My February reads

27 Feb

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.


‘A Managerial Mephistopheles’: inside the mind of Jeff Bezos (6401 words)

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.


20 years of Media Lens: a selection of remarkable replies from journalists (4987 words)

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.)

Said Esler:

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.

* * *

  1. ‘Normally hidden from exploiter and exploited alike.’ As Marx observed, if the surface appearance of things revealed their true nature, science would be superfluous.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?’
  4. ‘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.’
  5. 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.’

11 Replies to “My February reads

  1. Thank you, Phil, for your succinct and accessible introductory reminders about how Marx interpreted capitalism and ideology. And for reproducing the piece by Mark O’Connell on Jeff Bezos. I’d not heard of him before and learned a lot. I particularly liked the bit about Bezos’ cage project and how MO’C interprets the cage also as ‘a way of thinking’. Reminded me of Weber’s polemical conclusion to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism where he talks about how we become trapped in ‘the iron cage’ of capitalism – because it’s not primarily about greed or choice or about rapacious capitalists and consumers but about an unrelenting systematic ‘rationality’ and ‘bureaucracy’.. And although Weber can be read as anti-Marx because he concentrates on mind-set and ethics rather than material circumstances, I think it’s more useful to see his approach as complimentary. And I think the Bezos piece manages very well to ‘get’ both the material and ideological ways that Amazon is so successful and works as ‘the’ type of a contemporary capitalist enterprise.

    • Thanks Ros. Though I often allude – raised as I was in a severe branch of Protestantism; viz, the Baptist Church – to Weber’s famous phrase, I have to confess I haven’t read a word of a man few would deny is up there with Freud and Darwin, Marx and Engels, as one of the towering thinkers of his day.

      Can you recommend a quick overview for a busy scribbler?

  2. You (and Chomsky) are too kind to journalists. It is obvious, to anyone who wants to see, which countries are illegaly invading others, or fomenting plots to overthrow legally constituted governments, etc.

    To ignore such antics requires two things: an under-developed sense of morality, and (as I think you may have mentioned recently) a clear insight into the fact that if they develop a sense of morality, their pay check will cease to arrive.

    So basically, most mainstream journalists are hypocritical cowards. Most of the rest, if they don’t fit into that category, are either very stupid patriots or very thoroughly indoctrinated dupes. The remaining few are people like Cook and Escobar who provide proof that you can be a journalist and still earn an honest living.

    • Hi Jams. I don’t deem Chomsky too kind to journalists. He shows us – powerfully, necessarily and with his remarkable gift for simplicity – that we need not assume corporate media staffed top to bottom with rogues and liars. Which is just as well because those of my acquaintance are neither. Analyses which start and end with so comic-book an assumption are doomed to be trite and easily dismissed.

      You come closer, I think, with your allusion to cowardice. Even here I’d be a tad kinder, but fundamentally can’t argue with you. All I’d do is add that in all probability most of us are in that sense ‘cowardly’ – and that before we make free with that epithet we do well to ask ourselves: when were we tested? When did we do the right thing when the costs were high? If we have convincing answers to such questions, well, maybe we can then make so bold. But that’s a big if in most cases, though I always try to make room for the exceptions, and maybe that’s you.

      I think the parenthesised allusion in your second para is to one of my most cited quotes. Upton Sinclair, no? “It’s hard to get a man to see a truth his salary depends on him not seeing.”

      To which we might add, it’s harder still when that man has a family to feed. Yes, folk like Caitlin, Jonathan, Pepe, the two Davids at Media Lens and a good few more are shining beacons. But theirs is a precarious and unscalable model. They rely on the generosity of such as you and me to keep afloat. Nothing new there. Karl himself depended greatly on his beloved Fred – which is to say, on inherited wealth!

      Truth is, I see no way round the challenge of going further than moral denunciation, necessary as that often is, to engage with the human condition in its vast and endless complexity; to engage, in fact, with ideology. Too much of the Left has ignored this, or referred to it in simplistic terms.

