Try as I might to articulate my disgust at what the Guardian really stands for – as opposed to what so many of my too too generous friends believe it stands for – I have never come close to matching this piece by Darren Allen in Off-Guardian. Posted in February, but only happened on by me this morning, I’m tired and sore from energetic self kicking at its having passed me by for so long.
Not that I agree with every word, mind. George Monbiot’s Guardian salary, gratuitously cited by Allen, of £67k is modest by professional standards, though I dare say he earns more from other writings, and public speaking. More to the point, mapping personal wealth to worldview may be useful at macro levels but is less so when we drill down to individuals: Engels came from a moneyed family, as did Trotsky, while Stalin and Ramsey MacDonald had childhoods of bleak poverty. In the same vein, sniping at Owen Jones’s posh schooling detracts from Allen’s more valid criticisms of a writer who, like Monbiot and my old Workers Power comrade Paul Mason, provide superficially left cover for the Guardian.
To a marxist like me, Allen’s occasional descents into unbecoming personalisation aren’t just poorly judged, self foot-shooting and a shade ill mannered. More importantly they pander to a ‘workerism’ that is no substitute – never has been and never could be – for real class analysis. Indeed, such playing to the gallery has been used time and again to trash, ridicule and bury true opposition to capitalism’s criminal insanity.
These things said, and said they must be, Darren Allen’s withering critique gets a lot more right than it gets wrong …
The Guardian newspaper is a limited company and has been since 2008 when the Scott Trust was wound up and replaced by Scott Trust Ltd, which appoints a board comprised of bankers, management consultants, venture capitalists and other classic left-wingers. The paper is written nearly exclusively by elite-educated members of the upper middle class. The viewpoint you would expect to come from this privileged set-up is what you do get.
Murray McDonald, in his Hidden History of the Guardian, explains that it was launched to undermine working-class leaders of the early 19th century reform movement (whose members were massacred at Peterloo), and during its 150 year history has denounced Ireland’s freedom fighters, Women Suffragettes, Lincoln’s campaign to end slavery, third world nationalism and pretty much any kind of genuine independence from the system. It supported Blair, even when the worst of his crimes were known and continues to give him uncritical space, it regularly presents official pronouncements as news, regularly disguises adverts for its corporate sponsors as news and regularly finds time to pour bile on Corbyn, Assange, Media Lens and Chomsky, who was so appalled by Emma Brocke’s infamous and outrageous distortions he forced them to print a long retraction.
In short, The Guardian is far to the right – just read a few articles by Nick Cohen, Jonathan Freedland or Michael White (with whom I had correspondence a few years ago on thought-control in his paper) if you doubt where on the actual political spectrum the UK’s ‘leading left-liberal newspaper’ is situated – though they do employ two journalists slightly to the left of the rest, namely Owen Jones and George Monbiot. These two (there was a third, Seamus Milne*) appear in order to pull the actual left into The Guardian’s adverts for tech products and spa treatments and to give the paper the appearance of range that it must have to perform its function. Jones and Monbiot never venture beyond the unspoken limits of acceptable corporate thought, never seriously criticise the media (except to take pot shots at The Mail, Murdoch or CNN) and never support any genuine critics of the system.
Why is this? Clearly Jones and Monbiot have some kind of conscience. Yet, somehow, this conscience never seems to get them in trouble at work. Jones offered a clue to this mystery in a public tweet; on discovering who his new boss was to be:
I once had a twitter exchange with Jones (on an old account of mine, now deleted) which he began by defending his elite education, prominent connections and corporate employment as ‘socialist’ and concluded by mocking the fact that I had fewer followers than he does. This juvenile snidery is a typical response of Jones – and Suzanne Moore, Hadley Freeman and co – when faced with criticism from the actual left, no matter how courteous and reasonable.
I also had a brief email exchange with Monbiot not so long ago. Asked why he never criticised the systemic bias of the Guardian, he replied:
There’s a whole bunch of us working independently for the Guardian (I go into the building once or twice a year) who never get a steer from anyone about what we should be writing and what line we should take. I have used the Guardian as a platform for continued attacks on corporate power and the system of totalitarian capitalism.
Monbiot has made one tame request to have fossil fuel ads removed from his paper, quickly forgotten. He complains about vested interests controlling right-wing think-tanks, media outlets and so on, yet is curiously silent about Shell sponsoring branded content in the Guardian or the vast editorial-shaping advertising revenue it receives from HSBC, or about the indirect effect elite ownership has on his paper, or about the indirect effect earning £67,000 a year has on his journalism. He refuses to understand that he doesn’t need to ‘get a steer from anyone’ because only those who can be trusted not to go near genuinely system-threatening subjects will get a prominent column in a national newspaper, or succeed in any branch of the institutional world (explained here).
