Capitalism cut adrift

William Bowles

Have we really been brainwashed?

There has been much talk expended over the years on the degree to which the media—and hence culture—is central to maintaining the capitalist system. Leading the charge have been Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, so much so that they now more resemble sainted objects than social/political analysts, but then this is nothing new for the left, who unfortunately for the most part are happy to let others do the thinking for them.

The problem for the ‘rest of us’ is that Chomsky et al speak the private language of the professional academics that is ironically also the source of the very problem they write about. I am not faulting Chomsky and co’s analysis, the problem is that to some degree it contradicts what people think out here in the real world.

So for example, Chomsky has written reams on the role of propaganda and language and how it allegedly shapes our perceptions and understanding of events in order to maintain credibility and belief in the system. But consider the following numbers on the peoples’ lack of trust in major institutions in the US and the UK:

“63 percent of respondents said news articles were often inaccurate and only 29 percent said the media generally “get the facts straight” — the worst marks Pew has recorded — compared with 53 percent and 39 percent in 2007.

“Seventy-four percent said news organizations favored one side or another in reporting on political and social issues, and the same percentage said the media were often influenced by powerful interests. Those, too, are the worst marks recorded in Pew surveys.

“Negative opinions grew since 2007 among both major parties, but significantly more so among Democrats. The percentage of Democrats calling the media inaccurate rose to 59, from 43; the percentage who said the media took sides rose to 67, from 54.” — ‘Trust in News Media Falls to New Low in Pew Survey’, NYT, 13 September, 2009.

So too with lack of trust in government:

“The poll finds trust in the executive branch, headed by the president, near the record low from the Watergate era. Just 42% of Americans say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the executive branch, similar to last year's 43%, but the lowest since a 40% reading in April 1974. Trust in the executive branch has been below 50% each of the last three years. That coincides with the roughly two-year trend in sub-40% job approval ratings for Bush.” — ‘Trust in Government Remains Low”, Gallup, 18 September, 2008.

The same goes for the UK:

- 68% trust companies less than they did a year ago

- Trust in media dropped ten points to 28%

- Trust in banks down 16 points to 31% — ‘Trust Barometer 2010’

Okay, polls can be fixed to say almost anything, they are after all just statistics by another name, but bearing in mind the bias any and all polls have, in this case they all appear to say the same thing: that people know only too well what little control they have over events in the real world but they still experience the end product whether it be unemployment or loss of ‘community’ and they observe our corrupt political and business class in ‘action’ every day of their lives.

Meanwhile the government that no one trusts has the nerve to blame the media that serves it:

“One of Tony Blair's closest advisers has warned that the government risks losing its legitimacy, partly due to a systematic failure of the media to report the truth.” — ‘Media blamed for loss of trust in government’, The Guardian, 6 May 2004.

Well of course, they would say that wouldn’t they, but at the same time it’s an admission that all the ‘spin’ (lies) cannot alter the fundamental reality that most people don’t need a degree in linguistics to figure out what’s going on, the real issue is why won’t they act on what they know and do something about it? After all, don’t we live in a democracy?

On cue, up pops a piece on BBC 2’s ‘Culture Show’ (4/2/10) about Michael Moore’s about to be released in the UK, ‘Capitalism, a love story’. Mark Kermode interviews the BBC’s ‘guru’ of all things economic, Robert Peston about whether Moore is telling the truth about the economics of capitalism, as Kermode is unhappy with Moore’s crusading and hence ‘biased’ approach (amongst other things). But fundamentally, Peston cannot fault the facts of the movie, though he appears a little uncomfortable having to say so, and no wonder, Peston has a vested interest, capitalism pays for his ‘lifestyle’ (so much for ‘objective’ journalism).

Both of them also attacked Moore for making a shitload of money out of the system he attacks so vehemently in his movies. But so what? Moore, like Peston and Kermode, lives in a capitalist system, how else could he make movies that reach millions without making money at the same time? There is no contradiction. As they say, ‘money talks and bullshit walks’.

Kermode then asks Peston, ‘If this is what capitalism is really like, why don’t they rise up?’ Why not indeed?

And indeed, Peston had no response to Kermode’s somewhat rhetorical question other than to say it’s not for him to say. After all, Peston has to watch his p’s and q’s for if he had had the temerity to say something like, ‘Mark, you’re absolutely right, capitalism sucks, millions have been thrown out of work and into the streets and worse through no fault of their own, so as a trained economist I know there’s a better way of doing things’.

As they say in the US, a pink slip would have been on his (former) desk super pronto. But how can Peston claim to be impartial and objective when his mission in the last analysis is to legitimize capitalism come what may? But it also speaks reams about the kind of ‘education’ you get in economics at university, which is where I started out this essay.