  3. Well, I have to disagree with you, Phil. For example, you in this blog, and anyone replying to you, are implicitly exposing themselves to scrutiny by – who knows who? MI5, MI6 GCHQ, the police? OK, that’s as far as it goes just now, but there’s lots of historical stuff – activist blacklisting, fitting up of innocent Irishmen etc. which show that the state will stamp on you if they think (or need you to be) a danger.

    Assume that the ERG lunatics get a true believer into the PM’s position – suppose that in 10 years time the UK economy really goes down the tubes due to Brexit and global warming. Suppose there are water shortages, food shortages, flooding, homelessness. Do you think that such a government might just overlook your contribution to the general unrest? I don’t think you (and possibly us) will be in the same position as e.g. Jonathan Freedland.

    • Well I thank you Jams, and not for the first time, for the compliment. We who scribble as I do need those from time to time. But I too make hard headed calculations. I turn 70 next year – inshallah – and am as financially independent as is possible for a lifetime labour-seller in a profit led world. One who ducked and weaved far too much to have any vast pension pot. (And yes, I do keep a wary eye on moves to lift the triple lock!)

      My two daughters are capable women in their mid to late thirties and doing well. My pension, supplemented by a few grand in rent from my house in Sheffield (not all of which I in turn hand over to my own landlord in Nottingham) is modest but suffices. My needs and even my desires are few and there is literally nothing I long to do, but cannot for lack of money.

      For these reasons it’s relatively easy to write as I do. Not everyone is as well placed. As for what might happen in ten years time, I share your foreboding but here too make a personal risk assessment. The truth is, by the time things get really bad in the West, I’m unlikely to be still around!

      Other and more subjective factors also apply. I’m a bit of a contrarian, I guess. That does not make me a better or worse person, simply not your average bloke in that regard if no other. I also feel enormously privileged – though at times it can seem a bitter chalice – to be applying my skills as writer and thinker to things that matter. I see friends and peers filling in their twilight days on the golf course, or collecting stamps, and – my twice a week visitations by nihilism notwithstanding – feel blessed beyond measure. What a thing to have focus and purpose and meaning!

      (Recognising the pay-offs for us, in our world views as much as our actions, is not only the key to self awareness. It also has direct bearing on what we are discussing here. At some level we are all of us self-serving in our thinking. This, again, is implicit in that splendidly pithy Upton Sinclair quote. To repeat, while there are out and out liars – take Luke Harding’s claims on the Assange-Manafort meetings – I say most journalists are subjectively honest: the point made by Chomsky to Marr applies. Is their thinking self-serving? Of course! More so than that of the average human being? I doubt it.)

      All these things have to be factored in before we assume everyone can do as I do. Then we see that the model of lone wolves like Caitlin, Jonathan, the two Davids et al – yes, and me too – doesn’t scale up. People like us are needed, I say, but not as sticks to beat the less enlightened, the more indoctrinated or simply the less favourably placed. I’m not by nature modest but I do find wisdom in Kipling’s words:

      If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
      Yet make allowance for their doubting too …

      Finally, I want to be kind to the little people trying to get by, and to minimise conflict by choosing not only my battles but by distinguishing implacable foe from potential ally. I strive for these things not because I’m a saint. Not even because I’m a Libran! (George McI, with whom you have crossed swords, once proffered this diagnosis, forgetting that Mrs Thatcher was also one – not, I hasten to add, that we Librans believe in astrology!)

      I try, not always with total success, to avoid calling the vast majority of my fellows fools, cowards and varlets. That’s bad salesmanship. (And we do well to keep in mind that, under an insane system, we are all of us a little insane ourselves.) Those on the Left, and they are many, who vilify everyone not sharing their take on how things are leave me wondering as to their motives. Do they really seek change? Or do they simply like to breathe the air on what it pleases them to call the moral high ground?

      Apologies for going on a bit. I may come back, shape up my thoughts, and present them in a post above the line.

      In solidarity, Phil.

