Category: globalisation

New Media & Censorship

By Daniel Margrain

During the height of the anti-capitalist movement in 2002, I wrote a paper as part of my MA in which I said:

“The growth of new (physical) technologies allied with the development of the (virtual) media, is resulting in the revival and reworking of the classical ideal of an actively engaged and responsible citizenship. It is my contention that established media and virtual media will increasingly contest for spheres of influence in ‘cyberspace’. The extent to which one or the other establishes spatial dominance is likely to shape the nature of politics in the new century and therefore determine a new set of socio-political relationships.”

Global village

The development of new media corresponded to what Marxist geographer, David Harvey, referred to as “time-space compression” brought about by the growth in global communication networks which has its genesis as part of a concept of what became known as the “global village” – a term first coined by Marshall McLuhan in 1962. Having since become a cliche of global communications, it describes, in the loose sense, how citizens of the world who have communication tools at their command, can communicate and share interests across the world, just as they might across a village street.

More importantly, however, McLuhan claimed that the dominant mode of communication in the earlier part of the century had been written and printed. Even modes like the telegraph message and air letter were communication in print. This was formal communication typical of the hierarchical and procedurally bound societies of the time.

Conversely, in the global village, television, telephone and other electronic communication restored a formal oral culture in which informality and impermanence were the characteristics. This cut across the formal structures of existing political organisations.

The significance of McLuhan was that he anticipated the phenomena of virtuality and interactivity, the dissolving of traditional structures and patterns and the compression of time and space. One of the main technological manifestations that facilitate the latter is the growth of telecommunications infrastructure.

Power structure

It is the integration of global communication networks – telecommunications, computing and media technologies – that forms the basis of the internet and ISDN traffic. From its small military beginnings in the 1970s and 1980s, the former has opened up the possibility of a genuine new form of community. Over twenty years ago, John Allen and Chris Hamnett even went as far as to argue that the internet would bring about the “death of geography.”

But what McLuhan and Allen and Hamnett overestimated was the extent to which the global village would remove old hierarchies and social gradients. Correspondingly, they underestimated the ability of the new technology to reinforce existing socioeconomic patterns of inequality and structures of power.

Not only has the the new technology installed a new form of communicative apartheid as evidenced by the uneven global spread of internet hosts and web users, but the nature of this trend also gives the illusion of empowerment. In their 1997 book, The Global Media,  Edward Herman and Robert McChesney are rightly critical of the notion that the growth in internet use results in the ability of humanity to leapfrog over existing forms of corporate communication, citing the internet’s rapid commercialization which functions in sharp contrast to it.

While in theory, the development of the internet is the potential catalyst for an active, responsible and informed citizenship to grow, the reconciling of technology with a democratic utopianism presupposes that those who control communications technology are politically and ideologically impartial in a way that the British state broadcaster, for example, is not.

The notion that BBC news journalists are impartial and that their role is to bring power to account, is based on a collective delusion. In Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media, political scientist, Michael Parenti argues that these kinds of journalists:

“Rarely doubt their own objectivity even as they faithfully echo the established political vocabularies and the prevailing politico-economic orthodoxy. Since they do not cross any forbidden lines, they are not reined in. So they are likely to have no awareness they are on an ideological leash” (1986, p.25).

But surely establishment journalists are free to say what they want in a democracy?

In 1996, Noam Chomsky challenged the assertion made by the BBCs Andrew Marr that his views were not the product of a form of self-censorship. Chomsky said:

“I’m sure you believe everything you are saying. But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you [Marr] wouldn’t be sitting where you are sitting.”

In other words, as Michael Parenti commenting on how media bias manifests, said of establishment journalists like Marr: “[Journalists] say what [they] like because they [their proprietors] like what [they] say.”

Propaganda

If the internet is to successfully leapfrog over what John Pilger describes as “the best, most sophisticated propaganda service in the world”, it must free itself from the forms of control indicative of its traditional counterparts.

Launched in February, 2004, the on-line social media site, Facebook, looked like it offered a genuine avenue for alternative forms of information to flourish freely. But recent evidence uncovered by the website Vox Political points to attempts by the corporation to suppress this free flow of information (see graphic below):

vox.png

According to another popular left-wing site, Skawkbox, statistics for its blog “show a ratio of around four or five visitors via Facebook for every one via Twitter. Over the last few days that has dropped to around one and a half Facebook referrals to every Twitter visitor.”

This is in line with additional analysis which suggests that new Google algorithm’s are restricting access to other left-wing progressive web sites.

The question of whether the cultural globalization of virtual space will result in the homogenization and neutralization of public and political discourse in similar ways that have befallen the traditional media, is likely to depend on the extent to which it is subject to the same distorted relations of economic power. For a liberal democracy like the UK that boasts about its plurality, the signs do not appear to be encouraging:

“Frank Beacham who enthused about the internet as a public sphere outside of corporate or government control in early 1995, lamented one year later that the internet was shifting ‘from being a participatory medium that serves the interests of the public to being a broadcast media where corporations deliver consumer-orientated information. Interactivity would be reduced to little more than sales transactions and e mail.” (Herman, E. & McChesney, R. (1997) ‘The Global Media’, p.135).

Commercial values

The implication is that the nature of the new, as with old, media content is implicitly and explicitly determined or influenced by advertising and commercial values. A key issue relates to whether information that is not influenced by the above factors is freely accessible in other forms. The main problem with liberal democracies is not necessarily that information is unavailable to the public, or that voting procedures, for example, are too cumbersome, rather it is the public’s lack of scepticism and desire to root out the facts (See for example, Hirschkop, K. in Capitalism and the Information Age, 2000).

