How they speak to us
The 1% who run this society, the capitalist ruling class, speak to the rest of us i.e. the general public, a majority of whom are working class, mainly through the media, that is via a series of intermediaries – politicians, TV producers and presenters, news readers, newspaper editors, journalists and so on. It is true that not all ‘politicians’ are establishment lackeys and not all journalists are careerist hacks, but most are and they set the tone. What we see and hear on the media is mainly what our rulers want us to see and hear.
Some people react to this by dismissing the mainstream media as ‘all lies’. This is indeed the case at some fundamental level but, of course, it is not literally true: newspapers and TV News contain much factually accurate information and we all know this. More important than the actual ‘lies’ they tell is what media fail to report or barely report and especially the way they report things, the subtle spin they build into their reporting to ensure that events and the world are seen from the point of view of the ruling class.
What follows are a few critical reflections on the language politicians and media use for this purpose. This is based mainly on current Irish practice but some of it will apply internationally
One of the most important functions of the media is to discredit any opposition to the system. This is more important – for them – than actually trying to persuade people that all is well with the world. So long as people can be got to believe there is no viable alternative to the present set up i.e. capitalism, most people will accept it albeit reluctantly. To this end it is important to devise pejorative labels for political opponents of capitalism. Once upon a time the favourite label was ‘anarchist’. Thus, for example, Jim Larkin used to be described, in the papers of the time, as an ‘anarchist’. [This had nothing to do with Larkin’s beliefs but was probably because some actual anarchists had been doing armed robberies and throwing bombs elsewhere in Europe.] After the Russian Revolution, Bolshevik or Bolshie became, for a short while, the label of choice. Then, especially during the Cold War, it became Communist. Today it is ‘Populist’. Why?
Our rulers are aware that internationally the political establishment, which they like to think of as ‘the centre’ is losing ground both on its right and its left flank – to Trump and to Sanders, to Le Pen and to Melenchon, and in Ireland to Solidarity and People Before Profit and some left independents. They have decided to describe this phenomenon as ‘the rise of populism’ for two main reasons. First because it suggests that the far left, us, are some how the same as the far right, including the racist, fascist and Nazi right like Le Pen and Golden Dawn, when in fact they are opposites and profound enemies. The far left, especially the revolutionary left are far more strongly opposed to the far right than are ‘the centre’ and, as history has often shown, the establishment would prefer the victory of fascism to the victory of real socialism. Second because it suggests that articulating the anger of ordinary people at austerity is ‘irresponsible’. Responsible politics, implication is, involves inflicting pain and suffering on people ‘for their own good’. Any one who suggests there may be an alternative to cutbacks and wage restraint is irresponsibly and dangerously raising the hopes and expectations of working class people.
While on the subject it is worth mentioning that this use of ‘populism’, borrowed from academia, is of recent origin – it has only become prevalent in the last few years – but is now almost universal and it is used usually without explanation and as if it were a politically neutral statement of fact. Was this planned somewhere? I don’t know but my guess is that probably was but it also relies on the intellectual laziness of so many journalists who once they hear a new buzz word simply repeat it so as to seem ‘in the know’
Extremists and moderates.
The use of the extremists versus moderates dichotomy is much older than ‘populism’ but serves similar functions. It is VERY politically loaded. Imagine there is a conflict – an election or a war – in Mongolia about which you know nothing at all. Then you hear on the news that it is between the extremist Xs and the moderate Ys. You now know immediately a) who ‘the West’ [US, NATO, EU etc] supports and b) who you are supposed to support. And these messages have been transmitted with having to tell you directly which might compromise the image of media ‘impartiality’.
This is not a question of logic. Was it better to be extremely opposed to Hitler or only moderately opposed to him? But it is a question of established usage and it works pretty effectively. To this we must add the way in which ‘extremist’ has now come to signify terrorist and probably Islamist terrorist. Again this is not a question of logic. Personally I am an ‘extreme’ leftist, certainly not a ‘moderate’, but I am also ‘extremely’ opposed to the use of terrorism (planting bombs etc) as a political strategy or tactic. But logic is not the point here – that is how it is used.
Recently the left has been countering this labelling by referring to the establishment as ‘the extreme centre’.
Another example of the insidious way in which the ruling class is able to manipulate language to serve its purposes is provided by the media’s use of the word ‘radical’. A radical used to refer to someone who advocated far reaching and progressive reform or social revolution. Of course, Conservatives and right wingers viewed radicals with contempt but the left claimed the term with pride. There was a great radical tradition stretching from the Levellers and the Diggers through to modern times. Tom Paine, William Blake, Michael Davitt, Sylvia Pankhurst, James Connolly, Countess Markiewicz, Mother Jones, Paul Robeson, Che Guevara, Aneurin Bevan, Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn were all ‘radicals’. Eamonn McCann, Paul Foot and John Pilger are radical journalists. Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Julio Iglesias can all be described as ‘radical’ left.
But by systematically attaching the term to Islam or Islamic and using it in the context of terror attacks politicians and the media have done their best to pervert and tarnish the term. It is now common to hear of the production of guidelines to ‘spot signs of radicalism’ and programmes to ‘counter radicalisation’. ‘Moderate’ mosques and Muslim leaders are urged to ‘do more’ to combat ‘radicalism’. Of course it would have been possible simply to urge them to combat terrorism but using the terms ‘radicalism’ and ‘radicalisation’ creates – for our rulers – a very useful ambiguity and amalgam.
When it comes to legitimating the system as a whole and the specific actions of government and businesses there is very little to compare with the mantra of ‘Jobs!’.
Propose increasing taxes on the rich or the corporations (Apple for example) and they will immediately scream about ‘Jobs!’ Propose closing down any heinous institution (e.g Direct Provision) or ending any horrible practice ( allowing the US to use Shannon for extraordinary rendition flights or bombing missions) and you will be met with the cry that this will cost jobs. And in a sense it is true. If Auschwitz was operating in Connemara, or there was a poison gas factory in Cork closing them down would cost jobs.
But the slogan of ‘Jobs’ functions much more widely than just as an alibi for disreputable operations. Ask any billionaire how they justify their immense wealth and the chances are they will cite the jobs they have created for people. Indeed if it were the case, as the capitalists claim, that they somehow ‘create’ jobs and that without them nothing would be made or get done at all then capitalism would indeed have found its perfect justification as an everlasting system. Of course this is an absurd claim; jobs, as in work that needs doing and that human beings do, existed for tens of thousands of years before the first capitalist was ever thought of. But most of the time most people don’t think historically or in terms of thousands of years. Therefore, the fact that, in the immediate situation and for as long as people can remember, the capitalist as a class have, by virtue of their possession of the means of production, cornered the market in ‘jobs’, makes it appear plausible that they do actually ‘create’ work for people.
Another factor in our rulers’ emphasis on jobs is that it is precisely through employing the labour of working people – and paying them less than the value of the goods and services they produce – that capitalists make their profits. Thus focusing relentlessly on ‘jobs!’ enables the bosses to pass of the very means through which they line their pockets as an act of social benevolence.
The way this very simple little word is used is of crucial importance. When it is used in political discourse by the 1% and their media spokespersons it usually refers to the nation and its people as a whole. ‘We’ in Ireland do this or that; we, the Irish, tend to think such and such or should do the following. ‘We’ will be hit hard by Brexit but ‘we’ feel very close to the Americans and so on.
Sometimes ‘we’ refers to the actions of the Irish government, other times it used to create the impression that there is an Irish identity or character or set of views which ‘we’ all share. This is manifestly not the case in reality but speaking as if it were helps to reinforce the currently dominant attitude or views which are often the views of the dominant class, the 1%. Moreover, it tries to subsume those of us who don’t share the dominant view or else to erase our existence.
The same practice is also adopted in relation to other countries. It is common to hear that Germany or the Germans think something or have said or the French have taken a certain view when in fact what is being talked about is simply the views or actions of the German or French Government. This is particularly misleading and ideologically loaded given that most current governments – beginning with the Irish Government – are actually elected by quite small minorities of their national population. For example, Trump, far from being elected by the American people as a whole, was actually only voted for by about 20% of the adult population.
