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Thursday, 22 September 2011

Adam Curtis and the Independent Commission on Banking

This was timely, since it coincided with the report of the Independent Commission on Banking about reforming financial capitalism (aka the Vickers report), a report that even commentators at the FT think was neutered by lobbyists.

Now some find the documentaries of Adam Curtis problematic. Although employed by the BBC, he is not an archetypal Reithian to the extent that his films seem deliberately to eschew balance. The Curtis technique is  rather to openly impose a narrative on to the fragmented film cuts that he sloshes around in the bowels of the BBC archive. Curtis imposes a particular interpretation on to the mass of propaganda churned out by an institution which itself is central to British self-understanding and to how Britain is perceived. I imagine there are many, particularly those who are fond of Reithian ideals, who find this approach to documentary unnerving, even propagandist. His blog on the role of lobbyists and think tanks is a vintage example particularly since it feels like the UK state’s attempt to find a re-accommodation with financial capitalism has been heavily influenced by lobbying.

Banks don’t do PR. They don't seem to be particularly interested in justifying their work. Bank CEOs do not answer questions on the Today programme and when they do appear in public sessions, such as select committees, they rarely give a good account of themselves.We never see hedge fund CEOs defending their reputation on the TV, nor are the directors of derivative trading companies keen to stand in the media spotlight.
The exception among the UK financial class is probably Angela Knight, head of the British Bankers Association, a former right wing MP, who’s job it is to defend the banks’ reputation. Listen to this great exchange between Knight and the Liberal Democrat Peer, Lord Oakshott on the BBC's Today programme earlier this year. Knight is on the phone from a ski resort, perhaps aware of the dubious message this might send to an audience that is deeply sceptical about the financial sector. Never one to miss an opportunity for hyperbole, Lord Oakshott takes the chance to wind up her for deigning to take time ‘off piste’ and talk banking reform.

I suppose if there is a ‘lesson to be learned’ (since 'learning a lesson' is the default, abstract and contentless position adopted by all organisations when they are publicly crticised in the media) is that it is bad PR to try to defend the financial classes down the line from Klosters.
On the other hand, as the Vickers report and Adam Curtis’s documentary confirm, it probably doesn't matter anyway. Banks don’t do PR, because they don’t need to, instead it seems they influence policy behind the scenes, through ‘lobbyists’ or ‘public affairs’: an industry that increasingly embodies a form of instrumentalized class warfare.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

'Why oh why oh why oh why....'

Endemic anti-social behaviour among the [feral] proletariat; moral decline; race; and poverty are a selection of justifications used to ‘explain’ the August riots in England.
For the political elites and the BBC the debate mostly focusses on the idea of moral decline – as if crises within liberal democracy hadn’t always brought forth examples of immorality .
Racists have chipped with a strained line of doublethink that presupposes the culpability of black culture whilst concurrently transmogrifying skin colour… or failing that, blaming Jews.
Another commentator takes a narrowly discursive approach in arguing that the riotous underclass can barely talk nevermind develop a coherent set of reasons to justify their rioting.
Meanwhile, when it’s not whipping up vigilantism among the petit bourgeoise of Green Lanes, or mobilising fascists in Eltham, parts of the media draw subtle distinctions between ‘anarchist’ student riots (‘articulate, but silly’) and ‘mindless’ underlcass riots (‘just mindless’).
Zizek puts the riots’ lack of a political message within the context of the Badouist notion of ‘worldessness’. From this perspective we can understand the rioters’ political inarticulacy as the product of a neoliberal world that has transcended politics and become ‘non-ideological’.  A world in which technical ‘solutions’ for social ills are distilled into instrumental soundbites such as ‘what works is what’s best’.  A world in which, rather than encouraging political dispute, we are told that ‘ideology is dead’:  itself a statement with ideological meaning.
So, in response to the disturbances, all the mainstream political parties stick to a broadly similar narrative. It’s a narrative that reinforces the idea that there is nothing, even narrowly, political to be discussed about it.  It’s a world in which even a commonsense attempt to publicly think through what’s going on is drowned out by the performative/simulated rage of people like Michael Gove. Still, in his eye-bulging rant about  plasma screens and Boxfresh trainiers, Gove did at least name check an object that transcended most of the distubances: the commodity.
The media focussed on two types of riotous act that were, although not exclusive, almost universal across the disturbances in Tottenham, Peckham, Manchester and Solihull. These acts consisted of:
1 – the unlawful appropriation of commodities; and
2 – their destruction.
The commodity was a material witness to these riots, an always looming embodiment of human labour power, so why not summon it as part of this post mortem? Along Marxist lines, I wonder if the commodity, the genetic building block of capitalist society, might be a worthwhile object of study in these disturbances and I am not talking here about an Adbusters-style condemnation of ‘consumerism’.
I’m thinking about socially necessary labour and its ‘phantom-like’ existence in the: