Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Fri, 5 Mar 2021, 12:07 PM


Debates, fake and genuine

Author:   |    Publish date:

There might not be any general purpose experts, but there are general purposes idiots. That's one inference from Ipso's ruling that one of Toby Young's Covid denialism columns was "significantly misleading."

In fact, though, this episode tells us something more general about the nature of capitalist power.

The thing is that Young is not an isolated fool. There is a small industry of Covid-deniers, as Neil O'Brien (one of the few Tory MPs brave enough to make a pubic display of intelligence) reminds us. Which poses the question: why do people with no knowledge of medicine or epidemiology feel the need to jump in with silly takes?

It's because they have an incentive to do so: there's a demand for gobshites. And it doesn't come only from trash media such as talkRADIO or the Telegraph. It also comes from the BBC. Only a few days ago, for example, it invited Young onto Newsnight despite the fact that events have discredited his spewings on Covid.

Patrick Howse blames this on the BBC's "erroneous pursuit of balance":

Instead of actually trying to establish the truth, BBC News programmes often now content themselves with merely presenting different - usually extreme - points of view. And it doesn't seem to matter tremendously whether these opinions have any basis in reality or any evidence to back them up.

Janan Ganesh says one reason for this lies in the rise of 24-hour news with its need to fill airtime:

TV producers are bound by the imperative to fill time. The contrived debates, the tendentious guests from campaign groups, the "engagement" with viewers: the aim here is to populate a schedule, not to cretinise or incite....TV news established the idea that what matters about an event is its contested meaning, not its core of facts.

I'm not sure about this, though. The are lots of useful debates to be had about our response to Covid. For example, how do we trade-off mental against physical health and what can be done to mitigate the adverse impact of lockdowns upon the former? How do we value lives and thereby assess the costs and benefits of lockdowns? What types of behaviour are most likely to spread Covid and do the benefits of these activities really outweigh the costs? What can be done to mitigate the economic impact of Covid, and how reasonable is it to shift the burden of doing so onto future generations? And so on. We don't need grifters to discuss these: we can use health experts, economists and philosophers.

In principle, broadcasters and newspapers could fill space intelligently. Toby

The point of course, broadens. There are loads of debates the media could be having which aren't - or at least which are not filling up enough space. Such as: why have productivity and real wages flatlined since 2007? Is this because of the failure of capitalism, or of economic policy, or what? And what can be done about this? Have we seen a decline of productive entrepreneurship and rise of rentierism and cronyism and if so why? Why are the government's borrowing costs so low? What are the constraints upon fiscal policy? Why is it drivel to say the government's credit card is "maxxed out"? Does the government even have a right to exclude migrants? Is there a case for open borders? Why are bosses paid so much? Is there a case for a maximum wage? Should we have a citizens' basic income? Should the tax base be moved from incomes to land or consumption? Is there a case for worker ownership and if so what form should it take?

And so on and so on. You can all add to this list.

The point is that even if we concede that the media must fill space with debate, it could do so in a very different way than it actually is. In theory, we could have phone-ins along the lines of: how bad are your working conditions? Is your boss mismanaging your firm? Instead, we get blowhards spouting off about things they don't know.

But we don't get such debates - and they certainly do not dominate the agenda in the way that Brexit has or the culture wars threaten to do so.

Why not? You might say it's because audiences don't want such debates. True. But this misses the point that before 2015 people weren't much interested in the EU either: in 2015 less than 10% (pdf) of people thought it the important political issue. It became prominent because a handful of cranks manipulated the BBC into making it a big issue.

Which is where capitalist power comes in. Such power does not consist merely in overt shows of force or bribery. It also consists in manipulating the agenda - deciding what questions get debated and what don't.

In fact, it also consists in something else - in subtle and emergent ways in which people accept capitalist injustices and inefficiencies - what John Jost calls system justification (pdf) - and so don't even ask about those injustices.

This acceptance is not created by the media: people acquiesced in injustice long before the mass media came along. But the media does amplify it by its decisions on what gets debate and what doesn't.

And these decisions are not consciously made to defend capitalism. One reason why we don't get the debates I'd like is because the news by its very nature under-reports slow-moving trends - even though it is these, much more than day-to-day events, which shape our lives.

But the collective, emergent, upshot of these editorial decisions is to bolster an unquestioning acceptance of capitalism. As Steven Lukes wrote:

Is it not the supreme and most insidious use of power to prevent people, to whatever degree, from having grievances by shaping their perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see or imagine no alternative to it, or because they see it as natural and unchangeable? (Power: A Radical View, p28)

Yes, you are all right to decry the attention given to Young (and Hartley-Brewer, and Grimes, and so on). But this attention is the product of an emergent system which functions to deflect attention away from the failings of capitalism. It is, in this sense, yet another symptom of capitalism's dyfunctionality.

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