Above all this persistent use of ‘we’ serves to mask what is by far the deepest the division in interests and attitudes in Ireland and in every other capitalist society –the division of class.
The public – taxpayers, customers and workers.
In so far as differences among the people or the public are acknowledged at all, social class, the most significant division, is barely mentioned. Much more frequently deployed are the terms ‘taxpayer’ and ‘customer’ and the way they are used is important.
Whenever there is a proposal involving state expenditure – for example on health, education, welfare or some other public good – the ‘taxpayer’ is sure to be invoked, or often ‘the hard pressed taxpayer’. Fair enough you might say in that it is a matter of fact that public expenditure must come out of taxes. But the way in which the tax payer is invoked suggests, almost always, that there is a special category of people who are ‘taxpayers’ as opposed to others who are not and who are particularly imposed upon. Hear mention of ‘the taxpayer’ and there immediately springs to mind a comfortable middle class manager with BMW and semi in Dublin 4 who bitterly resents how much of his hard earned income goes to bail out the indolent and feckless scroungers.
This is nonsense, of course. There is no special category of taxpayers. Every single citizen in Ireland pays taxes in one form or another. Even schoolchildren pay VAT on some of the things they buy. But logic and facts count for little here – its how the term is used that matters and it is used with the political effect of expressing the resentment of the middle classes.
‘Customers’ are another group of people who are very much approved of by business, politicians and the media – at least in words. Businesses always claim to be devoted to the welfare of their customers; you would almost think they were charities. ‘The customer is always right!’ they proclaim. Except, of course, a business that really operated on that principle would not last a day since ‘customers’ would be able to determine prices, if they paid at all. Health service and transport managers want their patients and passengers to see themselves as ‘customers’ so as to spread the ‘business model’ of life to as many aspects of society as possible. Everything – health, education, personal relations, sex, love, water – should be about cash transactions, everything should be up for sale and this attitude to life should be infiltrated into our language and our consciousness as much as possible.
‘Customers’ really come into their own whenever there is a strike. On thing you can be sure is that when there is a strike the media will approach the dispute from the standpoint of badly affected ‘customers’. If there is a strike by bus or train drivers the media will look for stranded commuters to interview, preferably ones missing vital appointments such as job interviews. If it is a nurses strike it will be patients whose operations or appointments are postponed; if it is teachers then the first port of call will be concerned parents worried about their child’s exams or education. In this way the strike is always seen as a ‘bad thing’ and the striking workers are always presented as a, probably selfish, minority in contrast, not to their employers but to the public or community as a whole. In this way the report will invariably serve to undermine the strike and back up the position of the employers without ever having to say this explicitly (which would compromise the media’s image of neutrality).
In contrast to taxpayers and customers (or consumers) workers are invoked relatively little. When they do get a positive mention from establishment politicians it is usually in the form of ‘hard- working people and their families’. These phrases are always loaded. It is only workers who ‘work hard’ that are wanted or deserve to be represented [NB Leo Veradkar said this week he wanted ‘to represent people who get up early in the morning’] with the implication there a lots of lazy workers out there who don’t merit representation. There has always been a theme in capitalist ideology of trying to divide the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving poor’ (George Bernard Shaw wrote about in Pygmalian) , the ‘respectable’ and the ‘unrespectable’ working class, and to set the former against the latter. And this is always done with a high moral tone. It is never mentioned, of course, that capitalists make more profits the harder they can get workers to worker.
Politics and Politicians
Most people don’t like politics or politicians. This is perfectly understandable given the way most politicians behave and much politics is discussed. But actually the establishment are quite happy for large numbers of people to be turned off politics and to be apathetic and through the media they endorse and encourage this state of affairs. One tactic used for these purposes is to promote the idea that any really important issue should be ‘above’ or ‘outside politics’. ‘This is not about politics, this is about human rights/justice/health/ethics/ fairness/economics/ people’s lives etc.’ Sport, religion, art, music, poetry, are all areas we are told ‘politics’ should kept out of. But if politics is not about human rights/justice/health/ethics/ fairness/economics and the things that are really important in people’s lives, then it is an entirely frivolous activity – a kind of game being played out by small and strange group of people divided into various rival teams who compete for the sake of it.
