Of newspapers and Nietzsche

I always prefer to read progressive philosophy. But it is worthwhile to try to understand other perspectives. To that end, I was wrestling with some discourses of Friedrich Nietszche. And I discovered that it is not only philosophers of the left who have been troubled by the distortions of the mass media.

Readers may be aware of the pivotal social role accorded to the mass media by the neo-Marxist Louis Althusser. He framed the mass media as one of the central Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). He comprehended that the reproduction of capitalism was lent legitimacy by thought-making. For him, the capitalist state has never relied on repression alone. Following something of a structuralist path, attentive to the complex thinking of Jacques Lacan, Althusser postulated that ideology did not simply reflect the economic base of a society. The French genius reasoned that the beliefs we had were of massive importance to our working lives and stressed:

“above all the (imaginary) relationship of individuals to the relations of production.”

Nietzsche was seeming less systematic in his analysis of the state and the media than Althusser. However, his comments about the media were scathing. Even if his remarks came from a reactionary viewpoint, they merit a cursory inspection. This is because they illustrate that newspapers are not simply neutral channels of entertainment and information. There is something disturbing about their unaccountable power.  Nietzsche ranted:

“They steal for themselves the work of inventors and the treasures of the wise: they call their theft culture- and they turn everything to sickness and calamity. Just look at these superfluous people! They are always ill, they vomit their bile and call it a newspaper. They devour one another and cannot even digest themselves.”

The advent of the social media has given more of an international dimension to these questions. It has challenged traditional news sources at home and abroad. The Guardian has become a tabloid and it has declined in quality. This has attracted a lot of attention. However, people who have stuck with the paper will have noticed its pursuit of readers in the United States and Australia. This strategy might not have maintained standards, but if we view a paper in terms of its attempt to spread an ideology then it cannot be seen as trivial. Liberalism was once viewed as a natural partner of capitalism, but the success of Trump, Brexit, Putin and China have thrown this assumption into doubt. Liberalism is not going to disappear, but reinventions of liberalism may be less liberal than its old forms. Liberal media will be increasingly exposed to socialist criticism as its distorting prism becomes more blatant.


Campbell and Progress: a marriage of inconvenience!

Alistair Campbell has underlined why the Labour leadership is still in quite a good position after the slightly disappointing local election results. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was understandably grumpy at the lack of progress. But the latest move by the distrusted spin doctor has taken some of the pressure off Team Corbyn.

Campbell is the personification of the dark arts of politics. He has a reputation which is worse than that of Machiavelli. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn might not have ever been the leader of the Labour Party if the controversial communicator had not trashed the Labour brand.

Regardless of the details, Campbell’s dreadful reputation is still contaminated by the disastrous Iraq War. He is the last person who can shift public opinion on the European Union. The antithesis of a British Macron, his lack of persuasiveness is only matched by his lack of self-awareness. His decision to speak at a Blairite conference was ill-timed. Furthermore, if he wanted to sway Labour members he should have taken his message to a more moderate part of the party. Moreover, his contention that the problems of Labour are not being amplified by the media or the right of the party is absurd.

Campbell thinks that an admiration for a football team and an honesty about his health problems gives him an authenticity. But the extent of his ideological delusion can be revealed by quoting his own words. As a sectarian figure at a sectarian event, he complained of sectarianism:

“I agreed some time ago to speak at today’s conference organised by Progress, often described as the moderate wing of the Labour Party. Here is the speech I am making this morning. It is time to get real; about how bad international politics is, with Trump and Putin in power; how bad Brexit is, with both main parties letting down the country by failing to be truthful about how their own tests are not being met, and how Brexit will damage the country; how bad things are for Labour, and how the leadership needs to confront the tough questions, not pretend they don’t exist, or pretend that they are all got up by a hostile media or has been sectarian Blairites.”

The Labour leadership has endured a bumpy couple of months. However, the goodwill members possess towards them is not exhausted. The ideal of a democratic Labour Party is a living one. Nobody can predict the outcome of the next election, but Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell must be comforted by the intellectual weakness of his internal opponents.