The spread of the internet in such a situation, therefore, increases the access to far more information that would otherwise be the case with traditional forms of media. But access by itself is not the principal problem. Knowledge is not the base of its authority but its instrument. It is within this context that new media is unlikely to prove qualitatively different from the old. However, it is by its nature, likely to alter our perceptions of political space, relations to power and historical forms of rule.

In terms of production networks, global media output and global multinational capital both need technology in order to expand, just as much as technology needs multinationals and governments to globalize spaces of capital and new media through economic liberalization. Thus, globalization, technology, new media and the dominant relations of economic power are inter-connected. Moreover, as Robert McChesney asserts, these factors are reinforced by an uneven balance of power for the benefit of corporate-media political culture:

“A market dominated political economy tends to produce exactly such a political culture, to some extent because commercial penetration tends to undermine the autonomous social organisations that can bring meaning to public life…A capitalist society works most efficiently when the bulk of the population is demoralized and effectively depoliticised…As the Financial Times put it, ‘capitalist democracy can best succeed to the extent that it is about ‘the process of depoliticising the economy.’ The global commercial media are integral to this depoliticization process” (1997, pp.16-17).

Whether virtual space can bring about a new democratic polity based upon notions of social, economic and political justice, will depend on whether networked technologies are able to break free from the grip of the distortions that reflect the overriding interests associated with traditional forms of media proprietorship.

Ultimately, new media is shaped by the ideology of power, not democracy. In the context in which a Guardian editorial recently argued that “censoring the internet is necessary”, and a mainstream media which historian Mark Curtis contends, “keeps the public in the dark about virtually every important current and historical policy”, the stakes could hardly be higher.

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Real Truman Show: The Corporate Urban Vision

By Daniel Margrain

The Thames in Southwark with City Hall, where campaigners gathered to protest against privatisation of public spaces in London and throughout the UK.

 

The 1998 film, The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir, presents a character, Truman Burbank, who unknowingly stars in a 30-year soap opera/reality show about his own life, under a giant dome whose boundaries are hidden from him. The show is broadcast to a global audience of billions.

The fake town Truman lives in, Seahaven, is populated by a massive number of actors playing real people. Seahaven’s creator, director, executive producer, and ‘God’, Christof, is convinced that the deception is benign, because Truman’s life in the synthetic town is far happier than anything he could find in the real world.

Truman has no idea he is living inside a television studio, surrounded by actors. Nor does he know that some 5,000 cameras placed around the town of Seahaven record his life for the TV audience, 24 hours a day non-stop without commercial interruption. The only way that Christof can make money is through product placements which are woven, at times clumsily, into dialogue and scenes that Truman is oblivious to.

As the film progresses, Truman begins to suspect that his entire life is part of an elaborate set. It’s at this point that the shows audience begin to root for him in his quest to uncover his fake existence and to escape from the confines of his virtual reality prison. The viewing audience are able to relate to Truman’s plight because they recognize that they too are trapped by similar forces that they need to be rescued from.

The film works as a satire because the community in which Truman lives his fake existence is very much tied into a corporate dominated world in which the notion of illusion and reality are often blurred. ‘Product placement’ and testimonials for this emerging system of entertainment-marketing capitalism are being seamlessly woven into our lives.

Truman’s quest for freedom can be interpreted as the aspiration for authenticity and meaning within a world in which the increasing commodification of all things is a feature of modern life. Was Weir on to something? Is the world in which Truman inhabits more than just a piece of science fiction allegory?

Molded into a desired pattern

Every institution provides the people who are members of it with a social role – that’s as true to the role played by say, the church, as it is to the corporation whose goal it is to maximize profit and market share. Capitalism could not function if it were not for the fact that individuals are disassociated from both the products of their labour and from one another. Just like the God figure, Christof, public relations and advertising industries facilitate the process of disassociation by molding people from a very early age into a desired pattern.

To achieve this, corporations don’t necessarily advertise products, but advertise a way of life and a narrative of who we are as people. The aim is to persuade the masses that the corporation is virtuous, responsible for the good life and the belief that the future can only be better than the present; that modernity itself means human improvement. However, the contradictions inherent to capitalism are such that progress is measured by the speed at which we destroy the conditions that sustain life. The function of corporate branding is to persuade us that the ideology of progress will offset the decline in societal and environmental well-being.

Disney Utopianism

Many corporations have already recreated their branded visions as three dimensional representations of real life with this aim in mind. A company like Disney, for example, have taken this logic to the next level by building a “town” in the image of their brand – Celebration Florida – which it describes as a unincorporated community of almost 8,000 people, situated on 11 square miles of carefully engineered Floridian swamp.” The brand image of Celebration Florida is a themed all-American family friendly privatized branded cocoon set within a bygone era – the real life Seahaven.

Given that relations mediated between human beings increasingly appear to be the function of the commercial world, could the Utopian Celebration Florida model become a commonplace vision elsewhere? Moreover, can civilization survive on this narrow definition of how humans interact with one another?

The real-life experiences many of us engage in on a day-to-day basis, embodied in atomized living and the increasing engagement with virtual reality and robotics, is arguably closer to the allegorical fantasy of the Truman Show than many people are perhaps prepared to admit. Just as Christof wove product placements into dialogue and scenes as part of Truman’s constructed reality, the same processes form part of the marketing tools available to professional marketeers who weave product-placements into our everyday real lives.

