Rest well, David Berman. Thanks for keeping it real and for the sad elegance of your songs. All my favourite singers couldn't sing.
Adapted from version published in the August issue of Socialist Standard
On 9 July, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared that a widely unpopular extradition bill, which had already been suspended by the Hong Kong government, was ‘dead’ – albeit not formally withdrawn, as most of the protestors against it had been demanding.
And what a protest it has been. Over recent months, hundreds of thousands of people (nearly two million on 16 June) have regularly swelled the streets of Hong Kong in opposition to the legislation, which amongst other things would make it easier for crime suspects to be removed to the mainland. The demonstrators have been mostly non-violent, despite official claims and insinuations to the contrary. They have faced rubber bullets, batons, pepper spray, water cannons and tear gas from the police, as well as opposition from counter-protestors and violent intimidation from triad thugs.
Hong Kong has long been a place of refuge for dissidents and activists fleeing persecution in China. These fugitives include some rich Chinese capitalists who have fled to Hong Kong in fear of losing their wealth. But they also include many political activists. The concern is that those extradited to China could disappear or be subject to vague or trumped-up charges and unfair trials.
Such fears are well-founded. Recently, university students from Peking University who tried to link up with workers have disappeared, a fate that regularly befalls workers and students deemed a threat to China’s authoritarian state. To take another example, in 2015 five booksellers specialising in publications critical of the (so-called) Communist Party disappeared. And Hong Kong activists have been detained upon crossing the border. It is unsurprising that many young people fear for their futures.
We can see in these protests an impressive display of people power. With limited electoral means, protests and occupations of public spaces and buildings are the only way that many locals feel they can express their opinions. They are participating in a long tradition of civil protest in Hong Kong. In 2003, for example – just six years after the formal handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China – an anti-subversion bill, Article 23, was withdrawn after half a million people took to the streets. But many of those involved in the recent protests are too young to remember this event or even to have been involved in 2014’s ‘pro-democracy’ Umbrella Movement.
Clearly, these protests – and Lam’s apparent inability to contain them – have rattled Beijing. The Chinese government will be deeply concerned that the unrest might spread across the border to Shenzhen or other Chinese cities and connect with the struggles of industrial workers. Predictably, media coverage of the protests in China has been minimal and propagandistic. After all, Chinese state media ruthlessly suppress public discussion of events such as the 1989 massacres of students and workers in Beijing and other Chinese cities or the recent, massive anti-pollution protests in Wuhan. When Hong Kong has been mentioned, Chinese media have described the mainly non-violent protests as an outbreak of criminality and an affront to public opinion. As is usual in authoritarian states, the media have also blamed the disturbances on foreign meddling. But while there is no doubt that foreign powers are using the situation in Hong Kong as a political football (particularly in the context of the ongoing US-China trade war), the suggestion that such massive protests are the result of Western manipulation is absurd.
There is no doubt, however, that many of the protestors harbour illusions in nationalism. Surveys show that most people in Hong Kong, especially younger age groups, proudly identify as Hong Kongers rather than Chinese. Some protestors are driven by nativist resentment, blaming mainlanders for rising living costs. Others want to take Hong Kong back in time: some of those who stormed the Legislative Council building on 1 July (the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty) even carried Union Jack flags. Politicians and other nationalists in the UK have made the most of this regressive nostalgia. The British Foreign Secretary even threatened China with ‘serious consequences’ if Hong Kong’s ‘freedoms’ are not protected.
Of course, the freedom that capitalists are most concerned about in Hong Kong is the freedom to continue exploiting the working-class. The small minority of socialists and anarchists on Hong Kong’s streets know that working-class people in Hong Kong (and elsewhere) cannot be truly free in a capitalist society. The removal of the extradition bill may prevent some of the repression faced by activists, but the basic problems faced especially by younger workers in the region – such as unaffordable housing, falling real-terms wages and relentless gentrification – will not be solved either by ‘independence’ or a return to the colonial past.
These protests, which are still ongoing, do not express a socialist perspective. But we do not dismiss the participants as naïve idealists, or worse still, as the ‘useful idiots’ of Western imperialism, as Stalinist organisations like the CPGB-ML do in a direct echo of Chinese state propaganda. We admire the determination of the mainly working-class protestors to stand up to the system. Being ‘leaderless’, mostly non-violent and massive in scale, these demonstrations display some of the features that will be required of the socialist revolution.
In his 2000 book Liquid Modernity, Zygmunt Bauman wrote that “dystopias are no longer written these days. The post-Fordist, ‘fluid modern’ world of freely choosing individuals does not worry about the sinister Big Brother who would punish those who stepped out of line”. You can understand where Bauman was coming from. After all, the years of the 1990s were relatively peaceable. For white Westerners like me, at any rate, this was the decade of the slacker and the cubicle worker, a boring age of colourless icons, of John Major and Pete Sampras. But the end of history has, well, ended and in the current post-9/11, post-crash, post-truth age of austerity and anger, it’s hardly surprising that dystopias of every type have made a return to Western screens, from teen dystopia franchises like The Hunger Games and Divergent to the recent television reworkings of Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale. And we can now delight in watching the total eradication of democracy and freedom in an exciting variety of global settings via Netflix dramas such as Brazil’s 3%.
In Britain, dystopian drama - having had its heyday in the 1970s and 80s - has also returned to television screens in recent years, most notably in the form of Channel 4 offerings such as Black Mirror and Utopia. Russell T. Davies’s recent BBC television drama Years and Years has garnered largely favourable reviews from critics. The six-part story reflects the increasingly febrile character of British, indeed Western public life, constituting what Fredric Jameson has called a ‘critical dystopia’, that is, a warning about what will happen “if this goes on”. Here Jameson is drawing upon François Hartog’s claim that in our current moment “the future is perceived as a threat not a promise. The future is a time of disasters, and ones we have, moreover, brought upon ourselves”. More on that point later.
Years and Years follows the multiple misfortunes of the Manchester-based Lyons family. Paterfamilias Stephen (Rory Kinnear) loses a million pounds when the banks crash. His brother Daniel (Russell Tovey) fatally tries to help immigrant Viktor (Maxim Baldry) to escape from homophobic persecution. Stephen’s anarcho-warrior sister Edith (Jessica Hynes), meanwhile, is poisoned after exposure to a nuclear bomb detonated on Chinese territory by a lunatic US president. Restless daughter Bethany (Lydia West), apparently seeking to escape from her dysfunctional family, wants to be a post-human, integrating smart technology into her body at an alarming rate in a Black Mirror-style warning against the perils of unregulated biotech. And several minor characters seem to be in the grip of outlandish conspiracy theories.
The political climate is also going haywire. The Lyons are led not by donkeys, but an unscrupulous right-wing populist Prime Minister Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), who progresses from flouting the rules of civilised democratic discourse to setting up death camps for immigrants and other undesirables known euphemistically as ‘Erstwhiles’. Downwardly mobile and morally conflicted, Stephen finds himself working for the ruthless tech corporation that is running the camps and which in no way resembles Amazon. Indeed, in the age of Trump, of concentration camps from China to the US, of immigration crisis and right-wing resurgence, the contemporary resonance of all these storylines hardly needs to be stated. As a warning about the threat of fascism to liberal democracy, Davies’s drama stands in a tradition of fiction that includes Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, in which a fascist politician institutes a corporatist regime and introduces concentration camps in the US, and Stephen King's 1979 novel The Dead Zone, which portrays the rise of a Trump-like populist demagogue.