Sympathy for Polly Toynbee?

Reading a bizarre take on the upcoming local elections by a conventionally successful journalist, I could have become riled. There was the obligatory reference to Labour’s anti-Semitism problem, there was the fanciful positive endorsement of struggling Labour urban councils, there was the typical attempt to turn politics into a horse race, and there was the pointless speculation about how the votes would fall. A little nod to the real suffering of vulnerable citizens was featured, and there was a sly dig at a Tory council that had got into financial trouble, but this was local politics lite.

There was no real analysis of how councils have failed to fight the austerity being imposed by the central government. There was no mention of how ordinary people struggle to pay their council tax. And there was no focus on how Momentum is transforming political campaigning in England. Cynicism about what could be achieved by councils lacked insight into the realities of budgets. Some local councils have reserves which could be dipped into, while others could allocate their resources away from expensive experiments in outsourcing.

But one must have sympathy for postmodern journalists. They have to comment on a diversity of topics. Their social class often means that they are out of touch with the lived realities of ordinary people. And they have short deadlines. All they crave is clicks and comments; it’s no way to exist.

And Polly Toynbee may have had a really unhappy childhood. Her father was so alarmed at the possibility of nuclear war he took suicide pills on vacation. Worse still, he told his daughter about the existence of the tablets. Toynbee is sometimes taken to task for allegedly having a villa in Tuscany, but I think the controversial centrist deserves such a retreat to make up for the odd holidays of her youth.


Monopoly Capitalism Redux

The theory of monopoly capitalism has Marxist origins. However, orthodox Marxism never embraced the thinking of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy. Their understanding of capitalist hegemony was viewed as heretical by some ideological gatekeepers. Non-Marxist influences were suspected, and some individuals thought that they accorded too much power to corporate oligopolies and monopolies.

This controversy might seem to be beside the point in a postmodern world. After all, the state has survived the apparent threat posed to it by neoliberalism. Globalisation has not prevented the nation state from intervening in markets. Nor have the crisis tendencies of capitalism been smoothed over by the forces of monopoly capital.

However, the debate is being revived at different scales of governance. Amazon and Facebook have challenged the state in various ways. International tax avoidance and corporate involvement in global politics has led to fresh controversy. In the UK, the idea of a merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda has also raised apprehension about the power of oligopolies.

British citizens are concerned about the cost of living. Brexit has added to this anxiety. But the biggest threat posed to the wallets of the people could really be coming from monopoly capitalism. We might think that we live in a postmodern world of fake politicians faking anger at fake news, but fractions of big capital may yet have the last laugh. The tragedy of postmodern politics is that it often evades big questions like climate change- while we are distracted, monopoly capitalism does not respect the planet or its people.

Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

This text has something of a masterpiece about it. I read a translation by Ellen Marriage. The prose carried the reader along in a remarkable fashion. Here was love, romance, Paris, sex, and money in a lively drama that on occasion seemed to anticipate the dark realism of Émile Zola.

Honoré de Balzac was writing before Freud, but he had an abundance of insight into the dynamics of the family. He comprehended that the bond between fathers and daughters may be a really strong one. This succinct novel will be appreciated by anyone who understands the strains which capitalism can place on the family. It is no wonder that some Marxists have appreciated the powerful writings of Balzac.

Certainly, money dominates the plot of this colourful narrative. It is all about the difficulties and hypocrisies of trying to get by in a world dominated by fashion. Balzac knew all about what Thorstein Veblen would later describe as conspicuous consumption. The question of credit gives the story a contemporary edge.

