Saturday, December 2, 2023

Deciphering Disinformation (2023)

Book Review from the December 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Hot Planet, Cool Media. By Stephen Harper. Clairview, 2023

As described by its subtitle, this is a compilation of socialist polemics on war, propaganda and popular culture, written between 2011 and 2022. In this near-decade, marked by populism, austerity and the smartphone, ‘the morbid symptoms of a decrepit social system and the corresponding expressions of public anger and despair became more acute’.

The book’s title, taken from one of its essays, refers to the gap between the state of the world and the media’s inapt and inept interpretations of it. A principle which underpins the book is that a constructive way to react to society’s grim events is to understand how and why information about them, in all its forms, is presented to us in the way it is. Many of the essays take war as an example: 2013’s Back To Iraq examines how the format of a BBC documentary about the war in Iraq enabled Western politicians to promote their account unchallenged, while ignoring economic considerations. Several insightful reviews of war films are included, such as Unbroken (2014), which displays a ‘national chauvinism’ that simplifies war into good versus bad. The formula common across most movies smooths out complications and reasserts traditional narratives, such as portraying the American army as always heroic.

Mainstream media, almost by definition, backs up the narrative most favourable to those with power and wealth: ‘Whether conservative or liberal, the loudest voices in the media are those of the ruling class’. As the essays explain, acceptance of our current social system lies beneath almost all political discourse, whether left or right wing. What are presented as alternatives to the status quo can still only act within the constraints of capitalism, such as when politicians and journalists ‘talk excitedly of ‘radical’ reforms’ or when the left lionises ‘social-democratic saviour-figures’ such as Barack Obama, Aung San Suu Kyi, Jeremy Corbyn and Jacinda Ardern.

The partiality and misinformation which permeate mainstream and social media impact on us and how we relate to the world. Some people react by turning to ‘conspiracy theories’ which, as the 2020 essay Making A Conspiracy Out Of A Crisis argues, to dismiss outright is as misguided as fanatically adhering to them. When people act by rioting, this is a reaction to ‘the deeply felt but unarticulated experiences of social alienation and inequality’, which the media glosses over with talk of ‘yobs’. Mental distress is a more widespread response to our circumstances, although its social origins are downplayed when it is regarded and treated as a biological illness, according to the 2013 essay Mental Illness And The Media.

The essays in Hot Planet, Cool Media usefully help us see and then see through the narratives dominant across the media. Once the biases of those on our screens are recognised, then the underlying social, economic and political causes of events and trends are revealed. Next is needed ‘collective and conscious political action to abolish the system’ that generates problems such as racism, war, alienation and climate change. This route to revolutionary consciousness is described with a welcome clarity and groundedness across the book’s 66 essays. Hot Planet, Cool Media is definitely recommended to anyone wanting to make sense of the previous decade and how it has shaped the world today.

As his focus is on other people’s interpretations, Stephen Harper doesn’t write much about his own experiences. A lively exception is the 2019 essay Election Reflection, about when he took part in hustings for the Socialist Party’s European Parliament Election campaign. He recounts (on p.160) that after one event ‘one of the independent candidates turned to me and made a cryptic but intriguing comment: ”you’re right … but you’re too early”. I was tempted to reply that with capitalism destroying the biosphere at an alarming rate, it’s not a moment too soon for socialism.’
Mike Foster

‘Take me to your leader’ (2023)

From the December 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

These five words became the supposed, and somewhat clichéd, request made by any alien stepping from their flying saucer. This brief statement makes a huge supposition; that a society so much more advanced than ours that it can traverse light-years of space still has leaders.

Not so different to humanity at present then. The implication is that leaders will always be a necessary feature of any society. So, no possibility of socialism anywhere in the cosmos, never mind on Earth.

Fiction is often either reflective of what is, or speculative of what might be. Whilst science fiction has an honourable tradition of posing questions as to possible things to come, in this case, the alien(s) represent the world landed in, not some distant galaxy far, far away.

The role of leader in human society has taken a variety of forms, the monarchs of feudal times eventually giving way to presidential heads of state as capitalism developed. Even if, as in Britain, when there is nominally still a crowned head, the king or queen fulfils the role of president. The only difference is the method of selection, by ballot or birth.

It is not only states that have leaders of course. Industries have CEOs, with boards of directors and their chairmen/women.

The Socialist Party is an unusual political organisation in that it does not have leaders. Parties of the openly capitalist sort, usually locating themselves on the right wing, very much favour strong leadership. Those that would identify themselves as left, even those claiming to be socialist, also have prominent roles for leaders.

