A Return to Politics

Simon Hardy, Destruction of Meaning

Kindle, 84pp, £2.06, ISBN B00ED2JUFC

reviewed by JD Taylor

'Propaganda that looks like propaganda is third rate propaganda': so said Lord Northcliffe, Director for Propaganda for the British Ministry of Information in 1918. Northcliffe possessed a unique monopoly on news production in the early 20th century, owning both the Daily Mail and The Times, and his work in producing effective anti-German material during the first World War has been credited as the first modern instance of effective mass propaganda. Whilst today we have our Rupert Murdochs and Richard Desmonds, and the increasingly-centralised ownership of media production to a few multinational giants, analysis of propaganda and its means of propagation still remains somehow lacking. An era of popular scepticism and cynicism about the integrity of politicians, police and bankers has yet to be coupled to a wider rejection of media and information production. Why is this, and what can be done?

Simon Hardy's long essay Destruction of Meaning is a welcome contribution to a Marxist analysis of media and communication. Presented in engaging, accessible and enjoyable prose, Hardy's argument rests on the Confucian claim that when language loses its meaning, people lose their freedom. This presents serious trouble for a critical public. On the one hand, as Hardy claims, it leads to a growing 'irrationalism' across the globe as 'public opinion' (itself a dubious construction) increasingly supports a right-wing agenda that would seemingly harm its own interests. On the other, it relies on a new neoliberal world-view that this is an age beyond ideology and politics, where in our economic meritocracies, politicians act in the interests of only the hard-working and deserving. In such a wilful irrationalism, welfare, immigration or labour rights are framed only in emotive terms of 'toughness' and 'fairness' – shifting the debate from causes, interests and the common good to more simply how voters should 'feel' and emotionally relate to certain, selective, heroes and villains. How can a serious understanding or discussion of political debates and events occur when there is, from the outset, a total falsification or distortion of their meanings by media outlets and political discourses? And moreover, how did this project – and Hardy considers it a project – come to pass?

Hardy's analysis is timely and persuasive, insightful reading for activists, cynics and those disorientated by what's presented as current affairs. The essay introduces a broader problem about how political discourses are framed to which its target audience on the Left should brew over more broadly. Despite the promises of the internet and democratic, 'horizontal' and citizen-led media production over the last decade first through sites like Schnews, Indymedia, then through social media like Twitter, there remains a singular, dominant account of news-production. Figureheads like Rupert Murdoch and his conservative political allies have internationally mobilised a politics of xenophobia and contempt for welfare and the public sector, one that is gaining electoral success in the UK and Australia. It reflects a kind of 'authoritarian populism', as Stuart Hall called it back in the 1980s, also demonstrated in a growing (if uneven) right-wing shift across Europe.

Hardy mentions a recent UK poll by the Royal Statistical Society back in July this year, which measured awareness of ten contemporary social issues ranging from benefit fraud, immigration, expenditure on benefits, the number of Muslims in the UK, reported crime and teenage pregnancies. The results were damning, with the majority surveyed having a grossly inaccurate understanding of each issue. The common cause of error was that respondents assumed each problem to be far worse than it actually worse – immigration higher, crime increasing, and so on – an effect of a right-wing media agenda framed in fear and a pessimistic lack of confidence in others, and one that denies the possibility of collective political transformation. As Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society posed, how can we develop good policy when public perceptions are so divorced from reality? He suggested reform in political discourse, media reporting and educational improvements in critical reasoning.

Shah's suggestions lack bite, and the media has so far effectively bounced off any attempts to externally regulate it. Instead, Hardy suggests that the 'destruction of meaning' functions as part of a broader attempt to democratically disenfranchise the public. By denying access to alternative views and balanced statistics, the public simply can't participate in a debate about, for instance, welfare, when all that the Department of Work & Pensions spokespersons and right-wing media outlets report are distorted statistics and stories on benefits cheats. To illustrate this, Hardy discusses (amongst other compelling examples) the 'Overton window', a term that describes the narrow and shifting window of left-right political debate that functions, in media discourses, to permit the extent of political views. To that, one could add Bill Clinton's policy of 'triangulation', wherein political parties no longer offer independent policies but triangulate all political statements in relation to a constructed public opinion, and whatever the opponent party's policy is. This of course leads to a homogenisation and conformity of policy: no surprise now that politicians all seem to sound the same! But this engineered right-wing shift has dragged the left along too into the centre. Either way, the public have been overdetermined towards a right-wing shift in attitudes. This determination acts as to socially control publics to direct any potential frustrations about worsening living conditions and austerity at other scapegoats. If the public are to be democratically re-enfranchised, nothing less than a total revolution is required. Too much power is already invested in this suffocation of political debate.

