Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ruling Britannia III

This is the delayed final part in a series of posts on the ruling class and the Murdoch scandal.  The first two are here and here.  Just to summarise the arguments thus far.  In the first post, we said that the Murdoch empire should be understood in terms of ruling class power.  Classes, we argued, should be analysed not in terms of status, rank or even income flows, but in terms of their role in the reproduction of the system.  The capitalist class is that class which reproduces capitalism by investing its money in labour and technology in order to produce commodities for exchange on the market and in the process extract surplus value (profit).  But that class only becomes a ruling class when it rules politically, that is when it colonises the state - when the state acts as a capitalist state.  So far so good.  But the Murdoch empire comprises a special kind of class power, because of its role in ideological reproduction.  So, the relationships between the Murdochs, the Tories, the Labour Right and other leading media people - especially, we are now discovering, senior figures in the BBC - express the political-ideological dominance of the ruling class.

In the second post, we developed the argument about the colonisation of the state, with the example of how the British state was permeated with the ordinances necessary for the reproduction of the capitalist class after the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688.  Every office, instrument and law of the state thereafter was developed under bourgeois rule: the state came to concentrate and concretise the political and ideological relations already present in capitalist relations of production.  The police's role in such a capitalist state would therefore be to uphold an appropriate politico-legal order suitable for the reproduction of capitalism.  This role was not just repressive, but ideological - even in their most directly repressive capacity they contribute to the reproduction of the dominant ideologies.  Because of this, the relationship between the police and the reactionary press made perfect sense, formalising an already implicit structural co-dependence - one expressed the political-ideological dominance of the ruling class, the other concretised it.  That said, I now want to move to a slightly more detailed argument about the media's role and the position of the Murdoch clan within British capitalism.

First of all, the media.  We are speaking of a capitalist media not in the sense in which it was understood in the 19th Century, but in the sense of a mass media which has been closely bound up in its historical emergence with the spread of capitalist markets, imperialism and the spread of nation-states.  The mass media comprises networks of vast corporations interlocked in various ways with other corporations and the imperialist states.  That is, it is the media appropriate to the phase of what is sometimes called 'monopoly capitalism'.  The Chomsky/Herman 'propaganda model', which applies to precisely this phase of the development of the capitalist media, is a superior theoretical vehicle that accounts for the ways in which these structures work to produce a series of 'filters' which ensure that the media communicates an image of the world congruent with the interests of capital.  In my opinion, the theory is best at describing the realities of the US media, and its predictive accuracy is at its peak when the subject is imperialism.  It is also best at capturing how the elite media works - that is, newspapers produced for wealthy and powerful audiences, such as the New York Times.  It describes well how limits set by various determining factors such as ownership, sponsorship, government, advertising, flack and so on ensure that lively and intellectually stimulating debates occur in the media "within the system of presuppositions and principles that constitute an elite consensus".  And journalists go along with this largely due to their socialisation and the habits built into gathering and reporting the news.

Yet, there are limits to the model's applicability.  Colin Sparks, in a recent scholarly review of the propaganda model, elaborated some of these, which I'll very roughly outline: 1) it overstates the degree of unity among the elites, and understates the presence of serious strategic disunity in the ruling class, as manifested in the capitalist media; 2) its focus on the US leads it to ignore the fact that capitalist democracy can permit (depending the relations of class forces that obtain in the democracy in question) mass media outlets to be owned by popular mass parties, or at least subject to far more popular pressure than is the case with the New York Times - and even within the US, eg, the interests of labour obtain more headway in the mass media than would be anticipated by the model; 3) the focus on the elite media results in the underdevelopment of an important argument, namely what results from the fact that most of the media is not directed at elites but at popular audiences.  In his interview with Andrew Marr, Chomsky insisted that the press sells privileged audiences to advertisers, but this isn't strictly so in the case of most of the media.  Therefore, the content must be capable of appealing to popular audiences, seeming plausible to them, tapping into their interests, and so on.  This can be done in a relatively reactionary or progressive way, but it makes a difference that it must be done.  This is a point that is generally true of ruling ideologies - they must plausibly incorporate some popular themes and aspirations, otherwise they won't be ruling ideologies.; 4) the focus on the US leads to insufficient emphasis on two features common in Europe - i) public service broadcasting, which permits the possibility of a limited range of diversity not anticipated by the model (here I disagree with Sparks, or at least with his analysis of the BBC's coverage, but the point that public broadcasting is under-theorised in treatments of the model is correct), and ii) the greater degree of competition among newspapers in European countries, where the local monopolies which obtain in the US are rare.  This produces a degree of partisanship and social stratification among the readers of newspapers, with again some limited but genuine divergences; 5) one of the features identified by the model - 'source dependence', in which hard-pressed journalists come to depend on certain sources, and thus on their perspectives - also permits for the expression of some limited popular input, but more importantly of substantial strategic disagreements among the ruling class.; 6) the model correctly anticipates that socialization in the mass media largely produces submissive journalists, but understates the antagonisms that exist within the media and which are capable of disrupting this process - the majority of journalists are not the professionalised middle class folks whom one sees being interviewed on ITN, but exploited wage workers.  Submissiveness has been produced as much by defeats inflicted on those wage workers (notably, by Murdoch in the UK) as by socialization.  Strikes, news blackouts, print stoppages and various forms of subversion and disruption were a far more regular feature in the UK media in the 1980s than today.