But all’s well that ends well. In the drama’s denouement, the concentration camps are infiltrated and exposed by Edith, who livestreams footage of one of the camps to the world. It is an ending that follows a time-honoured narrative convention, especially common in science fiction, by which state-corporate malfeasance is revealed to the population via the very same screens that had previously broadcast state propaganda and mindless entertainment. An ignorant, brainwashed population is suddenly woken from its slumber and its exposure to the truth is sufficient to save the day.
Of course, in the real world it is not at all obvious that supplying one more piece of ‘information’ is ever sufficient to bring about social change. In fact, this difficulty is raised in Years and Years when Edith is mocked in the middle of her livestreaming by a camp guard who tells her “Nobody will believe you”. The implications of this taunt are sidestepped by the drama: fortunately for Edith, it appears that those who watch her livestream do not question its veracity. But the guard’s challenge is worth taking seriously. In a media environment abounding in propaganda and ‘fake news’, is it even possible for us to recognise the truth, let alone act upon it?
Besides, if we have failed to get rid of capitalism, it is not simply because we don’t know what is really going on. Sure, there are conspiracies among the ruling class. And yes, the capitalist-controlled media do obscure the harsh realities of the world with bread and circuses and outright lies; as socialists, it is very important to expose these lies and to put forward an accurate view of world events where we can. But most of us already know a lot – too much, perhaps – about what is happening in the world. We are aware that the planet is on fire with war and terrorism, that children are starving, that much of the world lives in poverty, that the long-term habitability of the planet is hanging in the balance, and so on. Wikileaks revealed much about the atrocities committed in the name of Western ‘democracies’ and the surveillance of their populations. And many British people know that their ruling class has been materially supporting Saudi atrocities in the ongoing war in Yemen.
No, the problem is not so much that we lack facts, so much as we lack a framework for understanding them. As the philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi puts it, “the process of social subjectivation is not based on disclosing the secret; it is based on the process of interpretation”. At present, most people do not accept that the profit system is the cause of the horrors that surround them and they do not believe that abolishing the profit system offers the solution.
It certainly doesn’t appear that Davies believes this, either, despite the drama’s passing nod to a supposedly “socialist” Spain as a beacon of progressive politics. This becomes clear in the drama’s final episode, set in 2029, when the Lyons family matriarch Muriel (Anne Reid) delivers a dinner-table sermon about why the twenty-first century went to hell in a handcart (by this point, we know that things have gotten pretty bad, because the BBC has had its charter withdrawn). Muriel, who overcomes some of her bigoted attitudes during the course of the six episodes, is one of the drama’s most likeable characters and the positioning of her speech at the end of the drama gives it an authorial feel, as though this is Davies’s own ‘last word’ on our contemporary malaise. In her speech, Muriel recognises that right-wing politicians played their part in the social breakdown they have all lived through. She had been, she admits, too smug about the triumph of “the West” and had failed to see “all the clowns and monsters heading our way”. The allusion here to Trump, Johnson and the other rough beasts of our current political scene seems apt.
Less convincing is Muriel’s next assertion, namely, that “we” are also collectively responsible for everything bad that has happened. “Every single thing that’s gone wrong, it’s your fault”, Muriel tells her family. Warming to her theme, Muriel identifies consumer apathy as the root cause of the global democratic collapse. She complains that we bought £1 tee-shirts (“The tee-shirt that costs one pound – we can’t resist it”) but didn’t think of the economic consequences for “some little peasant in a field” who gets paid a pittance. She also blames “us” for creating unemployment by making use of automated checkouts in shops. “We built this world”, she testily concludes.
Muriel’s speech is a well-staged set piece and it’s easy to see why clips of it have been shared widely on social media, where it has been typically described as a political ‘truth drop’. But its explanation for why the twenty-first century West went to pot is moralistic and superficial, suggesting that Davies is more confident in detailing the symptoms of societal decline than he is in providing an accurate diagnosis of them. The horrors of our age – exploitation, poverty, bigotry and war – are not caused by ethical lapses in consumer behaviour and working-class people cannot be blamed for buying goods at affordable prices or for using convenient technology; so let's not chuck our iPhones into the bin just yet. In fact, neither production nor consumption can be carried on ethically within a profit system. Muriel is right to say, however, that we are responsible for building our world, so our first task must be to get rid of the ruling class that is currently keeping the planet's resources under lock and key.
- Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, p.61.
- Berardi, F. (2019) The Second Coming. Cambridge: Polity Press, p.100.
- Hartog, F. (2015) Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time, trans. S. Brown. New York: Columbia University Press, p.xviii.
- Jameson, F. (2005) Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London; New York: Verso, p. 198.
As part of the Socialist Party of Great Britain's European Parliament election campaign, I took part in two hustings recently, one on the Isle of Wight and another in the New Forest, both organised by Remain-supporting groups. It was an interesting and for me new experience, having come into the SPGB a few years ago from a political position that rejects electoralism altogether.
Being on a panel with capitalist politicians (or would-be capitalist politicians) gives us socialists an opportunity to share our vision of a better world more widely and to question assumptions that would otherwise go completely unchallenged - although the hustings format has obvious limitations. On the Isle of Wight, for example, I challenged Labour candidate Rohit Dasgupta's early description of Jeremy Corbyn as a 'socialist'. Both of us promised to follow up on this point, but neither of us got time to do so during the course of the evening. That's the frustrating aspect of these sorts of events, where contributions from the many party candidates are typically restricted to one-minute answers: there is little time to seriously debate any particular point.
After the Isle of Wight hustings I found myself looking at local media following the event and defending the reputation of the Green candidate Vix Lowthion - who struck me as a very decent person - when she was attacked, in prurient and sexist terms, by contributors to a local news website (Lowthion has also been vilified on the political gossip website Guido Fawkes). It was a little insight into the backwardness of many sections of the working class and the abuse endured by women with any kind of public profile.
A few weeks later I participated in another hustings in the New Forest, where again, against tight time restrictions and fortified by the home-baked cakes provided by the organisers, I proposed the abolition of capitalism, nation states, borders and money. The audience of mostly Hard Remainers listened respectfully - perhaps, in some cases, appreciatively - although there was a somewhat muted response to my point that the EU, while protecting 'freedom of movement' for some working-class people, was also forcibly repelling refugees on its Southern borders, consigning many of them to death at sea.
I also challenged the Labour candidate's response to a question about the rise of the far right. Arran Neathey claimed that Labour were the natural party to resist the UK's reactionary wave. But as I pointed out, the last time Labour were in power, they 'out-righted the right' with their dawn raids on immigrant families. And who could forget Gordon Brown's infamous slogan 'British jobs for British workers', a phrase stolen from the British National Party, no less? Indeed, from 1997 to 2010 the Labour Party did more to attack black and brown people at home and abroad than any far right party could ever have dreamed of doing. This, I felt, was a point worth making, not least for the benefit of the audience member who harangued me, before the start of the event, on the 'disgrace' of standing against the 'socialist' Labour Party.
