Don't slip on the media's banana skins

Umberto Ecoargues that society is ill: the press is full of gossip, and only the rich want privacy

I haven't had time to read today's paper yet, but I might just as well not read it, because I saw the news on the telly last night: the deaths of famous people, natural catastrophes, hotbeds of war - it told me everything I need to know. I could have bought a newspaper to find out the exchange rates, but I have a free subscription to an international service on the Internet, which e-mails me daily the lira's value against all other currencies in the world, including those of Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka.

So what could I possibly get from a newspaper that would make it worth reading as I ride on the train or drink my coffee? Gossip. We find ourselves faced with a cosmic phenomenon: gossip is becoming the number one interest of the written press. If you count the number of pages and columns devoted to Monicagate compared with Irangate, you'll see that gossip is the raw material of information today.

When there was a murder in the Vatican recently, the whole press corps moved into action even before it was known who had fired the shots. The papers were full of complicated, implausible explanations. The murder, we were told, involved a love triangle or a homosexual relationship. Or the colonel of the Swiss Guard was a Stasi spy. (Even if he were a Stasi spy, this would not explain the murder at all.) This is a big crisis for information.

Until recently, it seemed to me that certain problems concerned only the Italian press. However, the Clinton case has shown that this is not true. Paris-Match has shattered the myth that the French press is not concerned with the private life of its presidents. This is a big issue connected with the problem of democracy, because when the media's chief concern is gossip, it means that society is ill.

This illness was bound to infect the Internet. The sites that spread metropolitan legends may be more numerous than those that send me the exchange rates every morning. Anyone who has an intellectual profession today, for example, is besieged by the press with questions about the horrors that will usher in the year 2000. The story is going about that there were horrors at the first millennium, so the world's press is looking for the horrors of the second millennium. But when journalists tell you that there are Satanic sects, astral sacrifices, ufologists, you can tell them that they all already existed at the beginning of this century. People couldn't care less; they are thinking about booking New Year's Eve 1999 in Fiji or the Maldives. There are no horrors in store for the year 2000, and no one thinks there is except the media, which is doing its best to create them.

So gossip is one problem about the mass media. A second is privacy. There has never been so much talk about privacy as there is today. Italy has even set up an authority on privacy. Although I am not a sociologist, I shall venture to make some sociological remarks. (In any case, philosophers are allowed to talk about everything.) There has never been an age like ours, in which the masses did not desire privacy. People constantly make an exhibition of themselves in public, discussing their family problems on TV talk shows, rambling on about their sexual, financial and health problems on their mobile phone as they ride along in the train. Some even become serial killers to get into the papers.

Who wants privacy? Only a few rich people. Gianni Agnelli hasn't got a mobile, nor has Bill Clinton. The masses, for reasons I won't go into here, yearn for status symbols, throwing privacy to the winds. But the status symbol is no longer the indication of excellence, but of mediocrity, because it is sold at a low price to everyone (except the Rockefellers, Clintons and Yeltsins of this world).

What privacy can we still defend when no one wants it to be defended? Yet privacy is a value. I think the main problem is not how to defend the citizen's privacy, but how to educate the citizen to recognise privacy as a value. This is a problem for the press as well.

I should like to remind people in finance that it was Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo who first described the media's impact on the banking world. In order to ruin the banker Danglars, the Count of Monte Cristo alters a message coming over the wire; false news arrives and the stock market crashes; Danglars is ruined. So, the first lesson for national and international bankers is: don't trust the media.

I should like to end with a brief anecdote that I find instructive: we have all heard about the danger of slipping and falling after stepping on a banana peel. I think every language has an expression like, "he slipped on a banana peel". But I have read that it's not true that banana peel makes you slip. There is no physical-chemical element that makes a banana peel more slippery than a squashed tomato, a grape pip, or a pear skin. So why are we so sure that banana peels make us slip? Because in the first slapstick comedies, when a person had to slip, the alternative was dog mess on the pavement. Out of prudishness, the banana peel was invented as something particularly efficacious and visible. So all our language, our knowledge of the world, our way of walking along the street, is determined not by an electronic falsification put out today on the Internet, but by a deformation constructed by the media.

But where did I read this news? In a newspaper. Perhaps this should make us confident, in the end, of the information circuit's almost biological capacity to heal the very wounds it inflicts.

A longer version of this article first appeared in "The Journal Aspenia" (Rome), winter 1998 issue

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.



This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition