Friday, 5 June 2009

The Commoditisation of Politics

Marx said that Capitalism reduces everything to the cash nexus. What we are seeing is the vindication of that statement when it comes to politics. Not just the money-grubbing that the expenses scandal represents, but on a much wider basis. When it comes to mainstream politics we are being treated as nothing more than consumers. When you are persuaded to buy Persil rather than Daz even though, they are both the same thing the only harm done is a small one to your pocket. When the same thing happens in choosing a Government the consequences are more significant.

For people on the Left, of course, stating that there is no difference between the main parties is nothing new. We have been saying that for a very long time. Engels had no illusions about the bourgeois politics of those political organisations that gave a political face to the Labour Party when it was created by the Trade Unions. Nor was he or Marx under any illusion about the fundamentally bourgeois nature of Trade Unions ideology even though they were and are the workers most basic organisation. It was the failure to understand this fundamentally dialectical nature of workers organisations that led ultra-Lefts then – and now – to disdain the Labour Party, and refuse to engage with it. It was what led Lenin to describe the Labour Party as a bourgeois workers party, basically a political equivalent of the bourgeois workers Trade Unions, a reflection of the fact that workers do not automatically acquire a proletarian class consciousness, that they remain dominated by bourgeois ideas.

The difference between the Labour Party and the Tories and Liberals has never been that the Labour Party acted as a Party of class struggle, that it had as its goal the achievement of socialism or any such thing – it never did. The Labour Party by ideology always was a bosses party wedded to the better working of Capitalism, but whose relationship to the Workers led it to adopt a more “Left” bourgeois position, a more statist position, which was if anything simply a reflection of seeing things from a more progressive bourgeois stance – more progressive only in the sense that it saw the objective function of the bourgeois state in acting as a stabilising economic and social motor, in a world where the needs of Big Capital, and its closer links to that State required it. The fact, that such a role for the State has no more progressive meaning than just that for a Marxist is clearly demonstrated by the rush to such State intervention even by George Bush! It is progressive only in the Marxist historical materialist sense that it more adequately reflects the needs of a more mature Capital as opposed to the needs of more primitive forms of Capital.

What, however, has changed is not any fundamental movement in the ideology of the Labour Party, but a change in how it sees the achievement of its ideology being realised. The idea that bourgeois parties like the Tories are ALWAYS red in tooth and claw class warriors intent on driving down workers wages and conditions is a clearly false one, just as its false that individual bosses are ALWAYS trying to drive down workers wages and conditions, almost out of some sense of vindictiveness. Such a view is more akin to that of Lassalle than that of Marx. Of course, Capital is driven to maximise profit, but how it does that is not as crude as just simply driving down wages and conditions. Particularly, the more technical production becomes Capital needs to incorporate labour and obtain its co-operation in the production process so as to use fixed Capital more efficiently, to raise productivity etc. They have spent a lot of time theorising and experimenting with this through the work of various industrial sociologists and psychologists. Just look at some of the fairly well-known ideas from Fordism and Taylorism, through to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, to the adoption of Japanese methods of Quality Circles and so on. Monopoly Capital, in particular, can afford to work towards creating an incorporated, more content more productive workforce by improving wages and conditions etc. The adoption of forms of welfarism is merely the implementation of such methods on a National scale.

In fact, in that sense Thatcherism and Reaganism can be seen to be a bit of an anachronism not the norm. They can be seen to reflect a need of Capital in particular circumstances – the onset of the Long Wave decline under conditions where both British and US Capital were entering a period of relative decline industrially as new industrial powers emerged in Asia, where Labour had built up a certain amount of strength during the period of Long Wave boom, but not a sufficient amount to warrant the resort to fascism to beat it down such as during the 1930’s. In a sense it was a reflection of the weakening of that previously dominant section of mature, monopoly industrial Capital, and the rise of less mature forms of small Capital – the Eddie Shah’s and so on – and of Money Capital, whose ideas have always tended more to the Libertarian wing of free market Capitalism.

