Murdoch, New Labour, Credit Crunch, Expenses: collapses of concentrated power
Four years, and four great institutions of British capitalist hegemony have been shaken by crisis. In 2008, the banks collapsed. In 2009, it was expenses and ‘trust in MPs’. In 2010, New Labour – the machine which coaxed the working classes to vote for neo-liberalism. And in 2011, it’s News International.
Each seems in a sense to be separate. Each has its own elements, its own flavours, and its own impacts. But to me, they seem to play out a very similar game: each represents the consequence of a rapid concentration of power – in vast towers built on bases of sand.
With the credit crunch what we saw was what happens when we hand the fruits of our labour to a tiny elite. When they looked at how to re-invest it, they didn’t have the genius of the crowd. They invested less and less in useful ideas which improve our lives in the long term. Instead they became what Thomas Friedman calls an ‘electronic herd’. They rushed around the planet, throwing cash at financial products which deliver short term profits, but long term crash, speeding faster and faster from one corner to another destabilising the economy as they went – until finally it capsized.
And then came the MPs expenses scandal. Of course in a sense the scandal itself was small fry. The amounts of money involved were mostly petty compared to the costs of many of the government’s more disastrous policies. MPs have been behaving like this for generations. But this was surely a proxy war. What has changed is not the corruption of our ‘leaders’ but our attitude towards them. MPs had allowed Parliament’s powers to be either handed to the government or privatised to corporate masters. They were whipped and fearful. We developed little respect or time for these spineless dogsbodies. We didn’t see them as old friends or loved leaders, but as a generation of failed and useless politicians. And so when it turned out that some were on the make, we were quickly willing to blame them all. Politics had become a game played out on our TVs rather than our streets. Our MPs had become performers accountable not to us but to their bosses. Anger at this alienation was always going to find some way onto the playing field of politics. Again, it was the concentration of power, the shifting of politics from street to TV studio and our concomitant alienation that contributed so much to the rage.
Similarly, the collapse of New Labour has been seen by many as a product of its unrooting. When the Compass favourite and relative lefty Jon Cruddas endorsed David rather than Ed Miliband for Labour leader, many were astonished. But his explanation was interesting: they may disagree on policy, but they agreed on party. The party, they believe, had been uprooted from communities. A key part of Mandleson’s New Labour project was to strip away the power of pesky activists. By relying on funding from the wealthy whose interests they now represented, they could buy billboards and swanky press events and they wouldn’t need the grassroots they saw as loony lefties. Jon Cruddas and David Miliband both wanted to focus on re-building the party base, on a new pluralism, and on community. And both saw this as more crucial to its victory than which way their policies faced. As both men seemed to see it, the collapse in Labour support was a product of centralisation of power – of its uprooting from communities.
And so too is the crisis in the News International a crisis of power accumulation. Because there have always been dodgy journalists and they have on occasion been exposed before. But these allegations keep on coming and coming because the company thought it was all powerful – that it was immune from the laws of the land. It seemed to believe that it was too big to fial. They were tied into government and bound up with the police. We know that these criminals aren’t just common crooks – they are the people who are in charge. And we are alienated from them too. They are accountable only to distant proprietors and to their corporate advertisers. They have, as Baldwin put it, all of the power and none of the responsibility.
Each of these crises seems to me to have an element in common. Each is a consequence of a rapid concentration of power into the hands of a minute elite, and of our response to this control over our lives. Each of these concentrations is a product of the same phenomenon – Labour’s uprooting came with the defeat by capital of the unions, this was then reflected in their governance. The ownership of the media has only changed in exactly the same way as all other business. We now have concentrations of wealth and of control not seen since Victorian Britain. Over the last four years, these towers of control each found that their foundations were not stable – that our rulers were building for pyrrhic victory. Or were they?
Because they have something else in common too. The collapse of financial capitalism has largely been ignored. Banks are re-floating and the bubble is re-inflating. Similarly the expenses scandal has not led to the golden land of democratic reform we were promised. The first hurdle was low, yet we stumbled. Labour, likewise, despite one of its worst ever election results continues to fight the corner of radical capitalism – of corporate control and of national asset stripping. Ed’s Milband and Balls have endorsed Osborne’s austerity.
Paul Mason argues that the dismembering of Murdoch is the most significant of these crises. In a superb piece in which he shows BBC bashing Murdoch two fingers*, he points out that it is through the media that consent for all else is manufactured. And perhaps he is right. Perhaps the one thing these elites can’t afford to lose is the empire that shields them from our view. Perhaps this was the shield which allowed the right to ensure that the response to the crisis of capitalism was more extreme capitalism. Perhaps he is right that the network is now more powerful than the hierarchy, that all propaganda is flammable. If so, then surely, the left hasn’t lost yet.
If the Italian economy does collapse this week, it will be a crisis bigger than Lehman brothers. Murdoch’s shock troopers of disaster capitalism will still surely be limping. Will this be our chance? Perhaps.
*one by quoting Chomsky and Žižek* on the Beeb, and another by delivering better insight than we will find anywhere
*the words ‘and Žižek’ were added later.