Product placement

Professional marketeer, Jonathan Ressler CEO of Big Fat Inc. concedes that “real life product placement is just that – placing stuff in movies but the movie is actually your life.” In other words, it’s already the case that people are being subliminally targeted with branding by undercover marketeers on a daily basis. Ressler elaborates on these themes in the documentary film, The Corporation.  He claims that the public are subject to an average of eight or nine subliminal marketing messages a day and they therefore effectively act as brand bait and soundbites of knowledge for corporations.

According to Ressler, it’s fine if the masses want to be critical by cynically challenging the motive behind every human exchange, but adds that if the corporations “show you something that fits and something that works that makes your life better in some way, who cares?…Just say, thanks!” The implication seems to be that if an uncritical and undemanding public are happy with the commercial ‘comforts’ that the corporation is able to provide them and their families with, then logically there is no reason for people to want to absolve themselves of these comforts.

Reassurance

Familiarity and reassurance appears in some way to be hard-wired into the human psyche. This probably explains why, for example, many people who travel or settle in foreign lands tend to congregate and surround themselves with others of similar linguistic and cultural backgrounds.The corporate marketeers are thus able to exploit this situation for their own commercial ends.

Just as Christof sought to discourage Truman from leaving his inauthentic existence in Seahaven by warning him of the dangers that exist in the real world compared to the life of safety constructed for him, so it is that Celebration Florida spokesperson, Andrea Finger, is able to promote a highly successful Disney brand predicated on the notion that it “speaks of reassurance, tradition and quality.”

There’s an interesting Truman site by Ken Sanes who says the Truman Show tells us that “if we want to be free and have a chance at an authentic life, we will have to distance ourselves from the safety and comforts of our media-saturated culture and be willing to live in the world as it is”. This brings into sharp focus the contesting nature of authenticity; of identity and representation and what constitutes democratic urban space and its relation to forms of state power. I discuss these issues in more detail here and here.

Authentic spaces or corporate landscapes of power?

More broadly, the public’s perception of what constitutes an authentic space is often tied to what use the state puts them to. The line between private and public spaces in which large parts of towns and cities have been hollowed out, is becoming increasingly blurred. London’s Canary Wharf, Olympic Park and the Broadgate development in the City, for example, are public places now governed by the rules of the corporations who own them. Other privatized public zones in Britain include Birmingham’s Brindley place, a significant canal-side development, and Princesshay in Exeter, described as a “shopping destination featuring over 60 shops set in a series of interconnecting open streets and squares”.

Ultimately, corporations are shaping elements from the landscape of cities and towns and re-packaging them under the banner ‘urban renaissance’ predicated on place promotion and development with culture, heritage and conspicuous consumption in mind. The real life Disney Celebration Florida model that literally could have been borrowed from the fictional Truman Show, represents the apex of this concept. In her book Landscapes of Power, Sharon Zukin quotes a Disneyland planner:

“We carefully program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements…Disney succeeded on the basis of this totalitarian image-making, projecting the collective desires of the powerless into a corporate landscape of power.”

Is this kind of privatized and sanitized Disney- Truman Show-type environment the kind of model for society we ought to be encouraging planners to move towards?

COPYRIGHT

All original material created for this site is ©Daniel Margrain. Posts may be shared, provided full attribution is given to Daniel Margrain and Road To Somewhere Else along with a link back to this site. Using any of my writing for a commercial purpose is not permitted without my express permission. Excerpts and links, including paraphrasing, may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Daniel Margrain and Road To Somewhere Else with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Unless otherwise credited, all content is the site author’s. The right of Daniel Margrain to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

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Why Owen Smith is a Red-Tory

By Daniel Margrain

Last week a prominent independent journalist claimed on Twitter that my assertion Owen Smith was effectively a Tory was “intellectually lazy”. Coincidentally, a few days later on Thursday’s (September 8) edition of BBC’s Question Time during the Labour party leadership debate between challenger Owen Smith and incumbent Jeremy Corbyn, a studio audience member and Corbyn supporter accused Smith of “being in the wrong party”.

Smith responded angrily to this suggestion by denying this was the case and asserted that the claim amounted to a term of abuse. Smith’s view was supported the next day (September 9) on Twitter by Smith supporter, John McTernan who said that such a suggestion was “ludicrous”. Of course, nobody is claiming that Smith, in the literal sense, is a Tory, but his voting record in the House of Commons and his commercial activities outside it, would indicate that he might as well be.

So let’s take a look at his record. Since at least July, the public relations professional, Smith, has pitched himself as a ‘soft-left’ anti-austerity alternative to Corbyn. This implies that Smith is first and foremost concerned with image and branding as opposed to adopting a principled political and ideological position.

The ‘soft-left’ Smith had previously given interviews supporting PFI and, as chief lobbyist for the U.S multinational Pfizer, he actively pushed for the privatization of NHS services. Commenting on a Pfizer funded ‘focus group’ study as part of a press release, Smith referenced and promoted the notion that the precondition for greater availability of healthcare services was the ability of the public to be able to pay for them. This is one of the significant passages from a section of the study that Smith was keen to promote:

“The focus groups… explored areas of choice that do not yet exist in the UK – most specifically the use of direct payments and the ability to choose to go directly to a specialist without first having to see the GP.”