This process went along with a significant weakening of the working class in Britain particularly after the defeat of the Miners in 1984, as the objective conditions created by the onset of the Long Wave decline imposed themselves on workers struggles and bosses resistance. The pressure that had exerted on the LP, in particular lessened, and the effect in terms of a demoralisation of much of the Marxist Left caused it to abandon the political struggle in the Labour Party, to effectively give up its faith in the role of the working class and to look instead to other forces to achieve its political goals, which increasingly became framed not in terms of class struggle, but lists of moral imperatives. That in itself gave the Right in the LP a free hand organisationally and ideologically as the left marginalized itself. In a party such as the Labour party, always committed to electoralism it was not hard to see why such a free hand for the Right led ideologically to a drive to win votes at almost any cost.

And that is precisely what we have seen. In the past the LP programme was a bourgeois programme, but it was in bourgeois terms a more progressive programme than that of the Tories. But, more than that it was a programme, which the pressure of the working class caused it to frame in terms of certain goals related to creating a fair society. That meant that it had to CAMPAIGN for those ideas, to win acceptance for them – though we shouldn’t go overboard on this idea either, in much of the 1950’s and early 1960’s the LP was probably just as moribund, if not more so in some areas, than it is today at a CLP level, it was mainly through the Trade Unions that the Left pressure was exerted – whereas today the focus on simply winning votes means instead tailoring the programme to what the strategists, psephologists and so on tell the leadership will be most effective.

In fact, this is exactly the way large corporations operate. Under 19th century free market capitalism, small companies basically came up with ideas for products and tried to sell them. They either did and prospered or didn’t and went bust. The advent of larger companies and of advertising through a mass media meant that companies could try to persuade customers to buy their products. But, today, with huge companies, spending billions on development of products, on tooling up to produce them etc. more is required. They employ considerable resources undertaking consumer and market research to find out what those consumers want before committing themselves. And for the last two or three decades they have employed Operational Research tools to determine what to produce, and how to produce it. They have also employed ideas such as Game Theory – Economics students may be familiar with the book by William Baumol that discusses all of these methods.

One of the consequences is that companies are driven towards adopting generally similar methods and products. A small company can afford to take some risks and attempting to introduce some radically new product. If it goes wrong, the company might be able to simply stop production and switch back, or even if it goes bust, often small entrepreneurs simply start again. A very large company can’t afford to do that. So, they look at what their competitors are doing and do something broadly equivalent – they use industrial espionage to find this out, or increasingly simply share information, technology and so on. Its one of the reasons that so many products from different companies are indistinguishable one from another. Politics has become the same, for the same reasons.

But, its not JUST that the mainstream political parties as bourgeois parties selling effectively the same product have been driven towards taking the same route as large companies have. Other changes in society itself have driven towards that situation. On the one hand the aforementioned fall in workers class consciousness not only meant a shift to the Right in their voting behaviour – which is why Thatcher and the Tories and Reagan and the Republicans were dominant during that period – and therefore, drove the LP to the Right in search of those votes, but that same fact also meant that the activist base in the LP itself was driven to the Right. That along with the abandonment of the ideological struggle by the Marxist Left – whose job it actually was to stick in their and help resist that trend by whatever means – facilitated the rise of such an approach.

But, in addition to that just as the rapid rise of the mass media meant that large companies could rely increasingly on TV marketing to help shape the market, so political parties could compensate for their shrinking activist base, by also relying on the TV. But, as was discovered as early as the election campaign of John F. Kennedy, what then becomes important is not just differences of political programme, but personality. The more Political programme becomes identical, the more does electoral competition become simply a beauty contest.

The advent of 24 hour, multi-channel TV, and the rise of the cult of celebrity has given this drive a powerful impetus. The twenty-four news channels simply loop the same news every fifteen minutes – indeed often repeat the same footage and sounbites far more frequently than that! – acting like the playing of some annoying pop song over and over that, however, much you then try to get out of your head, you can’t. Where 24 hour news channels COULD offer the potential for an in depth coverage of news and current events in a way they never could in the past, providing a much wider range of views, opinions and background, they do exactly the opposite, reducing the news to almost trivia, and soundbites, or else the filling in of time by the repetition over and again of essentially the same question, or the same piece of information.

