstances in how world languages interact is particularly hermetic. Globalists who take this perspective are actively aiding in the destruction of cultural diversity, a natural goal of capitalism, by justifying it through subversion and deflecting to seemingly altruistic intentions.[12]

Although all evidence points to the fact that "globalization is, essentially, western [...] cultural imperialism,"[13] the influence of capitalist realism refers to this as a norm and promotes it as progress; the degree to which a nation has adopted globalisation has in fact been frequently used as an indicator of 'societal progress,'[14] pointing to the implied role it has in the late-capitalist nation-state from the perspective of the globalist. So then, it only follows that, from this standpoint, the homogeneity of a population’s proficiency in world languages would also be a measure of this progress. "Four percent of the world’s languages are spoken by 96% of the population,"[15] thus the adoption of these second languages in the 4% is a natural goal of the capitalist-globalist movement. If this is true, and we're treating all languages as equals, then why is it that English has become the most sought after second tongue of so many people?

The fact remains that the rate at which a language is spread as a second language is primarily driven by "the economic strength of its speakers." In the case of Spanish for example, though being more widely spoken, Spanish speakers amount to "a fourth of what English amounts to" in GDP and thus Marx’s theory of historical-materialism once again proves to be the driving factor in socio-historical change.[16] In the minds of the perpetrators and some recipients of its spread, "English provides access to power, influence and wealth" or in other words, provides an ideological access to a similarly imagined international community.[17] This should naturally bring the question of 'why?' to the forefront of discussions on the adoption of English as a lingua franca but the hegemonic influence of Western culture seems so innate to our present condition that often it isn't even considered.

"[T]he use of English as a commodity, exported particularly by the [nations of the Anglo- sphere]"[18] has also taken on a capacity for meta-economic criticism as the use of English has been propagated heavily, especially directly following in the post-colonial period by the state-sponsored British Council and United States Information Service.[19] Despite this, within liberal literature there is a "near total neglect of the political economy of English(es) under conditions of neoliberal global capitalism" due to the inability of these liberal thinkers to be self reflective in their theoretical analysis of how English has spread.[20] The commodification of the English language directly relates to the concept of these 'World Englishes' as it demonstrates another capital gain that the nations who propagate English are a benefactor of. In addition, due to the current state of late capitalism, with an increasingly high demand for informational commodities the "extension and intensification [of markets] involve[s] the expansion of new markets and products" constantly in such a way that language learning has also become a commodity to be sold, thus it can be reasoned that English itself is a product and the concept of 'World Englishes' can be considered a marketing strategy.[21]

The rhetoric behind much of the push behind the spread of English seems to stem from this imagined reality where English is 'given' to the people of a certain region for their own betterment, similarly to how European powers justified colonialism in the 20th century by claiming to bring civilisation[22] and Americans have justified non-linguistic imperialism in the Middle East by claiming to bring democracy[23] while simultaneously genociding entire populations for capital gain. The globalist essentially manufactures consent for non-native English speaking populations by claiming to be missionaries of the English language and thus disarming arguments against the spread of English, stripping them of agency. The spread of English functions as "a bridgehead for Western interests, permitting the continuation of marginalization and exploitation" through justification that aids "U.S. corporate and military dominance worldwide and the neoliberal economy [that] constitute[s] a new form of empire that consolidates a single imperial language."[24] This is not even mentioning economic factors that are beneficial to the private capitalist, as the spread of English opens up smaller markets to the anglosphere and can drive down the cost of international production. The altruistic motives behind EFL instruction seem to be a thinly veiled guise for pushing the increased influence of the Anglo-American world into the perceived non- political space of education.

In discussing the similarities in neoliberal and colonial ideologies on the topic of language, it becomes important to also examine the agency and consent of populations affected by the spread of English in the context of the ideologies. Many influential texts exist that aim to train the reader in fostering a friendly attitude towards the English language among other people, particularly students.[25] [26] [27] This very fact indicates that communities have shown a resistance to adopt English as a second language or have only taken up english for what Elyildirim describes as "extrinsic" motivation.[28] This extrinsic motivation is characterized as instrumental, where English is only seen as a tool to accomplish a goal, which in most cases can be linked to the previously mentioned imagined communities, and research on L2 English speakers attitudes reflect that.[29] [30] In some cases this is overwhelmingly so, with almost 90% of english learners claiming to be learning English primarily for its practical (capital) benefits.[31] This extrinsic motivation to learn English with the combined lack of intrinsic motivation links back to the pervasiveness of American capitalism due to cultural imperialism and the perceived notion that English is needed to compete in international terms. By regarding English as a 'world language' it is implied to stratify the speakers' first language by reducing its status to only carrying local functionality and relegating it to only personal spheres of life.

