19 January 2004
In 1848 the Chartist Uprising petrified the ruling classes of England. The uprising, triggered initially by opposition to English colonial policies in Ireland swept across the length and breadth of the country. Strikes, marches and occupations and insurrections occurred in every major town and city in England and Wales. The rebellion has been documented in novel form by the historical writer Jack Lindsay in his book “1848 — Year of Revolutions” and well worth reading if you can find a copy.
So petrified were the ruling classes by the event that they mobilised and armed the emerging English middle classes and small capitalists, barricaded the bridges of London and occupied the major cities of the country. The smell of revolution was in the air and indeed right across Europe, rebellions and insurrections threatened the established order.
What is striking about that event is that in an age where the typical Englishman and woman rarely traveled more than thirty miles from the place they were born in throughout their entire lives, where most were illiterate and had no access to news, in a time when there was no radio, tv or telephone and no universal suffrage, millions of people were moved by events that had no direct bearing on their lives — English imperialist and colonial policy in Ireland.
The parallels with the present must be obvious, except of course, we live in an age where we are swamped with information to a degree unprecedented in history. But what kind of information? And even more importantly perhaps, how do people feel about their relationship to the state that rules them (aside that is, from an almost universal cynicism about the nature and quality of their political leaders)? A cynicism reflected in the electoral drop-out rate, that until the Labour government swept back into power in 1997 after nineteen years of Tory rule, Britain was ruled by governments elected by a minority of the population.
“Failure to vote, is the mark of the satisfied citizen”
Thus spoke the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the Labour government in 2000. As a student of news production for more than twenty years, what strikes me the most about the process is not merely the manufacturing of ‘news’ but the monopoly a small section of the ruling elite has over the process. Key to the process, just as it was in 1848, is the role of the education system, not only the handful of elite schools and universities from which the dominant culture produces its elite, but also the seamless nature of the picture created of the world we live in and the rationale projected that supports the preservation of the status quo.
As the quote above demonstrates, in spite of all the protestations to the contrary, the last thing the ruling class want is an involved and concerned citizen, unless of course, it subscribes to the dominant culture’s interpretation of events. And it’s when that process breaks down that we see the state scared witless, to wit the two million who marched last year through London and the tens of millions who marched worldwide.
And this process is not limited to the broadsheet press for the so-called educated classes. If one looks at the editors and writers for the ‘masses’ who produce the content for the tabloid press, they too, have been through the same mill. The only difference is the writing style and the way the propaganda is presented, cruder and more hysterical perhaps, but nevertheless subscribing to the same worldview — preservation of the status quo.
So how do they do it? How does the dominant culture dominate? Reams have been written on the subject, analysis of the language and presentation, often hinging on the use of a single word in the presentation of the ‘news’ but using it over and over again, in a process that verges on a much abused word — subliminal. Or, it may be done through the process of ‘simple’ omission for example, the choice of the ‘expert’ selected to give an ‘objective’ view of events. But even the notion of ‘expert’ is in itself an artificial creation based upon the evolution of specialisation that the Victorian world of science and technology bequeathed to us.
For many of us, equipped with an ‘education’ that borders on the farcical not to mention criminal in what it fails to teach us, we bow before the dominant culture’s monopoly of knowledge. My father, who left school at fourteen or fifteen, was entirely self-taught (aside from evening classes). An accomplished engineer and tool-maker, a professional musician and trade union organiser, he never overcame the deep inferiority complex he felt not merely over what he saw as his lack of formal education but even of the ‘working class’ accent he acquired growing up in South London. And although the deeply ingrained class stratification of England is perhaps extreme in its expression through accent, it differs little from that which exists in other capitalist countries.
So what does this all mean when we read a newspaper, watch tv or listen to the news on the radio? Two things: we bow before ‘superior knowledge’ and because the ‘knowledge’ purports to explain and rationalise events that effectively reinforces our ‘received opinions’, we assume that not only things will go on essentially as they always have done, but that ‘we’ can exert little or no control over these events.
