Hackgate, power elites and the limits of the “corruption” critique

The real significance of the "hackgate" scandal in the UK is in revealing an underlying truth about the governing classes and their mode of rule which anyone who’d been paying attention has known all along.

Guy Aitchison
18 July 2011

Just days before the first revelations of hackgate started to emerge, I remarked to a left-wing friend of mine impatient at the failure of the causes we share to gain any wider traction, that it was nearly always “corruption” scandals involving elites rather than the power of reasoned critique which opened up a window for profound and lasting change.  The observation stemmed from the insight of Robert Darnton, and other scholars of revolutionary France, that it was not so much the rational arguments of the Enlightenment philosophes, but the relentless attacks of the libellistes – the French gutter press - on the greed and depravity of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette, which led to the French populace’s disillusionment with monarchy and ultimately the downfall of the ancien regime. More recently, we saw in Egypt, how the malfeasance of Mubarak’s government, as exposed by Wikileaks and others, played such an important role in spurring on the protesters.


The total collapse of the Murdoch empire - a prospect we can now dare to hope for with the resignation and arrest of their last human shield, Rebekah Brooks  – on account of phone hacking may seem a bit like nailing Al Capone for tax evasion when you consider the destructive, imperialist poison his news group pumps out on a daily basis (it’s worth recalling, by way of example, that none of the 175 editors of Murdoch papers, opposed the Iraq war). But the real significance of hackgate is in revealing an underlying truth about the governing classes and their mode of rule which anyone who’d been paying attention has known all along.

There comes a point when it no longer makes sense to talk of “corruption”, but instead the routine interactions of what sociologist C Wright Mills first termed a “power elite” in his analysis of the interlocking set of interests and class identity that united US elites in the 1950s.  The backscratching, the cover ups, the instinctive regard for one another’s interest amongst press, police and politicians, these things aren’t indicative of a peculiar pathology, but are integral to a whole system of rule.

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The right-wing journalist Peter Oborne has done a brilliant job documenting the insular, self-serving nature of our “political class” and it was he who warned David Cameron that Coulson had presided over a “flourishing criminal conspiracy” at News of the World, but his analysis lacks any systemic critique and harks back to a mythical golden age of the old establishment where decent chaps governed us guided by enlightened paternalism.

The problem isn’t just “Murdoch” or the “Tories” as some on the liberal left would have it either. The BBC and the Labour party too stand accused. The News International scandal is crashing round our public institutions like a tornado. Where it will go next is impossible to predict. David Kernohan, on his blog, suggests a move into education policy given Michael Gove, minister for schools, is being paid an estimated £5,000 per month by News International to write for the Times, whilst also writing education policy that benefits NI’s substantial investments in educational software. 

Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who is now facing tough questions over his role as chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, gets a tidy £250k a year from Murdoch’s rivals, the Barclay brothers, for his Telegraph column. Meanwhile, Nic Bowles MP, who was so anxious to play down the scandal in a heated exchange with Harriet Harman on Newsnight on Monday, is apparently paid up to £5,000 a pop for writing for the Times. Many of our most senior politicians are on retainers from media and big business. They “clone” themselves socially, as Wright Mills noted, and move seamlessly between politics, media and corporate life.

The fundamental lack of democracy is everywhere. Take a current issue of major concern: the NHS. The government’s “reforms” would effectively privatise the English healthcare system marking its abolition as a national state provided service. This is a policy which was in neither of the governing parties manifestoes – indeed, the Conservatives went out of their way to explicitly deny this was their intention – and which no one wants. The changes build on the previous Labour government’s privatization policies, which no one wanted either.  If we had a functioning, independent media, and the public was well informed about these proposals, you can guarantee there’d be uproar. The whole thing stinks, yet it is going ahead because powerful interests, most notably, the healthcare industry, are set to benefit.

These corporations are able to make generous donations to ministers of health and their spouses, whilst former occupants of that position receive lucrative positions on their boards. They hold “global healthcare conferences” at which a senior government healthcare advisor (who also happens to work for KPMG, a management consultancy with close links to the Lib Dems and the chosen audience for Ed Miliband's recent hackgate speech on "irresponsibility" amongst the powerful) promises them that the “NHS will be shown no mercy” and they should take advantage in the next few years. They fund think tanks in the Westminster village to produce reports advising government that the “public has to be led” when it comes to the hugely unpopular privatization.

If this is how political decisions are taken when it comes to an issue of such fundamental importance to society as the provision of healthcare, then it is clear we cannot speak of democracy at all. The same revolving doors between business and politics can be found in the security industry, where former home secretaries responsible for a policy of locking up child refugees, sit on the board of the private security firms who run the prisons. Politicians and liberal commentators congratulate themselves that we are not as bad as Berlusconi’s Italy. The truth is our rulers here are simply less crass and clumsy, as with the institutionalised cronyism of the House of Lords, which in this country goes by the name of "tradition". 