"The more widely this 'global English' spreads, the more likely it is to drive other languages to extinction"[32] and with that knowledge in mind, the continued propagation of English becomes a moral dilemma. There have been attempts from proponents of 'World Englishes' to integrate speaker identity into ESL pedagogy by ESL instructors in order to promote a sense of 'ownership' of the language,[33] [34] but this method, in terms of broader sociological change, is cosmetic and does not address the stratification of the speakers' native language which is taking place. Moreover, in societies where the native tongue holds little value to its respective society, "language learning and use is often subtractive: proficiency in the imperial language and in learning it in education involves its consolidation at the expense of other languages."[35] Despite the claim that language learning is typically additive, empirical evidence concerning the constant death of languages every day, at the hand of English in particular, points to the exact opposite conclusion.[36]

The idea that English can be 'owned' by anyone only serves as an argument to spread it further in this case, and while the general premise is permissible when it is isolated in a language classroom, it cannot be used to mitigate the historical context in which the classroom itself exists—a context in which English is the dominant language of power and prestige. This underlying side effect of accepting English as a (or more often 'the') world language and its variants can be attributed to the tendencies of ideologies being "largely covert, so that their nature and function and the injustice they entail are often unnoticed and uncontested."[37] The mindset of capitalist realism can make sense of the English language hierarchy by positing that the adoption of English into the identity of second language learners will eliminate the existing disparity in power; but, in fact, it only normalizes stratification and ensures that it will keep happening by forming an argument around speaker identity for its continued spread. The aversion towards adoption of a critical Marxist viewpoint on this topic may very well be that within the capitalist-realist neoliberal framework, "unwelcome theoretical ideas may be discounted simply on account of being un welcome theoretical ideas."[38]

Plainly, the future of minority languages looks bleak with some sources reporting that the number of languages spoken on Earth will half by 2050 as of 2017; and the adoption of critical language ideologies by applied linguists has never been more important.

Future Prospects

Plainly, the future of minority languages looks bleak with some sources reporting that the number of languages spoken on Earth will half by 2050 as of 2017[39] and the adoption of critical language ideologies by applied linguists has never been more important. Unfortunately, as we have seen, the broader academic community is not immune to the detrimental effects of capitalist ideology which have blurred the vision of many scholars who see no end to the capital-motivated tyranny of western powers. The capitalist system creates and recreates systems of oppression and exploitation in every facet of the societies that it plagues, even academia.[40] Liberal ideology, which has had a monopoly on all realms of higher thought post-Cold War, has dominated in order to justify systems of oppression while simultaneously claiming to fight against them.[41] [42] It doesn't help that the influence of English has become "so strong that [academics] could not exercise their creativity in their mother tongues" and be taken as serious theorists that use English as their medium of expression[43] Moreover, the liberal ideology of the West actively discourages self-critical analysis so that it can continue subverting its self-contradicting narratives on democracy.[44] The development of 'World Englishes' has become a prime example of this subversion; it is a poor excuse to continue propagating English as a tool to further expand Anglo-American capital and allow Western culture to permeate further into the norms of other peoples.

While self-critical and scientific approaches to the spread of language such as the Marxist method of analysis are not popular in the West due to the reactionary tendency of liberals to self-justify their own exploitation, we can only hope that the material conditions will present themselves in such a way that the existing paradigms regarding human rights, linguistic or otherwise, will shift towards actual non-cosmetic progress. There should be no doubt that "the spread of the English language and English language teaching (ELT) serves the interests of Anglo-American hegemony."[45] There is currently a dire need to develop a system of education that considers "the importance of critique of ideology and situating analysis of a topic like education within the dominant social relations and system of political economy"[46] that is aimed around raising the class consciousness of the masses in order to develop non-reactionary scientific theories and solutions beyond the capitalist mode of production.

Current theories, including 'critical pedagogy,' allow the capitalist system to reproduce itself because rather than embracing the Marxist theories of class-conflict and historical materialism on which critical pedagogy was founded,[47] modern liberal educators have reduced the concept into performative activism[48] [49] or in some cases have "varied definitions of critical pedagogy which are both overlapping and contradictory" due to liberalism’s tendency towards holistic praxis that aren’t grounded in any form of theory.[50] Antonio Gramsci, a linguist and Marxist theorist often credited as one of the original critical pedagogues, rightly said that "every relationship of hegemony is necessarily a pedagogical relationship."[51] Thus, the best thing we can do in order to work past capitalist-realist ideology is to better educate ourselves so that we might accurately raise our own consciousness for the betterment of those suffering due to the current paradigms in place. Better education that enables "more complex dialectical perspectives [which] reject and neglect oppressive or false features of a position"[52] is clearly the solution to dispelling problematic notions such as 'World Englishes.'


While the world continues to become increasingly small, the ever expanding influence of the English world seems to only grow as missionaries of capitalism and bourgeois democracy attempt to infiltrate every world market. Meanwhile, the normalization of capitalist imperialism has made the task of imagining