Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ruling Britannia I

As promised, this is the first in a series of posts looking at different aspects of the ruling class.  Before diving into some more abstract considerations, let me just draw your attention this description of the 'final hurrah' of the 'Chipping Norton set':

Rupert Murdoch's daughter Elisabeth and her PR tycoon husband Matthew Freud threw a party of decadent opulence and excess that saw the political and media elite flock to their 22-bedroom Cotswolds mansion Burford Priory yet again.

Just 24 hours later, the news broke that murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's mobile had been hacked by Rupert Murdoch's News of the World newspaper and his global empire was plunged into disarray.


The group has been dubbed the Chipping Norton Set because its key members, including Prime Minister David Cameron, all own homes within a few miles of the Oxfordshire town. One prominent member of the set described its allure – and its value to the Murdochs.

'It is like the social wing of the Murdoch media empire. Rupert wields his influence through his newspaper and TV network. Elisabeth and Matthew feed off this by providing a link between the worlds of politics, business and showbusiness. Their wealth means they can provide for them all to meet in complete privacy at Burford. Behind it all is the unspoken assumption that if you are out of favour with Rupert Murdoch, you are not likely to get invited.'

At the party, just before the fell of dark, are cabinet ministers and ex-cabinet ministers (Cameronites and Blairites - the Thatcherite coalition in parliament), media personnel, and corporate executives.  Aside from the Murdochs, there is Michael Gove, Peter Mandelson, Ed Vaizey, David Miliband, James Purnell, Douglas Alexander from the front benches,  Robert Peston, Alan Yentob and Jeremy Clarkson from the BBC, Rebekah Brooks and her Etonian husband Charlie Brooks, Cameron's policy advisor Steve Hilton, the PR man Matthew Freud (Elizabeth Murdoch's husband), and Google executive Rachel Whetstone (Steve Hilton's wife).  Put bluntly, at this little soiree you have a congregation of genuine members of the ruling class, alongside their courtiers, clerks and clowns.  I would suggest that they're united by a broadly very similar alignment of interests and perspectives, centring on Atlanticism and economic liberalism.    Such forms of socialisation and networking would surprise no one.  The papers are filled at the moment with other, similar fare - swish dinners between top police officials and News Corp. execs, for example - though none has quite the same decadent, gilded age feel of this gathering of the doomed.  They're like the rich in Diego Rivera's mural for the Rockefeller building, partying in obscene opulence, while the syphillis cell floats menacingly over their heads.


The sense in which this gathering is illustrative of ruling class power demands a little more elaboration, however, even at the risk of being pedantic.  Inasmuch as a ruling class is ever acknowledged (and there is some scholarly literature, much of it a bit dated, on the subject), it is usually discussed in terms of property, privilege, status and power, working within elitist or pluralist problematics.  Naturally, the discussion in the popular press tends to focus on 'colour', personality details, prestige, bank balance, geographies of privilege, social ties and inbreeding, but the truth is that the academia has done much to set the tone here by directing the focus to the attributes rather than sources of class power.  The marxist approach is quite different.  As Goran Therborn points out, the focus of marxist enquiries on the subject of a class is the process of its reproduction.

A society that does not reproduce itself at the same time as it is producing itself will not survive a day.  This means that the classes that constitute the society must, in the very act of reproducing themselves, also reproduce the society.  Therefore, to identify a class in any society is to identify its role in the reproduction of that society.  To analyse class relations is to analyse productive relations.  Capitalist production does not only create commodities and profits.  It produces the capital-relation itself.  It produces the capitalist, and the wage labourer.  This way of looking at things has an important implication - one cannot look to market transactions and flows of income to understand how class works.  Rather, it is outside the sphere of the market that classes are produced, in the workplace.  Marx puts it like this: "The consumption of labour-power is completed, as in the case of every other commodity, outside the market of the sphere of circulation. Let us therefore, in company with the owner of money and the owner of labour-power, leave this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in full view of everyone, and follow them into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there hangs the notice ‘No admittance except on business’. Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is itself produced."

In this light, income flows, status, rank and prestige are attributes of class but do not define it.  Take, for example, the question of social ranking.  The distribution of rank in British society, as in most societies, is carried out on the basis of the evaluations of extant elites.  By definition, then, rank is derivative of class.  Rank may help define castes within classes, or may be part of the ideological sustenance of class domination, but it is secondary.  Having said all that, I can now look at the Murdochs' gathering in minted rural Oxfordshire and state more specifically where the class power lies.  The ruling class power lies principally with the hosts, the owners of major media & communications firms; as owners of capital, they reproduce the system by investing that capital and purchasing labour-power and productive technology in order to produce a surplus which they accumulate as profit.  Jeremy Clarkson, a clown of sorts, is also a major owner of capital, generating almost a million a year from his holdings in one production company alone.  Those whom I loosely characterised as courtiers and clerks, the politicians and corporate personnel who own no capital but exercise authority and social power on behalf of the owners (either directly or at some remove), would then be (upper) middle class.