In other words, Smith favours direct payments from the public to doctors as a replacement for current NHS services. This policy strategy is consistent with the 1988 Tory ‘self-funding’ privatization blueprint for the NHS drawn up by Oliver Letwin and John Redwood. In the document ‘Britain’s Biggest Enterprise: ideas for radical reform of the NHS’, Letwin and Redwood suggest that the aim of charging is to “replace comprehensive universal tax funding for the NHS.”

Smith’s conflation of greater choice with an ability to pay, represents one more stage in the execution of Letwin and Redwood’s plans. The implementation of these plans were accelerated by Blair and Brown as documented by Leys and Player in their book The Plot Against the NHS. Smith intends to continue where Brown and Blair – then Lansley and now Hunt – left off as part of the final stages of the wholesale Letwin-Redwood privatization blueprint of which the 2012 Health & Social Care Act  is a major component part.

Since the 2015 general election, the Tory government have explicitly admitted that the NHS should be modelled on US-style “accountable or integrated healthcare” which is where Smith’s connections to Pfizer come in. In addition to his Policy and Government Relations role for the giant US corporation, Smith was also directly involved in Pfizer’s funding of Blairite right-wing entryist group Progress. Pfizer gave Progress £52,287 while the latter has actively pursued the agenda of PFI and the privatisation of NHS services.

So while Smith’s image is largely predicated on his attempt to convince the Labour membership that in policy terms he publicly supports Corbyn’s position that the NHS should remain a universally free at the point of delivery service, in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

Smith also supported Blair’s city academies that have continued under the Tories as well as assiduously courting the arms industry of which his support of Trident is a reflection. Arguably, most important of all, is that Smith effectively lined up with the Tories, alongside another 183 Labour MPs in July last year by refusing to vote against the Conservative governments regressive and reactionary policy of welfare cuts to some of the most vulnerable people in society.

In an Orwellian rejection of socialist values, Blairite Iraq war apologist and establishment gatekeeper, John Rentoul, affirmed his support for the policies of Owen Smith on Twitter:

As the graphic above shows, and as Craig Murray correctly posits:

“There is no evidence whatsoever that Smith is a left winger. There is every evidence that he is another New Labour unprincipled and immoral careerist, adopting a left wing pose that he thinks will win him votes.”

The graphic below highlights the hypocrisy of Smith and, by extension, his total contempt for ordinary Labour party members.

 

 

Smith’s acquiescence to corporate power is indicative of a wider democratic deficit within the liberal democracies of the West in an era of globalization more generally. But his close relationship to the PLP and the Tory-Labour establishment consensus that they represent, reflects a relatively recent historical pattern in which governments of both the left and the right have prioritized the interests associated with private capital over and above that of labour.

Thus the first serious attacks on the welfare state in Britain came not in 2008, or even with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, but several years previously, with that of a Labour government in 1974. Contrary to popular belief, dismantling the welfare state was not a key priority for Thatcher following her election in 1979. It was not until her third term of office in 1987 that Thatcher and her advisers (notably the Sainsbury’s chief executive Sir Roy Griffiths) began to develop the neoliberal ideas of the Chicago School.

These ideas were subsequently picked up and developed by New Labour under Tony Blair following his election victory in 1997. It was during this point that the introduction of competition into public services, ideas about the state as purchaser of public services and the outsourcing and privatization of health and social care services, became the norm.

The privatization of the NHS, made possible by the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, arguably poses the most immediate threat to the welfare state in the UK in its totality in which the outsourcing of services becomes the default position. The functioning of a welfare state that increasingly serves the minority interests of capital at the expense of fulfilling the needs of the majority of the population, is a process driven by a neoliberal-driven ideological consensus rather than any pragmatic attempts at ameliorating deficits and the encouragement of socioeconomic and environmental sustainability.

It’s the continued satisfying of minority elite interests rather than the wider public good that Owen Smith and the establishment – of which he is a part – are embedded. That’s fundamentally the reason why there is nothing that separates Owen Smith from the neoliberalism of Blair, Brown, Miliband, Major, Thatcher and May.

Whether one agrees with Jeremy Corbyn’s politics or not, he at least offers a genuine alternative to the consensus view that Smith represents. Even the right-wing commentator, Peter Hitchens, recognizes that the emergence of Corbyn is important to the adversarial nature of political discourse and, by extension, to democracy itself. If the UK was a healthy democracy instead of an effective corporate-political-media oligarchy, this development would be welcomed. Instead, Corbyn is demonized and smeared at almost every opportunity.

 

Why the travails of Apple are symptomatic of a much wider problem

By Daniel Margrain

In the wake of the democratic decision of the British people to exit from the EU, it would paradoxically appear to be highly probable that the UK government will give away the kind of sovereignty the ‘Brexiteers’ claim to covet by signing an unadulterated TTIP deal with the United States government. At a point in time in which the UK government appears set to extricate itself from the ‘bureaucratic and unaccountable’ EU, the multinational conglomerate Apple is availing itself of Ireland’s tax system, the most favourable national tax regime in Europe.

However, the European Commission ordered Apple to pay the Irish government £11bn of back-dated tax that it has avoided. The Irish Cabinet agreed to appeal the European Commission diktat. Irish PM, Enda Kenny, ordered his ministers back from their summer holidays after the European Commission accused Ireland of breaching state aid rules.

But Independent minister John Halligan initially said that the Irish government should take the cash owed by Apple in order to fund hospital services in his constituency before eventually agreeing to the decision to appeal the ruling. The European Commission alleges that Apple’s effective tax rate in 2014 was a mere 0.005 per cent which means that someone earning £30,000 a year at an equivalent rate would pay just £1 a year in tax.

