Ruling elites use agendas and debates to maintain their control, exposing this cannot be dismissed as conspiracism, argues Des Freedman
More than thirty years ago, sections of the national press set out to vilify prominent members of the Labour left and to attack the anti-racist and anti-sexist positions with which they were associated. The Mail, Express, Sun and News of the World ran story after story criticising the ‘hard left’ positions of the Greater London Council (GLC) and propagated a series of myths – for example that one Labour Council had abolished ‘black bin bags’ and that another had banned the singing of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ – that made up for in political impact what they lacked in veracity. These tabloid assaults paved the way for the scrapping of the GLC and for the passage of malicious, anti-gay legislation like Section 28 that criminalised the promotion of homosexuality in the curriculum.
I’m reminded of these sorry times by the publication of the second edition of Culture Wars, a powerful analysis of what the authors describe as a ‘sustained press campaign against the “loony left” in the 1980s’. This tabloid demonisation was designed to render a left-wing Labour Party ‘electorally toxic’ and to delegitimise progressive ideas on everything from the economy to sexuality and from language to foreign policy.
We’re now seeing another such onslaught against the left and a fresh campaign of smears, insinuations and generalisations aimed, in particular, at branding the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as an antisemite. There is, however, one major difference between the 1980s and today: antisemitism, unlike the banning of nursery rhymes, is tragically all too real. It’s on the rise in parts of Eastern Europe and finds an expression in British politics (with antisemitic attitudes most prominent amongst Conservative voters). This makes the stakes even higher as there is a real need for a sober and informed discussion about how best to tackle antisemitism, Islamophobia and the growth of the far right.
Yet, there is a further difference between the two periods. In 2018, to talk about the existence of a ‘sustained campaign’ by powerful interests against the left is immediately to invite accusations of being a ‘conspiracy theorist’, someone who is obsessed by the thought of shadowy figures meeting secretly to undermine democracy and to discredit progressive ideas and movements. The very idea that one might even want to doubt official explanations for contested events is now attributed to, at best, over-active imaginations or, at worst, reactionary motives.
So for example, voices that sought to question the government’s narrative on the poisoning in Salisbury were denounced by the Sun as ‘promoting conspiracy theories’. I have no idea whether the government’s narrative is correct or not but I quite appreciate journalists foregoing stenography for investigation. But according to the Sun, these were simply ‘crackpot posts’ confined to ‘controversial’ sites like Skwawbox and The Canary. These sorts of conspiracy theories, argued Danny Stone in the New Statesman, ‘play into prejudices…they provide a scapegoat and a self-satisfying rebuttal loop.’ So despite cover-ups practised at the highest levels – from US and UK deceptions over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to the decades of lies perpetrated by the South Yorkshire Police following the Hillsborough disaster – ‘conspiracy theory’ now appears to be the phrase du jour to taint anti-establishment critique as necessarily the domain of cranks, ‘truthers’ and disgruntled former spooks.
Of course, there can be no conspiracy to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn – just an endless flow of articles and broadcasts that repeat the same claims, draw on the same sources and foster the same central allegations: that Labour is now exceptionally and institutionally antisemitic and that it is Corbyn who is peddling antisemitic conspiracy theories.
Indeed, liberal commentators regularly equate the ‘far right’ and the ‘extreme left’ as devoted purveyors of conspiracy theories so that Alex Jones’ claim on InfoWars that the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting never happened can be seen as somehow equivalent to claims that ongoing attacks on Jeremy Corbyn might not be primarily motivated by a desire to confront antisemitism so much as a desire to force Corbyn out. According to Nick Cohen, ‘Conspiracy theory binds Corbyn’s disparate militants’ while for David Aaronovitch, Donald Trump’s birther theories are matched here in the UK where ‘large parts of the Labour Party tolerate the dissemination of conspiracy theories’. David Hirsh, in an article that time and again contrasts ‘the unprecedented consensus within the Jewish community in Britain that there is as serious problem of antisemitism in the Labour party’ with the actions of a ‘small number of antizionist Jews’ who are, by definition, not part of that community, insists that the left is alleging a ‘Jewish conspiracy to lie and to smear’.