An ever-present problem for all leaders is that while they occupy the top spot, there are members of their own parties continually plotting their downfall to further personal ambitions. Even those who have no realistic chance of ever achieving exalted prominence will eagerly conspire against their leader if they feel their immediate interests are served. Never allow principles to intrude on personal advantage.

The recent example of Jeremy Corbyn’s brief flirtation with high office is such a case. As Labour Party leader and, therefore, potential future prime minister, he did not exhibit unequivocal loyalty to the British state or its allies.

A toxic mix of media vitriol and Israeli self-interest was unleashed with the added force of his own MPs, fearing for their seats, becoming willing accomplices in his political assassination. The anti-Zionism equals anti-semitism campaign proved, despite its absurdity in the main, a potent force.

However, as is usually the way with a poisoned chalice, it remains toxic for whoever next sups from it. Keir Starmer, proving his overwhelming loyalty to his own ambition, used the anti-Zionism equals anti-semitism weapon to quell and remove any lingering Corbynites, even expelling the man himself from the party he’d led.

However, what Starmer didn’t foresee was the 7 October Hamas atrocities in Israel followed by the savagery of the Israeli response. As the number of dead in Gaza rose beyond 10,000 Starmer found himself politically hobbled by the very weapon that brought him the leadership.

Unable to denounce Israeli military actions or even call for a ceasefire without giving rise to accusations of, by his own use of the term, anti-semitism, his leadership was undermined. Labour politicians at local and parliamentary levels must either resign and undermine him, or deny their own consciences.

Leadership implies control and elevated insight when situations arise. The Boris Johnson Tory administration very quickly began to unravel when his government, based on charismatic populism but with little substance even in terms of its own politics, was confronted by the public health crisis of Covid.

The present inquiry into the handling of that epidemic has revealed self-interested factions vying for influence, but with nothing other than invective to say to each other. At the pinnacle of this maladministration teetered the former Prime Minister who less than a year previously had been lauded for his leadership in turning the ‘red wall’ blue. An appropriate colour considering the language of choice, or the choice language, of his ‘team’.

It has been said that anyone wanting to become a leader must possess a personality that should debar them from becoming one. It is a role for a human demiurge to create a political world in his or her own image for which the required infallibility is always lacking.

Even a cursory scan of history in the capitalist era demonstrates how misguided it is to place human hopes and aspirations in the hands of leaders no matter what qualities they claim to have to navigate ‘their’ people to a better future.

The Russian revolution, whatever the claims of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, did not, and could not, lead to human emancipation and socialism. A Führer only leads to barbarity via the rhetoric of lebensraum and a Third Reich. The ‘Great Helmsman’ steered his state vessel onto the rocks of the Cultural Revolution.

Following a leader amounts to an abnegation of responsibility. It is people wanting an individual to deliver a better way of living for them. There is a better way for humanity to live, but it will never come about at the behest of some enlightened leader.

That better way – beyond capitalism and its attendant problems of exploitation, poverty, nationalism and war – is socialism. A moneyless worldwide commonwealth to which people will contribute in the very best way they can and have their needs met. A truly democratic society without need of, or any role for, leaders.

Should a flying saucer or otherwise unimagined vehicle traverse the cosmos and land on Earth, when the being steps from the craft a universal translator may allow a question to be clearly posed: ‘You want to take me to your leader? Why are you still inhibiting human progress with leaders?’
Dave Alton

It’s that time of year again (2023)

From the December 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard
‘Many people complain that the Christmas sales campaign starts too early. But as the market is stimulated to grow, and as it grows, so will the effort to exploit it. This might mean an even longer sales drive in the future—wasn’t there a story about a business man who said that Christmas was good business as long as they kept religion out of it?’ 
(Socialist Standard, December 1965).
Although it appears to have been so three months ago because that’s when Christmas commodities started to appear in retail outlets. Even more than the rest of the year the mantra is purchase, buy, consume, spend!

It’s no wonder that alcohol consumption soars and family rows escalate in this period of joy and peace. Coping with capitalism creates enough stresses on a daily basis in itself but, at this time of the year, especially for parents, but not just confined to them; they increase many-fold life’s everyday pressures.

Sympathy must go out for one to the residents of towns served by Medway Council in Kent because it has ‘cancelled all its Christmas lights this year just to save £75,000. Medway Council in Kent announced the “sad and difficult decision” after identifying a potential overspend of £17 million this financial year.’ Local folk have labelled the Council ‘Scrooge’ (Sun, 10 October).

Think that can be filed under the heading of ‘First World Problems’.