Meanwhile, the reaction of the British government to the impasse, was not to support the EU in its noble endeavor, but rather to remain on the sidelines in the hope that the situation would play out to their advantage, thus providing them with a potential opportunity to entice Apple with a ‘sweetheart’ ‘investment’ deal. Meanwhile, as Alex Callinicos  pointed out “Apple is playing the EU and the US off against each other over which gets the taxes it hasn’t been paying.”

It’s precisely the logic that overrides these kinds of shenanigans that explains one of the reasons why wealth inequality continues to rise to stratospheric levels, and why governments are witnessing a backlash against globalization. Over the past 40 years, the productive capacity that capitalism has engendered, allied to the ability of successive governments to transfer assets and capital from the public to the private sphere, has created an enormous concentration of wealth at the very top of society.

Britain is a country where armies of lawyers and accountants sift through mountains of legal paper work in order to justify on a legal basis those at the very top paying as little tax as possible. This has happened as a result of the restructuring of rules and regulations which provide corporations with legal loopholes with which to jump through.

In the case of Apple, profits are funneled into a ‘stateless company’ with a head office which, according to EU Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, “has no employees, premises or real activities.” In other words, Apple’s resident European office for tax purposes doesn’t exist. It has no staff and no location so it doesn’t pay any tax on most of the money it earns outside the United States.

Ireland has been told that it must claw back the £11 bn of back taxes from Apple even though Ireland’s ruling politicians say they don’t want it. This is money which could be spent for the benefit of an electorate who these politicians supposedly represent. Irish finance minister Michael Noonan intimated that individual states, not the EU, are responsible for individual taxation policies. “It’s an approach through the back door to try to influence tax policy through competition law.”, he said.

But what use is a tax policy if it is not intended to benefit human kind? If tax havens like Ireland behave in a way that negatively affects the well being of humans by reducing the resources available to fund services and infrastructure of which the functioning of civil society depends, then such a tax policy is not worth the paper it is written on. Does Ireland look like a country that doesn’t need £11 bn?

Apple’s billions worth of profits generated in Europe and the Middle East are transferred to Ireland where the company pays tax on just 50m euros worth. The rest is sent to their non-existent ‘virtual’ head office. As of 2015, the company’s lightly-taxed foreign cash off-shore mountain of $187bn is the biggest of any U.S multinational.

 

How can Apple defend this state of affairs whilst simultaneously maintaining the moral high ground by claiming that any attempt to prevent such an immoral situation will be bad for the societies in which they operate?

The activities of a virtually non-existent tax-paying company like Apple is already bad for these societies. The reason the masses, as opposed to companies like Apple, are subject to tax at a fixed rate, is because the former, unlike the latter, are not in the financial position to be able to avoid it. Those who are least able to pay taxes are the ones who have it deducted from their wages in full at source.

It’s not the overreaching arm of the EU ‘interfering’ with the tax laws of individual member states that’s the problem, but the fact that multinationals pit one country against another to avoid paying as much tax as possible while availing themselves of everything the rest of us pay for. The ‘race to the bottom’ is one in which corporations are constantly on the look-out to ‘up-sticks’ in the search for ever cheaper tax havens.

The end goal is a scenario in which the corporations pay no tax at all, while the masses pay for civil society because corporations like Apple, Google and Starbucks don’t have to. The upward spiral of money from the many to the few is increasing at a rate of knots due to a form of state-managed capitalism that perpetuates it. Moreover, it is happening to the detriment of the whole of the human race.

Widespread public anger towards this kind of systemic corruption is stymied daily as a result of the distractions associated with TV light entertainment and sports programmes. All this is aided by a largely uncritical corporate-based journalism. The ability of the rich and powerful to lobby governments in support of their own economic narrow interests, often to the detriment of the environment and society at large, exacerbates the problem.

Shortly before becoming the UKs unelected PM, Theresa May, intimated that the Tory government she would go on to lead would instigate greater transparency between government and big business and that she would no longer tolerate the undue influence of corporate power on domestic UK politics and the corruption through the power of lobbying that this implies. However, less than two months later, the Guardian revealed that a £3,150 payment to the government will buy business executives strategic marketplace influence.

The privileging of a tiny minority of the wealthy and corporations in this way, can be regarded as nothing less than the usurping of democracy. The mass of the working poor whose exploited labour creates the wealth from which the rich benefit and who often vote for corporate-funded politicians diametrically opposed to their own interests, is indicative of the propaganda power of a corporate and media-dominated political and economic system.

With a corporate tax rate levied at just 12.5 per cent, Ireland is effectively prostituting itself to Apple who can legally say that legally they are doing nothing legally wrong. The conventional argument goes that if Ireland failed to attract corporations like Apple, then it would be places like Belize, Bahamas or any of the British tax avoidance dependencies who would. But this zero-sum game means that while this situation is great for the CEOs of the corporations and their shareholders, it’s terrible for everybody else.

Because of the unfair competitive advantage the multinationals are able to lever, shops close, factories shut down and local businesses go under. Companies like Apple not only have governments on their side and can buy and manufacture on a vast scale, but they are not subject to the relatively higher rates of tax small businesses are forced to pay.

This situation is compounded by the fact that the typical consumer will tend to look for the cheapest goods and services available which, as a result of economies of scale, the big corporations will be most likely to provide. In such an eventuality, the role that corporations play in society becomes more prevalent at the expense of the small business.

