2000s >> 2001 >> no-1165-august-2001

Mass media and mass politics

Parliament is a place full of games and flippancies, so what better basis for a new drinking game? The rules are simple, sit down and watch the live-feed television channel BBC Parliament just after the election, and wait (bored beyond tedium by the irrelevancies of the place) for the swearing in of the new MPs. Simply, knock down one drink for each MP who affirms rather than swearing to God, and knock down two for each MP who clearly indicates that they don’t believe a word they’re saying – and its guaranteed after all that you’ll be as sober as a fish.

What sharp-eyed readers will have noticed, is that there is no provision for those MPs refusing to believe in the Queen. Indeed, they are not allowed to not believe in the Queen, and so must swear by her, whether they swear the oath on the Bible or “honestly and sincerely” affirm. Many see such oaths as an irrelevant anachronism, and so take them without caring about the substance. Socialist delegates sent to Parliament, too, would not allow the requirement to swear fealty to the parasite and her family to prevent them taking up their seats.

The reverence to the monarch, though, is all-pervading in Parliament, as when MPs considering “The Queen’s Speech” (i.e. the announcement of government business for the year) debate motions “humbly and gratefully” thanking the Queen for a speech she had no hand in, other than reading aloud (badly). All of which is a throw-back to the times when Parliament was simply a forum for expressing views, which could be conveyed to the person of the absolute ruler of the land, the monarch. Despite the historical changes in power, the superficial forms have been retained.

The historical hangovers, however, go further than in the simple fripperies of the place. When Parliament became open to a general franchise (i.e. read, open to the votes of the capitalist class) after “The Great Reform Act”, the 1832 general election saw 827,776 people eligible to vote. They were voting for some 658 seats, which meant at least one MP per 1,258 voters (although some voters lived in multimember constituencies, an undemocratic practice which managed to survive until 1950 until the abolition of the University Seat.

This ratio of electors to members is more reminiscent of the ratios on modern local councils, and it would have meant that there was more than a fair chance of actually knowing (at least by sight) the person being elected. As the franchise was generally widened, the number of seats in Parliament was not (at least within the same ratio). What this effectively meant, was a diminution of the effective power of each vote. Obviously, if the number of MPs had risen with the number of voters, it would have meant a corresponding decline in the power of vote for each MP in the Commons. Our current 40 or so million voters would need around 31,000 MPs in order to have that much effective control. The point, though, is not about mathematics, or pragmatic power, but about the “quality” of the vote. In the modern constituency, it takes a huge number of electors to change, to register any sort of shift in the public mind. It also takes huge numbers of people to effect a quantitative change into the qualitative change of having a representative in Parliament.

What this approach encourages is the aggregation of voters into an undifferentiated mass, votes expressing difference or disagreement needing to be lost into the swamp of a high bar majority. This aggregation is furthered by the attempts of politicians to turn the elections into presidential style elections for a government, rather than for representatives, thus making it the sum across the whole country, resulting in one qualitative change, that of the government overall.

It’s no wonder that people feel no pragmatic connection between their voting preferences and the outcomes; and no wonder that people feel so little connection with any of the parties. All these become are technocratic career structures for advancing politicians, a platform from which to project policy ideas to be reflected off the undifferentiated mass, which has no control over what is projected, beyond passive reflection.

This process of “mass culture” has, of course, been assisted by the spread of the mass media. The social relationship is the same, a few technocratic broadcasters/media barons, projecting images and ideas to be passively reflected by a land mass of consumers. Indeed, representative politics follows the same course. Instead of abstractedly measuring response in terms of money, it reads response in terms of flat votes, formally equal but failing to register differences in value or quality.

The politics of mass powerlessness
The mass media, though, has effected another change in the political scene. Where once parliament was intended to function as a forum, representing the views and analysis of “the people”, this can now be achieved by the mass media. Whenever a story breaks, or significant events are occurring, the media produces “community leaders”, and “representatives” of consumers, fishmongers or whatever so-called “interest groups”. Thus, the media can claim to represent the divergent views on a particular topic.

This claim, however, is undermined by the fact that the media self-selects these “representatives”, and by the fact that more often than not, these representatives are not even vaguely appointed by the people they claim to represent. In selecting who can speak, the media exercises power similar to that of the medieval monarch determining who gets to sit in their parliament. Indeed, the modern mass media presents itself as a forum for the people, as the place for representation and for determining legitimacy. It is effectively a third house of parliament, the House of the Mass.

A clear example of this can be seen from the recent general election. The BBC published their broadcasting guidelines on the internet, boldly stating that Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats and the assorted Nationalists were to be regarded as “major parties”, and thus entitled to technically unlimited national coverage, and anyone else could only be guaranteed the coverage of their manifesto launch if they were contesting over 100 seats. In this way, they effectively determined who was going to do better in the parliamentary elections, who got the all important media coverage.

The eighteenth century Liberal philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (whose thought Marx spent so much time criticising and adapting) postulated the ideal state as one in which an absolute technocratic ruler, freed from social interest, held power, and in which all other classes in society were recognised and represented in a parliament for/by this ruler. For such opinions he has been execrated in the past; however, his analysis finds itself borne out in the genuine movements of liberal society, for that is exactly what obtains today in modern politics.

Advisers and hangers-on maintain a stranglehold on the state apparatus, while the mass media provides a means of identifying and recognising certain interest groups within society, and constructing the playing field on which political battles are fought out. The media, though, always lies within the hands of the ruling elites, and so ensures that representation remains within the bounds of holding the existing social relations together.

Given, though, that these “representatives” only exist by and through the virtual world of the media, and only exist through the recognition of power and not through the active involvement of those they claim to represent, they can only present an abstraction of the views they claim to put forward; akin to the abstract “people” of radical bourgeois politics. As such it is the politics of mass powerlessness.

Unlike some anarchists who claim that democratic decisions represent a tyrannous act against the sovereign individual, we state that a free society can only be one in which people can directly and actively take part in politics, and concretely have their minds known through democratic voting on the ideas, rather than for representatives, to talk in their place. The important point must be that debate on issues is two way, with the full and active involvement of all parties concerned, not a one-way monologue to reflect off the enforcedly passive audience.

This all means that those engaged in political struggle must battle against the media for access and for the opportunity to air views. The opposite response, like that of those anarchists who refuse to deal with the media, leads simply to surrendering the field of political combat to the opposition.


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