Capitalism cut adrift

There’s no doubt about it, three decades of unregulated ‘free market’ financialized capitalism in the UK has proved to be a total disaster, but not in the ‘classical marxist’ sense of a struggle between capital and labour being played out in the streets or in our (non-existent) factories let alone in our decrepid and corruption political institutions. Instead, ‘neo-liberalism’ has failed not only on an economic level but more importantly it’s been a cultural and ideological failure, hence all the talk about regaining the ‘trust’ of the populace and lots of hot air about ‘consultations’ and ‘town hall meetings’ and of course, the inevitable patriotic jingoism about our ‘glorious’ imperial past.

But are we as passive as it appears? Is the struggle being played out on an entirely different level, and to compound the problem, is the struggle being manipulated and exploited by our mass consumption, corporate culture, largely through the medium of television and the resultant ‘spin-offs’ into the real world?

The central thrust of capitalist propaganda in the UK focuses on ‘tradition’ and British ‘fair play’, ‘the mother of democracies’, on our ‘green and pleasant land’ and so on. In any case a totally mythologized history but one that millions believe in (even as they see it vanish before their eyes and this surely is the point).

Corporate capitalism is rapidly erasing even those traces of our mythologized past that have survived the freeways and shopping malls. The countryside has been vandalized by the mass (temporary) migration to the ‘country’ that has destroyed the traditional English village through the second home. Add to this to destructive effects that gigantic retail corporations have had on virtually every aspect of life. City and town high streets have been ‘franchised’, local small businesses wiped out in the process.

Having been born and raised in London and then lived 17 years in New York and ten in Johannesburg, I can attest that the London I came back to can be best described as having all the worst aspects of New York and none of its best. In other words a cheap and nasty copy of the city so nice they named it twice. All the really good things about London’s aggregation of villages around a centre that made it a unique and diverse city have been gutted and replaced with a vulgar, mass-produced facade that can be found in any corporatized city on the planet.

Add to this the privatization of our common property; water, electricity, gas, all kinds of community services that have part of our lives for generations and it’s clear that the quality of life we fought for has been destroyed.

Even in New York the old Italian neighbourhood of downtown Brooklyn where I bought my bread, coffee and pasta, still exists with the same family-run delis and bakeries. This is what makes living in a city worth the hassle. Take the diversity and richness away and what have you got?

British workers work the longest hours in the EU yet have the lowest productivity. Stress levels are OTT, depression affects about 20 million people in the UK. It’s official, people are unhappy and no wonder, the dream (fantasy) that the neo-liberals sold us has turned into a nightmare.

But rather than resorting to the political process to call a halt to this nation-wide corporate vandalism of our culture, our dis-ease is being played out in the mass media in a torrent of programmes all of which look back in one way or another to a world that no longer exists even in its fantasy incarnation.

Self-sufficiency, do-it-yourself, ‘green’ technologies, raising vegetables, crafts, ‘heritage’ projects , history, archeology, geneology, all manner of ‘community’ projects like cleaning up neighbourhoods or restoring poisoned rivers, the list is constantly expanding in what can only be described as a headlong flight from the shopping mall to the allotment and hence from corporate ‘culture’ in all its vileness and mediocrity. I kid you not, our ‘winter of discontent’ has been transformed into a ‘reality show’.

This is by no means the first time that capitalism has caused such revulsion as the inexorable march of accumulation destroyed traditional communities across this ‘green and pleasant land’.

In fact we now live in at least the third version of capitalism to blight this England. The first occurred around 1750 with the arrival of factory system, the second with the Enclosures Act in 1832 that saw the forcible removal of millions of workers from country to city and the third, the enforced deindustrialization that began in the Thatcher years. The fundamental effect of these transformations was to break the links with the past.

What remains is a hollowed out ‘heritage’ version of our history, aka Walt Disney’s theme parks.

And of course, every time this happens, history, as the programmers would call it, has to be ‘recompiled’ or perhaps reconstituted, and there are plenty of ‘professional’ historians only too willing to do the makeover on behalf of capital, let alone the role of the mass media in selling the myths. And without a past, we truly lost.

Looking sideways

Awhile back I wrote about News From Nowhere, William Morris’s future history of England. Morris takes us two hundred years[1] into the future and given that it was written over one hundred years ago, that would put the setting about one hundred years in our future. So for Morris it took one hundred years to bring about a successful revolution.[2]

In Morris’s version, he looks back not only to the age (the Change) that brought about the end of capitalism but also to that earlier, pre-capitalist, medieval rural England, bits of which he incorporated into his rural socialist ‘utopia’. So Morris was actually writing four histories in total. He was writing about his own time, the end of the 19th century; Medieval England as he saw it; the intervening years that led up to the Change and then from his imagined future that looks back on Morris’s other histories.