The logical corollary to this is that eventually everything will be sold by a few giant multinational corporations who will come to dominate the marketplace resulting in less choice for the consumer, as well as its monopolization by private capital. This process was predicted by Marx who understood that capitalism was an inherently contradictory system.

In order to gain a competitive advantage over their rivals, capitalists either need to introduce mechanization to speed up the production process, reduce wages or replace their existing workforce with a cheaper one. Here’s where the contradiction comes in: If all capitalists are engaged in this process, their workers will have less and less money so they won’t be able to buy what the capitalists are producing to sell.

The capitalists, therefore, are effectively ‘creating their own gravediggers’ as a consequence of there being less demand in the economy. How has the system managed to have kept going when people don’t have money to buy things? The answer is the emergence and widespread availability of credit. However, the problems of capitalism are now so severe, so systemic, so global, that many people are wondering whether the system is coming to an end.

Is authenticity possible under capitalism?

By Daniel Margrain

williamsburg.jpg

The anti-capitalist slogans ‘The World Is Not A Commodity’ and ‘Our World Is Not For Sale’ which emerged out of the great anti-capitalist demonstrations from Seattle and which many of us take for granted, are tremendously powerful statements about the world. One of Karl Marx’s most profound insights was his understanding of how the workings of the capitalist system is bound up with the process of turning ‘things’ from the ‘productive sphere’ to a ‘consumptive sphere’ realized as commodity value.

For Marx, the notion of turning ‘use values’ into ‘exchange values’ is an inherent feature of capitalism’s drive for the accumulation of capital. Capitalism does not create commodities or markets and, similarly, it does not create money. The problems, as Marx sees them, is not that capitalism brings these things into being, but brings them into being in a particular way that expands and extends the process of capital accumulation through the extraction of surplus value realized as profit.

Over a century and a half ago, Marx grasped the existence of an inherently competitive struggle between rival units of capital to turn increasing spheres of life over to private production and therefore to extend the sphere of commodities which have come to dominate the people that produce them. Formally, capitalists and workers are independent of each other, but in reality inextricably connected.

From the 19th century, production no longer took place in the home but in factories where new systems of discipline operated. For the first time in history, humans came to be defined by how and what they consumed. By turning society and production over to the production of ‘things’ that the direct producers have little or no control over, means that capitalism is an alienating system.

The devaluation of public life increases in direct relation to the increase in the value of the world of things. Real social relationships are governed by an external power which attains control over the individual. In The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx asserts:

“The alienation of the worker means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as hostile and alien.”

Although we make and buy ‘things’, the antagonistic nature of the capitalist market means we are detached and alienated from them and each other. The system produces a world of isolated and egoistic individuals, bound together by calculation and crude monetary terms rather than the establishment of community life. The capitalist system of generalized commodity production is so pervasive that it seems an inevitable and natural condition of humanity.

Commodities acquire social characteristics because individuals enter the productive process only as the owners of commodities. As Marx succinctly put it“the impact of society on the individual is carried out through the social form of things.” This adds another dimension to alienated relationships because “the characters who appear on the economic stage are merely personifications of economic relations. It is as the bearers of these economic relations that they come into contact with each other.”

The notion that human will is separated from the social organization that overrides it and where powers are conferred to inanimate objects, is what Marx meant by ‘commodity fetishism’. It is a process in which “the capitalist mode of production takes over the totality of the individual, family, social needs and, in subordinating them to the market, also reshapes them to serve the needs of capital.” In this way culture is packaged within what appears to be an era of all-pervasive globalization where:

“The local and exotic are torn out of place to be repackaged for the world bazaar. So-called world culture may reflect a new valuation of difference and particularity, but is also very much about making a profit from it.”

Commodities also take on a mystical character. As writer, Kitty S Jones has shown, under capitalism the world has become devalued and society debased. Under these conditions, rather than the state providing services directly, it’s role is to act as a purchaser of public services which are then farmed out to the private sector. Working conditions are unilaterally altered as a result, and the path of individual redress begins and often ends with automated answering services of the great bureaucracies.

The frustration has reached such epic proportions that in those services where staff have to confront the public, they either have to be physically protected by screens or notices have to be posted warning the public of the dire consequences of assaulting staff, as now happens on London buses and tubes. All this is compounded by market-inspired jargon that seems to promise the opposite of this frustration.

The dominance of the cash nexus and privatization within public life is such that trains now carry customers not passengers and nurses tend clients not patients. Bewildering consumer choice is offered by the same few large corporations. The near universal mechanisms supposedly designed to provide accountability and increase public trust through regulation, inspection, target-setting and audit are, in reality, making things worse.

Ira Katznelson outlines the all-pervasive and distorting power of capitalism in relation to cities:

“Capitalism creates the city; the city creates a consciousness that reflects its varied reality; yet that unconsciousness deflects attention away from the primal forces of the capitalist mode of production that underlie the production and functioning of cities. This is the great secret of the capitalist order. Not only does the city give the accumulation process the capacity to secure a spatial fix, it also misshapes class struggle by deflecting it into fetishistic dimensions.”

The result of the direct subordination of cultural production to the priorities of profitable accumulation can be witnessed daily on television. In Britain today – the European vanguard of neoliberalism – government ministers refer to the ‘cultural industries’ without any sense of paradox or discomfort, and the Financial Times has a regular supplement called ‘Creative Business’.

This understanding of culture as part of the profitable accumulation process, is very different from the understanding of cultural theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. When, for example, they coined the expression ‘the culture industry’, they intended it as an ironical and critical concept. Nothing seemed to them to be more absurd or contradictory than to reduce the creative process to an industry governed by the same logic of rationalization as any other.