It’s very hard to get through this period without Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol impinging in some way or other. George Bernard Shaw, channelling Scrooge, (before the ghost’s visitations) in a 1946 letter to Reynolds News expressed his vehement opposition to Christmas:
‘I am sorry to have to introduce the subject of Christmas. It is an indecent subject; a cruel, gluttonous subject; a drunken, disorderly subject; a wasteful, disastrous subject; a wicked, cadging, lying, filthy, blasphemous and demoralizing subject. Christmas is forced on a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press: on its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred; and anyone who looked back to it would be turned into a pillar of greasy sausages’.
Perhaps Santa let him down as a child. Proper pantomime villain, boo, hiss? Did Outraged Christian of Easily Offended inundate the letters page with their outrage? The latter-day aficionados of Christmas are rushing to social media to express their umbrage at a particular seasonal advertisement.

Speaking of outrage, there’s always a competition amongst capitalist enterprises to ‘win’ the best Christmas advertisement. The purpose being to maximise sales in the ‘golden quarter.’ Back in November an ‘edgy’ anti-Christmas advertisement from Marks and Spencer apparently upset some as M & S were forced to apologise because the destruction shown of party hats in an open fire was deemed to be an insult to Palestine. How, you ask? The colours of the hats were also those of the Palestinian flag! Even socialists know that red and green are traditional Christmas colours.

This is surely taking taking offence to the level of the absurd. The events across the world in 2023 are more demanding of offence, outrage and umbrage.

A world of dread and fear
John Donne’s 1624 Meditation XVII piece, No Man is an Island seems particularly relevant almost four hundred years on:
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
As in other years of mass bloody conflicts the bell has tolled for far too many in 2023 in places other than Europe.

Almost forty years ago Band Aid released a charity record, Do they know it’s Christmas? in response to famine in Ethiopia. The lyric included, ‘It’s Christmas time, There’s no need to be afraid, At Christmas time we let in light and we banish shade’. And ‘There’s a world outside your window, And it’s a world of dread and fear’. It is to be fervently hoped that, over the intervening weeks, the chilling prospect of more ‘dread and fear’ will not have spread to a far wider arena.

"Well, if you knows of a beter ‘ole, go to it"
In 1961, at his presidential inauguration, John F Kennedy said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country.’ Sixty plus years on this exhortation would seem to now mean ask what you can do for the capitalist state engaged in armed conflict with the full support of the capitalist state where you reside – or else. A reminder that the global working class have no country. Patriotism is the refuge of the scoundrel, even if is it being forced upon many; but many, even if they do not, as of yet, understand that socialism is the only viable solution, are resisting the brainwashing and propaganda. But, without the realisation that socialism is the only alternative, nothing will change.

When the working class of many states were engaged in capitalist wars in the early part of the twentieth century, black humour was much evident as a way of coping with great adversity.

Bairnsfather’s 1915 cartoon of two British soldiers under fire in a foxhole with the caption ‘Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it’ is an example.

Well, we do know of a ‘better ‘ole’. It’s a money-free, leader-free, state-free society where conflicts and wars are forever abolished and consigned to the dustbin of history.
Dave Coggan

From ideology to humanity (2023)

Louix XVI, 1793, not on his best day.
From the December 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Humans make history, but, up to the present, they have made it largely unconsciously – which rules out, really, any so-called ‘conspiracy theory’. They respond to social evolution ideologically, which is not the same as saying that ideology alone motivates action. Ideology is part of the conscious motivation of a largely only semi-conscious (in socio-economic terms) mass of people. This was truer in former times than it is now, at least in the advanced industrialised countries, when today we have mass communication and information bombardment on an unprecedented, global, scale, which unites people from all over the world in real terms as never before – even if this yet evades the consciousness of the overwhelming majority.

The bourgeois revolution in Europe alone took a multitude of ideological forms, therefore, from Humanism to Calvinist puritanism, from democratic puritanism to the deism and atheist-materialism of the Enlightenment, from Luther to Lenin, all depending on the epoch and the social circumstances in which people found themselves. All these different ideologies expressed an unconscious movement out of feudalism and into capitalism – that is the real, but unconscious, motivating factor. The conscious factors are the ideologies, religious and political, finding expression through polemics and philosophy, literature and art, and also through militarism and (following the emergence of nation-states) the rise of nationalism.

The socialist revolution will be the first – in emancipating the last class to be emancipated – to require full majority consciousness, in that, because of its requirements, it cannot be achieved (unlike former social revolutions) by a minority leading others, but has to encompass a broad population that is fully conscious of its socio-economic tasks. The end of class society therefore marks the end of ideology as currently understood, and the emergence of humanity. Ideas in socialism will be the expression of individual thought, choice, and action. Where there are no classes, thinking will come into its own, as there will be no class to keep others in an exploitable position through the imposition of an ideology. Classlessness necessarily leads to individuality, as Wilde predicted. Under these conditions, art and literature, and science, will blossom as never before, benefiting from each person’s unique and individually rooted contribution.