So what was the outcome of the party's election activity? The main one was that through the hustings, and more importantly, the distribution of party literature and appearances on television and radio, we were able to outline what real socialism involves. After both the hustings I had some good conversations with members of the audience. Generally, however, the voting public remains largely ignorant or unconvinced about socialism and in the end the SPGB garnered a slightly disappointing 3505 votes in the South-East region. Then again, the party's (entirely correct) refusal to support either Brexit or Remain - that is, to pick a 'side' in the capitalist class's dispute over its trading arrangements - meant that it was always likely to be punished in an election regarded by many voters as a second EU referendum. Perhaps, too, the party fell victim to the 'Corbyn effect', since so many workers have been taken in by Labour's (latest) promise to make capitalism work 'for the many, not the few'.
And so there is nothing to do except to go on - at work, in our communities, in our political organisations - with the struggle for socialist world, however far away that may be. At the end of the New Forest hustings, one of the independent candidates turned to me and made a cryptic but intriguing comment: "You're right... but you're too early". I hope that he's correct. At any rate, it's better to be too early than too late.
At the time of writing, the YouTube videos of the recent debate between the academics Jordan B. Peterson and Slavoj Žižek have attracted well over two million views. Clearly, this philosophical face-off really mattered to a lot of people. And that's hardly surprising. After all, Peterson, in particular, has achieved an extraordinary celebrity status as a public intellectual in recent years. But the 'Lobster King' is also somebody whose arguments must be countered by anybody who cares about socialism and Marxism, since his public pronouncements on these subjects are so often wide of the mark.
I would see Peterson as a conservative liberal (or liberal conservative) figure, rather than a fascist, as some left-wing commentators would have it. But it is true that many of Peterson's talking points are staples of alt-right discourse and it's easy to imagine that they serve for many people as a gateway to some disturbing political destinations. After all, in an age of personalised content and YouTube 'suggested videos', it's easy to lose your way. You might decide after dinner to splash around in the digital shallows, casually watching a few J.B.P. vids about Jungian archetypes, the evils of cultural Marxism, or the merits of a meat-based diet. But before long the algorithmic currents of the Internet have swept you towards darker shores. By midnight, you're retweeting Lauren Southern.
Anyway, the 'debate of the century', as some people billed it, has spawned numerous blogs, vlogs and print media responses over recent days from much smarter commentators than me and, since I don't want to rehash points made more eloquently by others, I'll keep my own comments brief.
Peterson opened with a lengthy disquisition on Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto and Marxism more generally. Unfortunately, he paraded his ignorance of both. For example, he claimed that one of Marx and Engels's central concerns was 'equality' and that Marxists seek to homogenise the human life-world. This was a staple argument of conservatives and liberals during the Cold War and it can be found in the work of Peterson's hero Jung, whose 1957 book The Undiscovered Self criticises the standardisation of life in what he called, rather absurdly, the "Marxist countries". Of course, it's true that disparities of wealth are a concern for socialists (just eight people, according to Oxfam, own as much wealth as half of the world's population - a truly staggering statistic). But Peterson should have known that neither Marx nor Engels had any time for abstract notions of equality. A cursory glance at the Critique of the Gotha Programme would have established that. There Marx famously identifies the guiding principle of socialism as: 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs'. Since different groups and individuals will have different abilities and needs, there can be no question of people being treated 'equally' here. And as Žižek pointed out in the debate, it is in fact capitalism that reduces us to mere cogs in the machine, homogenising our working conditions (and, we could add, our leisure experiences).
Another of Peterson's refrains was that Marx and Marxists simplistically see proletarians as 'good' and capitalists as 'evil'. Now, it's always seemed to me that it is capitalists, more than Marxists, who are keenest to emphasise their own moral virtue. That said, it is true that a moralistic understanding of class is quite widespread among left-wingers. Many leftists do regard being working-class as a badge of honour - a positive, even heroic identity (these same leftists, in my experience, often like to signal their prolier-than-thou status by adopting 'working-class' mannerisms, accents, clothing, and so on). Theirs is what Gáspár Tamás calls the Rousseauian view of the working class as the 'salt of the earth'. But Marxists do not share this view. They know very well that the working class is composed of rapists, thugs and sociopaths, as well as kind, decent and gentle people. In other words, for Marxists and socialists in general, there is nothing fundamentally 'good' about working-class people. To be working-class is simply to occupy a subordinate position in the production process; it also means that one has an interest in ending this state of affairs. To paraphrase a sentence from Moishe Postone's 1978 essay 'Necessity, Labor, and Time', socialist revolution aims at the abolition, not the glorification of working-class labour.
Some leftist critics have faulted Žižek for failing to address Peterson's misunderstandings of Marxism point for point. That kind of direct approach would have been consistent with the juvenile belligerence that characterises so much of today's online culture wars (Click Here! Žižek DESTROYS Peterson with FACTS and LOGIC!!!), but it's really not in the Slovenian's nature to debate in this way (note the restraint that Žižek showed when Will Self recently goaded him in a public debate). And in any case, Žižek did not fail to address Peterson's mistakes, although he generally did so with a light touch. At one point, he even challenged Peterson to name some representatives of the 'postmodern neo-Marxism' that the Canadian seems to be so anxious about in many of his polemics. Of course, Peterson was unable to name a single one, since they don't really exist - an epic fail that required no further comment from Žižek. The superficiality of Peterson's anti-Marxist crusade was painfully exposed.
In his own presentation, Žižek made several salient critiques of left-liberal identity politics (albeit nothing that his followers won't have heard before - Žižek, after all, is the copy-paste king). This may be why even alt-right commentators praised aspects of Žižek's performance. In his video commentary on the debate, the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, for example, nodded along with many of Žižek's points. But the fact that even some white supremacists can agree with some of Žižek's arguments doesn't in itself invalidate those arguments. I certainly would disagree, however, with Žižek's cautious, reformist suggestion that capitalism needs to be 'regulated' (rather than completely overthrown). Then again, Žižek has never unambiguously aligned himself with communism and identifies as a Hegelian rather than a Marxist.
There was little in this debate to surprise followers of either Peterson or Žižek and certainly my view of both figures was unchanged after two and half hours of hearing them talk. It was certainly not the debate of the century. But it sure got a lot of people talking. Indeed, perhaps an optimistic conclusion to draw from the widespread interest in the event is that there does seem to be some public appetite for the discussion of 'big ideas'. In what can feel like an age of stultifying technocracy, intellectual conformity and post-politics, that is no bad thing.
"The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere..." (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto)
In case you've been living in a cave for the last year or so, 5G is the mobile internet infrastructure that will enable 'superfast' downloads and the much-heralded Internet of Things - the modern-day Sorcerer's Apprentice that will bring your dreary world to life and allow your fridge to text you when you've run out of milk. But 5G is no futuristic fantasy; it is currently being rolled out across the globe. Telecoms and mobile phone company executives are rubbing their hands in expectation of serious profits, while slick advertising sells 5G to the public as the gateway to a consumer paradise of unlimited possibilities. I mean, who wouldn't want to be as carefree as the bonne viveuse in the recent Qualcomm Snapdragon advertisement, as she blissfully skips and clicks her way through an achingly multicultural urban pleasurescape...
The promise of 5G here, like that of most mobile communications advertising, is hedonic, banal and mindless. It reminds me of Franco 'Biffo' Berardi's comment in his latest book The Second Coming, that over the last fifty years in the West, "the sphere of objectified knowledge has been enormously enhanced, while available time for conscious elaboration has inversely decreased. This double dynamic has provoked an explosion of unawareness". "Automated brain and demented body", as Berardi puts it elsewhere.