The dishonest nature of these arguments is dazzling. What is being proposed here is that anyone who suggests that there is a concerted attempt to delegitimise Corbyn and the left has fallen victim to the dangerous allure of conspiracy. This is a form of political gymnastics that involves the downgrading of agency and ideology and the celebration of ‘common sense’ and merry coincidence; it is about the attribution of dodgy machinations to your opponents but only the purest motives to yourself.
So when 12 right-wing Labour MPs met in a Sussex farmhouse recently to discuss prospects for regime change, this was presumably a mere accident involving Chuka Umunna and his pals out walking on the Downs and needing somewhere to sit down and rest.
When whole swathes of the shadow cabinet resigned back in June 2016 in a futile attempt to force Corbyn out, this was just fortuitous and had no resemblance to an organised coup to unseat the leader. 44 frontbenchers just happened to feel the same way at the same time over the same issue. (The idea that a leading PR company might have had something to do with it was immediately dismissed as a conspiracy).
Of course, conspiracy theories are all the more unsavoury when they are connected to claims made by or about a specific ethnic or religious group. So when anti-Zionists write about the propaganda activities of the Israeli government, this is seen not simply as conspiratorial but also racist by perpetuating the well-trodden myth of Jews acting in concert to protect their own interests. It’s as if Jewish people, unlike other groups, never organise amongst themselves because to suggest that they do inevitably reproduces antisemitic tropes.
That would certainly be true in relation to false claims that ‘Jews control the media’ or that ‘a Jewish cabal sits at the top of the world’s financial institutions’. Such claims should be wholeheartedly condemned. But it is rather more difficult to dismiss the run-of-the-mill strategic communications that is undertaken by all governments, including that of Israel.
What are we to make, for example, of the work of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs founded in 2006 to promote the Israeli state’s foreign policy objectives and now overseen by a former intelligence officer? According to a report in Haaretz, in October 2015 the Ministry was handed responsibility to ‘guide, coordinate and integrate the activities of all the ministers and the government and of civil entities in Israel and abroad on the subject of the struggle against attempts to delegitmize Israel and the boycott movement.’ Now this is not a unique portfolio and there are similar bodies elsewhere, for example the Coalition Communications Cell designed to combat IS or the Research, Information and Communications Unit based in the Home Office, because strategic communications is an essential part of the contemporary political battleground employing many thousands of people. It is not conspiratorial to argue that Israeli spooks might be engaged in attempts to delegitimise Jeremy Corbyn when, as Haaretz puts it, the Ministry’s ‘leading figures appear to see themselves as the heads of a public affairs commando unit engaged in multiple fronts, gathering and disseminating information about people they define as “supporters of the delegitimization of Israel”.’
In fact the desire to ridicule (or to dismiss as ‘racist’) the notion that powerful bodies might be organising to discredit their enemies and to reinforce their own credibility is simply a way of letting power off the hook. States have long established comprehensive systems of misinformation and disinformation that rely on intermediate agents, including for example editors, politicians and academics, to circulate and re-purpose this material. These apparatuses both pre-date and are galvanised by today’s ‘fake news’ platforms but they are not the simply the product of conspiratorial imaginations.
Some sixty years ago, the sociologist C. Wright Mills talked about the ‘interlocking directorate’ of political, military and economic interests that constituted a ‘power elite’ at the top of US society. This is far from a comfortable and predictable consensus – indeed the power elite reflects a volatile and unstable set of interests – but it is one that is nevertheless determined to overcome differences in pursuit of shared aims where they exist. Those who reject out of hand as mere ‘conspiracy’ the concerted attempts of elites – whether in the US, Russia, China, the UK or Israel – to guard their power and to undermine their foes are either naïve, or as seems more likely in the current campaign to discredit the Labour leader, utterly disingenuous.
Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.
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