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Capitalism, media and the state - a Marxist analysis

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Marcus Halaby examines the way the media and the state function under capitalism

Reactions to the News of the World phone hacking scandal have tended to focus on the issue of "corruption", either in the sense of the individual corruption of journalists, policemen and politicians, or more broadly the corruption of "journalistic values" by News International, the British arm of Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

National Union of Journalists (NUJ) president Donnacha DeLong wrote that "The NUJ could have saved the News of the World". Strong unions for journalists and print workers, he argued, have in the past allowed media workers to preserve quality journalism, by successfully blocking attempts by their proprietors to release reactionary stories. It was the absence of the check-and-balance of trade unions and the principles they uphold which thus allowed the rot to set in at the News of the World. Environmental activist and author George Monbiot has proposed a "Hippocratic oath for journalists", committing them to "hold power to account", to prioritise stories and issues "which expose the interests of power" and to be wary of the relationships they form with the rich and powerful.

Similarly, much debate between trade unionists and socialists has confronted the issue of how deserving of solidarity the sacked News of the World journalists are given how many of them built their careers on attacking the very idea of solidarity, and the unions and labour movement in general.

Certainly, few socialists or trade unionists will feel much regret at the passing of the News of the World, however likely it is that News International will resurrect it in a new form.

Anyone who remembers the bitter class struggles under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s will remember the way that News International publications The Sun and the News of the World slandered striking miners and their families, beat the drums for Thatcher's war in the Falklands (celebrating the needless deaths of Argentinean conscripts killed in the sinking of the General Belgrano with the headline "Gotcha!"), and generally promoted the individualistic and atomised culture of Thatcher's neo-liberal counter-revolution, symbolised in the arrogant phrase "I'm all right Jack".

They may also remember the bitter strike at Wapping, when News International sacked more than 5,000 production and clerical workers and broke their unions. Others will remember the keen support that the Murdoch empire gave to New Labour's continuation of Margaret Thatcher's neo-liberal agenda under Tony Blair, cheer-leading the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Blair's alliance with US President George W Bush, and turning against his successor Gordon Brown only when he made a mild increase in income tax on those earning more £150,000 a year.

Somewhat less examined has been the way in which this scandal has exposed the complex interrelationship between the mass media, the politicians, right wing ideology and the state.

What is the state?
The German socialist Frederick Engels once famously described the state as being composed, in the final analysis, of “bodies of armed men” in defence of property – the army, police, prisons, judges and top civil servants. It is a machinery of coercion that arises out of the division of society into classes, and at the same time is an expression of the fact that these classes have quite different and ultimately irreconcilable interests, which in turn give rise to the class struggle between them.

This machinery of coercion, being distinct from the ruling class itself, usually gives the appearance of “standing above” the classes, and of implementing “the law” quite impartially and objectively. It exists as a sort of permanent structure, remaining in place while individual governments come and go, sometimes recruiting its personnel from all classes of society.

But its ultimate purpose is to preserve the property and material interests of the ruling class – by maintaining a monopoly of legal violence on the side of the ruling class, by “regulating” the struggle between the classes (and the inevitable disputes within the ruling class itself), by producing and reproducing the overall conditions that allow class exploitation to function normally, and, when push comes to shove, by dealing physical blows to any challenges to the property and power of the ruling class and its system of exploitation.

The ruling class, in turn, is not just composed of “the politicians”. They are only its servants – although in dictatorships and democracies alike, these “servants” often reward themselves quite handsomely, and loot society’s wealth at the expense of all classes. Rather, the ruling class consists of the owners of the means of production in any given society. In our society, this is the class of capitalists – the bankers, top business executives, fund managers and businessmen who own or control factories, land, offices and financial institutions, and who decide between themselves (and in competition with each other) what is produced, how much of it is produced, and how it is to be disposed of in the market.

The state machine is tied to the ruling class by a thousand threads – through common origin, education and material conditions of life (in the case of its commanding figures), through the need to advance their careers (in the case of those further down), through the corruption of the state machinery by individual capitalists (although this is not essential for the state’s maintenance of capitalist rule, and may be counterproductive for it), but most of all, through shared ideological assumptions that pervade society as a whole.

However, as the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and the Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci pointed out, any ruling class that maintained its rule solely through coercion would face a permanent state of civil war. In “normal” periods, the ruling class is therefore obliged to manufacture the consent of the exploited classes to its rule. This is done partly through real material and political concessions, examples in our society being the welfare state, the right to vote, the existence of legal trade unions, and the higher standards of living of the amorphous middle class and of a privileged part of the working class.

But it also requires them to indoctrinate the exploited classes in a hegemonic ideology that makes the existing system of exploitation seem inevitable, permanent and just, by obscuring class differences and by making the very fact of exploitation invisible and unobjectionable. This ideology must simultaneously “socialise” those at the bottom of society, by ensuring that they are resigned to their place in the system, and justify the relative privileges of those in the middle, and the huge wealth of those at the top, as a “just reward” for their education, their “hard work” or their “entrepreneurialism”.