Insofar as any critical perspective on 5G has emerged in mainstream news and current affairs media, the questions have tended to revolve around equality of access (will people in rural areas be getting juiced up, too?) and cost (will I have to buy a new phone?). Most recently, in the UK, questions have also been raised about the possibility of data insecurity and international espionage, in the light of a Chinese company's heavy involvement in 5G rollout. Can We Trust Huawei?, asked a recent episode of the BBC's Panorama.
Relatively little concern has been expressed, however, about 5G's potential to expand the reach of state-corporate surveillance of the kind currently being trialled in China, where facial recognition and online social credit systems look set to be implemented nationally. Noticeable, too, is the paucity of mainstream media interest in the possible health impacts of 5G. As well-regarded independent researchers such as Dr Devra Davis have noted, there is solid scientific evidence that the microwave radiation emitted by cellphones and wireless routers is dangerous to human (and animal) health. And that's just from 3G and 4G. The high-frequency millimetre waves that will be emitted from the 5G cellphone towers positioned quite literally on every street corner will result in vastly greater levels of radiation exposure. It's worrying. Some people are even calling 5G the 'thalidomide of the 21st century'.
Needless to say, players with a financial or political stake in the success of 5G will dismiss such concerns as 'conspiracy theories' and it's true that in the absence of serious mainstream media coverage, much of the critical discussion of 5G comes, at the moment, from some very questionable figures in the online conspiracy world such as Ian R. Crane and Max Igan (and, of course, the dreadful David Icke). But the concerns about the health effects of 5G have a scientific basis. Dr Martin Pall of Washington State University, an expert on the health effects of electromagnetic fields, describes the international 5G rollout as a 'global race toward destruction'. The testimony of medics such as US physician Dr Sharon Goldberg (below) also points to the unwisdom of the 5G rollout. Of course, there is still a lot that scientists don't know for sure about the physiological effects of 5G; but surely, where there are rational grounds for concern, the 'precautionary principle' should prevail.
5G will change our lives for the better in many ways - there is no doubt about that. But its rollout is also an experiment on human health that has not been subjected to democratic oversight. Nor, as Goldberg observes of the US situation, has there been any attempt on the part of public health officials to measure the extent and impact of human exposure to 5G. But we should not be too surprised at any of this. After all, there are billions of dollars at stake here and so long as we live in a capitalist society, profits will always be placed before human well-being and environmental protection.
The recent massacre of Muslims in Aotearoa/New Zealand by white supremacist terrorist Brenton Tarrant must, I think, be seen as the latest morbid symptom of world capitalism's death drive - its descent into barbarism. The poisonous bulletin board messages on cesspit websites such as 8chan no doubt played a big part in reflecting and reinforcing Tarrant's abhorrent beliefs. And along with other social media platforms, Facebook, which inadvertently hosted Tarrant's livestream of the event, is on the backfoot, as several corporations threaten an advertising boycott of the platform. But if any quarter of the mainstream media world should feel ashamed after Christchurch, it is surely the right-wing tabloid press. It is all very well for The Sun identify Tarrant on its front page as a 'Facebook Terrorist', but the tabloids must bear at least some responsibility for the Christchurch carnage, having spent years decrying Muslims as thugs, fanatics and sexual groomers.
That said, even right-wing journalists and politicians described the Christchurch killings relatively respectfully in the hours after the attack: The Express, one of Britain's most malicious anti-Muslim newspapers, went with the headline 'Hate-Fuelled Attack on Values That Unite Us All'. This was sheer hypocrisy, of course; but when a hundred people have been killed or injured by an Islamophobe with views about society very similar to your own, it's probably best to wind your neck in until the dust settles.
A few right-wing rabble-rousers, however, were undaunted by considerations of taste or timing. Australian senator William Fraser Anning, in particular, saw an opportunity to make a splash, blaming the atrocity on the "the growing fear within our community, both in Australia and New Zealand, of the increasing Muslim presence". He was widely condemned - and rather deftly 'egged' - for his bigotry. But British blabbermouth Katie Hopkins - a woman ever keen to fan the flames of social discord - waded in to defend Anning in a bizarre video rant posted on twitter, in which she expressed more concern for the media's supposed depreciation of 'whites' than for the victims of the attack.
Mainstream politicians and media commentators, meanwhile, took a different tack. Many of them went wild for New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, after the latter showed a degree of sympathy for the victims lacking among more conservative pundits. In The New York Times, for example, Sushil Aaron wrote an article entitled 'Why Jacinda Ardern Matters', hailing the PM as a "progressive antithesis to right-wing strongmen like Trump, Orbán and Modi". And in Britain's Guardian newspaper, Suzanne Moore opined that "Jacinda Ardern is showing the world what real leadership is: sympathy, love and integrity" and even went so far as to claim that Ardern "has given us a vision of a better world". Many ordinary people seem to have been caught up in this Jacinda-mania, too: memes depicting a sorrowful Ardern wearing a hijab have been circulating on social media, captioned with lofty panegyrics to her compassion and - that word again - leadership. But the height of absurdity was reached in a letter co-signed by British Labour politicians Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry, which praised Ardern as "an inspiration to the international working-class movement".
While it is always good to see a world leader expressing apparent solidarity with minority groups as opposed to attacking them, we should absolutely reject this lionization of Ardern. A former advisor to Tony Blair - a man hardly famed for his contribution to world peace - Ardern is known for her policy of reducing immigration into New Zealand. Together with its far-right coalition partners New Zealand First, Ardern's Labour Party has been whipping up anti-Chinese xenophobia and racism and New Zealand's military forces have played their part in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
Indeed, while much of the press in New Zealand have argued that Christchurch signals an 'end of innocence' for the country, New Zealand was already fully implicated in the horrors of imperialism and its Prime Minister, like any other capitalist politician, represents a system of nationalism, exploitation and alienation that cannot but give rise to regular explosions of war and terrorism across the globe. Atrocities like Christchurch perfectly reflect the necropolitics (Achille Mbembe's term) of the contemporary nation state, its formidable power over the very existence of black and brown civilian bodies. Faced with events like these, then, we would do well to reject both the racist nationalism of deranged xenophobes like Tarrant and the hypocritical condemnation of it by world leaders. What neither the liberal nor the right-wing media can acknowledge is that only way of halting racist violence, of banishing the scourges of social antagonism, fear and alienation, is for working-class people to come together - peacefully if possible - to end the system that causes them.
Last year, actor Charlie Sheen starred in Martin Guigui's film 9/11, a small-scale drama based on Patrick Carson's a stage play Elevator, which details the experiences of five disparate and desperate people trapped in a World Trade Centre lift during the World Trade Center attacks of September 2001. The film received some of the most savage reviews ever garnered by a Hollywood production and the movie was widely deemed 'offensive' and 'exploitative' by professional critics and online pundits alike. However, I wonder how fair or even intelligible these judgements really are. Is any film about 9/11 necessarily going to be exploitative, as some commentators seemed to imply; and who is to say what is or isn't 'offensive'?