Key to this process succeeding is our knowledge (or more precisely, our lack of knowledge) of the past. Things do change and quite often we demand that they change. I remember quite clearly, when at high school that history for me, and my contemporaries stopped in 1914. Venturing beyond that date was considered too dangerous, I might have actually connected my present to my past.
Things are more sophisticated today, so rather than simply denying me access to history by applying some arbitrary date, we are now presented with a ‘wholistic’ reinvention of the past, tied together by the ‘experts’ who have crafted an ideological matrix based ultimately on a lot of unsubstantiated assumptions about the way the world works and embedded it in yet another set of assumptions about the nature of ‘human nature’. Greed, violence, all the negative aspects of life are down to our ‘animal inheritance’ over which we have little or no control, reinforced with a little knowledge about genetics (suitably massaged for mass consumption), it purports to explain events and reasons.
Yet, when the jargon is stripped away, we find that the same arguments were used to justify poverty, crime, war and inequality in Victorian times just as they are today. The ‘criminal classes’, ‘indolence’, ‘inheritance’, the ‘natural order’ (some are born to lead, others to follow), concepts that have their roots in the Victorian ‘scientific method’, especially that of classification, still dominates today. We may no longer ‘doff our caps’ to our ‘betters’ but we sure as hell bow before ‘superior’ knowledge, our inferiority complexes suitably reinforced by the select few who manage.
In 1848 — Year of Revolutions, it is not too extreme to assert that illiterate and ‘uneducated’ though they were, those brave men and women who rose up in solidarity with people in another country, were far more knowledgeable without an education, that we are with one. Experience taught them on a day-to-day basis that the exploitation of the Irish peasant differed little from their own except as to location. Lacking a formal education enabled them rely on their own history, largely oral and hence immune to the depredations of the state. I count myself as lucky that I had parents and a shared culture that equipped me with an awareness that enabled me to question. Relatively immune to the state’s propaganda, I had at least a chance and the opportunity to step outside the all-encompassing embrace of the state’s dead hand.
And as I sit here typing away (19/01/04), the BBC tells me that the major challenge confronting the state is the loss of confidence that people have in their rulers. The civil service I am being told “…was a respected institution, it was honest, it told no lies” (Martin Sixsmith, BBC news reporter) but the ‘culture of spin’ undermined that ‘tradition’. The word propaganda is never, ever mentioned. The civil service, it was asserted, had its reputation of trustworthiness undermined by the Labour government’s “culture of spin”. That the idea of the civil service as being neutral is itself the most consummate piece of ‘spin’ ever invented, speaks reams about the way the media and the state work hand-in-glove in perpetuating the myth. Comically (though the news pundits on BBC’s “The World at One” failed to see it), a report on the failure of the government to communicate effectively to its ‘victims’ was leaked to the Observer yesterday and to The Times today. Straightfaced, the news mavens ‘debated’ every reason as to why this loss of confidence except the central one, that the lies of state had been exposed. The ‘culture of spin’ had backfired on its cocksure inventors but to admit it would be to admit that the state lies, not an admission that any employee of the BBC will make, not if they want to continue being employed.
So perhaps there is more to the link between us and 1848 after all. Perhaps all is not lost, at least the failure of the state to ‘communicate’ is one small step forward. It reveals that the state is not all-powerful, that it can be, and is, being challenged, hence its fear and the rising hysteria surrounding the ‘war on terror’. Desparation is both a weakness and a danger, and just as a cornered animal will in the last resort, lash out, so will the state when exposed. With every passing day, the rationale surrounding the invasion of Iraq and the ‘war on terror’ crumbles on all fronts, whether its the smug Geoff Hoon, our minister of offence and his failure to equip his imperial troops with the wherewithal to conquer, or the pathetic and amateurish propaganda campaign used to justify the invasion in the first place.
Critical however, is the role of the intelligentsia – the so-called chattering classes – in propping up a morally and intellectually bankrupt state. Without their active collaboration, the policies of the Labour government would fly like a lead balloon, in this, the fourth richest country on the planet that can’t even get its trains to run on time, yet can spend hundreds of millions on video cameras filming them all waiting.