But of course, there's more to it than this.  Because this is a very specific kind of class power, in that these individuals represent sectors of power that are central to the reproduction of images and ideas.  Unsurprisingly, there is a great deal of circulation between them - the Google PR woman Rachel Whetstone has also been an advisor to the Tories; Education Secretary Michael Gove is also a Times columnist (so in a very real sense was there to butter up his employers), and so on.  Because of the power that they exert, the images and ideas they produce tend to become the dominant ones in society.  For Marx and Engels, this could best be understood in light of the tendency for specialisation and the division of labour to be developed to a particularly marked degree under capitalism.  Thus, the division of labour entailed a division between physical and mental labour, not merely among workers, but within the ruling class "so that inside this class one part appears as the thinkers of the class (its active, conceptive ideologists who make the formation of the illusions of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood)".

Of course, no ruling class ever does anything entirely for itself - not the cooking, not the child-rearing, not the driving (or, in Rebekah Brooks' case, the helicopter piloting), and most certainly not the thinking.  Hence, the active, conceptive ideologists of the ruling class who precisely formulate "the illusions of the class" are only rarely members of the ruling class.  There are a few cases where they are - Thomas Friedman, and Bernard-Henri Levy are examples - but otherwise they tend to be simply well-remunerated professionals, the gold-diggers of the academia and media, the upper middle class.  The means by which this happens are straightforward in the proprietor-driven newspapers.  The owner has a particular world-view, the editorial staff are expected to promote this world-view, and they duly hire and promote a suitably submissive and obedient staff to do just this.  (Incidentally, such submissiveness is not only entirely compatible with hard-bitten individualism and self-interest, it is actually the form in which it is most encouraged as it constitutes an identification with the competitive weltanschauung of the master-class).  It has been pointed out, for example, that of all of Rupert Murdoch's dozens of newspapers across the globe, not a single one opposed the Iraq war.  It has also been pointed out that Murdoch was personally very close to and supportive of the Blair administration in this period.  But of course, it is doubtful that Murdoch even had to be persuaded to support the Iraq war, or that he ever had to pick up a 'phone to find out which way his editors were thinking of going on the issue.  It was probably just assumed, as Murdoch had specifically built his newspaper empire to automatically reproduce his general perspective - his reactionary politics and vicious morality, "the illusions of the class" - on a daily basis.

But even where a mega proprietor isn't involved, the market is such that there will always be more money in pleasing the ruling class.  Even if you're an academic working in a slightly insulated environment (ever so slightly insulated), the real money, the real kudos, comes not from doing solid work for obscure academic journals, but from producing ruling class ideology through house organs, thinktanks, newspapers, and documentaries.  Think were Niall Ferguson would be if he had been forced to rely on the Journal of Economic History and a shrinking humanities department for his income.  Politicians are slightly more tragic in that most of them don't seek a fortune, but instead defer to ruling class ideology to a considerable extent because of the flak which backs up that ideology.  The extent of this flak, the protection racket based on the potential for humiliating exposure and rabid denunciation, backed up by the police, has until recently only been guessed at.

This particular purview on ruling class power is ideal for discerning the way in which political and ideological relations are already present in productive relations.  It also illustrates one of the ways in which it colonises the state and imposes its own imperatives, the better to facilitate its further reproduction and expansion.  And this is an important point, leading into tomorrow's sequel: a ruling class is such when it commands the state, when the state responds to its needs as absolute imperatives.  It is not necessary for this to be effective that there should be corruption, that coppers should be bribed and top officers wined and dined.  Nor is it necessary that there should be the kinds of industrial scale corporate lobbying that is familiar in K-Street.  It is not necessary, but it helps - or rather, it represents a kind of advance for those sectors of capital able to effect it, because it circumvents the corseting formalities imposed by democracy (without suspending or overthrowing it).    The fact that politicians, policemen, and perhaps intelligence are imbricated with News International in networks of mutual corruption and lawlessness is indicative not that the system broke down, but that it worked as normal, producing the expected concentrations of capitalist class power in the hugely influential region of ideological reproduction.  Given the agents involved, and the relations of power involved, what else could have happened?  And now it's breaking down.

It is a characteristic of capitalism in crisis that the ruling class begins to fragment as its unifying discourses cease to be plausible, and as coherent responses to crisis fail to present themselves.  In such circumstances, a crisis that might previously have been regionalised and specific to one sector of the ruling class can suddenly have vertiginous implications for the whole class, its cohesion, its legitimacy and its ability to lead.  A crisis is not the same as downfall, by any means; it means, in this context, a disruption of the normal channels of power, and particularly in the flows of its reproduction, which may or may not be susceptible to resolution depending on the capacities of strategically important ruling class agencies, especially the political executive.  Much will depend now on how effectively Number Ten coordinates a variety of sympathetic networks to draw steam out of the issue while gradually closing down the debate and allowing the summer holidays to bury the story.  That depends, of course, on how much a divided Tory party is prepared to rally behind Cameron, and how much the Liberals are prepared to go along with it.