Whilst the right-wing press invents ghosts on the left, plutocracy is tightening its grip

When politics becomes the whims and mad schemes of a small minority that only listen to themselves, it needs to be called out - not normalised - by a non-partisan media.

Simon Wren-Lewis
7 December 2017
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Image: A younger Donald Trump with Rupert Murdoch and Murdoch's second wife Anna. The two billionaires have been friends for many years. PA Images/Sonia Moskovitz/Zuma Press.

There are many similarities between Brexit and Trump. They are both authoritarian movements, where authority either lies with a single individual or a single vote: the vote that binds them all. This authority expresses the movement’s identity. They are irrational movements, by which I mean that they cast aside expertise where that conflicts with the movements wishes. As a result, you will find their base of supporters among the less well educated, and that universities are seen as an enemy. Both groups are intensely nationalistic: both want to make America or England great again.

It is easy to relate each group to familiar concepts: class, race or whatever. But I think this classification misses something important. It misses what sustains these groups in their beliefs, allows them to maintain their world view which is so often contradicted by reality. Both groups get their information about the world from a section of the media that has turned news into propaganda. In the US this is Fox, and in the UK the right-wing tabloids and the Telegraph.

A profound mistake is to see this media as a symptom rather than a cause. As the study I spoke about here clearly demonstrates, the output of Fox news is not designed to maximise its readership, but to maximise the impact of its propaganda on its readership. I think you could say exactly the same about the Sun and the Mail in the UK. Fox and the Sun are owned by the same man.

Even those who manage to cast off the idea that this unregulated media just reflects the attitude of its readers, generally think of this media as supportive of political parties. There is the Conservative and Labour supporting press in the UK, and similarly for the US. In my view that idea is ten or twenty years out of date, and even then it underestimates the independence of the media organisations. (The Sun famously supported Blair in 1997). More and more it is the media that calls the shots, and the political parties follow.

Brexit would not have happened if it had remained the wish of a minority of Conservative MPs. It happened because of the right-wing UK press. Brexit happened because this right-wing press recognised a large section of their readership were disaffected from conventional politics, and began grooming them with stories of EU immigrants taking jobs, lowering wages and taking benefits (and sometimes much worse). These stories were not (always) false, but like all good propaganda they elevated a half-truth into a firm belief. Of course this grooming played on age old insecurities, but it magnified them into a political movement. Nationalism does the same. It did not just reflect readers existing views, but rather played on their doubts and fears and hopes and turned this into votes.

This is not to discount some of the very real grievances that led to the Brexit vote, or the racism that led to the election of Trump. This analysis of today's populism is important, as long as it does not get side-tracked into debates over identity versus economics. Stressing economic causes of populism does not devalue identity issues (like race or immigration), but it is the economics that causes the swings that help put populists in power. It was crucial, for example, to the trick that the media played to convince many to vote for Brexit: that EU immigrants and payments were reducing access to public services, whereas in reality the opposite is true.

Yet while economic issues may have created a winning majority for both Brexit and Trump, the identity issues sustained by the media make support for both hard to diminish. Brexit and Trump are expressions of identity, and often of what has been lost, which are very difficult to break down when sustained by the group’s media. In addition both Trump and Brexit maintain, because their proponents want it to be maintained, the idea that it represents the normally ignored, striking back against the government machine in the capital city with all its experts.

But to focus on what some call the ‘demand’ for populism is in danger of missing at least half the story. Whatever legitimate grievances Brexit and Trump supporters may have had, they were used and will be betrayed. There is nothing in leaving the EU that will help the forgotten towns of England and Wales. Although he may try, Trump will not bring many manufacturing jobs back to the rust belt, and his antics with NAFTA may make things worse. Identifying the left behind is only half the story, because it does not tell you why they fell for the remedies of snake-oil salesmen.

As I wrote immediately after the vote in my most widely read post, Brexit was first and foremost a triumph for the UK right wing press. That press first fostered a party, UKIP, that embodied the views the press pushed. The threat of that party and defections to it then forced the Prime Minister to offer the referendum the press wanted. It was a right wing press that sold a huge lie about the UK economy, a lie the broadcast media bought, to ensure the Conservatives won the next election. When the referendum came, it was this right-wing press that ensured enough votes were won and thereby overturned the government.

Equally Donald Trump was first and foremost the candidate of Fox News. As Bruce Bartlett has so eloquently written, Fox may have started off as a network that just supported Republicans, but its power steadily grew. Being partisan at Fox became misinforming its viewers, such that Fox viewers are clearly less well informed than viewers of other news providers. One analysis suggested over half of the facts stated on Fox are untrue: UK readers may well remember them reporting that Birmingham was a no-go area for non-Muslims.