Perhaps the film, by depicting the vulnerability and suffering of citizens during the attacks, offends against the dominant media framing of the event. For most of us, our mental picture of 9/11 is the one that was reproduced across almost all of the newspapers following the event: the searing, archetypal image of the towers engulfed in flames. The widespread reproduction of this image - which recalls nothing so much as a scene from a blockbuster action film - sent the message that the West was at war with the forces of darkness and that bloody vengeance must ensue. But it didn't have to be that way. Other, less martial and more human-scaled images of the attacks could have prevailed. As Brad Evans wonders in the preface to his book Liberal Terror, 'how [...] would the world look today if the images of the falling victims had become the defining emblem of the 9/11 attacks?'
While the public reaction to Guigui's film is undoubtedly tied up with these struggles over how 9/11 should be represented, the blanket obloquy directed against the movie surely also has a lot to do with Charlie Sheen's earlier, apparently unforgivable involvement in the 9/11 truth movement. Indeed, while we still don't know very much about how the event of 9/11 really happened, to express doubts about the official 9/11 story, even today, is to court lasting derision. The jokes about 9/11 'truthers' never stop - and challenges to the received narrative of 9/11 tend to be regarded as a ludicrous outgrowth of the Internet's degraded digital free-for-all. As Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) puts it in his ironic diatribe in the recent Trainspotting sequel, "Choose rape jokes, slut-shaming, revenge porn and an endless tide of depressing misogyny. Choose 9/11 never happened, and if it did, it was the Jews".
All of this makes it very difficult to raise critical questions about the events of 9/11. Although the public was told many lies about the most recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed 'weapons of mass destruction' being the most egregious and now widely acknowledged one), many people struggle to accept anything but the mainstream political-media account of the atrocity that was used to justify those invasions. Those who challenge that account are usually consigned to what Daniel C. Hallin called the 'sphere of deviance' - a domain outside the 'sphere of legitimate controversy' which contains ideas and opinions that must not be publicly aired. The price of dissent can be high. Over the seventeen years since the attacks, journalists, politicians, military figures and academics who have questioned the endless inconsistencies and absurdities in the official story of 9/11 have faced ridicule or lost their jobs.
Liberals and leftists have tended to be even more disparaging of the 9/11 truth/justice movement than conservatives. Noam Chomsky's response to a question about the authorship of 9/11 was, infamously, 'who cares'? I am not the first to point out that this was a strange thing for the world's foremost critic of US foreign policy to say about the biggest terrorist attack on American soil or that that the families and friends of those who were murdered on 9/11 might just have a passing interest in whether their loved ones were killed by Muslim terrorists or by 'their own' government. And does Chomsky really believe that nobody in the US will 'care' if 9/11 were revealed to be, say, an 'inside job'? After all, he himself has pointed out that such a revelation would destroy the Republican party forever and would result in 'firing squads'.
I must admit that for many years after 9/11, I myself tended to dismiss with a smirk anybody who questioned the official narrative about the attacks as a 'conspiracy theorist'. In doing so I was merely following the crowd. And I can understand why there was so little appetite for critical questioning in the wake of the atrocities. It's hard for those exposed to seismic acts of terror to retain their critical faculties. On the contrary, traumatized people often take refuge in group think and myth-mongering or indulge in fantasies of violent retribution. That's why it was so easy for politicians and journalists in 2001 to spin the atrocity as an assault on the US and its values by an evil, non-Christian Other. In line with the propaganda dynamics outlined in Naomi Klein's 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, the view prevailed that 9/11 was an attack on 'our way of life' that demanded not critical analysis, but immediate, bloody revenge against the supposed perpetrators.
Over the last few years I have, rather belatedly, read many books about 9/11 and listened to a lot of the professional critics of the official account. And like many others (a 2016 study suggested that more than half of Americans believe that their government is concealing information about the attacks), I've concluded that the official version of events makes no sense at all. It is undermined by, inter alia, the failure of all air defences (for which multiple, mutually contradictory explanations have been supplied by officials); the lack of any photographic evidence that the alleged attackers even boarded the planes; the mismatch between the alleged hijackers' extraordinary aerial manoeuvres and their almost total lack of pilot training; the refusal of official investigators to consider first-hand accounts of multiple explosions before the planes hit; the near-miraculous discovery of an incriminating passport amid the ashes of the Twin Towers (shades of the London 7/7 attacks there); and so on. The full catalogue of absurdities and improbabilities was usefully summarized back in the noughties in the books of David Ray Griffin, but they have never been adequately dealt with by defenders of the official story. Of great significance, too, are the so-called 'intelligence failures' at Alec Station, whereby the CIA did not pass its information about Khalid al-Mihdhar and Salem al-Hazmi to the FBI, and the recently recrudescent question of Saudi complicity in the organization of the attacks. To discuss these questions is not to fall prey to 'conspiracy theory', but to acknowledge that we still lack a coherent account of what happened on 9/11. There are still more questions than answers.
Then, of course, there are the technical debates, such as the dispute over the National Institute of Standards in Technology report's claim that the collapse of WTC 7 (2.25 seconds of which was in free-fall) was caused by office fires. NIST's findings now look to be undermined by preliminary reports from Dr J. Leroy Hulsey's ongoing University of Alaska study. Whether or not the Alaska study will support the view of Niels Harrit, Richard Gage and the Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth group, namely, that Building 7 collapsed as a result of so-called 'controlled demolition', is as yet unclear. It is possible, in fact, that we will never know for sure how WTC 7, or indeed any of the New York buildings, came down, since all of the material evidence from the scene of the crime was, quite astonishingly, immediately removed and sent overseas for recycling. Of course, this hurry to get things 'back to normal' after the New York attacks itself involved a cynical deception: despite repeated assurances from the Environmental Protection Agency and New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani that Ground Zero was safe to return to, the area was in fact strewn with toxic debris (sulfur dioxide and asbestos) that has caused respiratory illnesses and cancers in hundreds of cases. It took the courageous action of EPA whistleblower Dr. Cate Jenkins to expose the official lies.
We should, I think, be highly critical of those who use the term 'conspiracy theory' in order to dismiss dissenting opinions. After all, conspiracy theories, even though they are not identified as such, are integral to the maintenance of the status quo and mainstream media promote them regularly. Just consider the various evidence-light anti-Russian confections in the British and US media recently, most notably that of the alleged hacking of the 2016 US election (indeed, it is becoming more and more obvious that 'Russiagate' has been coordinated by Western intelligence services). Indeed, it is hardly outlandish to regard the 9/11 Commission's story that the attacks were carried out by 19 Muslim hijackers directed by a very unwell man in Afghanistan as a mainstream conspiracy theory. Even Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, the chair and vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, state in their 2006 book Without Precedent that their investigation was underfunded and 'set up to fail' and that they were lied to by officials.
Precisely which organizations and individuals were behind, or had knowledge of the 9/11 attacks is still unclear. Plenty of ludicrous theories about the attacks have been put forward by assorted lunatics and even intelligence agents. Remember David Shayler, the MI5 officer who, during the high-tide of the 9/11 truth movement, argued that the planes that struck the Twin Towers were in fact missiles camouflaged by holograms? Perhaps in order to ensure that nobody could take his theory about 9/11 seriously, Shayler also claimed to be the Messiah (move over, David Icke) and to be able to control the footballing fortunes of Middlesbrough F.C. The crazy assertions of Shayler and many others have served those in power as a useful distraction, discrediting the people asking serious questions about the attacks. But the doubts and questions of independent investigators and victims' family members are not so easily laughed off. To this day, many people are aware that, in the title of Jon Gold's useful recent collection of interviews, We Were Lied to About 9/11 and they are looking for an honest and coherent account of what actually happened.