Throughout the public realm, what appears to be the hegemonic subjugation to the market of communities and societies, means that many people are oblivious to alternative narratives which challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of neoliberalism. Postmodernism helps reinforce this consensus view because it seeks to prohibit a discourse of social criticism to the experience of neoliberalism. The high priest of the deconstruction of authenticity, Jean Baudrillard, for example, writes:

“All our problems today as civilized beings originate not in an excess of alienation, but a disappearance of alienation in favour of a maximum transparency between subjects.”

For Baudrillard, critical thought and political struggle have been rendered obsolete in society, not of the spectacle but of simulation where images no longer represent but now constitute reality. Marx’s concepts of alienation and commodity fetishism, however, infer a contrast between an authentic subject and existing social relations that deny it self-realization.

This contrast is implicit in the critique developed during the 1960s by the Situationists of ‘the society of the spectacle’. Situationist Guy Debord writes of “the global social praxis that is split into reality and image” and says that “within a world really on its head, the true is a movement of the false.” The tradition in which the Situationists built on Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism is one, therefore, that’s committed to the idea of pursuing the critique of existing reality as part of the struggle of what Marx called ‘human emancipation’.

The re-emergence of Marx’s concepts of alienation and commodity fetishism in recent years marks the breakdown of the hegemony that postmodernism has exerted over much academic thinking during the last few decades. For Alex Callinicos, postmodernism is predicated on a neoliberal ideological discourse that dovetails in with urban corporate spatial strategies designed to extract value by dissolving the aspiration to authenticity and community through identity politics.

According to Rosalyn Deutsche, corporate planning strategies frequently cast homogeneity and unanimity in the shape of ‘community’ with the goals of consolidating communities and soothing conflicts. The aim is to dissociate democracy from conflict. Conflict is “simultaneously acknowledged and disavowed, a ‘fetishistic’ process whose repercussions generate certitudes about the meaning of public space.” Thus the struggle for authenticity through recognition of identity and differentiation, and the effort to disembody ownership from representation in urban spaces, is the struggle for community and democracy itself.

The community in this sense appear as negative images embroiled within a discursive economy that both masks and legitimizes socioeconomic domination by obliterating difference, inequality and oppression. The merging of ownership and representation as a tool of statement production only serves to extend these operations of power and to further undermine the possibility of resistance.

In this way, corporate structures are able to appropriate representative claims for authenticity and embody them within a framework of ownership that privilege an integrated concept of space distanced from a discourse of threat and conflict. Thus urban spaces can appear to be abstract and neutral allowing urban planners to divorce the urban fabric from class content. So, for instance, the dominant response to the English inner city riots of the 1980s was for better ‘design solutions’ to control social problems rather than on focusing attempts to challenge entrenched socioeconomic relations that gave rise to them.

An inclusive Marxist vision of democracy is one in which, the ‘subject’ as opposed to the ‘commodity’ becomes the universal category. Marx, therefore, is able to transcend the capitalist totality by providing a theoretical basis by which authenticity can be realized without the need to turn to market-based objectified concepts.

In my next article I will examine how misplaced notions of authenticity have influenced the way many of us perceive the Cuban experience

Addressing the motivations that drive Islamist obscurantists will help defeat them

By Daniel Margrain

Motivation guides behaviors

“The first step to combating Isis is to understand it. We have yet to do so. That failure costs us dear.” (Anthropologist, Scott Atran).

The murder of 85-year-old parish priest, Father Jacques Hamel during morning mass in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray,  northwest of Paris, by two adherents to the religious-based cult ISIS was yet another illustration of not only the depravity that this cult represents, but of the failure of domestic and international strategy of governments to deal with them. The lesson from almost a decade and a half of fighting terror with bombs is that the strategy has been an epic failure.

After the mass killings by ISIS in Paris, each subsequent attack on French soil has been marked by familiar-sounding televised addresses of condemnation of the perpetrators by president, Hollande followed by a determination to defeat them militarily. Meanwhile, French foreign policy in the Middle East continues along the same trajectory, presumably based on the premise that only through fighting fire with fire will the war against ISIS be won.

However, it would appear that with the exception of world leaders like Hollande and Britain’s Theresa May, most rational thinking people believe this eventuality to be an unrealistic proposition. ISIS are not like a traditional army and therefore can’t be fought as though they are one. Indeed, it’s the unpredictability and the random nature of their attacks in an era of globalisation which transcend the limitations associated with the traditional armies embedded within the structure of the nation-state, that sets them apart.

Although repeating the same failed foreign policy objectives undertaken by state actors in order to address the threat posed by an international terror network and ‘lone-wolf’ killers may be regarded as a sign of insanity by most, it nevertheless doesn’t appear to deter those who are motivated by the need to satisfy the financial interests of the lobbyists who profit from war.

Although it is widely understood that bombs and drones are counterproductive, it’s perhaps less understood that the establishment appear to want it that way on the basis, it would seem, that terrorist retaliation justifies the further use of bombs and drones. Ken Livingstone was surely correct in his analysis on BBCs Question Time programme last November when he suggested that bombing Raqqa will play into the hands of ISIS from a propaganda perspective enabling them to bolster their number of recruits on the back of it.

Indeed, it is clear that the aim of the religious-based cultists is to provoke an international bombing campaign precisely in order to achieve this objective. The ‘strategy’ of indiscriminate bombing of transnational ‘targets’ as a means of ending the cycle of terrorism and counter-terrorism is a policy of despair. What is needed is a total rethink that involves, in the first instance, a serious attempt at addressing the ideological motivations that drive ISIS as an organisation as well as the reasons why mainly young people are driven into the hands of this murderous cult.

The motivations seem to be varied and complex, embracing historical, theological, psychological and ideological factors. The first of these relates to the injustices meted out to the people of the region by the imperial powers. These injustices primarily originate from a series of secret meetings during World War 1 in London and Paris between the French diplomat, François Georges-Picot and the British politician, Sir Mark Sykes.

During these meetings, straight lines were drawn on a map of the middle east intended to effectively outline the control of land that was to be divided between the two countries. The French were to get Syria, Lebanon and parts of northern Iraq, while the British decided on southern Iraq, Jordan and Palestine. The idea was that instead of giving independence to the Arabs which was promised following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the imperial powers would run them on their behalf.

The ensuing chaos has largely stemmed from this agreement. What drives ISIS is their need to fill power vacuums in a post-colonial world in which the artificial imperial borders created by Sykes-Picot are collapsing. Robert Fisk made the astute point that the first video ISIS produced was of a bulldozer destroying the border between Syria and Iraq. The camera panned down to a piece of paper with the words “End of Sykes-Picot” written on it.

The wider “Arab Awakening,” as Fisk puts it, represents a rejection of the history of the region since Sykes-Picot during which time the Arabs have been denied freedom, dignity and justice. According to Fisk, ISIS is a weapon that’s not primarily aimed at the West but at the Shia which the Sunni Gulf States’ want to keep at bay. This explains why the funding for ISIS is principally coming from the Sunni states’ of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The possibility of closer U.S-Iranian ties in the future will likely result in pressure being put on these states’ to ‘switch off’ their funding to ISIS which Fisk claims was one of the main topics of discussion at the Geneva nuclear talks between the two countries. A couple of months ago, the goal of ISIS was to maintain the Caliphate, but they now realize that this objective is in jeopardy. Consequently they are attempting to re-organise. This involves them reverting back to a guerilla-style organisational structure. The purpose of directly commanded attacks, is to prove to their followers throughout the world that despite the set-backs described, they still remain a strong fighting force.

French-American anthropologist, Scott Atran, widens the net further by suggesting that the young are motivated more by excitement and a sense of belonging than theology or political ideology:

“When you look at young people like the ones who grew up to blow up trains in Madrid in 2004, carried out the slaughter on the London underground in 2005, hoped to blast airliners out of the sky en route to the United States in 2006 and 2009, and journeyed far to die killing infidels in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia; when you look at whom they idolize, how they organize, what bonds them and what drives them; then you see that what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that they will never live to enjoy…. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: …fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious, and cool.”

Atran posits that the appeal of ISIS seems to be their offering of a Utopian society and the sense of belonging and empowerment that the religious obscurantists claim is lacking in Western society. The narrative is a future of peace and harmony, at least, under their interpretation, but with the recognition that brutality is also needed to get there.

The underlying aspect of this Utopianism is the retreat from the kind of unconditional freedom where many young people feel pressured into certain social actions, towards a different kind of freedom free from ambiguity and ambivalence that, for those concerned, enhances a form of creativity that restraint helps nurture. ISIS exploits this dichotomy by outlining a way towards significance in a society that treats the alienated as insignificant.

Maajid Nawaz depicts ISIS as akin to a brand that in order to be defeated needs to be discredited as part of a long-term strategy. This involves the creation of alternative narratives and the engendering of alternative forms of belonging and identity. Nawaz argues that the mission statement, as part of a generational struggle, has to be that the kind of obscurantist ideology that ISIS adhere to, is made as un-appealing as Stalinism or Hitler fascism is today. “We’ve got to be careful that we don’t become fixated about destroying the organization itself as part of a long-term strategy, but rather to focus on destroying the ISIS brand”, he says.

Irrespective of whether the discourse emanates from either the left or the right of the political spectrum, Nawaz argues that it needs to be more nuanced than has hitherto been the case:

“We seem to focus too much on binary approaches which on the one hand suggest that no problem exist within Islam [the perspective of many within the political left], or on the other, where all Muslims are perceived as the problem [the perspective of the far-right]. I would argue that to address the root problem we need to find a pathway between sensationalism and denialism.”

This approach will surely need to be run alongside a recognition by Western governments that their foreign policy strategies are not working. Instead of spending billions on ineffectual and counterproductive war, the money would be far better spent on effective prevention programmes on the ground. This could involve, as middle east scholar Ed Husain has argued, employing former jihadists to reach out to help educate young people about the dangers of ISIS and other extremists.

At some point, channels of communication will have to be opened up with radical Muslim groups who are willing to engage with experts outside the Muslim world to come to some kind of compromise agreement. This might even involve the formation of an Caliphate-type enclave based on ISIS lines. What is certain is the current path we are on is the wrong one.

The lack of any meaningful attempt to implement an effective strategy to weaken or destroy radical Islamism is self-evident. Ideologies cannot be defeated by bombs. Any U.S insistence that it’s dictatorial regional allies and proxies – Saudi Arabia and Qatar – deplete ISIS of funds, will go a long way to achieving desired short-term goals.

The West might have to come to terms with making a short-term pact with the devil as part of a long-term strategy that undercuts the kind of psychological and ideological motivations that drive young people into the arms of religious obscurantists in the first place.