Which side are you on?

by · December 18, 2010

The horrifying deaths of refugees near Christmas Island this week produced two notable responses. The first, recycled endlessly in recent times, was the call for people to not use the tragedy to gain political advantage, a ridiculous idea given that Australia’s current refugee policy has few reasons for existing except in the service of politics. As Left Flank argued in July:

Unable to promise real improvements in people’s lives, the major parties have turned to nationalism and immigrant-bashing to divert attention from their failures and to find easy scapegoats. The “debate” over asylum seekers and border security is thus about neither. Rather, it is an intervention in domestic politics, displacing economic insecurity into xenophobic insecurity, and thus getting the politicians (temporarily) off the hook.

But the second was a letter to Melbourne’s Herald-Sun written by Bob Brown, calling for its notoriously right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt to resign. Here is the full text:

Dear Editor,

Andrew Bolt has blood on his hands. He stridently insisted on the invasion and killings in Iraq which led to millions fleeing. Some of those millions ended up in the ocean off Christmas Island on Wednesday.

Andrew Bolt’s call, while bodies were still in the ocean, for Julia Gillard’s resignation (but the Labor Party opposed the war in Iraq) lacked human decency. He should resign.

Senator Bob Brown

Let’s leave aside the fact that Brown (a) conveniently forgets that the ALP’s opposition to the Iraq War was over a technicality (lack of UN Security Council approval) and (b) is curiously keen to defend a PM whose refugee policy he vehemently opposes and which has in practice contributed to the refugee deaths. This letter follows on from earlier attacks by the Greens leader on the Murdoch press and The Australian in particular for its campaign against the Greens:

“[The paper] sees itself as a determinant of democracy in Australia. It believes it has replaced the people and it’s time to bell the cat. It’s stepped out of the role of the fourth estate to think it’s the determinant of who has seats in the parliament, and it needs to be taken on.”

Now, I have no problem with anyone attacking Bolt or The Australian for their right-wing proselytising, but there is a certain naïveté in the way that Brown and others on the mainstream Left approach the battle of ideas in society. It seems to me that much of the debate has been about the “proper” role of journalists or public intellectuals in a pluralistic liberal democracy — rejecting open partisanship and demanding “balanced” coverage.

Similarly, NYU journalism lecturer Jay Rosen has written compellingly of how the decline of mainstream US journalism into an embedded, pro-state stance since 9/11 has led to the rise of WikiLeaks. For him the problem can be summed up in the person of New York Times journalist Judith Miller’s unquestioning promotion of the WMD lies that underpinned the case for war in Iraq.

Rosen and Brown are essentially demanding a return to a better journalism that really seeks out the “facts” in a less partisan manner and is much more sceptical of the lure of powerful, conservative interests. Yet the idea that partisanship can somehow be minimised or eliminated strikes me as wrong-headed in two ways.

The limits set by hegemony

First, there is the notion that facts can somehow be separated from the ideologies of those who present them to us. From the most basic decisions — about which of many facts are to be presented — to the most complex, there is an inherent partisanship and “bias” in knowledge production and transmission. In some senses this is why WikiLeaks has earned the ire of even some progressive journalists, because it openly labels itself as a political project that takes sides against US foreign policy and states more generally. This seems to be “cheating” when “real” journalists have to not just “fact-check” but incorporate the views of the ruling elite in every report as a matter of fairness to both “sides”. In a similar vein, while defending Assange’s legal rights in one breath, Bob Brown recently felt the need to lecture WikiLeaks to be “diligent” in self-censoring any aspect of the leaks that may “put lives in danger”.

What such views do is reflexively accept elite hegemony as a “fact of life” and so find it impossible to imagine counter-hegemonic explanatory frameworks for the data before their eyes. Such a process came tragi-comically to life in the UK last week when YouTube footage of disabled activist Jody McIntyre being tipped out of his wheelchair and assaulted by police at a student protest was played during an interview in which the BBC journalist did his best to present the activist as a threat to public safety, who menacingly “rolled towards police”, thereby provoking their justifiable brutality.

The actions of Judith Miller or this particular BBC turd do represent a new low in mainstream journalism, one that Brown and Rosen pick up on in their criticisms. But to imagine a past era where such implicit processes didn’t operate gives too much ground to ruling conceptions of how journalists and other intellectuals ought to function, standing above the fray of politics and ideology to present some approximation of “truth”. In his development of a materialist analysis of intellectuals, Antonio Gramsci rejected the notion that intellectuals form a separate class because of their role in society, instead pointing to their function as serving the needs of particular classes with which they are (consciously or unconsciously) aligned.

As Buci-Glucksmann points out, the intellectual crisis of the 1920s and 30s had led one progressive Italian intellectual, Julien Benda, to bemoan:

[In this era], in which political passions and hatreds are gaining the upper hand, in which nationalism, authoritarianism and racism lay down the law, the “scholars” have deserted their true post: a universal and disinterested activity which “urges citizens to what is common and universal in man”.

Gramsci replied that Benda “examines the function of the intellectuals while abstracting from their class situation and their function, which has become still more precise with the immense spread of publishing and the press”. For Gramsci it was the crisis of the middle classes in a period of intense economic and social dislocation that led many intellectuals to side with extreme nationalism and fascism, not a lack of adherence to some universal ideal. Thus the question for the subaltern classes of developing and cohering their own layer of intellectuals is so central to his writings on the creation of a new hegemony, one countering (and providing an alternative to) the hegemony of the capitalist elite. Indeed, perhaps more than most classical Marxists, Gramsci lays heavy emphasis on the subaltern classes waging struggles on a wider intellectual and cultural front, rather than only within some “pure” political space.

Reform or replacement?

This brings us to the second weakness in Rosen and Brown’s criticisms of partisanship. They seek a rehabilitation of existing hegemonic systems and relations of knowledge production and dissemination rather than their destruction. For them WikiLeaks exposes the desperate need to reform the debased institutions of journalism we have today, not a reason to replace them with alternative institutions.

It is here that Gramsci is at his strongest in how he envisions the state as an instrument of class rule, but in a broader way than simply seeing it in purely economic or formal political terms. Part of that rule is the development of a hegemonic apparatus, a mechanism for the reproduction of ideas, relationships and institutions that undergird mass consent. So mainstream journalism, the mass media, academia and conservative pundits are all part of this apparatus of rule, their concrete character mediated through the historical development of their own institutions and traditions. One of the curiosities of the media’s role in Australian society — now coming to an abrupt halt — has been its stated non-partisanship during the post-WWII era, a “neutrality” resting on broad consensus about the capitalist nature of society.

The corollary of Gramsci’s analysis is the creation, from below, of an alternative hegemonic apparatus — understood here more broadly than the narrow conception of “party” that we are handed down by official politics. Part of this must be the development of journalists and other public intellectuals whose allegiance to the subaltern classes drives their production and dissemination of ideas. The last decade has seen the emergence of new intellectual critiques of capitalism, new counter-cultural spaces and alternative media and journalistic efforts — but these have tended to be fragmentary and on a small scale. Wikileaks represents in some ways a quantum leap in the scale of such projects, although of a qualified nature.

Interestingly, my experience within the Greens was that while there were spaces for such initiatives, growing electoral imperatives led to an increasingly arid internal cultural and intellectual climate. Ideas were only useful if they directly related to getting elected, there was pressure for policies and policy debates to be simplified, and there was increasing concentration of all intellectual work in the offices of elected MPs. This perhaps helps to explain Brown’s desire for a fairer go in the mainstream media: his party has simply not known how to (or not cared to) build an alternative hegemonic apparatus, or even act systematically to draw together the exciting developments that are happening. It has allowed its project for social change to be delimited by the narrow confines of acceptable politics and now finds itself weak in the face of powerful forces mobilising against both the party and the causes it defends.

There is no easy solution to this problem. But for such a project to develop requires a conscious commitment to a politics outside to that projected by the state. Our side has spent too long fighting on the terrain set by the ruling class, not out of necessity but in the belief that there is no alternative. In a period of social instability such as the present, the elites will seek to shift that terrain as rapidly to the Right as they can, as Bolt or current mainstream journalism show so vividly. We should seek not a rebalancing, but a firm commitment to taking the side of the oppressed against the powerful.

Thanks to wrong+arithmetic and liz_beths for the discussions that laid the basis for this post.

Discussion4 Comments

  1. Dr_Tad says:

    Boris Kelly has left a new comment on your post "Which side are you on?":Tad,I think a distinction needs to be made between attitudes to government and a deeper public discontent with elite, systemic hegemony. The Wikileaks affair serves to reinforce the generally low regard in which citizens hold governments, politicians and, by association, diplomats. The content of the most recent tranche of cables, for example, has hardly surprised many observers and simply adds to the pervasive public cynicism. Indeed, the main reason why Wikileaks is held in relatively high regard by the citizens of most western nations, with the predictable exception of the largely myopic citizenry of the USA, is that it accords with a 'right to know' ethic.This in itself does not equate to any deeper understanding of neocorporatist political power structures and how they determine the lives we live.However, when taken in tandem with the fallout from the GFC – which is still in the developmental stages in Europe and may yet rebound in the USA – the rupture in public faith in governments highlighted by Wikileaks, takes on a new meaning. Rumours of an imminent leak of Bank of America files, for example, could serve to ignite public insight into the deeper machinations of what Assange, after Teddy Roosevelt, refers to as the 'invisible government'. If and when this or some other similar spark occurs the game will change significantly.On the matter of the media and how the above relates to it: We have now a fully functioning, diverse, intelligent and lively alternative media operating on the internet. Unless western governments take China's lead and adopt punitive technological barriers to the free flow of information – and here I note the dangers inherent in the government's mooted internet filter – we can expect those alternative channels to flourish. I do not see any great merit in calling for the consolidation of that diversity into any kind of subaltern monolith, although I'm not entirely sure that is what you are suggesting. I do see merit in looking for mechanisms to deliver that content more effectively in sections of society that are currently marginalised from diversity of opinion. In doing so, the question of language, in the political sense, needs to be foregrounded.Indeed, the Wikileaks debate around free speech could well serve to deepen public faith in the media establishment, especially in the USA where First Amendment issues arise and leave the NY TImes looking like a bastion of democratic discourse. If Assange goes to trial on conspiracy charges in the US, and I do not believe he will, then we will have a show trial in full global view that will heighten public awareness of the ways in which governments resist free speech. Media organisations worldwide will rally in self-interest thus further entrenching public allegiance to the orthodoxy of corporate opinion making.Just thoughts. Thanks for the post.

  2. Matt Davis says:

    In a recent interview for his latest film "The War You Don't See", John Pilger spoke of the "fifth estate", those organisations like Wikileaks and Media Lens, and blogs like this one, where internet savvy people bounce ideas around, just like Ted did above, and "create rebellions" around the world, as Wikileaks showed.Before President Obama originally planned to tour Indonesia, Bill Nairn published a scandalous investigation into murders of civil rights activists. Even as the BBC defended Tony Blair from damning war crimes investigators, blogs like War Is A Crime and the Downing St Memos turned over the Cabinet discussions and demonstrated the unease with Blair's totally illegal invasion of non-Al Queda Iraq.Don't get too excited about Iran – mobile coverage is quickly shut down, and Facebook and Twitter frozen. But things leaked out just the same. My local Perth, Australia Indymedia carried radio interviews live from Gaza during the height of "Operation Cast Lead".The old doggerel anti-slavery verses, the secret book club societies of the French Revolution, the student unions of 1968, are these days places like Free West Papua.org, Global Research and various Twitter networks of widely diverse friends.People are complaining about Wikileaks grabbing attention away from the substance, that true, but what we have now is the capacity to reverse the natural order of things, to show civil society can be the boss. And it scares the hell out of the capitalist class.

  3. leLaissezFaire says:

    An important post. Two comments:(a) On "Balanced" coverage:Absolutely. The hegemony skews things one way so much that the very concept of balance is likely to be inherently flawed. Even kids get that: there was never going to be any ‘balance’ between Robin Hood and his Merry Men on one side, and the Sheriff of Nottingham, King John Lackland and their army on the other…One question being at what point, as members of mainstream society, do we mentally switch side and accept the rule of ‘the Prince’ as ‘the only alternative’?(b) On "Reform vs. replacement"An interesting paper published by a French think tank during the Global Financial crisis proposed a framework to understand the various schools of thoughts regarding the way we will ‘exit’ the GFC. Whilst this framework was written with the GFC in mind, it can be easily generalized to the systemic critique of the existing hegemony:http://www.think-out.fr/IMG/pdf_Semiotique-de-la-crise-JMG-2009-2.pdfA – Things return to the initial state after any crisis:Commentators adhering to this views usually prefer to question the “when” to avoid challenging the “why”. The hypothesis is that the current system is the best we can have, and crises need to be deal with as bushfires.B – Adaptation:It is a more ambitious and critical stand, recognising that something is rotten in the state of affairs. Commentators adopting this line are prone to distinguish between an industrial capitalism (real) and financial capitalism (speculative). They favour Self regulation. This is typically the line adopted by the Economist and other mainstream media who ‘dared’ challenge the status-quo.C – Mutation:This line proposed a more radical critique. It goes beyond adaptation because encapsulate a broad set of external dimensions: environmental issues, financial issues, geopolitical imbalances, our relationship to the industrial model (our relationship to Power, Capital, Wealth, Work), the relationship between economic and political power, etc… are all put under scrutiny and see as part of the multiple facets of the same system problem. This line is typically followed by Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, etcD – Replacement of the existing system (destruction, conceptual that is):Commentators from this school of thoughts actually see something positive in the crisis: the promise of radical changes that should lead to the end of capitalism. They believe that the crisis was not an accident but revealed the inherent limitations of the system. This would lead to a paradigm schism: economic downshifting, and more importantly a serious rethink of the ‘liberal logic’ with has been adopted politically by the Left an economically by the Right preventing any serious alternative from happening. This line is typically followed by Immanuel Wallerstein, or French philosophers Alain Badiou and Jean-Claude Michéa.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I think Brown is sometimes naive in how he thinks the right operates. He thinks if he rouses on them they will fall into line with him. That wont happen.