Friday 18 April 2008

You won’t fool the children of the ‘revolution’

Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy, by William Dinan and David Miller (editors)

A couple of generations ago, the Western political establishment worried about about Communist propaganda seducing the masses and subverting democracy. Today, in the absence of a significant threat to capitalism, it is anti-capitalists who are more likely to talk about the menace of propaganda emanating from corporations and subtly entrenching their power to the detriment of democracy.

This collection of essays on the pernicious influence of corporate spin and lobbying, closely followed by a history of spin by its editors, neatly represents a significant and ultimately conservative strain in contemporary left-wing thought. Talking up the alleged ascendancy of ‘neoliberalism’ is a common but unconvincing way of spinning the collapse of the left at the end of the last century, and the consequently diminished significance of ideology across the political spectrum. Similarly, a preoccupation with corporate propaganda and spin conveniently obscures the left’s failure to develop an engaging critique that can mobilise a substantial movement in today’s political circumstances. There is no shame in that failure, but blaming it on Svengali-like corporate mind control doesn’t help.

In their introduction to Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy, William Dinan and David Miller suggest the success of recent films like The Constant Gardener, Syriana and Thank You For Smoking, all of which feature villainous corporate lobbyists, is ‘a welcome sign that the ideas in this book are penetrating the mainstream’ (p2). In fact, despite being an archetype of big business itself, Hollywood has always shown a certain disdain for capitalism and its functionaries. And there is little in the book that would shock anyone who reads and watches mainstream media, and is familiar with scares about genetically modified food,  stories about the machinations of Big Tobacco and Big Oil companies, and the general idea that PR types are pretty sleazy. The question perhaps is whether a book like this can go beyond popular cynicism about big business, and at least point the way to an analysis of the relationship between capitalism and how it is represented, endorsed and critiqued.

Rather than analysis, though, most of the chapters comprise seemingly endless lists of the names of PR firms, lobbyists and their clients, and especially the manifold interconnections and associations between them. The prevailing attitude is one of exposure rather than critique, as if simply joining the dots to connect the various players constitutes a searing indictment of contemporary capitalism. In fact, these passages are often reminiscent of the boring bit in Book 1 of Paradise Lost, where Milton catalogues the demons holed up in Hell with Satan, and we wonder when the action is going to kick in.

Eveline Lubbers’ more entertaining chapter, ‘Fighting Dirty Wars: Spying for the Arms Trade’, introduces us to the truly demonic Evelyn Le Chêne, a private intelligence agent who spied on anti-arms trade campaigners on behalf of British Aerospace. Certainly this is pretty sordid stuff, and will quite rightly have embarrassed BAe when it was first revealed in The Sunday Times (a paper owned by arch-capitalist Rupert Murdoch, we might note with a shrug), but it’s not at all clear that this kind of skullduggery is even to the advantage of the firms involved – apparently BAe often ignored Le Chêne’s advice – let alone that this, along with more conventional lobbying,  is what damages democracy, a constant refrain in the book.

No doubt there is a crisis of democracy in the West today – the public is disengaged from politics, and the political class lacks legitimacy – but the attempt to blame this on the malfeasance of corporations and their cronies is never convincing. In their own chapter on PR, Dinan and Miller even credit the neoliberals with having conducted a ‘counter-revolution’ through the Thatcher and Reagan administrations in the 1980s (p15). Counter-revolution? Aren’t we missing a step? The peculiar implication that Britain and the US were enjoying a revolution of some kind in the 1970s is a logical consequence of the authors’ demonisation of the right and unwillingness to consider the failure of the left. Revolutions apparently are just what happens when the right isn’t having counter-revolutions. Political agency – and the very need to make arguments and conduct campaigns – is attributed exclusively to the bad guys.

It is crucial to recognise that the neoliberal victory was not put in place by abstract forces but had to be won by argument and action and that it proceeded by means of vastly increased investment in the machinery of information management. This helps explain the emergence and global spread of the public relations industry. In the United Kingdom the PR industry expanded rapidly in the 1980s, facilitating the process of privatisation and buoyed up by its rich pickings and consequences. (p15)

The rise of PR in the 1980s is an interesting and important phenomenon, but it can’t be isolated from the wider historical context. Can we think of anything else that happened in Britain in the 1980s? Thatcher’s thorough-going campaign against the trades unions, perhaps? The crushing defeat of the miners’ strike? The left didn’t just lose the argument, but lost an historic struggle. The collapse of the Soviet Union then added to the sense that there is no alternative to capitalism. It is perverse to present the rise of PR as the decisive factor in this period, and profoundly unhelpful.  Ulrich Mueller’s chapter on the spinning of pro-market reforms in Germany is similarly oblivious to the fact that the right was pushing at an open door because the left didn’t have a credible alternative. Blaming dastardly PR men is a terrible cop-out.