Fox became a machine for keeping the base angry and fired up, believing that nothing could be worse than voting for a Democrat. It was Fox News that stopped Republican voters seeing that they were voting for a demagogue, concealed that he lied openly all the time, that incites hatred against other religions and ethnic groups, and makes its viewers believe that Clinton deserves to be locked up. It is not reflecting the views of its viewers, but moulding them. As economists have shown, the output of Fox does not optimise their readership, but optimises the propaganda power of its output. Despite occasional tiffs, Trump was the candidate of Fox in the primaries.

We have a right-wing media organisation that has overthrown the Republican political establishment, and a right-wing press that has overthrown a right-wing government. How some political scientists can continue to analyse this as if the media were simply passive, supportive or even invisible when it brings down governments or subverts political parties I do not know.

The plutocracy

Trump and Brexit are the creations of a kind of plutocracy. Politics in the US has had strong plutocratic elements for some time, because of the way that money can sway elections. That gave finance a powerful influence in the Democratic party, and made the Republicans obsessive about cutting higher tax rates. In the UK plutocracy has been almost non-existent by comparison, and operated mainly through party funding and seats in the House of Lords, although we are still finding out where the money behind the Brexit campaign came from.

By focusing on what some call the demand side of populism rather than the supply side, we fail to see both Trump and Brexit as primarily expressions of plutocratic power. Trump’s administration is plutocracy personified, and as Paul Pierson argues, its substantive agenda constitutes a full-throated endorsement of the GOP economic elite’s long-standing agenda. The Brexiteers want to turn the UK into Singapore, a kind of neoliberalism that stresses markets should be free from government interference, rather than free to work for everyone, and that trade should be free from regulations, rather than regulations being harmonised so that business is free to trade.

It is also a mistake to see this plutocracy as designed to support capital. This should again be obvious from Brexit and Trump. It is in capital’s interest to have borders open to goods and people rather than creating barriers and erecting walls. What a plutocracy will do is ensure that high inequality, in terms of the 1% or 0.1% etc, is maintained or even increased. Indeed many plutocrats amassed their wealth by extracting large sums from the firms for which they worked, wealth that might otherwise have gone to investors in the form of dividends. In this sense they are parasitic to capital. And this plutocracy will also ensure that social mobility is kept low so the membership of the plutocracy is sustained: social mobility goes with equality, as Pickett and Wilkinson show.

It is also a mistake to see what is happening as somehow the result of some kind of invisible committee of the 1% (or 0.1% and so on). The interests of the Koch brothers are not necessarily the interests of Trump (it is no accident the former want to help buy Time magazine). The interests of Arron Banks are not those of Lloyd Blankfein. Instead we are finding individual media moguls forming partnerships with particular politicians to press not only their business interests, but their individual political views as well. And in this partnership it is often clear who is dependent on whom. After all, media competition is slim while there are plenty of politicians.

What has this got to do with neoliberalism - which is supposed to be the dominant culture of the political right? As I argued here, it is a mistake to see neoliberalism as some kind of unified ideology. It may have a common core in terms of the primacy of the market, but how that is interpreted is not uniform. Are neoliberals in favour of free trade, or against? It appears that they can be both. Instead neoliberalism is a set of ideas based around a common belief in the market that different groups have used and interpreted to their advantage, while at the same time also being influenced by the ideology. Both interests and ideas matter. While some neoliberals see competition as the most valuable feature of capitalism, others will seek to stifle competition to preserve monopoly power. Brexiteers and their press backers are neoliberals, just as the Cameron government they brought down were neoliberals.

I think there is some truth in the argument, made by Philip Mirowski among others, that a belief in neoliberalism can easily involve an anti-enlightenment belief that people need to be persuaded to subject themselves fully to the market. Certainly those on the neoliberal right are more easily persuaded to invest time and effort in the dark arts of spin than those on the left. But it would be going too far to suggest that all neoliberals are anti-democratic: as I have said, neoliberalism is diverse and divided. What I argued in my neoliberal overreach post was that neoliberalism as formulated in the UK and US had made it possible for the plutocracy we now see to become dominant.

By the nature of an unorganised plutocracy, what types of neoliberalism hold sway may be largely random, and depend a lot on who owns media organisations. It leads to a form of politics which is in many ways unpredictable and irrational, with an ever-present tendency to autocracy. This is what we are witnessing, right now, in the UK and US. It is not the normal politics that either of these countries are used to, although it may be more familiar to those in quasi-dictatorships. We all know about how the Republican’s tax cutting bill just happens to favour real estate moguls who inherit their money as Trump did. This is simple corruption, enacted in a corrupt way. That the President of the United States retweeted a British far right group that inspired an individual to murder a British MP is not normal. When Brexit supporting MPs respond to the Irish border problem by saying ‘we are not going to put one up’ this should not pass as an acceptable response: it should be laughed at as the nonsense it is.