It is possible that elements the US state either played a part in orchestrating 9/11 or allowed the attacks to happen, something the US has certainly done before as a pretext for war (Griffin, who advocates the 'inside job' theory, famously termed 9/11 'the new Pearl Harbour', borrowing the Project for a New American Century's phrase from 1997). Contra Chomsky, it would be worth knowing if this was indeed the case. For one thing, it would provide the families of the victims with closure. It might also help to convince those who need convincing that the bourgeoisie is thoroughly Machiavellian. Indeed, fear of being labelled a conspiracy theorist (a fear that is widespread among Marxists and anarchists, it seems to me) should not prevent us from recognizing that ruling classes the world over shroud their activities in secrecy and disinformation. Power prefers darkness.
As Richard Jackson pointed out in his 2005 book Writing the War on Terrorism, the use of the term 'ground zero' to describe the scene of the crime recalled the phrase 'year zero' and thus signalled that the attacks had inaugurated a new era requiring different techniques of securitization and counter-terrorism. To paraphrase the U.S. political machinator Rahm Emanuel, the capitalist class never let a serious crisis go to waste. Whoever was responsible for them - and here Chomsky does have a point - the 9/11 attacks were used as a pretext for subsequent resource-grabbing invasions of Middle Eastern countries that have cost trillions of dollars and killed hundreds of thousands of people. They were also a pretext for a refreshed assault on civil liberties and human rights across the world. For the US and most other ruling classes around the world, 9/11 has provided a golden opportunity to ramp up the repression and surveillance of Muslims and other 'suspect communities'. Judicial and spatial 'states of exception' have multiplied, from the Patriot Act and Guantánamo Bay in the early days of Bush's War on Terror to the Uyghur internment camps of China's Xinjiang province today. Attitudes and priorities have also shifted towards xenophobia and paranoia. A World Values Survey in 2015, for example, found that in the decade following 9/11 U.S. citizens more and more prioritize 'survival' above 'self-expression'. The rhetoric of the War on Terror has also normalized anti-Muslim prejudice, so that Boris Johnson's recent quip about burka-wearing Muslim women looking like 'bank robbers' seems almost unremarkable.
Perhaps these points should not be pushed too far. In their 2012 book Icons of War and Terror, John Tulloch and R. Warwick Blood cautioned that the proposition '9/11 changed everything' - widespread among opportunistic politicians and CEOs following the attacks - was always problematic and ideological, eliding among other things the longer history of terrorism. Tulloch and Blood also point to the arguments of Slavoj Žižek, who has suggested that 9/11 represented not a break with the past, but on the contrary a kind of resetting of the U.S.'s basic ideological co-ordinates. Yet be that as it may, from the vantage point of 2018, the post-9/11 world looks and feels more dangerous. Shortly after the attacks, U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld declared that 9/11 presented 'the kind of opportunities that World War II offered' to 'refashion the world'. In numerous big and small ways, 9/11 has helped the world's rulers in their attempts to do that - although the U.S. bid to become the sole global hegemon has arguably failed.
The events surrounding 9/11 itself remain, to a great extent, cloaked in mystery. I have no idea whether we might one day have a clearer understanding of what happened on that day, or whether a new official investigation would be useful or even possible; at this point, the 9/11 truth movement has been largely dormant for a decade. But the families and friends of those who died, and of those tortured and killed across the globe in the name of the war on terror, certainly deserve answers.
In my 2012 book Beyond the Left - and elsewhere on this blog - I criticized Western journalists for their fawning treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi, known to viewers of Luc Besson's cinematic hagiography as 'The Lady', who by then had long been feted as the poster-girl for Western-style democracy in Myanmar. I pointed out that there can be no such thing as a 'progressive' world leader in a world driven by profit. And indeed, the Aung San saga has all ended rather embarrassingly for the liberal commentariat.
With Dame Suu now in power, Myanmar is now seen by many mainstream commentators as a genocidal state and its Buddhist monks are promoting the military's savage violence and ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State (as the American physicist Steven Weinberg is supposed to have said: "With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion").
As the UN yesterday condemned the violence, even the Western media have been obliged to start wagging their fingers. Under fire for failing to curtail calls for genocide on its Burmese platform, Facebook, for example, has just launched its latest high-profile geopolitical intervention, banning several prominent Burmese organizations and individuals from the network and citing the need to get tough on 'hate speech'.
If 'The Lady' has well and truly vanished, Aung San Suu Kyi herself, so far, has survived politically. Most commentators have stopped short of damning her outright or of calling for her to step down from power. There is already too much egg on too many faces and no doubt Suu Kyi, for now, at least, is still seen as the West's best leadership option in the resource-rich region. And anyway, there's no reason why a massacre or two should tarnish one's international reputation when inveterate warmongers like Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama or the recently deceased John McCain are lauded for their contributions to global human rights.
Some takeaway messages: 1) The liberal media, no matter how 'progressive' they appear, will always tend to serve the interests of profit and power, not those of ordinary people; 2) Buddhism is quite as reactionary as any other religion: the Dalai Lama, its prime representative who is feted by New Agers and Hollywood celebrities, has equivocated on the war on Iraq and has expressed anti-immigrant and other abhorrent social views; 3) The people of the world don't need leaders - even supposedly enlightened female ones like Aung San Suu Kyi.
Below is the text of a talk I gave at a meeting of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in Hammersmith, London in May 2018. A caveat: some of the points made here are rather truncated as the text was conceived as the basis for a 20 minute talk and group discussion rather than a well-rounded treatise.
At their best, the media provide us with pleasurable distraction and vital information, a playground for the imagination and a window on the world. Socialists, however, are all too aware of mainstream media’s systematic biases and distortions of the truth. Despite considerable advances in communication technology and a dramatic shift in the directionality of information flows, we live, perhaps more than ever, in a world of disinformation and propaganda – ‘fake news’ in today’s fashionable phrase. The press tells us lies, sometimes small ones, such as The Sun newspaper’s infamous report about swan-munching asylum seekers, sometimes large ones, such as the same newspaper’s fabrications about the Hillsborough disaster and Iraq’s non-existent ‘weapons of mass destruction’ - the lie that launched a thousand missiles. There is also a constant undermining of the working class. In Britain, news and current affairs programmes regularly demonize strikers, immigrants, Muslims, the disabled, and so-called ‘chavs’, deepening social divisions and discouraging solidarity by pitting workers against one another on the basis of race, nation, religion, sexuality and so on.
This process is all too apparent in the torrents of outrage directed against so-called ‘benefit claimants’ (people in receipt of social security payments). British newspapers regularly condemn these supposed scourges of society and in the last decade, in particular, the country’s television schedules have abounded with largely malicious, luridly titled documentaries: Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits (BBC), Benefits Street (Channel 4), On Benefits and Proud (Channel 5), or even Gypsies on Benefits and Proud (Channel 5). Despite relatively low levels of benefit fraud, these programmes encourage us to revile some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.
What the mainstream media does not encourage us to do, of course, is to question the system that makes people poor and vulnerable. On the contrary, to read the news or to turn on the television or radio is to expose oneself to the capitalist worldview of our rulers. According to this worldview, there is no alternative to our current system of leaders, nation states, markets and exploitation. This holds true for liberal, as well as right-wing media. In fact, in their support for certain capitalist imperatives – such as the need for imperialist war – liberal and leftist commentators are sometimes more enthusiastic than conservatives.