And, of course, in trying to sell us a product – the “News” – they are forced to sensationalise it as much as possible. “Events” are newsworthy so if they can help to encourage some celebrity be it a politician or otherwise to be the centre of some event all the better. Even if not, anything that can be used to highlight some “celebrity” will do. That’s one reason that the expenses scandal has fitted perfectly with sales model. It doesn’t have to go into detail about the issues at stake, it simply picks out another “celebrity” whose actions can be highlighted. The affair SHOULD provoke a deep-seated questioning of the functioning of bourgeois democracy as a whole, but the media is not interested in something that is actually important to the lives of ordinary people that such a discussion would involve, because it would distract from the “News” of exposing some other celebrity, and would necessarily involve questioning certain bastions of the Establishment of which it is a part, such as the Monarchy, the nature of political representation and accountability, the House of Lords, not to mention all those similar questions that have to then be asked about control and ownership of the means of production.

What brought this home to me more than anything was last night watching Newsnight. On a day that had seen elections that could have seen the Nazis of the BNP win more Council seats and an MEP seat, whilst the BNP light UKIP would certainly gain ground, a day on which Gordon Brown came under more pressure as Purnell resigned from the Cabinet, Newsnight spent a large part of the time allotted to it, to give us what amounted to a protracted trailer for its own future product – its “Countdown to the Election”, an election which is probably a year away! Even bits of that were repeated! Having seen Reality TV done to death over the last ten years until you thought that no other possibility was possible, Newsnight now present us with the application of the Reality TV form to – reality itself!!!!

What we are to be offered is something approaching a combination of I’m a Non-Entity, Get Me Out of This Dragon’s Den, and Britain’s Got Boyle’s!!! Various people are apparently to be invited to present what will inevitably be ill-thought out ridiculous solutions to Britain’s problems, only to be told by a bunch of has beens and nonentitites that their ideas are ill-thought out and ridiculous. Why not forget about an election altogether? Why doesn’t the BBC simply invite the Party Leaderships to some desert island, where they could be asked to perform various feats, whilst John Sergeant and other veterans of the genre tell us who we should vote to kick out this week. After all George Galloway has already shown he’d be up for it!!!! Boris Johnson has form on “Have I Got News For You”, and it worked for him!

For several years now, Newsnight has had a panel of nonentities performing a similar function. There’s a Doctor Funkenstein from the Tories, some woman for the Liberals, and a bloke who used to advise Blair who now works as a teacher. I can’t be bothered to look up their names so little am I interested in what they have to say. But, the fact that Newsnight has these people on is a sign of just how much politics has been commoditised. None of these people have an ounce of political principle in their body, they are nothing more than political cheese vendors. But, as Marxists we can’t just bemoan this. Its necessary to have a strategy to deal with it. Simply, trying to get air-time, or simply trying to pretend this change in society hasn’t happened, and that all that is necessary is to put more effort into campaigning isn’t going to cut it.

All those things are necessary in terms of building a base, and developing ideas, but the left also needs to develop its own centres of power. I’ve talked in another blog about creating Co-operative education, so that workers can develop without reliance on the bourgeoisie, and bourgeois ideology. We also need, and could easily achieve a Co-operative Media to put out those ideas, and provide a real alternative to those of the bosses. As I’ve said in previous blogs, changes in technology mean that media production equipment is now relatively cheap. There are lots of Lefty people involved in the media and Arts in various roles – Writers, Film Directors, Prodcuers, Actors, Technicians, Computer Specialists – and people like Ken Loach and Michael Moore have shown that well produced films that challenge the status quo can be produced and distributed profitably. Media production is a very large and growing business, and a look at the way it is developing shows that it is developing along the lines of a multitude of independent small to medium sized companies. The arguments of the past about workers not being able to compete because of the size of the private Capitalist enterprises do not apply.

Moreover, it is clear that within the next few years the traditional forms of TV viewing will have gone. TV will be viewed on line, interactively. Small producers will be able to compete in this space effectively. (In China single bloke has created an Internet TV Channel from his bedroom that has become the most widely watched channel in China!) All of these people on the Left who have the resources, the know-how and the influence to bring it about should put their money where there mouth is, and begin to develop a large Worker Owned Media Co-operative so that workers can begin to challenge not just the ideas of the bourgeoisie, but the increasing commoditisation of politics. In doing so they can become powerful innovators of new ideas, and give a powerful message to workers as a whole around the world that a different world is possible.

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