It is to Hardy's credit that the account is neither too pessimistic nor repetitive. The writing is fluid and weaves in wise maxims, a broad understanding of history and peculiar political double-speak which is deservingly and deliciously denounced. In its urgency, the critique turns also against the left for being too passively determined into an anti-political, postmodern position. A wider cultural affirmation of a conformist individualism is also attacked as a sinister effect of the decline of the public and political meanings. Given the range of forces pitting against critical public opinion – which is so determined that even the kind of revolutionary anger or mass collective political party of the working-class is pretty remote right now – one has to wonder, where will this revolution come from? With political parties in decline, what features would enable a new left-wing movement to step beyond merely speaking to itself and start re-energising a collective desire for justice and equality?

Accounts on the Left have responded by calling on greater democratic control of the media, and Hardy's remedial conclusion makes this case too, as well as calling for new community-based political parties of the left. In this way, I am a little more pessimistic, though in a different sense I hope! In each instance these have failed to gain lasting momentum, unable to draw in the same level of private funding which can buy large public media spaces on a regular basis. Perhaps the problem is the over-estimation of 'free will' in the capacity of electorates to choose and judge political meanings, and a failure to mount a political case for the social democratic state, against the neoliberal state.

This case, one that I am trying to imagine and theorise at the moment – and to which Hardy's case gave plenty to think over – is one that might constitutionally provide the right to education and employment, a living wage, that scrupulously regulates media outlets, and which restricts the opportunities for private companies and donors to influence political policy. Instead, in emphasising free will and the power of individuals and communities, the Left may be inadvertently supporting the same agenda as mainstream, neoliberal politicians, newspaper owners and public relations departments of large banks, one in which the measure of success is an unregulated free market where individuals choose the product they judge best. Without any constitutional regulation of information – and a politics that demands this first of all – one may be in danger of underestimating that citizens are socially determined, by the language they are socialised in and surrounded by, to adopt certain ideas over others, as the general frame of political debate shifts further to the right.

Hardy makes a more optimistic case for new parties and institutions, but I had a sense that the more worrying aspects of the control of passive public opinion, and the overdetermination of political debate into areas emptied of ideological reference, hadn't been fully resolved. There's a great quote in the text from anti-Apartheid campaigner Steve Biko: 'the most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.' Rather than investing great time and energies into constructing alternatives, as Hardy advocates, and as generations throughout the 20th century have done, isn't there also a case for taking and using this weapon against the oppressor? Could more be written about hacking and 'subvertising'? Isn't there a certain moral superiority in celebrating the left as an outstanding herald of modernity without also seeking to seriously and strategically undermine the sources of oppression – public relations, security forces, banks, a corrupt political class in Westminster – in the first place?

The case for a return to politics is well-made but left me with a number of doubts. Thinking again about Lord Northcliffe's brag about third rate propaganda, I wonder if the Left are guilty of conceding to the neoliberal claim that this is a 'post-political' age of global, liberal consensus? Isn't instead a very political and very ideological effect being achieved through a changing use of language which serves to restrict the frame of debate into areas either of consensus or beyond dispute? Shouldn't the destruction of meaning be understood as the construction of other meanings? This is best articulated by Edward Bernays, the American creator of Public Relations as a field, and the leading developer of psychoanalytic techniques in marketing and political campaigning, back in 1928:

In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics of business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons … who pull the wires which control the public mind.

Without greater critical scrutiny on how these wires function, who provides them, and the techniques of puppetry, then we can surely continue to expect all the false signs of 'postdemocracy' as citizens are unable to discern truth from that which is perverted by language.

Hardy's analysis rests on an excellent base of critical theory and contemporary politics, but may have benefited from additional use of good media analysis done by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News, which provides a distressing account of the changing practices of news production and the increasing influence of public relations and news-wires in producing news on a national and global level. Peter Oborne, Heather Brooke and Charlie Brooker also offer good mainstream critiques of media and political discourse to which I'd be intrigued to see Hardy engage with. Similarly, good work has being done by sociologists like Norman Fairclough in critical discourse analysis, which offers further tools in understanding how political language itself can restrict the field of debate.

But these are minor quibbles. Good critique – and this is good – inspires action and offers tools to challenge the usual narratives that evoke pessimism and fear. With his immense historical work in progress at marxisttheory.org, the collaborative analysis with Luke Cooper titled Beyond Capitalism? The Future of Radical Politics published by Zero earlier this year, and no doubt more to come, Hardy is an excellent and reliable critical perspective and one to watch. The speed, format and cheapness of the Kindle format – easily read on a PC too – are also to be commended. If this is an age of the destruction of meaning, what new worlds of experiences, affects and ideas are to be constructed? In navigating this strange and uncertain terrain, Destruction of Meaning offers one invaluable guide.
JD Taylor is a freelance writer based in London.