Whether conservative or liberal, the loudest voices in the media are those of the bourgeoisie. Professional newsgathering draws heavily on the opinions of business and military leaders, professional politicians and other official sources. As a result, news agendas reflect the priorities and interests of the capitalists rather than those of ordinary people. And it gets worse: these days, as Nick Davies's book Flat Earth News points out, most news stories are produced not by journalists as such, but by private and state-owned public relations agencies, which have even less incentive to produce unbiased reporting. But why is this so? In a world of growing economic and ecological crisis, poverty and military violence, why do the mainstream press and broadcasters, for the most part, continue to support the status quo? Why do they tell lies, attack working class political action, support capitalist wars, and insist that capitalism is the only viable system?
Ownership and Control
The most obvious answer to this question, of course, is that the media industries are owned and controlled by the bourgeoisie, such that, as Marx famously put it in The German Ideology, “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. Very true. In his unpublished preface to Animal Farm in 1945, George Orwell commented that “The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics”. And as Chris Pallas, a.k.a. Maurice Brinton, wrote in 1970, “the means of moulding public opinion (press, radio, TV, churches, schools and universities) are in the hands of the ruling class. The media consequently disseminate ruling class ideas, values and priorities”.
The ownership of the means of media production tends to be highly concentrated, giving enormous power to a small number of media owners. These moguls develop close relationships with government. In Britain, the early press barons even held key government positions. For example, Lord Northcliffe, whose newspapers during World War 1 helped to condition the public for total war, became Director for Propaganda in enemy countries. Throughout the twentieth century, moreover, senior politicians and media moguls have established quid pro quo relationships. In 1981, for example, Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers strongly supported Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who in turn helped Murdoch to buy Times Newspapers, bypassing referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The back-scratching continued a few years later, when Thatcher facilitated Murdoch’s smashing of the print unions at Wapping.
From the mid-1990s until he switched his support back to the Conservatives in 2010, Murdoch also fostered a close relationship with Tony Blair’s New Labour party. Lance Price, a former media advisor to Blair, even called Murdoch “the 24th member of the Cabinet”. It therefore surprised nobody that, when the US and British armed forces invaded Iraq in 2003, every one of the newspapers owned by Murdoch’s News Corporation gave the military action its full-throated support. On television, meanwhile, Murdoch’s Fox News Channel made a fluttering US flag a permanent on-screen fixture and described the deadly invasion as ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’. While Murdoch’s star might have faded in the wake of the News of the World phone hacking scandal, his story illustrates the power of media moguls to shape editorial content and mould the public mind.
The Power of Advertising
Advertising plays a part, too, in ensuring that the mainstream media content seldom strays far from ruling class opinion. Advertising is not only poisonous in its own right – since the beginning of the twentieth century, in particular, it has promoted false or dangerous needs and created uninformed consumers through distorted and exaggerated claims – but it also contaminates the surrounding media environment.
In early nineteenth-century Britain, in fact, the growth of advertising helped to destroy the working-class press. This so-called ‘radical press’ included titles such as The Poor Man’s Guardian, which supported the Chartist movement. Henry Hetherington, the newspaper’s editor, condemned capitalism as a “competitive, selfish, scrambling” system and vowed that “workers will be at the top instead of the bottom of society or rather there will be no bottom at all”. Clearly, these newspapers posed a threat to the bourgeoisie. Yet as the advertising industries and printing technologies developed in the nineteenth century, only the bourgeois press could afford to meet their production costs. The working-class publications disappeared, not because they were unpopular (on the contrary, they enjoyed the highest circulations in British newspaper history) but because they did not attract advertising sponsorship. Such situations are not unfamiliar today, almost 200 years later, as Facebook and Google hoover up advertising revenue to the detriment of traditional journalism.
Indeed, since the early days of capitalism, advertiser influence over the media has continued unabated. Advertisers prioritize profit, and media content that is critical of the status quo or which simply highlights social problems, is less attractive to them than more light-hearted fare (see Brown and Cavazos's 2005 article "Why is this show so dumb?"). In fact, companies such as Coca-Cola have even refused to advertise during news broadcasts, on the grounds that “bad news” might affect consumers’ perceptions of their product. And when programme makers become too critical of the system, the consequences can be serious. In their influential book Manufacturing Consent, academics Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky cite the case of the US public-television station WNET, which “lost its corporate funding from Gulf and Western in 1985 after the station showed the documentary Hungry for Profit, which contains material critical of multinational corporate activities in the Third World”.
In today’s digital environments, too, media organizations often face advertiser backlash. Last year, for example, a host of corporations including Volkswagon, Tesco and McDonald’s withdrew their advertising spending on Google and its subsidiary YouTube over concerns about video content they deemed inappropriate or ‘extremist’. Youtube is also ‘demonitizing’, that is, withdrawing advertising for, channels that are less viewed and those whose content is deemed to be advertiser-unfriendly. Indeed, by insisting that their products and services appear in high-profile, ‘brand safe environments’, advertisers exert a conservative influence over what the public is able to see and hear.
What about the ‘Public Service’ Media?
So much, then, for the commercial media. But in Britain and elsewhere, of course, there exists a broadly non-commercial or ‘public service’ model of media ownership, represented by the license-fee funded BBC. The public service model offers certain advantages to viewers and listeners. In exchange for the license fee, the BBC provides welcome relief from interruption by commercial breaks. And it must be admitted that today’s BBC, followed closely by the commercially-funded public service broadcaster Channel 4, is responsible for some of the UK’s most sophisticated and stimulating television and radio programmes.
The politics of the BBC, however, are another matter. ‘Auntie Beeb’ claims to be objective and independent, stating in its editorial guidelines that it “will never promote a particular view on controversial matters”. But throughout its history, the Beeb has been a bastion of ruling class opinion. In 1926, one of the very first actions of the newly established BBC was to support the government against the workers during the General Strike; as the organisation’s first Director General John Reith candidly remarked at the time, “the government knows it can trust us not to be really impartial”. In fact, the BBC has a long history of backing the establishment – most obviously in its patriotic role as the ‘Voice of Britain’ during the Second World War and its unwavering support for the British monarchy. Like ‘state broadcasters’ the world over, the BBC advances the interests of the domestic ruling class and its international allies.
Given all of this, it is unsurprising that the BBC, like most major media organizations, has long-standing connections with the intelligence services. Of course, the BBC is hardly unique in this respect. The investigative journalist David Rose has spoken about his own interactions with British and US intelligence sources, criticizing the often misleading information he was given (including cast-iron reassurances about the existence of Saddam’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’) and the unaccountable influence of anonymous ‘Whitehall sources’ over British journalism ('Spies and their lies', New Statesman, 27 September, 2007). Nevertheless, the BBC’s connections to state power are particularly deep. The organization sees one of its roles as the projection of British ‘soft power’ on the global stage and its journalists and senior managers meet and communicate regularly with the Ministry of Defence, GCHQ, MI5 and MI6. For fifty years, BBC staff were vetted by MI5 and today, many prominent BBC figures, such as Security Correspondent Frank Gardner, a former Territorial Army captain and investment banker, have links with the secret state (for more on these kinds of connections, see Tom Mills's 2016 book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service).