Arguably, this is the continuation of a long-standing weakness of the left: its complacency. Many left-wingers believed the working class would always rally to their cause simply by virtue of being the working class: all they had to do was keep printing the placards with the same old slogans. Far more significant than the rise of PR or the allure of neoliberalism, then, was the left’s neglect of the importance of ideas as an integral part of political struggle. In that sense, the focus in these books on the battle of ideas is welcome, but unfortunately their authors’ interest is overwhelmingly in the mechanics of how ideas are communicated, rather than their content. 

In a chapter on think tanks, and in particular Demos (an early influence on New Labour) and others sharing the same London offices, William Clark explicitly refutes any suggestion that he is trading in conspiracy theories (p239-240). Indeed, it would be lazy to label any of the contributors with that tag: as Clark notes, little if any of what he or any of the other contributors discuss is even secret. His point is simply that ‘a nexus of interests and organisations’ centres around Demos, and that they are mixed up in various ways with the same right-wing networks that promoted Thatcherism. The problem is that this is a very roundabout way of approaching a critique of New Labour’s Third Way politics. If Clark didn’t see a problem with it before discovering these connections, does he actually have substantive objections now? Why does the provenance of ideas matter so much if they can be refuted in their own terms?

In fact, as the name suggests, the Third Way was meant to fill a vacuum left by the demise of the left and the post-Thatcher exhaustion of the right, a crucial factor missed by Clark. Why would ascendant and all-conquering neoliberals feel the need to work with Demos, a think tank established by former members of the Communist Party of Great Britain? The rise of think tanks is indeed an important development, reflecting the diminished importance of political parties of left and right as vehicles for ideas, and the increasing reliance on the rhetoric of ‘expertise’ and ‘research’ rather than the interests and desires of the public.

Dinan and Miller note in their own chapter that, ‘The focus on public opinion has – if anything – grown comparatively less in the recent past, as the ability of ordinary people to make a difference in politics has declined’ (p17), and they include interesting chapters by Aeron Davis and Olivier Hoedeman on ‘elite-to-elite spin’ – which has nothing to do with influencing public opinion – with reference to the London Stock Exchange and the Brussels ‘Lobbycracy’ respectively. This is a crucial observation, but the fact that ‘corporate power’ is premised on the emptying out of politics and the public sphere suggests that simple exposure of how lobbyists operate won’t solve the problem. What’s needed instead is a serious and critical public engagement with ideas.

The ‘follow the money’ line of argument actually contributes to the diminishment of public debate. Dismissing political opponents’ ideas on the basis of ‘guilt by association’ means adopting a less critical approach than if one actually sets out to argue against them. So why not give everyone the benefit of the doubt and engage in open debate? Dinan and Miller argue there is an important distinction between engaging in democratic debate and ‘subverting’ it in clients’ interests (p12). No doubt there is a difference between arguments made in good faith and those based on deception, but it is naïve to imagine there is a rigid distinction between ‘interested’ and ‘disinterested’ positions. Politics is all about interests, after all. Identifying that a speaker is arguing in the interests of Big Oil, for example, is not a counter-argument, though it might raise questions worth pursuing.

The preoccupation with who is making a case rather than what they are arguing reveals a complacent belief that politics is about goodies and baddies, and also assumes the public will credulously imbibe corporate spin unless it is unmasked. In fact, people don’t respond homogenously to messages in the media, but interpret what they read and hear depending on their own experience, and the influence of those around them – that’s why some ideas are more influential than others among particular groups of people. This raises the question of whom the authors of Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy are addressing.  Dinan and Miller say in their conclusion that the book and related websites like Sourcewatch and Spinwatch are meant as means of ‘popularising the truth about corporate spin and corporate power’ (p299), but one wonders how popular the mentality of such websites can ever be.

The problem is that ‘the truth about corporate spin and corporate power’ is understandably met by most people with a cynical shrug rather than political engagement. Telling people they’re dupes is hardly inspiring, and the posture of ‘exposing corporate lies’ quickly gets boring. Dinan and Miller mention in passing the desirability of ‘direct representation of popular interests’ (p301), and they’re quite right that this is what’s needed to bring democracy to life. But it can’t be achieved by simply exposing or even removing the negative influence of corporate spin. What’s needed is a positive assertion of those putative popular interests. Moreover, the character of any new popular politics cannot be taken for granted, and it is particularly unlikely to resemble the imaginary, pre-neoliberal ‘revolution’ fondly if hazily evoked in Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy. By whitewashing the failure of the left in the 20th century, and obscuring the need for a thorough reinvention of politics, the book propagates a delusion far more misleading than anything put out by corporate shills.

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