This month brings that rarest of occurrences. I’m recommending a Guardian piece: a tour of the mind of Jeff Bezos. You wouldn’t want to live there but I promise a rewarding trip. Also, and for your instant erudition, we have Pepe Escobar on why DC is so antsy about whose gas Germany cooks with. And to round it off, Media Lens gives us the curated results of twenty years of polite enquiries to, and less than polite replies from, those on the front line of opinion manufacture. I refer to a group some call journalists. If you struggle with the meaning of that term, it may help you to keep in mind that they do what Julian Assange does not. And vice versa.
In the ’70s I was co-founder of a five-strong wholefood co-op in a well to do Sheffield suburb. Young and dependent-free, we worked and played hard: paying ourselves a pittance to shave margins for affluent customers. We didn’t like capitalism, some of us less than others, but nor did we know the first thing about it. We supposed profits came from exploiting the customer.
By the early ’80s I’d been exposed to Marxism by a Maoist academic and, by the late ’80s, had read two volumes of Capital, some in a readers’ group led by a Trot, most alone. I learned that while capitalists can and do exploit consumers where conditions and the longer view allow it, year in/year out profits cannot be so explained. To cut a long and highly dialectical story short, capitalism does not depend on ‘ripping off’ the customer. Rather, it depends on a systematic exploitation – normally hidden from exploiter and exploited alike1 – of the unique capacity of human labour-power to create exchange values greater than its own.
Fast forward a few decades to the meteoric rise of Amazon. Has any company in history taken better care of so vast a customer base? And has any company, in the West at least, exemplified more perfectly the spirit of capitalism in its exploitation of a ruthlessly casualised workforce?
It’s rare for me to recommend, without irony or antipathy, a Guardian piece. In the past six years I recall doing so only once. Yet here I am recommending a Guardian Long Read from the start of this month. Inside the mind of Jeff Bezos, though showing a theoretical grasp no more advanced than mine had been while packing brown rice and Turkish figs for the well heeled of southwest Sheffield, features author Mark O’Connell in a fascinatingly close encounter with the icy heart and mortgaged soul of capital itself.
Russia holds the key to German sovereignty (1531 words)
Pepe Escobar should – but doesn’t – pay me for the number of times I plug his articles. Here I go again. I’ll keep this brief since I already gave a sneak preview in my recent post, Europe’s growing dilemma. Here’s the Brazilian journalist doing yet again what he does best – diving below the idealist rhetoric of Western demonisation to dissect the realpolitik of East-West relations. While most of Pepe’s pieces centre on the action further south and east, here he has his sights on the chilly north by northwest. On the flow of Nord Stream 2, in fact.
There’s a reason, of course, for my naivety as a young man re the nature of capitalism. A reason too why otherwise intelligent people – instead of looking under the bonnet as Marx did, and as journalists like Pepe Escobar still do – take at face value demonisations of nations and leaders which just happen to stand in the way of Western profits.
(When lockdown finally ends, try striking up a pub conversation about Nord Stream 2. Then try Navalny or the Skripals. See which topic falls flat, which one gets everybody piling in with beery sagacity on Putin devilry and the finer points of ‘chokicide.)
The reason for the first is our entrancement by the surface appearance of things: nicely captured in this case by the catch-phrase, ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’. The reason for the second is an evidence-defiant but all embracing understanding, its grip on the Western psyche at once soft focused yet unrelenting, that ‘we are the good guys’.
Behind both lie the intricate networks of meaning some call The Matrix. Others prefer an older but much misunderstood term, ideology. We all of us do our bit, as workers in education and entertainment say, or simply as ordinary folk trying to get by, to perpetuate and renew those networks of meaning. And here’s the thing: since the ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of its ruling class,2 few of us speak of ideology or a ‘matrix’. We speak instead of common sense.
Through ideology we make sense of the world. Its agency is within us all but one external agent is singled out time and again in my writings, and those of Caitlin Johnstone, Jonathan Cook, Off-Guardian, Media Lens and others. I speak of news media. For reasons ably articulated by Noam Chomsky,3 our media deceive us deeply but – this is the scary part – do so through subjectively honest journalists and editors. There are exceptions of course, and grounds for saying their star may be rising, but for the most part these are men and women who do not set out to deceive us. Media corruption is total, and totally toxic, but more systemic than conspired.4
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. But while sharing this understanding, and Chomsky’s, of why the media operate as they do, the Media Lens team has spent two decades politely taking individual journalists, many of them household names, to task over what they write and say. For a bigger perspective on their work, I recommend their book Propaganda Blitz, reviewed here.
Meanwhile this month’s third read gives the view from the trenches. And a revelatory view it is too. However low your opinion of media man, I doubt you’ll be prepared for the sheer puerility of this, from Graun cartoonist Martin Rowson …
‘[Media Lens] has succeeded in riling me. Well done. If I’m proved worng [sic] I’ll apologise. Meanwhile, fuck off & annoy someone else… No time for this anymore. Sorry. I stand convicted as a cunt. End of …’
… or this from the Beeb’s Gavin Esler to one he suspected of writing at Media Lens behest. (Like many journalists he’d stopped responding to questions, put by the ML team, whose legitimacy of content and courtesy of tone you may judge for yourself.)
Sorry but this medialens inspired stuff is very sophomoric. The last time I remember a robotic response from people like this was watching film of the nuremberg rallies. I always wondered why people marched to another’s beat without any obvious thought from themselves. Perhaps you know the answer, or perhaps you merely intend to keep marching.
Please don’t write to me again in someone else’s words. It is so embarrasing [sic] for you. Please learn to think for yourself.
But while this piece is entertaining at the level of human interest, don’t forget – not that Media Lens will let you – that these private purveyors of Prep School prickliness are also very public promoters, useful idiots beneath a greater or lesser veneer of critical detachment,5 of a status quo which trashes the planet for profit even as it shepherds us down the road to Armageddon.
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- ‘Normally hidden from exploiter and exploited alike.’ As Marx observed, if the surface appearance of things revealed their true nature, science would be superfluous.
- Not for the first or last time, I define a ruling class by its monopoly ownership of some essential – land, capital, or even other human beings – of wealth creation. Everything else flows from this defining characteristic.
- Noam Chomsky: ‘media are big businesses selling privileged audiences to other big businesses. Now the question is, what pictures of the world would a rational person expect to come out of this structure?’
- ‘Media corruption is … more systemic than conspired.’ The political economy of our media, specifically a 200 year reliance on advertising (two steps removed in the case of state broadcasters) makes it so. That this model is now under threat – hence the moves to rein in social media – complicates but does not yet sidestep that stark truth. Since media practitioners are human beings, as steeped in dominant ideology as the rest of us, such systemic bias merges seamlessly, and in dialectical interplay, with wider biases. Slavoj Žižek said it is easier for us to envisage the end of the world than the end of capitalism. For his part Chomsky replied thus to interviewer Andrew Marr’s protest that he does not self censor at the BBC: ‘I don’t say you are self censoring. I’m sure you believe all you say. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting in that chair.’
- Chomsky again: ‘the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.’