The Internet: A Brave New World?
In the parts of the world where it is accessible (at the time of writing, only a little over half of the planet has access), the Internet is transforming public communication. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, so-called Web 2.0, with its potential for multimedia collaboration and networking, has opened up new possibilities for instantaneous ‘many-to-many’ political communication. A dramatic example of this is provided by the Arab Spring of 2011, when demonstrators in countries such as Egypt and Libya organized protests using social media. These activists became ‘citizen journalists’, bypassing highly restrictive broadcast media systems to expose state oppression and social unrest. Nevertheless, such examples do seem marginal when one considers that the main uses of the Internet are pornography and shopping.
Moreover, the liberatory potential of the Internet is highly circumscribed by state and corporate power. In his book Move Fast and Break Things, Jonathan Taplin details how the theoretically 'open' architecture of the Internet was captured by libertarians like Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel and Larry Page, who built up massive media empires on the basis of sharp practice, piracy and the trampling of individual privacy. As in traditional media, content online is shaped by advertisers and other powerful interests, who have shifted much their spending from traditional to online media. The results obtained from a simple Google search, for example, are largely determined by the companies and political parties who pay for the keywords. In fact, despite its cutesy (and recently abandoned) motto ‘don’t be evil’, Google has been fined for abusing its dominant market position in the search domain by favouring its own products in search results pages and Google algorithms increasingly serve to remove oppositional and critical websites from search results. The social media giant Facebook, to take another example, filters the content that can be accessed by users and has been accused of deleting the accounts of individuals and political groups, such as Palestinian activists and the political commentator Caitlin Johnstone, from its site on political grounds.
We are dealing here with good old-fashioned monopoly power. Like the press barons of old, today’s big tech companies cultivate close relationships with politicians in order to maintain their market positions. In the US, Google, for example, spends millions of dollars each year on political lobbying. The company has even secretly funded academic research to ward off regulatory challenges to its market dominance.
And what about us, the users of Internet platforms? Like readers and audiences in traditional media, Internet users become commodities to be sold to advertisers and as the recent fuss over the activities of Cambridge Analytica has highlighted, their personal data is traded by corporations. Yet those same users also produce this data with little or no payment. Google and Facebook, in other words, make their profits by exploiting our unpaid digital labour. They have also, as sources told the New York Times in 2013, passed data to the National Security Agency. Indeed, we should not forget the role of the state in monitoring and policing online communication. Across the world, capitalist states access emails and social media messages, block websites and even, when necessary, shut down the Internet, as happened in several countries during the Arab Spring. Online, covert intelligence operations are also used in order to sow confusion and undermine critics of the system. In Britain, for example, JTRIG, a branch of GCHQ, uses ‘dirty tricks’ to “influence and disrupt” the online communications of its ‘targets’, generating fake emails and videos, blogs and forum memberships. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are most likely the most manipulated society in human history.
The fiendish part of all this is that, in what Gilles Deleuze called 'societies of control' such as our own, corporations and the state do not so much restrict our use of communications technology as encourage us voluntarily to produce the means of our control through our participation in social media and other data-generating activities. We live today in what Christopher Bollas calls 'Id capitalism', where control is exercised not through prohibitions and taboos, but through encouragements to share, like, express and indulge our every thought and desire.
In light of all this, it is useful to take a dialectical perspective on the Internet. The World Wide Web provides many opportunities for socialist education and organization; but it also allows private companies and the state to surveil and even deceive the public. It is not, and never will be a panacea. In her book Blog Theory, Jodi Dean argues that under conditions of what she calls 'communicative capitalism', messages on the Internet tend to lose their 'symbolic efficacy' and critical edge to become merely so many circulating 'contributions'; it is their exchange value rather than their use value that comes to matter. Meanwhile, the digital giants that 'capture' and exploit our communications continue to accrue more and more power and wealth. Indeed, within academic Media Studies there is a growing appreciation that rather than representing a radical counterbalance to mainstream, established media - a perspective that was always too simplistic - Facebook, Google and Amazon are very much part of that mainstream.
There is, of course, much more to be said about the ways in which state and commercial interests influence our media than can be addressed in this short overview. In fact, a properly materialist account of the media would consider not just the media industries’ manipulation of ideas and information, but also the material conditions of media production. All across the planet, the entire media infrastructure of transmitters, cables, studios, offices, cameras, computers, and so on, is produced and operated by exploited workers, often in appalling conditions. Our digital devices – phones, tablets, and so on – are made from minerals mined in life-threatening conditions by workers in African countries (cassiterite, cobalt and coltan mines in Congo), assembled by suicidal factory workers in China (Foxconn) and distributed by hyper-surveilled, overworked workers in the West (Amazon's warehouse drudges). This is to say nothing of the damaging environmental effects of producing so much soon-to-be-obsolescent hardware.
But what is to be done about the problem of the media? Proposals for reforming the media industries are advocated and implemented constantly. In Britain, many liberals and leftists welcomed the Leveson Enquiry set up under Prime Minister David Cameron as a means of challenging unaccountable media power following revelations about phone hacking at Murdoch’s sleazy News of the World newspaper. Although it was billed as an investigation into the “culture, practices and ethics” of the British media, it might better be seen as an effort to humble the pro-American Murdoch by more independently-minded factions of British state. In any event, Leveson has not led to any significant changes in the quality of British journalism and did not even mention the hacking of the Internet by the intelligence services. If anything, the enquiry may have served to shore up belief in the fundamental decency of the state.
Reforms to Internet ownership and control are also regularly proposed. In his 2015 book The Internet is Not the Answer, the incisive critic of 'big tech' Andrew Keen, for example, has welcomed the 'regulatory turn' against the technology giants in recent years. But regulation is always playing 'catch up' with the capitalists, and is thus always liable to be circumvented, especially in the fast-moving tech sector. Then there is Nick Srnicek’s suggestion, in a 2017 Guardian article, that platforms such as Facebook, Google and Amazon are ‘natural monopolies’ that should be nationalized in order to curtail the power of private corporations. Such suggestions are widely shared by liberal and left-wing commentators. But as with many such social democratic reform proposals, it is not at all clear how Srnicek’s scheme to fund such a move by wealth taxes could actually be implemented, or how nationalization (by which country?) would protect Internet users from state surveillance. And, of course, such reforms do not abolish the exploitative social relations that underpin all media production; in fact, they depend upon them.
One thing we that we can do, as socialists, is use what purchase we have in traditional and ‘new’ media to put forward the case for socialism as an urgent necessity and to organize class struggle activity. We can also expose mainstream media bias and misinformation, providing a critical framework for making sense of what we see, read and hear. This is not a hopeless task. After all, people don’t believe everything they are told. Even many media workers are highly sceptical about the system they work within. Take journalists, for instance. Highly paid, elite journalists like Andrew Marr or Jeremy Paxman are predictably conservative in their political views. Most ordinary journalists, however, are workers who, while having to go along with management demands in order to keep their jobs, are all too aware of the media’s role in producing capitalist propaganda and have sometimes even opposed it. You can't fool all the people all the time. But we should have no illusions about the value of piecemeal reforms or small-scale acts of resistance: we will only see the end of media propaganda and the exploitation involved in media production by ending the capitalist ownership and control of the media. That means nothing less than the overthrow of the capitalist class itself.