Monbiot and Jones’ disgraceful absence of integrity then is not so much in what they say (e.g. Monbiot’s shameful smearing of just about every genuine voice on the actual left), but in what they don’t say. On criticism of the left-liberal end of the media spectrum, on the propaganda model, the Overton Window and Huxleyan thought-control, on Libya and Syria, on Clinton and Obama, on the inherently destructive nature of professionalism, on their own paper maligning Jeremy Corbyn, Nafeez Ahmed and Julian Assange, on the ruinous horror of wage-slavery, on the denial of death, on the reality of the coming collapse, on the inherently reality-warping nature of market-driven journalism — nothing, or next to.
The reason I pick out Jones and Monbiot from their ‘mainstream’ colleagues is not just that they are frauds, but for the same reason I pick out The Guardian from its ‘mainstream’ rivals. The Guardian represents the limit of sanity within the slit-wide media spectrum and Jones and Monbiot represent the same limit within The Guardian spectrum; and it is that limit which must be broken if actual sanity is to prevail. It’s why I often visit their site — not to read their articles on why it’s a good idea to obliterate Libya or a bad idea to wee in the shower or the difficulties of living in a $7000 a month New York apartment — but to do my best, in the comments, to expose this insane limit, not just in the news, but throughout the paper.
Because the fundamental ‘limits of sanity’ in the Guardian (and the BBC, the Independent, Washington Post, Le Monde and so on) are not just in its reports on politics, but in its reviews of art-exhibitions, teevee shows and video games, in its comments on fashion and literature, in its opinion pieces on feminism and mental health and in its extraordinarily vapid reflections on living and loving. It is here that you see The Official World, in all its colourless banality. To be sure the distortion of political or historical truth in the news section is horrific and noteworthy, but the distortions of artistic and psychological truth in the ‘arts and lifestyle’ sections actually go far deeper than politics; normalising, as they do, ego, personality, virtual reality and an entire constellation of foundational myths concerning equality, mental illness, language, artistic truth, sex, love and pornography.
I’ll be addressing all these things in due course, but I’ll finish with some of my comments in ‘comment is free’…**
About forty or fifty years ago, around the same time as women, ‘people of colour’, the disabled, members of the ‘LBGTQ’ community and so on began to gain important social and ethical advances, the middle and upper classes realised, with great moral-delight, that the previously excluded could be put to professional work, in upper management, and that ideological conformity is far more important than racial or sexual equality anyway. Totalitarian corporate organisations and media outlets could then proudly proclaim themselves to be feminist, pro-gay, equal-rights and so-on, coating themselves in a lovely veneer of equality and open-mindedness and appeal to the ‘left-liberal demographic’, while pursuing precisely the same corporate-establishment goals as before – perpetually expand, honour corporate clients and profits above all else, kow-tow to upper and middle-class groupthink, deprive ordinary people of their intellectual, social and aesthetic autonomy in the name of ‘professional’ care, police the eradicated commons and so on.
In other words institutions, corporations and elite-run organisations (like the Guardian) use race, gender, civil-rights and so on as a smokescreen for systemic totalitaria, which is what all feminist viewpoints and all LGBT articles in the ‘mainstream’ end up promoting.
On Video Games
I’m looking forward to ‘Unreality 7’, the latest VR immersion suite from Ersatz. Unlike the games listed in the video game section of the newspaper it doesn’t hide from its status as a narcotic and actively pumps your veins with neurotransmitters, stimulants and personality-deforming hallucinogens. Of course it still involves sitting, sense-dimmed and immobile in a dark room, communicating through the mediation of a vast corporate machine, using crude digitised imagery and even cruder appeals to fear and desire in order to move the deathless narrative along, but this is no problem for me as I live an entirely mediated life of subservience to enormous mechanisms and systems beyond my power to meaningfully change, with an indirect relationship with my fellow dependants, motivated by nothing finer than a need to acquire credits and avoid crude monsters in my ever more meaningless dreamlife.
Thank God for all this money spent on ‘defence’. I mean, if we weren’t so well ‘defended’ we might all be living in a kind of prison, under constant surveillance, having to obey arbitrary orders from unaccountable organisations that control the minutest details of our lives. Everything we do might be subordinated to the overarching objective of making a profit and protecting those who benefit from a system that leaves everyone else living atomised, alone and in territory owned by others. Dissent might be severely punished or simply not have the opportunity to be heard, as freedom of the press would be entirely limited to those that own one.