      • PS – another “finally” … I do believe – and this too may flow from that famously Libran trait of constantly weighing in the balance – that more aggressive voices are also needed. The world is a stage, said Elvis, and all of us have our parts to play. Or as my dear old gran would say, “it takes all sorts to make a revolution”.

        • Mmmmm. I have a much more jaundiced view of humanity than you. I recognise that there are quite a lot of anonymous people doing good quietly in their own back yard, or actively in the world (of health mostly). However I believe that they are vastly outnumbered by the majority who are either ignoring the ills of society and thus enabling them, or a large minority who are actively doing (to put it mildly) wrong.

          I used to have arguments about this sort of stuff with a friend. My position was that e.g. Jesus said you should give your possessions to the poor, follow him by doing good deeds, etc. etc. However, you find very few self-described Christians doing many of these things. Fair enough – giving all your stuff to the poor is not really a prescription for a viable society, (and it just transfers the problem of excessive wealth onto the previously poor [ 🙂 ]) but then they mustn’t call themselves ‘Christians’.

          My point is that this sort of lumpen social glossing-over of reality is what allows one to ignore our collective responsibility for the ills of society, and it is widespread. My friends reply was that I was being too literal minded and that that society needed this sort of grease to allow it to function. However, I remain a purist (or possibly a fanatic) about this sort of hypocrisy, and I think it needs continual exposure.

          But I have to add that I am no social worker myself. I aspire to be a Buddhist, but at best it’s still just an aspiration really. I do my best to stay aware, but I have all the usual human faults (including, I see from the above, intolerance and self-satisfaction – ho-hum – its an endless fight to do better).

          PS I’m a year ahead of you, so it all probably matters even less to me.

          • These are genuine differences of temperament and world view, on which there’s much to be said for and on either side. I’m not really an optimist – or if I am, it’s of Sartre’s “stern” kind – but on utilitarian grounds I see little mileage in damning most of humanity. Moreover, I see the work on media done by Chomsky as vitally important (even if he doesn’t always keep faith with his own analyses). Likewise that done by such as Gramsci on ideology.

            Would you mind my posting these exchanges above the line, where they’ll get a wider airing? No rush to decide, as it’ll not happen today anyway.

            Btw, I still have to approve all your comments. Even with Susan O’Neill I no longer have to do that – weakening my suspicion that WordPress has inbuilt antipathy to the Irishly named. Have you tried using a different email account? Am fogged. Totally.

            • Yes, post anything I say – if I regret it later, too bad. I’ll try logging in with another name and e-mail. I’d better not pick any well known Marxists as a pseudonym though, as we might get a similar problem.

  4. “Those on the Left, and they are many, who vilify everyone not sharing their take on how things are leave me wondering as to their motives”

    I can’t speak for them, but what I think is that a) we are all responsible to varying degrees for the fact that the rich or powerful are allowed to get away with ‘it’, and b) it makes me pretty angry that this is so – Palestinians being ethnically cleansed and murdered at will by a much superior army, (so much so that I can’t stand to read about it any more) Iraqis, Syrians, Iranians, Cubans, being bombed and their societies destroyed by a bunch of very rich half-wits etc. etc. If the ‘lower’ (i.e. financially lower) two-thirds or three-quarters of various populations of the world were to be fully conscious of what is being done and where and why, and also why they are in fact ‘financially lower’ they could make a pretty good start on stopping it all.

    Of course this is what Marx hoped for, but I see absolutely no signs that enough of either world or individual state populations are reaching this awareness, or that they ever will. Which probably leads me to some sort of Leninist or possibly Maoist ‘vanguard party’ stance. This goes against all my other ‘stances’ of Anarchism and Buddhism. It’s also difficult to see why such a revolution would turn out any different from the initial version. I was reading an article recently about Chinese ‘grass roots feedback’ practice – which sounds good, but I still see the CCP as being more of a ‘state capitalist’ – as the old SWP mantra had it, than a real communist state, So “What is to be done” – buggered if I know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *