The Democratic Threat to Capitalism


As described in The Scorpion And The Frog, the interests of capital are in the generation of profits and, by extension, the maintenance of the social, financial and political conditions that maximise profit.

And it the second part of the sentence in italics that is important for this discussion.

Theoretically at least, perhaps generating profit and democracy can sit together without contradiction. However, where capitalism and democracy come into conflict is in the fact that to secure future profits capitalism, as a system, has to ensure that social and political institutions do not interfere with profit making. In other words capitalist enterprises are not and can never be politically neutral, capitalist enterprises have to try to maintain a significant measure of influence, not to say control, over the political system because they are duty bound to try and maintain the social, financial and political conditions that maximise profit. In the UK in the 17th and 18th Century the democratic electorate was restricted to Anglican men of substantial property – a few thousand people. Early arguments against the extension of the electorate were often based on the idea that voters who did not own property or wealth would be a threat to the property owning classes. “What would there be to stop poor voters voting to tax the wealthy?”, was the argument, and this was clearly a morally outrageous possibility to be avoided at all costs.

It is arguable that the post WWII political consensus based on a welfare state funded through a progressive tax system represented exactly the type of outcome those 17th Century landed gentry feared; i.e. a regulated form of capitalism with some key industries nationalised, a world in which the interests of the majority of the population were priviliged over those of the wealthy elite.

But however mild this Old Labour version of socialism appeared to those on the Left it still represented a threat to profit and thus capitalist organisations had to fight back. Corporate Execs, Bankers etc were contractually obliged, even perhaps ‘morally’ obliged, to intervene in the political process on behalf of their shareholders because generating profitt depends upon the maintenance of the social, financial and political conditions that maximise profit.

The principle mechanism for the capitalist intervention in the political process has been the control of the media by pro-capitalist enterprises and organisations, and this is perhaps most obvious in the UK because of the existence of the BBC.

Public Service broadcasting as it was conceived in the UK was not devised primarily as a consumer service, it was primarily a conceived as a tool of democracy.

For a democracy to be meaningful the electorate have to have informed and educated. For this to be achieved the principle means of exchanging ideas, (which in modern times is principally the “media”[1] ), has to be free of political control or bias and/or the control of commercial or political vested interests. It also has to present a diverse range of political alternatives from which the electorate can make informed choices.

The Right however say that “media” is simply a commodity like any other, like health and education for example, that can be bought and sold on an open market and that attempts to “impose” a democratic function or editorial impartiality upon viewers is at best paternal interference in the market, at worst down right totalitarian! “If the punters wanted impartial news they’d pay for it”, goes the argument, ignoring the fact that the punter will not know that the news is biased and partial unless there are impartial alternative media readily available.

The BBC, as conceived by Reith, was an attempt to create a principled broadcasting system that attempted to inform, educate and entertain the citizens of our country without cynicism and bias and thus fulfil the media’s democratic responsibilities. It could be argued that the post WWII political consensus would have not been possible without the BBC as an integral building block of the British democracy.

Margaret Thater certainly thought so and right from her election in 1979 she was determined to undermine the democratic influence of the BBC. You see, the problem for capitalists is that when the UK electorate were actually informed (by the BBC amongst others) about a range of political and economic systems and were offered genuine alternatives to capitalism, they invariably chose modest forms of welfare-state socialism. This is of course a pattern repeated across the Globe. Despite the elites universal rhetoric of “the ignorant mob”, people are not idiots and when they are educated and democratically informed they invariably recognise that their interests are not met by free-market capitalism. From Allende’s Chile to Castro’s Cuba, from Nicaruaga to Chavez’s Venuzuela, from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, France, Germany and the post-war UK, properly informed citizens all over the world have recognised that rampant capitalism will not meet their needs, let alone their wants, and that a mixed economy with a progressive tax system used to fund a welfare-state, socialised health care, affordable housing and free education for all is preferable to either free-market capitalism or totalitarian utopianism.

But in the USA and UK even this modest Keynesian, socialist vision was deemed a threat to profit and so in order to maintain the social, financial and political conditions that maximise profit, capitalism has had to take control of the Western media and to systematically undermine the legitimacy of public service broadcasters like the BBC.

Since 1979 the British public have been bombarded with the rhetoric of T.I.N.A. (there is no alternative) and presented with consumerism as the ultimate expression of human aspiration.

The concepts of equality, social justice, work-place democracy, fellowship, localism, political autonomy, community and cooperation developed by previous generations of radicals and progressives have been deliberately, relentlessly and systematically undermined by a media that is an intimate and crucial part of the capitalist system.

There are of course journalists and even executives who recognise this and occasionaly attempt to expose this to the public. But to even get onto the mainstream media you have to enter into a Faustian Pact with the system whereby you promise not draw attention to the Emporer’s lack of clothes and become prepared to simply ignore some stories and political perspectives.

Thus we have more and more ‘choice’ in terms of types of media and the number of channels and yet simultaneously the “mainstream” has become culturally and politically narrower and narrower. Today, to be even remotely left wing is to be a far-left radical. Old Labour policies that once were in the mainstream, are now derided by both Tory & New Labour as extremist and/or idealistic and unrealistic and this view is relentlessly reflected in the media. The working class is almost completely absent from UK media and when it does appear it always in a negative light (Shameless etc).

Mainstream media, including the BBC, simply do not report certain types of news. Industrial conflicts or radical protests rarely appear even on the BBC – unless violence results, in which case the ‘story’ is invariably framed in terms of ‘violent, lawless minorities’. The Madrid protest camps and the Madison/Wisconsin campaigns for trade union rights were absolutely absent from the BBC News, as is any positive coverage of economic and social progress in Venezuela.

Over the last 40 years Chomsky has reported extensively on this bias in the U.S. media, giving chapter & verse in books like Manufacturing Consent. Our own Glasgow Media Group has done the same in the UK.

There is little doubt that our media do promote a very particular world-view that presents a very narrow vision of representative democracy and promotes individualism consumerism and capitalism as the only credible vehicles for human flourishing. This clearly amounts to an ideology and in that respect fits within Chomsky’s Propaganda Model of the commercial media’s relationship to Western democratic politics.

Writers like Francis Fukuyama and British Politicians like Michael Portillo claim that the media promotes this neo-liberal ideology because since the fall of the communist USSR there is no cedible alternative. The media are not biased they are just speaking the only truth available.

This is argument is somewhat undermined by the Western commercial media’s refusal to show positive representations of any of the alternatives to the neo-liberal conception of capitalism – if they’ve nothing to fear from the alternatives why do they need to hide them from us?

The problem for the Left of course is that by the very nature of the problem, most of the electorate are not aware that they are not fully informed. Thus the need for Alternative Media that can truly engage with a popular audience. Too much radical and Alternative Media is ‘worthy’ and ‘serious’ to the extent that watching it is an act of political commitment rather than an enjoyable experience.

Michael Albert commented that all too often the Left only delivers to its supporters an unpleasant sense of guilt and responsibility and a lot of work organising and trying to persuade uninterested people to join the cause. The room was full of ironic laughter as we all recognised the truth in this comment.

So the challenge for the Left is not to be underestimated. Capitalism has at its disposal unlimited financial resources and a global propaganda machine that is relentlessly presenting a neoliberal ideology as the only credible ideology left for mankind.

This might be depressing to some but to me the fact that the Left still exists and in some ways still thrives is cause for celebration and evidence that despite 30+ years of neoliberal propaganda many millions of people all over the globe remain committed to progressive ideas of freedom, equality and social justice.

This really is an achievement that should not be underestimated and one that should give cheer to the most disillusioned activist – despite the best efforts of the global elite the red and black flags are still flying and people are still fighting the good fight in the face of seemingly overwhelming opposition forces. Remember the Abraham Lincoln cliché about democracy, it seems it’s as true today as it ever was.

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”

Abraham Lincoln, (attributed) 16th president of US (1809 – 1865)


[1] i.e. newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, feature films, advertising, popular music.

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