In order to understand what is happening in the triangle of relations between the state, the politicians and the media, we have to begin with the capitalist state, argues Mike Wayne.

James Murdoch and David Cameron

The question is, how to understand the relationship between the capitalist state and capitalism? To refine the question to a greater degree of sensitivity to our historical conjuncture, we can say that we are dealing with the emergence of the post-social democratic capitalist state.

This post-social democratic capitalist state wishes to return to the historical era of the pre-social democratic capitalist state, when the state was a night-watchman. It played the role of guarantor of the conditions for capitalist activity but not much more. This would mean a return to a state that is fundamentally coercive. But the post-social democratic state has to contend with the intervening period of the social democratic state. This means that it has to dismantle all the institutions that we associate with the social democratic state and, in order to do that, it has to dismantle the attachments that the majority of people have to those institutions and their values. In dismantling those attachments, it has to try and construct a whole new set of other attachments, creating a whole new subjectivity so that we think of ourselves as ‘flexible workers’ who live and die in the market place and as individuals selling their skills  who can only blame themselves if they fail or congratulate themselves if they succeed. 

Now this is the context in which understanding the relationship between the politicians and the media becomes both crucial and very interesting. First we have to specify what the capitalist state does for capital in any historical era. One of the crucial tasks of  the state  is to provide the legal framework in which relations between capitalist and workers, and relations between capitalist and capitalist, takes place. It is the intra-capitalist competition and its effect on  that legal framework which has been highlighted by a number of recent cases. Without the law which is supposed to provide the universal grounds on which business activity takes place, capitalism would quickly descend into a form of commercial warlordism of the kind you might find in a William Gibson novel.

But there is a problem. Bourgeois law is supposed to be universal. Yet bourgeois economics knows no universal interest – only the self-interest of the corporation and only the profit motive.  And intra-capitalist competition is putting immense pressure on the law. For as capital becomes bigger, wealthier and more powerful, as it makes more and more connections with the state and seeks influence within it, so it becomes possible to conduct its intra-capitalist competition in terms that crosses the line and breaks the law. They have the weapons to do that and very, very often they get away with it. And intra-capitalist competition does not go away as capital gets larger – its gets more ferocious. Everyone knows that industrial sabotage is part of the game of capitalist competition, for example. 

Back in 2002 I remember writing about a company called NDS controlled by News International which, it was alleged, had cracked the codes of smart cards used by digital TV channels in competition with BSKYB.  NDS, it was said, circulated the codes on the internet, thus causing considerable financial problems for News International competitors such as ITV Digital and Canal Plus. It was a small story back then that few people were taking much notice of, but  recent events have put the case back in the spotlight. What is very likely however, is that we only see the tip of the corporate iceberg in terms of industrial sabotage.  Now, in the era of the post-social democratic state, which seeks to cut back on the regulations that govern the day to day activities of capitalist business, the likelihood of capitalist economic interests infringing, subverting and breaking capitalist law, must grow, will grow and has grown.

This is the context in which we can understand how in the hacking scandal we have seen very senior members of the Metropolitan Police sit on evidence that News International was engaged in hacking phones on an industrial scale. Very senior members of the Metropolitan Police lied about the nature of the evidence they were sitting on and very senior members of the Metropolitan police tried to pervert the course of justice and protect News International from scrutiny. And we know that none of those very senior members of the Metropolitan Police will go to court and be tried for their crimes. Meanwhile, there are today young people serving long sentences in jail for nicking a bottle of water during the riots. They are political prisoners, nothing less, of a vindictive state that turns a blind eye to the far more consequential law breaking of the bourgeoisie and the elites in the state apparatus.

Now, one of the reasons why we know all about the hacking scandal and others like it, such as Liam Fox’s recent shenanigans as Defense Minister or how New Labour ex-ministers such as Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon prostituted themselves to lobbyists seeking access to the heart of government, is because of investigative reporting.  Because of good journalism within the media exposing both individual corruption and, occasionally, as in the MPs expenses scandal and the phone hacking scandal, institutional corruption, we know today that we do not really elect MPs to Parliament anymore. We elect sales people.

Investigative journalism is one form of journalism we have every reason to be grateful for and must defend and encourage.  But no-one can pretend that this form of journalism constitutes the normal activity of the corporate media or reflects the fundamental institutional relations between the media and the state. The vast majority of what the media produces falls into two other kinds of media output.

