This piece takes Boris Johnson’s recent attack on the BBC as its launch point but goes onto look at the nature of the BBC itself. In doing so it echoes the view of the BBC which I found in ‘Beyond The Left: The Communist Critique of the Media’. Perhaps the crucial paragraph is:
As I have argued previously at NLP, ‘our entire public sphere is entangled with and embedded in networks of concentrated class power. The net effect of this is that certain ideas and perspectives threatening to these same interests tend to be marginalised or obscured’. In the case of political opinion, and therefore conceptions of left and right, this means that opinions which are threatening to elite power tends to be marginalised, whilst attitudes and opinions that present no great threat tend to be accentuated. It is this underlying tendency, I would suggest, that lies behind the neoliberal emphasis on ‘social’ or ‘cultural’ rather than ‘economic’ issues and the prominence of ‘identity politics’ and ‘culture wars’ so characteristic of politics in the United States.
In short, it argues that the BBC is viewed as ‘left-wing’ because, for many, that term is synonymous with socially liberal. Serious critiques of power and economic inequality are almost entirely absent and, on the rare occasions when they are represented, they are presented as ‘extreme’ viewpoints.
This is a conception of ‘left-wing’ which, of course, is not confined to the BBC. It could be argued (and ‘Beyond The Left’ does) that such totems of the left-wing media such as The Guardian and New Statesman are much the same – look, for example, at how easily The Guardian endorsed the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 election. A more recent example can be found in yesterday’s coverage of Nick Clegg’s ‘social mobility trackers’. We may expect Clegg to present social mobility as a problem of attitudes – and indeed he explicitly distanced himself from the idea that economic inequality was fundamental to it – yet in both The Guardian and The Independent coverage, class was almost entirely absent.
Furthermore, if you wanted discussion of the issue that took on the idea of ‘social mobility’ itself (ie is it enough that people can ‘move’ within extreme inequality or is this ignoring much bigger problems) you would have been hard-pressed to find any. In the past year I have been both heartened and hugely frustrated by the rise of Owen Jones. Heartened because he undoubtedly has been able to present left-wing ideas which have been largely absent from the mainstream media; frustrated because he has been swiftly co-opted by said media as the ‘left-wing voice’ and is wheeled out to play that role for every and any issue. This has the effect of moving the focus onto him as a personality rather than the ideas – he becomes a caricature of ‘left-wing opinion’ as people like Melanie Phillips are for the right. Look at the tiny pool of people who rotate on the ‘Question Time’ panel – the media likes its spread of opinion to be reliable and predictable.
If Owen Jones has led some to seriously think about ‘left-wing’ politics as class-based, however, then it’s a small victory. I’ve written before about how ‘unfashionable’ talk of class is amongst my generation and I think this notion of ‘left-wing’ as ‘socially liberal’ has taken hold amongst many politically engaged and/or informed people. As a result we see fixations on gay rights or feminism but largely stripped of any larger context – the fight is for legal and civil equality within the current system with little to no consideration of larger, deeper inequalities and power relations. To mention this around these issues is to invite criticism for dismissing them, for siding with ‘conservatives’ who seek to prevent them by presenting them as the obsessions of a liberal elite – and there is little worse than being seen as ‘conservative’. Indeed, for those on the left who do have some socially conservative views – eg being anti-abortion – it is increasingly an unforgivable sin which sees them portrayed as pariahs. Yet, conversely, explicitly socialist views are largely seen as, at best, utopian and unrealistic and, at worst, extreme and dangerous. As a result, we find ourselves in a political system where differences on social issues are hysterically magnified while serious alternative visions of society are largely absent – reform of neoliberalism is still the only game in town.
This tension between ‘left-wing’ as a critique of capitalism itself or as being liberal on ‘social’ issues is easy to see around us. We saw it in the widely reactionary responses to last year’s riots; we see it in the continued belief that those on benefits are largely to blame for their predicament; we see it in the still-largely unchallenged notion of Western imperialism, that we should impose our values on ‘uncivilised’ countries around the world.
Of course, there is clearly a lot going on behind all of this. From sites like New Left Project through the Occupy movement to an increasing proliferation of ‘radical’ groups, the latest crisis of capitalism has undoubtedly stirred many to action. The fact that this is still largely unrepresented on the BBC etc and that you are unlikely to come into contact with ‘their’ views unless you actively seek them out is in itself a wake-up call for all of us who identify as ‘left-wing’ to think about what we actually believe and what we want to fight for.