In reality all the most basic matters of life and death, all the things that have the most vital effects on the lives of the mass of people – war, peace, wealth, poverty, health, housing, education etc – are the very stuff of politics. But if this is hidden from the mass of people and politics is presented as just a game played by politicians, of interest only to a tiny minority, then this enables that tiny minority to get on with organising how these issues of life and death are handled without interference from ‘the people’.
Consciously or unconsciously this has a big influence on the way politics is discussed in the media. It leads to a quite disproportionate focus on the personalities of individual politicians and how they are currently performing in the game – Veradkar v Coveney, May v Corbyn – at the expense of discussion of actual issues. And if ordinary people, people who are not professional politicians, try to assert themselves politically by any more effective means than ringing Joe Duffy, this is seen as very threatening indeed – ‘mob rule’ beckons!
I’ve been very clear about this
The professional establishment politicians have evidently been trained by their media and PR consultants to proclaim their own clarity on all possible occasions, and they do so with a vengeance. ‘I’ve been clear about this from the beginning’, ‘I want to say very clearly’, and ‘I am saying very clearly’ and so on ad nauseam: the trouble is these proclamations are immediately followed by statements and exclamations that are as clear as mud and go to any length to avoid answering the question they have been asked.
This combination of self proclaimed clarity and actual lack of clarity serves their purposes very well because, in fact they are more than happy for the mass of people not to understand an issue being debated. They know that if people feel that they cant understand an issue – that its ‘over their heads’ – this will make it easier for the elites to carry on getting away with things. Consequently politicians on talk shows and the like, faced with an awkward question, follow the rule: talk as long as possible without drawing breath and try to sound clever – throw in a few statistics and terms people don’t really understand. If people don’t know what you’re talking about it doesn’t matter, indeed it’s greatly preferable to them actually sussing what you are up to.
Along with ‘being clear’ another favourite buzzword of both politicians and businesses is ‘transparency’. Everything is always supposed to be, or more likely is going to be, ‘going forward’, transparent. We even hear that An Garda Siochana is going to be transparent. Now, taken seriously this is just ridiculous. No police force, or government department or business can possibly really be ‘transparent’; it would mean having no proper security or confidentiality at all. But then it is isn’t meant to be taken seriously because, as with An Garda Siochana, it is used in connection with organisations and processes that are the extreme opposite of transparent.
People say to me
One of the favourite sayings of politicians is ‘I’ve been going round the country talking to people and what they say to me is …’ Presumably the politicians think this makes them sound in touch with the people but what is funny is that what these people say always seems to be exactly what the politician concerned wants to hear.
I remember Joan Burton using this device at the height of the water charges campaign. People were marching on the streets of Ireland in their hundreds of thousands from Letterkenny to Waterford shouting ‘No Way, We Wont Pay!’ and ‘From the River to the Sea, Irish Water will be Free!’. But according to Burton what people were saying to her was‘We want clarity and certainty’. What’s not clear and certain, you wonder, about, ‘Enda Kenny, Not a Penny!’? And of course when Joan did actually interact with some real people they turned out to be saying something different altogether. No doubt Theresa May is currently claiming that people are telling her they want ‘strong and stable leadership’.
In reality politicians spend very little time ‘going round the country talking to people’ other than to their own committed supporters and ordinary people don’t talk in politicians’ campaign slogans. In other words these claims are just routine lies. Actually they along with such terms and phrases, as ‘I want to be very clear’ and ‘the customer is always right’, are repeated because they are familiar clichés which politicians and spokespersons think sound good and will help to pull the wool over people’s eyes.
They are, at bottom, an expression of deep contempt for the mass of people who they see as backward and ignorant and in need of standing up to – they call standing up to people ‘showing leadership’ and ‘courageous’. Which brings us back to where we started with ‘populism’. Politics is about a few serious moderate centre politicians together with a few serious moderate billionaires and corporations managing society on behalf of the rest of us, because they know best after all, and everything else is just spin to keep the masses happy. And anyone who thinks differently is probably one of those dangerous ‘populists’.