The media and its role in society
The churches, the family unit, the education system, the political parties, and nationalism and the idea of the nation-state – each in their own and often conflicting ways – all play their part in this process of socialisation. But the major part is played on a day to day basis by the mass media – the mass-circulation newspapers, radio stations, television channels and online news sources.

It is the capitalist mass media – or rather, those who control it – that decides the parameters of social and political debate, stigmatising as “extremists” those who operate outside these limits, and rewarding those who operate within them with legitimacy and acceptability.

The same mass media similarly manufactures distractions for the masses: the cult of disposable celebrity gossip; the promotion of mind-numbing music, film and television that celebrate sexism, racism and homophobia; a culture of envy and admiration for those higher up in the social food chain, and casual disdain for those from more socially oppressed strata; “agony aunt” columns and “women’s pages” that promote monogamy, dieting, fashion and self-hatred under the guise of providing relationship advice; job advice and “money and property” pages that promote obsequiousness to employers and the obsession with “getting on” in life at the expense of others. Newspapers also peddle irrationalist nonsense like horoscopes.

The precise relationship between the mass media and the state will vary from country to country. In dictatorships like present-day Syria or Iran, the mass media is directly controlled by the state. Journalists, columnists and their editors are either state employees, or work under conditions of such strict censorship and self-censorship as makes no difference. It is the politicians themselves, and their bureaucracy, that determines what is acceptable and what is not - sometimes, but not always, in conflict with a part of the ruling class that dreams of one day setting its own agenda.

In the Western democracies, the relationship is the other way around, at least in appearance. Politicians from all parties - Labour's Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson, the Tories' David Cameron and the rest - all suck up to powerful media barons like Rupert Murdoch, the disgraced Conrad Black and the now-deceased Robert Maxwell, in an endless search for approval and reaffirmation. They promise them concessions on major policy areas where the media barons have a strong opinion or a direct material interest, and enable them to expand their media empires through takeovers. They expect in return to receive favourable coverage - and to take delivery of the votes of the media barons' readers and viewers.

As George Monbiot put it: "The papers cannot announce that their purpose is to ventriloquise the concerns of multimillionaires; they must present themselves as the voice of the people. The Sun, the Mail and the Express claim to represent the interests of the working man and woman. These interests turn out to be identical to those of the men who own the papers. So the right-wing papers run endless exposures of benefit cheats, yet say scarcely a word about the corporate tax cheats. They savage the trade unions and excoriate the BBC. They lambast the regulations that restrain corporate power. They school us in the extrinsic values – the worship of power, money, image and fame – which advertisers love but which make this a shallower, more selfish country. Most of them deceive their readers about the causes of climate change. These are not the obsessions of working people. They are the obsessions thrust upon them by the multimillionaires who own these papers."

The media barons themselves are, of course, "owners of means of production", and therefore part of the ruling capitalist class. Their influence over and intimidation of the politicians is one of the mechanisms by which the capitalist class keeps the capitalist state in line.

But the media barons can hardly claim the right to speak on behalf of the capitalist class as a whole. Unlike the landowning aristocracy in feudal society, the capitalist class does not "rule" directly, with its own arms and in the name of its inherited titles. It relies on its wealth, and on the day-to-day operation of the market to enjoy the fruits of class exploitation, it relies on the professional politicians to articulate its interests - conflating them with interests of society in the process - and it relies on the state to enforce those interests.

The capitalists, so to speak, "think" about politics through the politicians and their parties - as well as through that amorphous network of think-tanks, academics, specialists and commentators from which the politicians are drawn - and amongst whom journalists feature quite prominently in their own right.

So for any individual capitalist like Rupert Murdoch to appear to become "too" powerful, spying on politicians, making and unmaking prime ministers, and penetrating the state apparatus itself - all of this is detrimental to the system, not least because it visibly undermines the capitalists' hegemonic ideology, which, amongst other things, emphasises such things as the rule of law, parliamentary democracy and "the freedom of the press". Whilst people like Murdoch can gain influence and tremendous power through their control of the media, this power itself divides politicians between those that cower before it and those that want to challenge it.

How deep the rot goes, and exactly who and how many people are implicated, therefore "matters" in a way that goes far beyond the criminal liability of any individual politician, journalist, policeman or newspaper proprietor. What is involved is an ideological crisis of how all these players represent their respective roles in the system to society as a whole.

It is likely that many individual careers and reputations will be made and unmade as this scandal continues to unfold, but the key question for the system will be whether it allows them to restructure their complex interrelationships, in a way that is more conducive to preserving the ideological legitimacy of capitalist rule.

We for our part should take every opportunity to use this ideological crisis to discredit capitalist rule as a whole, to aid the struggle to bring down this government of cuts and austerity, and the hold of the media moguls over the minds of millions.