Those criticisms are intended to leave the core of the propaganda model intact while adjusting some of its outer belt of explanatory claims to better account for some of the evidence.  But I think they do more than simply rectify some shortcomings in a classic, superior model of media analysis.  They offer a way into the subject of the specificity of Murdoch's power.  While the propaganda model focuses on similarities of  structure and output within the industry, Sparks' criticisms advert to important distinctions.  Murdoch began his UK newspaper career by acquiring two newspapers intended for the popular end of the market: The News of the World (1968) and The Sun (1969).  The latter had been the trade union-owned Daily Herald, and was not a tabloid - until Murdoch purchased it and saved on printing costs by turning it into one, which enabled him to print it with the same machine that turned out the News of the World.  Murdoch's strategy was very simple: he delivered content that would attract popular audiences not by attending to their interests but through sensationalism, sports and entertainment.  The later alliance with Margaret Thatcher, which reflected Murdoch's long-standing views, followed after Murdoch had already built up a consumer base and after it had become clear that there was a popular base for Thatcherism.  He radically restructured the whole production model for his newspapers, making them cheaper and more efficient to produce, significantly by defeating trade unions.  (One of the reasons he was able to acquire the Sunday Times was that its then owner was sick of constant industrial action).  He bought up newspapers that were losing money or otherwise in parlous condition, expanding through 'horizontal integration' and mergers, and later expanded into broadcasting with the initially low-key Fox Broadcasting Company.  Again, before there was the infamous radical right Fox News that we know today, the company had to spend years assiduously cultivating a consumer base with genuinely popular material such as The Simpsons.  And Murdoch sought to go further, expanding into the production not only of media content such as television and newspapers, but also the hardware - the channels, the cables, the cinemas, the sattelites, etc - that facilitated the delivery of that content.  He has expanded across the Atlantic, into the US, and then across the Pacific, into China.

So, what you have here is a business empire with a genuinely global reach, and sufficient turnover and profit to leave Murdoch one of the richest men on the planet, worth over $7bn (well, until recently).  It is in some respects an exemplary case of ruling class power, but it's also a special case.  Because the business empire is bound up with a set of strategic orientations and ideological perspectives that set Murdoch in opposition not only to much of his popular consumer base, but also to sections of the ruling class.  Murdoch's opposition to European monetary integration, for example, is aberrant as far as the British capitalist class is concerned.  He has much more in common on this issue with petty bourgeois producers and traders than with most big businessmen and women.  Yet, Murdoch undoubtedly had some influence in restraining British entry into the eurozone, not least because of his ability to prepare the ideological terrain by ensuring that his newspapers pursue a fairly inflexible line on the issues closest to his heart.  In this respect, he made the Tory hard right seem much stronger than they would otherwise have been, articulating their themes of hyper-Atlanticism, aggressive 'globalization' and so on, on a daily basis.  (Perhaps this explains their delusional belief that they alone could recuperate the Conservative Party after the Major interregnum).  Now, this is real power.  That such power has been expressed in a network of corrupt and often criminal relationships is not an incidental fact, but it is a consequential fact.  The relationships sustained by the Murdoch family and businesses extend, as we know, along a number of radial axes connecting it to the government and the Labour Right, the police, senior members of the judiciary (including Lord Leveson, the man the government has appointed to lead the inquiry into phone hacking), the BBC, networks of private investigators and quite possibly intelligence.  These resulted from his cynical, ruthless and - in a certain light - impressive accumulation of capitalist class power.  But they were also made possible because of certain features of the UK political and media scene which he successfully exploited: the fact of a relatively competitive media market in which popular audiences are both significant and polarise; the emergence of a reactionary Thatcherite bloc in the mid-1970s; the subsequent arrival of a vehemently anti-union government that energetically supported employers wishing to break the power of organised labour; the resulting capitulation of social democracy, and the bipartisan assurance of loose media regulation.

The weakening or reversal of Murdoch's power would not, of course, alter the fundamental structure of the media.  But it would remove or attenuate an orientation of power that is full of danger and hardship for popular forces - one that reinforces every vile prejudice, every base social aspiration, and every axis of oppression in that society.  It would weaken the radical right in the UK not just for now, but possibly for a generation.  And it would also reconfigure the industry, certainly in the UK, in a direction more favourable to popular forces, and certainly more favourable to the organisation of workers in the industry.  The Murdoch scandal has gone out of the headlines temporarily.  But keep a close eye on it - there's more detail coming out every day, more potential for criminal investigations on both sides of the pond, more material for the prosecution, and more reason to deny the company the very lucrative broadcasting licenses that it has so far seemed destined to retain.  The Tories may be trying to close ranks around Cameron, but he is exposed.  James Murdoch likewise.  The traditional role of a government inquiry is to slow things down to a manageable speed, take public issues off the boil, and kill controversy with officialdom.  But there is enough combustible material here that any such effort may well blow up in their faces

If you liked this series, please consider putting something in the tip jar.  Thank you.