Altruists might not enjoy the tragic aspects of this tale. And sensitive people might object to unflattering references to Jewish people in the text. It is perhaps important to note that sensibilities change over time. Balzac died long before the Dreyfus Affair divided France, and it is impossible to know if he would have given his support to the progressive side. Balzac connected Jewish people with lending money, but in this work people from other backgrounds are engaged in this activity. Perhaps Balzac and Charles Dickens can be viewed as writers of their era. Nevertheless, it has been argued in literary scholarship that Balzac was too odd to be a consistent anti-Semite; the evidence across his work has been interpreted as showing complex and influential Jewish characters where they are featured.

While literary controversies rarely reach firm conclusions, the ending of this book is certainly a solid one. The protracted suffering of a man who has loved too much remains moving to this day. As one gets old, love can be perceived in new ways. Instead of seeming sincere and necessary, it may appear as a cruel delusion.

The Wetherspoon saga: the drunken ideology of David Mitchell

David Mitchell is the kind of comic that appeals to snobs. He seems over 65, and puts the boredom into broadcasting. Despite these irritatingly bourgeois features, he has wandered into a Wetherspoon. Furthermore, he has noted that the cost-conscious chain has abandoned social media. Like many people who pretend to have liberal values, Mitchell detests Facebook.

For the militant British centrist, it was Facebook that was behind Brexit. It was Facebook that was behind Trump. And worst of all, it was Facebook that was behind the Corbyn surge. Now, how can we know that centrists prefer the neo-fascist Trump to populist socialist Corbyn? Firstly, many centrists believed it was right to bomb Syria without waiting for proper evidence. Secondly, many centrists appreciate the dominance of simplistic media narratives that downplay the sinister neo-fascism of Trump.

Mitchell admires the withdrawal of Wetherspoon from Facebook. He is prepared to forgive Wetherspoon for its massive propaganda offensive in favour of Brexit. While Facebook was used for and against Brexit, Wetherspoon backed Brexit to the hilt. Wetherspoon competes on cost not quality and it is neo-conservative capitalism in a glass. A genuine liberal should prefer Facebook to Wetherspoon. But centrists have persevered on a long imperialist journey since the days of John Stuart Mill.

Interestingly, a socialist would not choose between Facebook and Wetherspoon. This is because the working class use both spaces to exchange ideas. Whilst a socialist may have principled reservations about both networking places, he or she would not ditch either one because the mainstream media told them do it.

Mitchell pretends to be funny, but what he does is to recycle his prejudices in a respectable form. This is a trade, but it is worth noting that it is an illiberal one. His simplistic thinking about the causes of the current malaise is highly misleading. Brexit was not caused by social media, and neo-fascism existed before social media networking was a thing. Political events have complex triggers, and deleting Facebook is not going to help in the fight for a less deadly variant of economics.

Is there anything homely about the Home Office?

The British Ministry of the Interior has a highly misleading name. When people think of a real home, they often imagine a cat in the yard or a rose by a door. Individuals typically have an idea of warmth, happy memories, or comfort. It takes love to turn a house into a home.

The Home Office is an institution which has been condemned by a senior civil servant as “not fit for purpose.” The quote is associated with Dr John Reid, but the former minister has clarified that he never used the phrase. The Home Office is known for its inefficiency, so ministers often try to avoid responsibility by blaming officials for errors. Conservative Amber Rudd has taken a familiar path when confronted with a problem.

The real problem is that the Home Office is an unsatisfactory institution even when it is not being inefficient. The present Windrush generation scandal illustrates the point.  The mainstream media has focused on the intense suffering of people who should have been treated like any other British citizen. A host of experts have addressed how Home Secretary Theresa May got her coalition colleagues to accept the mistreatment of people with a Caribbean background. However, ‘illegal’ immigrants are regularly subject to abuse in the UK. Just because it is lawful to detain people at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, it does not make it right.

We live in an era when we are meant to be grateful for governments that say sorry. But the Home Office will not change because of warm words. It is necessary to look at the whole structure of the department if reform is to occur. The UK is approaching Brexit and it seems that many of its institutions are not prepared for the challenges ahead. The mainstream media will not focus on the plight of any vulnerable people for long- it is up to the Labour Party and informed citizens to campaign for real change.