Saturday, July 09, 2011

Let it bleed

I'll say it again. The disproportionate focus on the loss of jobs at News International misses the point. The loss of jobs is a story; it's not the story. To begin and end with jobs, to evaluate the closure of News of the World purely on that basis, as the Labour blogger Simon Hewitt does, is an extremely vulgar sort of reductionism. It does not rise to the level of political analysis and, in fact, is its own kind of moralism.

Let's briefly review what's at stake here. We have what is in many ways the vanguard of populist reaction, the Murdoch empire, implicated in a vast network of corruption and blackmail implicating policemen, editors, executives and so on. Front bench politicians are almost all compromised by the Murdoch clan, as they all rush to please the proprietor. The stable has played a prominent role in culture wars and class struggles, with the red-tops forming the sharp end of the wedge. For a number of years, an array of forces have worked to expose some of this, through the courts and parliamentary inquiries, and finally the cracks have coalesced and become a yawning quake at the heart of the Murdoch enterprise. Just when Murdoch thought his power in the British media was about to be further cemented with the BSKYB deal being rushed through by an administration that didn't even risk referring the case to the Competition Commission, a toxic scandal hit News of the World, the empire's flagship UK tabloid. The most profitable brand in UK newspaper market was irreparably tarnished, and advertisers began to flee. With the real risk that the police might be forced to take action, and the BSKYB deal might be permanently halted, Newscorp. acted in a drastic manner, sacrificing the tabloid limb to save the corporate patient. At the same time, it seems, they were busy destroying evidence - so they evidently expected to be hit hard.

That they had to do this certainly constitutes a defeat for Murdoch. And as such, unarguably, it is also a victory for all those forces who campaigned for a long time to bring about such a defeat. It's a victory enjoyed to some extent by the victims of the News of the World and the News International press. It's a victory for those against whom the Murdoch media's culture wars are directed. Perhaps you might argue that this is small beer and will make little difference. The Sun on Sunday will take its place, or Associated Newspapers will just get more readers, or something like that. Simon Hewitt argues, for example: "as long as we live in the kind of society we live in, we will have a pernicious press. Fostering the illusion that things could be otherwise is not worth livelihoods." This reminds one of Hegel's quip about the night in which all cows are black. There are degrees of perniciousness, and these degrees matter. It is not an illusion that things could be different and better even within the present capitalist production relations. More than that, it misses the deeper significance of this moment, which constitutes the beginnings of a comprehensive crisis in the class power of the capitalist media, with News of the World comprising the weak link in the chain.

The concentration of political, ideological and economic power in the Murdoch empire that has been in process has been part of the accumulation of class power by media corporations in the UK and beyond. Its disruption and modest reversal - and it could be much more than a modest reversal if the crisis spreads across the Atlantic - is in general a benefit for the working class, not least for media workers who lost massively from the rise of the Murdoch empire, especially after Wapping which enabled not just the destruction of the union, but also the spatial and technological re-organisation of newspaper work in such a way as to transfer ever more power to management's hands and subordinate labour. In the closure of News of the World is a specific political situation that condenses not just the prevalent antagonisms and crises in the media industry - which, faced with a crisis of profitability has resorted more and more to the sort of methods recently disclosed - but also a generalised crisis of authority for the state, from politicians to the police. All the newspapers who rely on such methods are now looking over their shoulders, however much they publicly crow about News of the World's downfall. The Star's offices have been raided, so both the Murdoch and Desmond group - the most vile, degraded end of the capitalist media - are implicated thus far. I doubt it can stop there. And the relationships between police, politicians and press executives - comprising a potent combination of state, capitalist and ideological power - are under scrutiny now. David Cameron looks in a very precarious position over this. In this light, I think any socialist who sees this purely or mainly as a jobs issue has seriously lost perspective. The situation is rich with materials for socialists to operate on, presenting a set of wide open opportunities. To reduce the political-ideological crisis to liberal hysteria and moral panic, as Hewitt does, is sub-Sp!ked contrarianism - Hewitt even adds the typical boring refrain that hatred for NotW (that uber-bourgeois institution) actually expresses class hatred toward workers, which prolier-than-thou rhetoric is familiar in defences of reactionary institutions of all kinds.

That said, how does one approach the loss of jobs in this circumstance? If what I've said above is true, I think it follows that any resistance on the part of those sacked should be supported. I must say, I think it's vanishingly unlikely that they will occupy or try to take over the means of production, though one may see some interesting graffiti in the last edition of the NotW. This is partly because I intuit that the workers are likely very divided - between the scum (I don't use this term lightly), the professionalised, well-paid journos, the lower paid staff, and the masses of temps who come and go. I would also guess that Newscorp headquarters are, like all major corporate headquarters, heavily securitised and surveilled, and that the police would be there in a flash to hammer any resistance. Still, if they do anything that calls for solidarity, they should get solidarity. This is not just because one should protect jobs at all costs, never cross a picket line, etc., but also centrally because the spread of any sort of militancy within the Murdoch media would accelerate the crisis in the mainstream media. You see, I think the truth is that a lot of newspapers that pose as sensible alternatives are actually surreptitious beneficiaries of what Murdoch has done. Not just because it makes them look half-sensible, not just because it normalised the grotesque, and allowed the broadsheets to latch on in an 'ironic' second-hand way to tittle tattle and eye candy, but because the transformation in the relations of class forces led by Murdoch shaped the whole industry and left all the owners more in control. Anything that looked like a strike or an occupation in the citadels of union-bashing would hit the whole media industry hard. Even if the demands were formally for the restoration of NotW, the process of actually making any gains would seriously abridge Murdoch's control, at a strategically opportune moment as well.

If there is no resistance, though, and if the workers do nothing to ask for solidarity or invite it - in short, if there turns out to be no practical way of expressing solidarity - then calls for solidarity operate purely at a moralistic level. And when Hewitt calls for solidarity (with the NUJ), it is clear that in practise this means little more than lamenting a situation that socialists and media workers should actually be taking advantage of. This could be the best thing that happened to the media in years.