And while we’re on the subject, thank God we defeated those bad old Nazis, eh? Because if we hadn’t we might be living in a society built on slave labour, using resources stolen from obliterated vassal states, constantly under surveillance and blaming all our problems on immigrants.
On ‘What the NHS needs’
What the NHS needs is this: more managers, more paperwork, less contact with patients, the front line staff to be ignored more often, more bullying by people who reached their position through calumny, nepotism and greasing up, loads more policies, more advertising, more meetings, more closures, particularly of smaller day hospitals and units, more centralisation, more technology, higher registration fees for nurses, fewer nurses (by cutting staff and cutting bursaries), more power to consultants, and much much more change.
What the NHS really needs – as all public-owned services have needed in the past – is to be completely bollocksed up so that privatisation can be justified on the grounds that the system as it is, is ‘inefficient.’
The soldier thinks he is defending people, the doctor thinks he is saving lives, the teacher thinks he is educating his students and the manager thinks he is leading his people to success. What people think about their jobs is not the same as what they actually do in them. What is the advertiser actually doing when he asks himself ‘what will catch their attention?’ or ‘what words should I use?’ or ‘what image would be most appropriate here?’ In that moment he is not looking for a way to ‘encourage people to buy one product instead of another’ (as the article suggests), he is looking for a way to excite their interest, move them emotionally and touch some kind of urge, instinct or reality inside them. People are interested in security, sex, love, truth, quality, beauty, power, nature, union and passion, and so the advertiser uses these words and images. Why? to sell a product. The result is that these words and images become cheapened, their meaning hollowed out and people cease to believe they refer to anything meaningful, which makes them frustrated and dissatisfied.
On Empathy and Caring
Empathy is routinely confused for caring. Women are regularly determined to be more empathic than men and adults more empathic than children. This is true, but what is overlooked is that men and women, and adults and children, tend to care about different things. Women, for example, tend to care more for real things (children, animals, clothes, bedrooms, bodies) and men tend to care more for unreal things (chord patterns, maps, archetypical plots, circuit diagrams, risky futures), and this has nothing to do with empathy, quality or morality; it is possible (indeed very common) to selfishly care.
It is also possible to get exhausted caring; the so called ‘compassion fatigue’ of people who spend a great deal of time around pain and suffering, while empathy, being a natural state, never runs out (see Matthieu Ricard, Altruism, although Ricard calls empathy caring and compassion empathy).
Empathy is not a value or an interest, but an experience of unself—childlike immersion in what I am not—of the quality-of-suchness in the morning light, of the hum and hue and tone of a friend’s gesture, of the deep, inviting vibration of this cup (and not that one), of the ineffable character that makes one performance electric and another flat, or of what it is to be a cow; all equally available to men, women and children. There could be no great works of art without this me-less experience, no miraculous communion between parents and infants, no heart-rending offers of help from toddlers, and no self-detonating mutual-merge during love-making (you, me and the centre of the universe), but for selves to become soft enough to feel what they are not, they either have to be raised in a room of liquid vibe or, more often than not, pummelled by the horrors of life, death, loss, madness and profound sorrow, into literal tenderness.
This pummelling helps explain why the poorer classes, who are routinely subject to self-softening pressures (physical work, reliance on others, uncertainty, discomfort, etc.), along with the disabled, tend to be more empathic than the middle class and elites. See Michael Kraus et al, Social Class, Contextualism, and Empathic Accuracy Gary Sherman et al., Perceiving Others’ Feelings, and Paul Piffa et al., Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior.
On the media
Imagine if the news section of The Guardian was written by genuine journalists and academics (like John Pilger, Mark Curtis, David Graeber and Jonathan Cook). Imagine if the director general of the BBC was Ken Loach (and our generation’s Mike Leighs, Dennis Potters and Alan Bleasedales worked there). Imagine if actors who could express artistic truth were identified and supported (rather than, for example, tall, confident elites with deep voices). Imagine if newspaper columns were written by philosophers, comedians and essayists who actually had something to say. Imagine if genuine artistic potential was detected, encouraged and was given complete artistic freedom to express itself. Imagine if great artists had the same resources and access to public space as advertisers. Imagine if we had an independent media — independent not just of the market, but of the mediocre ego which fuels it.
It could happen in a heartbeat. The media is the weakest link in the entire system and the balsa-wood foundation upon which all the others gain and maintain their legitimacy. Snap the supports of the media, and the whole pyramid of evil falls.