It is hardly a surprise to (re)discover that the same elites who have championed an economic system built around "rational egoism" are weilding power for personal enrichment. The sense of entitlement is so routine and deeply entrenched that it goes unremarked upon. It certainly doesn’t phase Tony Blair who has been brazenly cashing in off the oil kleptocracies and banks whose interests he so faithfully served when in office.    

Hackgate is the third serious crisis the system has faced in so many years, following the banking crisis and MPs’ expenses. As before, the language of “corruption”, with its implications of exceptionality, is far too limited to describe the phenomena at work. Indeed, talking in this way can play into the hands of a ruling elite who are once again attempting to convince us that just a few bad apples are to blame (so far, despite the wonderful domino-like flurry of resignations, we are expected to believe that Glenn Mulclaire is the only person who knew anything about phone hacking!) and delay a final reckoning through endless commissions and inquiries. Ed Miliband has distinguished himself from his predecessors, by taking on the Murdoch empire, but his calls for “strong and decisive” leadership to “restore trust” in the police and the political establishment echoes Cameron’s deft neutralisation of the expenses crisis. We’ve been here before.

The embezzlement of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money by MPs was so routine that it was an accepted part of the Westminster culture and hence thought unworthy of reporting on by lobby hacks.  Likewise, when talking about the financial crisis, it hardly makes sense to think of shady securitized debt instruments, tax dodging and offshore finance, as aberrations when they are such an integral part of a global financial system run in the interests of the ultra rich.

If the transformative potential of hackgate is to be seized and built on, as Oliver Huitson rightly urges, the ruling elite cannot be allowed to get away with the claim the scandal that has come to light is the malfunctioning of an otherwise sound system. Just as the allegation that Marie Antoinette had defrauded the Crown jewellers of an expensive diamond necklace spurred condemnation of an entire feudal system built on privilege and despotic power, hackgate has the potential to galvanize far-reaching reform of our media, its relationship with politicians and the police by pointing to a much deeper truth about our governing arrangements.

We are at a pivotal moment. Underlying all these events is a far bigger crisis that will play itself out over coming years: the downgrading of US government bonds, the contagion of sovereign debt crises in southern Europe and the possibility of a financial crisis even bigger than the last. A discredited elite clings to a discredited set of dogmas while neoliberalism and the British state stagger on zombie-like. 

I could point out at this point that trusting the mainstream media and the police to hold power to account in this case, is a bit like asking Ronald MacDonald to investigate child obesity, but of course that is a key part of government health policy, so where on earth does that leaves us other than bemoaning the baleful grip of corporations over public life! Lord Grabiner, the man brought into “clean up” News Corp is apparently a “well-known and widely-respected figure in the banking, finance, academic and business worlds”. Just the man for the job!

In our turbo-charged capitalist society, corporations, and not just corporate media, exercise an unchecked power. If this is to be overcome, there needs to be a broadening and deepening of democratic struggles. The various movements involved in fighting the cuts and those fighting for democracy and transparency in our public life, should link up through a more systemic critique of the status quo, encouraging the formation of an independent grassroots movement for radical, pluralist democracy. As Paul Mason has pointed out, the Twitter and Facebook campaign to shame companies into pulling their advertising from News of the World, demonstrated once again the power of networked popular resistance to monolithic hierarchical organisations. 

However, a networked democratic movement should not limit itself to a purely market logic, or to critiquing the “public” institutions of the state, whilst ignoring the vast concentrations of private power that systematically distort political life. Hackgate has brought home a reality that political thinkers since Aristotle have been aware of: economic power is political power (Machiavelli went so far as to recommend the liquidation of the entire gentry class upon the founding of a new republic). The political and economic status quo have been utterly delegitimated, but alternatives to the governing orthodoxy of the last thirty years are marginalised by a regime of institutional and systemic exclusions in which the media take on the function of “soft power” and the police “hard power”.

It is these exclusions that a movement for radical, pluralist democracy must seek to disrupt and overcome. Alternative media, and pre-figurative forms of democratic practice as we’ve seen in the public squares of Spain and Greece are important, but we also need popular, angry campaigns to challenge and confront head on the cosy ruling elite who have led us into this state of affairs. If the phrase “never waste a good crisis” has become a cliché in recent years, that’s only because so many good crises have been wasted. The British elite stand politically, morally and ideologically bankrupt. The personnel will change and then the calls to "move on" will get louder and louder We can't afford to heed them this time. 

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