July 08, 2011

UK Tabloid


It took all of Cameron's replicant smarm to get through this morning's astonishing press conference. Events have moved so swiftly this week that it's easy to overlook how momentous some of his admissions were. Many are rightly sceptical about whether Cameron will act on what he said today. Sometimes, however, words are acts, and the ultimate significance of what Cameron said today is that it constituted an official acknowledgement - from the very mouth of the beast - that there is indeed a corrupt system involving the press, the police and other politicians, and that he is implicated in it. We're all in it together, he ruefully observed, another iteration of the fateful phrase that will define his wretched premiership. This might count as capitalist realism's equivalent of Krushchev's aknowledgement of corruption in the USSR. There are also those who are sceptical as to whether all of this will lead anywhere very different. If, as I argued in my last post, the scenes we're now living through resemble the denouement of The Wire or one of David Peace's novels, then we must confront the political ambivalence of those fictions again. For what they show, after all, is the System as a Schopenhauerian monstrosity, impersonal and implacable, remorselessly reproducing itself, no matter how many local victories are achieved, no matter how many individuals die or are exposed. Is this an analysis of capitalist realism, or a contribution to it? It's possible now to see both Peace and The Wire as symptomatic of a political impasse; Peace's novel show the defeat of collective politics, and The Wire anatomises the consequences of that defeat.

What we're seeing now may not herald the collapse of the system, but I'm confident that this week will be looked back upon as a moment when power in the UK was forced to reconfigure. We're too ready to see the Murdochs as Machiavels one step ahead of events. But no empire lasts forever; even the canniest operator loses their touch eventually, and Murdoch, let's remember, is the man who bought MySpace. Closing down the News Of The World may have been a smart move, but it is one that the Murdochs made on the back foot; it was a reactive bid to regain initiative, or at least to gain some traction on a situation that remains out of their control.

This is all a consequence of an excess of power. If the old autonomist argument is correct and capital's innovations were forced by workers' acts of refusal - and what could illustrate this thesis more effectively than Murdoch's struggle with the unions in the 1980s - then it's now clear how sloppy and shoddy capital's operatives became in the lack of any effective opposition. This is decadence - not merely in the moral sense, but also in the sense of decay and deterioration. During the early 21st century high pomp of neoliberalism, hacks, cops and politicans were so confident that they would never be exposed that they behaved in an ever more brazenly depraved manner, and appeared to take little care in covering their traces. What's also emerging into clearer view now is the tabloid media's crucial role in the biopolitical control which was central to the constitution of neoliberal hegemony. Too much is made of Murdoch the kingmaker; his hold over politicians, like that exercised by Paul Dacre, depended far less on what he could do for them, and far more on what he could do to them, if they crossed him or his organisation. It's sugggested, for instance, that the reason that the previous police 'investigations' into News International were so inadequate is that NI held compromising information on the investigating officers, and that MPs feared calling Rebekah Brooks to account because they were warned that they would be subject to tabloid humiliation. Dacre and Murdoch are the princes of piety and cynicism. The neoliberal tabloid is an almost too crude diagram of a Burroughsian biocontrol apparatus: stimulating hedonic excess on the one hand while condemning it on the other. Surveillance need only be virtual. There's always something potentially shaming that can be dragged out of the closet, for whose fantasy life is not humiliating when exposed to the glare of the big Other? No matter who the victim of these exposes might be, they serve right wing purposes, because they reinforce a Hobbesian account of "human nature": everyone is out for themselves; everyone has a price; everyone is sexually incontinent, given the opportunity. It's no accident that Ellroy called his great work of political demythologisation American Tabloid.

But it was the pairing of piety and cynicism which ultimately did for the News Of The World. The revelations that practically every cause or individual about which the NOTW waxed so sentimentally and sanctimoniously - Our Boys, murdered children, the 7/7 victims - was being phone hacked means that the distance between public piety and private cynicism could no longer be maintained.

Read Adam Curtis's potted history of Murdoch and it's instructive to see how the justification for tabloid sensationalism has changed. The denials that the News of the World would be salacious which Murdoch made when he took over the paper in the social democratic era give way to neoliberalism's claim to be only giving people what they want. This was the line that witless reactionary oaf Jon Gaunt pursued on Question Time last night. There's nothing quite so sad as an unpopular populist, and Gaunt's goading of Hugh Grant - "if you didn't want to be on the front of the papers, you should have kept it in your trousers", "who are you to tell people what they can or can't watch" - embarrassingly misjudged the audience's mood . Tabloid sensationalism is a drug, but there was a sense last night that the QT audience was no longer willing to conceal from itself the cost of procuring that cheap hit. There was little appetite for Gaunt's now quaint-seeming rhetoric of "choice" and his bashing of paternalism. The old neoliberal lines Gaunt was haplessly hawking had all the appeal of yesterday's fast food. What we're left with is a whole set of questions about culture that are now posed again with renewed force: neoliberalism has failed, the patrician culture it defeated cannot be revived, nor should it be - so where next?

Posted by mark at July 8, 2011 08:46 PM | TrackBack