When politics becomes the whims and mad schemes of a small minority that only listen to themselves, unmodified by the normal checks and balances of a functioning democracy, it should be treated by the non-partisan media for what it is, not normalised as just more of the same. If we treat a plutocracy as a democracy, democracy dies. We should not be fooled that this plutocracy looks like normal politics just because the plutocrats have taken over the main party of the right.

A dividing point

We are very close to a point where neoliberalism becomes something much worse. The POTUS is following a fascist strategy of demonising a religious minority. If Mueller’s investigations proceed as expected, but he is sacked and/or the Republicans block any attempt at impeachment, we may have passed that critical point. If the Brexiteers succeed in breaking away from the EU’s customs union and single market, the UK may have nowhere else to go but the arms of a permanently Republican US.

If there is a way of escaping this fate, and rescuing democracy in both the UK and US, it has to involve a democratic defeat of the right-wing parties that allowed this plutocracy to emerge, and indeed encouraged it and then made bargains with it when it believed it was still in control. The defeat has to be overwhelming and total. Those who brought us Brexit and backed or tolerated Trump have to be disgraced as the harbingers of disaster. Their control of the Republican and Conservative parties must end.

Only that will allow the left, and I think it has to be the left, to end a system by which elements of the plutocracy can control so much of the means of information. In the UK that means extending rules that apply to broadcasters, suitably adapted, to the press. In the US it means not just bringing back the Fairness doctrine repealed under Reagan, but also bringing controls on election spending similar to those in the UK (and the UK controls need to be strengthened). In short, we need to take money out of politics to ensure democracy survives. Give journalists the freedom to write about or broadcast the news as they see it, rather than as their employer want it to be seen.

Why the left rather than the centre? The centre will agonise over what this means for freedom of expression or freedom of the press and therefore nothing much will happen (see Leveson), as nothing happened under Clinton or Blair. That may be a little unfair to both leaders, because the danger of plutocracy may have been less obvious back then, and the media was more restrained. But with Brexit and Trump no further evidence is needed. The left should see more clearly how in practice this freedom is in reality just a freedom to sustain a plutocracy. Only it will have the courage to radically reverse the power and wealth of the 1%. I fear the centre will not have the will to do it. Although Anthony Barnett’s focus differs from mine, he puts this point very well here: if all you want to do is stop Brexit and Trump and go back to what you regard as normal, you miss that what was normal led to Brexit and Trump.

That will have many wise and sensible people shaking their head, but the alternative does not work. Defeating or impeaching Trump and letting the Republican party survive in its current form achieves little, because they will go on gerrymandering and Fox news will go on poisoning minds. The energy of Democrats will be spent on trying to clear up the damage Trump has caused, and the next autocrat from Republican ranks who wins power because they will ‘clear the swamp’ will be smarter than Trump. In the UK, if the Conservatives survive in their current form, their ageing membership is in danger of selecting more Brexit nutters who will overwhelm the dwindling number of reasonable Conservative MPs. We will find the BBC, if it survives at all, will become more and more like the mouthpiece of a press dominated by plutocrats. [1] In either case a critical point will have passed.

I know from many conversations I have had that there is a deep fear among many of leadership from the left. Here the UK is ahead of the US. The story in the UK used to be that the left could never win, and it was a plausible story, but recent events have cast great doubt on it. That remains the story in the US, but there are good reasons for doubting it there too. There is no reason why all of the disenchanted who fell for the lies of the snake-oil salesmen could not support radical remedies from the left: identity and the media are strong but it is economics that dictates the swings.

In the UK now the story seems much more elemental: that somehow the left threatens the existence of capitalism and democracy. In truth there is no way Corbyn could persuade the Labour party to abandon democratic capitalism, just as there is no way Sanders or Warren could do the same in the US. All we are talking about is rolling back many of the results of neoliberalism. But it is difficult to logically convince someone the ghosts they see do not exist. In contrast to these ghosts on the left, the dynamic of plutocracy that I have described here is very real, and it requires radical change to bring an end to this dynamic.

[1] This is why arguments that say the UK press is becoming less powerful because of its falling readership fail. If this press dominate the news agenda of the broadcasters, they do not need many readers. 

This piece first appeared on mainly macro.

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