If you think this is complicated, consider what our ruling culture has done with our history, for the fact remains, cliché though it is, that history is written by those who rule.

But the dominant culture’s grasp on reality grows weak and as it does so it gets dangerous, lashing out in all directions against invented enemies. This is illustrated for example by the Labour government’s plea some while back that more should be done to promote ‘British values’ (like invading foreign lands and slaughtering people?), the British ‘way of life’ and ‘citizenship’ tests designed to reinforce capital’s grip on what’s left of our culture.

The art of substitution

But something else has happened: Television has become the major propaganda weapon of capital, serving not only to ‘entertain’ but to transform our understanding of where we came from and crucially, how we got here.

This is manifest in the slew of programmes I referred to in Part 1 that reflect the deep dis-ease we feel about the state of our existence.

Parallel to this, over the past few years and led by the historian Niall Ferguson and now Andrew Marr and David Dimbleby, who pick up where Winston Churchill left off with his ‘A History of the English-speaking Peoples’. These ‘new and improved’ versions have only one objective: to rewrite history once more, replacing one myth with another, more palatable version (given Churchill’s emphasis on Kings, rulers and Empire).

In Britain, historian Niall Ferguson has for years conveyed a revisionist view of colonialism, describing British colonial rule in Africa and Asia as “nation-building.” Ferguson has said that the British empire succeeded in transforming “the institutions of failed or rogue states and lay the foundations of…rule of law, non-corrupt administration, and ultimately, representative government.”

Among such “failed or rogue states” Ferguson included India.

He also claimed that the British empire succeeded in giving rise to a lengthy period of “relative world peace” and a global order within which economic development was unquestionably easier. (…)

He has even claimed that an “imperial gene” exists – which apparently would be of Anglo-Saxon origin. — ‘Recasting Colonialism as a Good Thing’ By Julio Godoy[3]

It’s a full frontal assault on our perceptions that on the one hand reflects the deep unhappiness so many Brits feel and on the other, an attempt to supplant our real, lived history with a nostalgic and sentimental vision of the past that plays up the state’s emphasis on ‘fair play’ and ‘tolerance’ that are allegedly so fundamental to ‘Britishness’.

Thus the ‘class war’ is unfolding on television but without the participation of working people who have been relegated on the one hand to passive consumers and on the other as active participants in ‘community’ as entertainment.

None of this would be possible without a complicit intelligentsia perhaps best illustrated by our tabloid press, the so-called Red Tops that directly target working people, playing to their fears and insecurities. The pages of these ‘weapons of mass distraction’ are written not by working people but by the same university educated specialists who write for The Times and Guardian, the only difference being the language used, a facsimile allegedly of how the working class think and what concerns them.

And in fact, the media is brazen in its manipulation of reality. For example, crime ‘statistics’ which occupy so much of our public discourse, reveal that crime has steadily dropped over the past decade. But as far the mass media is concerned it’s people’s perceptions that are important.

‘A survey conducted…by pollsters Mori found that 20% of elderly people living in inner cities had a greatly reduced quality of life because of fear of crime’ — ‘Fear is as devastating as crime’, BBC News

But these fears emanate from the very same media that dished up the piece above. Thus it’s not reality that is dealt with but our perceptions of reality. Were it not for the endless references to crime that headline almost every ‘news’ report, these perceptions would not exist in the first place!

And this kind of warping of reality applies to almost every aspect of our lives: ‘the war on terror’, ‘Islamic extremists’, ‘radicalisation’, ‘anti-social behaviour’ or Iran’s assumed drive to acquire nuclear weapons, weapons we are told that will be aimed at us.

‘Iran’s announcement that it will further enrich its stock of uranium adds to suspicion of its ultimate intentions but leaves the United States and its allies as confused as ever.’ — ‘Iran confuses again with ‘further enrichment’’, BBC News, 9 February, 2010.

It is not necessary to offer proof, “suspicion” and Iran’s “ultimate intentions” are all that’s needed to reinforce the illusion, leaving us understandably “confused”. After all, would the BBC lie to us?


1. There's some disagreement over the actual timespan that Morris imagined as he changed the dates in the book version that came after its initial serialization.

2. See also Looking Backwards by Edward Bellamy, a highly successful future history published 1888, some eight years earlier, and undoubtedly it influenced Morris, though he had serious problems with Bellamy’s urban-only, vaguely socialist vision.

3. See Ed Vuillamy’s review of Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the Great American Empire, ‘Let's free the people - as long as there's something in it for us’

Source: and Illustration: William Bowles' website:


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