July 08, 2011

Here's what Media can be like

Speaking of autonomism, and as an example of what post-populist media can achieve .... here's Federico Campagna giving an absolutely enthralling history of Italian workerism/ autonomism on Resonance FM, and here's a grab-bag of autonomist-related resources and links produced by the ever-excellent DSG.

Posted by mark at 08:55 PM | TrackBack

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?

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July 05, 2011

Reality management

Johann Hari's defenders - and practically every defence of Hari served to further underscore what a complacent self-serving Oxbridge club so much of the UK broadsheet commentariat is - might have pathetically seized upon the News of the World hacking story in order to underplay their boy's misdemeanours, but the reality is that the Hari and the News of the World situations are part of a single crisis that also includes the Ed Miliband "these strikes are wrong" video and ongoing cyberwar (Wikileaks, Lulzsec, 4Chan). Perhaps the reason that the Assange/ Zizek dialogue was so disappointing is that Zizek's basic point about the crisis of symbolic efficiency is now so clear that it doesn't require much elaboration. It is one thing our knowing about the corrupt practices that the power elite routinely engage in; it is another for that knowledge to be officially validated. The space that power needs to manage reality is disappearing.

With the 'Milibot' video, the offscreen manipulations of PR came off less like a dark art and more like surrealist comedy - Miliband for all the world resembling an ROM entity from Existenz, only capable of giving one pre-prepared response no matter what the question. The exposure of Hari's manipulations is significant, meanwhile, because (as Petra Davis argued on her Twitter feed) it showed how his construction of "commonsense reality" depended on techniques proper to fiction . Reading Hari's pieces back, it's quite astonishing how crass these techniques were - a "she drew on the omnipresent cigarette" here, and "he asked for more wine" there, inserted between screeds of pirated text. It's like Hari's "interviewing" career is one long postmodern prank, and, really, this episode ought to be liberal empiricism's equivalent of the Sokal scandal. It was fitting that the DSG exposure of Hari started with Hari's hatchet job on Negri, a masterclass in liberal propaganda and kneejerk loathing of theory - privately educated Hari reassuring his readers that he couldn't understand Empire, therefore they shouldn't worry about reading it. The old we don't read it, so you don't have to.... routine. The Negri 'interview' crudely alternates between personal attacks on Negri and appeals to self-evidence (of course communism is evil, why won't this bad tempered old man admit it?) Yet Hari's conclusion - "this is where revolutionary Marxism comes to die. It has been reduced to an obscure parlour game for ageing bourgeois nostalgics" - now itself reads like a relic of a bygone world. The "certainties" and self-evidences of the near-past are unravelling quicker than we can keep up.

As for the News of the World story, it is clear that it is not just about the News of the World or phone hacking. A whole ruling class, a whole mode of governance, stands accused. All the signs are that neoliberalism's standard tactics of containment - offering an individual as scapegoat-trophy in order to deflect from a structural tendency - are now starting to fail. News International are trying to re-sacrifice a scapegoat they've already served up (Coulson) but the process is out of their control and now has its own momentum (which is sure to drag other newspapers into its wake before very long). What was made to look like a series of disconnected incidents now appears as what it always was: a worldwide web of corruption whose byzantine murkiness resembles something out of The Wire or a David Peace novel. A dark network comprising private investigators, the criminal underworld, tabloid newspapers, multinational media conglomerates, the police, politicians, the banks, and the bodies supposed to regulate them (who are at best impotent, at worst part of the problem) cannot now be kept hidden from public scrutiny. This is less a conspiracy than a network of complicities: fear on all sides, nobody trusting anybody else, the whole thing depending on who's got the goods on whom ... Cops watching hacks watching cops; threatened politicans looking for favours ...

What characterises capitalist realism is fatalism at the level of politics (where nothing much can ever change, except to move further in the direction of neoliberalisation) and magical voluntarism at the level of the individual: you can achieve anything, if you only you do more training courses, listen to Mary Portas or Kirsty Alsop, try harder. Magical voluntarism, naturally, also drives the tabloid culture of individual blame (resign, resign!) in which the tabloids themselves are now caught up, although, as Zone Styx noted, News International clearly expects far more from public service managers like Sharon Shoemith than it does from its own executives.) Individualise, individualise, insists capitalist ideology. Note the way in which the media sought to reduce the Lulsec story to Ryan Cleary, or the way in which the clueless Peter Preston finds the idea of a collective entity such as DSG unfathomable.

A manageable level of cynicism about the media actually serves the capitalist realist media system well. Since the media stands in for the public sphere, if journalists and politicians are perceived to be "all liars", as they widely are, then there is no hope to be had in public life at all. Hack expulpations appeal to a market Hobbesianism: they are giving people what they want but what they won't admit to liking. When, pickled in the jouissance of self-loathing and their other stimulants of choice, the hacks style themselves as "princes of darkness", they see themselves as reflecting the public's own disavowed cynicism back to it. Nobody likes working in the sewers, but don't you all love the pretty little globules of sensation that we dredge up for you?. Similarly, Glenn Mulcaire whines that the NOTW put him under pressure for results, this isn't only an excuse - what we're seeing here is in part the consequence of the intense competitive pressures at work in print media as its market share declines. Negative solidarity again: a race to depths so infernally pressurised that only alcohol-breathing subhuman crustaceans can survive there. (You only have to look at ex-NOTW hack Paul McMullan to see that.) As one by one those who played their part are dragged into the light, the old bullying sneers become familiar plaints: that's reality, we couldn't help it, that's how things are now ... But we must hear their excuses as indictments of a system: behold what a wretched state overwork and pitiless competition can reduce human beings to.

All of which means that a few sackings here and there will clearly not suffice. What is needed, as Dan argues, is total media reform:

    The current structure of power and decision-making in the media cannot now be allowed to remain unchanged. The employees of large media organizations have monopoly control of decisions about what is investigated and what prominence is given to the results of investigations. They have been unable or unwilling to use this monopoly power in the public interest. Accordingly it is time to assert our democratic right to communicate freely amongst ourselves. Each of us must take some some fraction of the commissioning power, the power to initiate and publish inquiries. If we do not our public life will remain a mess of officially sanctioned fairy tales, crocodilian excuses, and grotesque abuses of the innocent, in which market forces and elite prerogatives set the limits of our understanding and hence of our capacity for self-government.

In the House of Commons emergency debate today, many MPs had the relieved and faintly bemused air of the henchmen and victims of a bully who can't quite believe that the tyranny might be nearing its end. As Assange said on Saturday- and as Dan Hind also argues in The Return of the Public - the function of corporate media has been to isolate people, to make them distrust their discontent with a world controlled by business interests. What has combated this is the production of new collectivities of dissent, both online and in the streets. What we're seeing in this extraordinary moment of transition is a reality management system imploding from within at the same time as it is being undermined from outside. And, this is only the beginning - you haven't seen anything yet.

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