7 May 2012

The Arab Spring book review

Take a look at my review of Hamid Dabashi's new book, The Arab Spring, in Socialist Review http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=12001

Hamid Dabashi's latest book is a joyful celebration of the ongoing revolutions and uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. It deserves to be read by anyone with even a passing interest in what must surely rank as the most important series of events in our time.

3 May 2012

Murdoch: crisis in the shadows

The phone hacking scandal has reached a new level of intensity. James and Rupert Murdoch’s appearance before the Leveson inquiry, followed swiftly by the publication of a report by the culture, media and sport select committee, has renewed the crisis for News Corp and the government.

In the attempt to apportion and avoid blame, there will be much argument over details. It seems to me the essentials are:
  • James and Rupert Murdoch are now branded guilty of, at best, “wilful blindness” towards hacking at News International.
  • Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt seems unlikely to retain his job. By shielding him David Cameron risks appearing to condone his cosy relationship with News Corp; but if he dumps Hunt the waters will start lapping around Cameron’s heels.
  • The key line in the culture, media and sport select committee report states that Rupert Murdoch is “not fit to lead major international company”. This puts pressure on Ofcom to consider revoking BSkyB’s broadcasting license, which requires them to be a “fit and proper” company. The fact that all the Tory MPs on the committee objected to this wording looks set to compound the government’s woes.
  • The police investigation is still ongoing. There may be more revelations of police corruption to come. 

The twin crises

This crisis has proven to be dangerously contagious. At every turn politicians, the police and News Corp have attempted to limit the damage. But each time they do, more of the web of corruption has been revealed. Each piling up of fresh allegations has led to a qualitative worsening of the scandal’s implications for the establishment.

Phone hacking has obliquely mirrored the economic crisis: like the trails of toxic debt spreading from insolvent banks, the creeping revelations about phone hacking have dragged all sorts of ruling class figures into the scandal. Indeed these twin crises, though they seem quite removed from one another, are infact subtly connected.

Rupert Murdoch has clearly relished his position exercising his power behind the scenes. Listening to his evasive, casuistic testimony to Leveson and parliament has given millions an insight into the machinery of power that is normally well hidden.

Writing in an abstract register, Marx described a capitalist as “capital personified”. Watching Rupert Murdoch at the Leveson enquiry I could not think of any other individual who more precisely embodies the impulses of capital than he.

Murdoch’s story is the story of contemporary capitalism. Though palpably corrupt, he has been successful because he has perfectly embodied the traits that drive capital forward. His success has been the success of neoliberalism; his demise is contingent upon its failure. Having been finally repulsed by much of the political establishment, Murdoch is out to bring his former allies down with him. He wants to hurt Cameron’s government. But it’s more serious even than that.

The crumbling establishment

The phone hacking scandal has become the fulcrum for a broader crisis of legitimacy for key institutions of the state. [1] It has concentrated the anger that erupted over the MPs expenses scandal, the corruption and institutional racism of the police and the brazen arrogance of Murdoch’s media empire. In a rare moment of insight, Nick Clegg told the Independent last year that “the pillars of the British establishment are tumbling one after the other”. [2]

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci explored the idea that the capitalist class rules through a combination of coercion and consent. Each particular country may have a different balance between the two, but both will apply to some degree.

The British police claim to operate “policing by consent”. This is true to an extent, although it probably doesn’t feel like it for Alfie Meadows, the student who had to have emergency brain surgery after an encounter with the police on a student demonstration in 2010. [3] Nonetheless, tactics like “kettling” (mass imprisonment of protesters without arrest) are indicative of the British police’s focus on containing, rather than immediately smashing, dissent. They are able and willing to behave violently, but the balance is tipped a little less in favour of outright coercion than in some other Western countries like France or the US.

Producing consent

Clearly the media plays a key role in the production of consent.

The media does not drip-feed us ideas - although they often think they do. The Sun’s headline after Neil Kinnock’s unexpected election loss in 1992, “It woz the Sun wot won it!”, was fallacious. I don’t mean the headline had no effect, or that newspapers can’t shape people’s opinions. They do. But people are capable of thinking critically, even if they don’t do so all the time. Moreover, people are prompted to think critically by the divisions manifest within ruling class opinion - think of the vile Tory MP Nadine Dorries’ castigation of Cameron and co as "arrogant rich boys", for example.

The media reflects, shapes and polices the boundaries of “public opinion”. It is the echo rather than the voice. We do not live in a neutral society into which nefarious media moguls enter with their corrupting influence. The class divisions in capitalist society generate real conflicts which find expression in specific arguments, ideas and structures of feeling. These ideas do not always cleave into straightforward divisions of progressive/reactionary etc. It is at this level that the power of the media asserts itself. The media helps shape the ideas produced by material schisms. This is often as much about what is not said, than what is.

But if we accept Marx’s proposition that the ruling ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class [4], we must add: but they often can’t make up their minds. The ruling class is, by its nature, fractured. There is no monolithic “capital” - there are instead “many capitals”. If anything, the growth of huge multinationals like News Corp has intensified, rather than weakened, the competition between them.

Here we can return to Murdoch’s difficulties.

The problem is not just that he has outraged the parents of murdered children, or provided an opportunity for his commercial rivals, although he has done both. He has compromised the role of the state, especially the British state, in reproducing capitalism.

The state’s role, in a nutshell, is to secure the long term exploitation of workers and thus the production of profit. It must act to secure what it sees as the priorities of its domestic capitals - which in practice means occasionally treading on the toes of some businesses in favour of others. Through this process, the state develops myriad link with the owners and controllers of big business, who have an interest in influencing state policy. In this way, what we call “corruption” is in reality part and parcel of the normal functioning of the system.

But there are limits to this. For one single company, largely controlled by one man and his immediate family, to have what virtually amounts to a “state within a state” sustained by illegal payments to police, officials and politicians undermines the state’s broader role. It creates resentment among Murdoch’s rivals and, crucially, it damages the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of working class people, who often think the state is basically neutral.

Crisis in the shadows

Corruption, institutional racism, media bias and so on, exist under normal circumstances. Phone hacking was evidently rife for years. The MPs expenses set-up dates back to Thatcher. The flurry of accusations of police racism, typified by the recording of an officer racially abusing a handcuffed black man [5], are aberrant only in the sense that they are not usually widely reported.

A deep economic crisis reveals these goings-on to a wide audience, in the same way that a torch shone into a darkened room reveals the filth that has festered for ages in its shadowy corners.

This is why Murdoch’s difficulties matter. Certainly, as an individual he had, and continues to have, a corrosive effect on journalism and politics. But his real significance is as the sublime embodiment of neoliberalism, the king of “crony capitalism”. [6] As such, his fall is punching holes in the legitimacy of capitalism itself. This creates an important opportunity for the left to articulate alternatives to the whole system.

[1] See Estelle Cooch, The Crumbling Pillars of the British Establishment in Socialist Review http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=11748

[3] Astonishingly, it is Meadows who was eventually prosecuted despite nearly dying. For details see http://www.defendtherighttoprotest.org/

[4] Karl Marx, The German Ideology

[6] “Crony capitalism” is a term to be used with caution however. See my article in Socialist Review, The Myth of Crony Capitalismhttp://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=11906