One type of news journalism is all about the networks of ties between the media and the state; the networks of collusion. Let us call it network journalism or embedded journalism. It is there in the daily briefings that the Prime Minister and his spokespeople give, along with all the political parties, to hacks who recycle their agendas without any critical thinking whatsoever. Some of these people, like Andrew Marr fondly think of themselves as champions of the Fourth Estate, holding power to account. In reality the media routinely accept the neo-liberal policy agendas that flow ceaselessly from the political parties. Words like reform, modernization, choice, efficiency savings, innovation and others that are part of the vocabulary of neo-liberalism, are never questioned and are never linked to their real effects and intentions, namely privatization, social stratification, cuts and profiteering. The vast bulk of the middlebrow and liberal media output on news falls into this type of network journalism that involves recycling, without critical comment, what is effectively the agenda of a tiny elite within this country. 

This means that with the social strains inevitable with the emergence of the post-social democratic state the media simply reproduce, without question, the authoritarian law and order agenda of successive governments, as we saw only too clearly in the mass media coverage of the recent riots. Or in relation to the ConDem government’s cuts agenda, the media cultivate mass amnesia and wish us to forget the small matter of having to bail out the banking system with public money – the same system that we were told was too important to regulate properly because it was the engine of growth and the God to which we must all bow down to.  Here again, you could hardly put a cigarette paper between the mass output of the media and the consensus across all the political parties that there must be cuts in public services. That consensus amongst political elites is of course incredibly damaging to democracy and the media’s reproduction of that consensus is also incredibly damaging to democracy, as both political and media elites move ever further apart from the majority of the people in this country.

However, there is a third type of journalism that is also massively damaging to democracy. We can call this, in a small homage to The Sun, the ‘Paddy Pantsdown’ school of journalism – the voyeuristic intrusion into the private lives and sexploits of mostly famous people, but also the private lives and tragedies of ordinary people as well. This type of journalism, which is very largely to be found in the tabloid press spectrum of the media – is of course what drove the hacking of phones at News International. This type of journalism, which has grown tremendously in the last few decades is also symptomatic of the emergence of the post-social democratic state. It marks is the stratification in our public sphere between those who have access to information and debate, so that they can think of themselves as citizens who participate in the political process, and those, the majority, who do not have access to good quality information and debate, because they are addressed as consumers for whom politics is at best a ridiculous spectacle. This is necessary for the post-social democratic state, which neither wishes nor needs to have an informed and participatory mass of citizens – at best, from the Financial Times to the Guardian, it needs only an elite of informed citizens.

So the relationship between the media, the politicians and the state more broadly is contradictory. The investigative journalism is the only type of journalism that does a service to a democratic polity, but it is in conflict with the principles and the practices of the post-social democratic state and it goes against the grain of most media journalism.

The routine recycling of government agendas is clearly the most collusive and constitutes the majority of what the quality and middlebrow media do in this country. The ‘PaddyPantsdown’ type of journalism is more contradictory in its relations with governments. When Blair called the media a ‘feral beast’ it was this type of journalism that he no doubt had in mind, but while it may end ministerial careers, this type of journalism in no way breaks with the media collusion with the neo-liberal policy agenda.

And why should it? The corporate media seek to shape media policy in ways that will reduce media obligations towards local, regional and national news and increase the integration of the news media into international commodity production. We know that Murdoch has been shaping media policy since the days of Margaret Thatcher – when he took over The Times and The Sunday Times without reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and, when later SKY and British Satellite Broadcasting were allowed to merge without any formal investigation. We know that Jeremy Hunt was on the verge of approving Murdoch’s bid to fully buy out BSKYB from the remaining shareholders when the public found out about the News of the World hacking into Milly Dowler’s mobile phone.

Meanwhile the post-social democratic state which media interests are helping to bring about also requires the media. As the roots of political parties dries up, as their mass membership dwindles, as their integration into the neoliberal agenda means they can offer fewer and fewer crumbs from the table, the more they need the media to retain some sort of pseudo-legitimacy and consent by controlling public opinion as best they can. We even have media power and political power virtually merging. It is well known that the so called Tea Party in the US was virtually invented by Fox News, something which has definite affinities with the situation in Italy where media mogul Silvio Berlusconi has been impersonating Caligula as the modern day President of Italy.

What is the future for the post-social democratic state? One possibility is that it simply becomes post-democratic – and I think it is not wild speculation that this may happen within Europe as the economic crisis deepens. One thing is for sure, only a mass movement actively resisting capital’s agenda and posing alternatives could bring about a return to some sort of social democracy – but the question we would then have to ask, is why stop there?

Mike Wayne will be speaking at this weekend’s Counterforum