Reform or Schadenfreude? Reading the Fall of the House of Murdoch

Of all the distressing things about this global moment, the most distressing of all is the seeming resignation of national, local and world publics about the parade of woes confronting them. I’m not offering this as the stereotypical complaint of a self-anointed activist against the apathy of others. I feel the same sense of resignation and passivity.

There is so much going wrong, and so much wrong-doing, in political, economic and institutional life at all scales. Some of the evidence of error and malfeasance is overwhelming. The managers of major U.S.-based financial corporations and their partners within the U.S. government (across multiple administrations) made catastrophic errors of judgment repeatedly over more than a decade while favoring their own short-term interest and caused a global economic crisis that looks to have been the straw that permanently broke the back of the existing system. They ignored or slighted a variety of long-standing prudential warnings from critics, most of whom still get little respect or acknowledgement from the powers-that-be. This isn’t a deep, dark secret that requires a careful inquest. The more details we get, the worse it looks for the people who were responsible for making decisions. All that changes is that the circle of guilt widens and deepens. Not only have the responsible parties gotten off scot-free, the central dicta of market capitalism about the necessary relationship between risk, consequence and reward have been thoroughly trashed by bipartisan consensus among the political elite. If I could play poker with other people’s money, you can bet I’d never leave the table.

What to do about it? There isn’t any mainstream political alternative. In the U.S. you can choose between a party that favors whatever small incremental reforms that the banker class will grudgingly permit and a party that wants to accelerate the complete handover of all economic matters to the financial elite while propitiating their populist wing with some auto-da-fe of the moment. In the E.U. you can choose between the parties that got you into this mess and the parties that have no idea how to get you out of it, between two sides of a long-standing collusion. In much of the developing world, where publics have some say either through voting or mass politics, the choice is often between yesterday’s cronies and parasites and tomorrow’s. Maybe you can even trade a distant authoritarian’s exploitation for some home-town exploitation instead, as just happened in South Sudan.

Even institutions and individuals who can see what a disastrous situation we’re in can’t really afford to challenge it. Non-profit organizations, local governments, union-defended pension funds are all hopelessly in bondage to the current architecture of asset capitalism. If the banker class puts a gun to the head of the stock market and threatens to blow the S&P to smithereens in retaliation for prosecutions and regulations, they’re threatening to take universities, soup kitchens, parks, libraries and retirements along with them, wounding even the folks who don’t have 401ks or skills with continuing value in the 21st Century economy. About the only people who might stand aloof are small-business owners whose entire investment is in their own operation, and even they need customers.

This is conventionally the moment where old-style progressives or leftists leap into the breach and offer social movements and mass action as the obvious alternative. But seriously, is there any kind of comprehensive vision available to light that path forward? There’s a whole bunch of a la carte positions and ideas that can appeal, gain support and fuel a movement for a year or a decade, only to be appropriated and buried deep in a procedural morass within the Beltway or the Hague. That’s pretty much what the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in the U.S. or activism in the E.U. amount to: a constellation of often sensible or exciting ideas and visions that sometimes, but not always, share some loose propositional or conceptual connection. There are just as many particular movements and campaigns of that type that are really just another elite-in-the-making looking to substitute (or restore) their own ticket to a gravy train for those who are presently taking the ride to the Reading Railroad and passing Go repeatedly.

There are only a few overarching ideas that strike me as plausible enough that it’s possible to see how to support them politically, concrete enough that they could be implemented under something like our current dispensation, and powerful enough that they could change the nature of the game to almost everyone’s benefit. Comprehensive transparency in government, business and institutional life is one of those ideas that could arguably be just as important to the Tea Party as it might be to progressives, but only if it applies evenly to everything and everyone, which would take activists on all sides agreeing not to be pawns on the chessboard of the political elite.

I’m thinking about this particular issue right now because of the News Corporation scandal in the United Kingdom. What makes it such an interesting moment is that for once, a public as well as political leaders seem not only performatively outraged by a series of revelations about misconduct but are genuinely angry enough to do something about both the specific charges and the larger problem. What I’m wondering is whether this is a case that shows that there are still very strong possibilities for consensus in contemporary democratic publics, values which if trespassed against will rouse people across the political spectrum to demand serious change.

Alternatively, more glumly, I wonder if the only reason that Murdoch and his colleagues are momentarily exposed to real consequences is simply that they overplayed their hand within the private world of the UK (and global) political elite, made too many enemies with gambits and threats that would have seemed too crude and obvious even for Citizen Kane. There’s a big difference between serious reforms pursued because the alternative is political destruction at the hands of an outraged, mobilized electorate and viscerally knifing a Caesar after he’s gotten too big for his britches and accumulated too many enemies, too many scores that need settling.

If it’s the former, that’s a sign of hope. Maybe we’re only one misstep or revelation away from a similar public consensus about other open wounds and pressing crises, one precious alignment away from change as a real possibility rather than an empty slogan. If it’s the latter, well, watching Murdoch & Co. get what’s coming to them is a pretty fair popcorn moment as far as it goes, but there’s only so many circuses left before Rome really starts to burn.

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4 Responses to Reform or Schadenfreude? Reading the Fall of the House of Murdoch

  1. agl1 says:

    There is quite a distance between populist outrage and getting better technocratic solutions to systemic problems. For example, the TARP caused so much ire that they ended up recapitalising the banks through the back door, and right now one gets the impression the German public would like to stick it to the Greeks, and prefer to ignore the systemic issues it might create.

    The Murdoch thing is an interesting spectacle of elite infighting, but looks unlikely to increase the scope for progressive politics in the short term. Maybe in ten years time when the hollowing out of the middle class’s net worth is more fully apparent. It’s been interesting in Ireland the “slow motion” way this realisation has been taking place.

  2. jay_scott says:

    So gloomy. It wasn’t the best of times, only the worst of times!

    I remind myself that the big problems we face nowadays are mostly secondary problems, side effects of the solutions of bigger primary problems. A financial system is part of the solution to the big primary problem of making an economy run efficiently, and a financial crisis is a smaller secondary problem that happens when the fancy financial system gets out of tune. And the purpose of a financial system is to respond sensitively to changes and ease the exploitation of opportunities, so it’s intrinsically hard to keep it well-tuned over a long period.

    And we all know that… I guess? Right? The view must be there, but I don’t feel it coming through, either in everyday life or in articles by politicians, administrators, and economists.

  3. hestal says:

    There are six eternal questions that we humans constantly try to answer. They exist in two sets of three questions each. The first set is:

    Where did we come from?
    Where are we going?
    What should we do while we are here?

    Most of humanity typically answers the first question by supposing that there exists, or existed, some power that predated and created humankind. The second question is typically answered by supposing that the creator power has made one or more destinations available to us. The third question is typically answered by supposing that there is some action or set of actions that we can perform which will determine our ultimate destination, usually with the consent of the creator power. These questions are used by religions and political parties, they are often heard in barrooms, dorm rooms, and in Congress, and they are valuable tools for demagogues and racists. These questions have a great weakness: they tend to focus on the next world, they tend to subordinate this world to the next; they give many people and institutions an excuse to avoid dealing with the problems of this life. They make it easier to turn our backs on reality. Somehow, in some illogical way, they make many believe that this life is less important than the next, and that all we are doing here is preparing for the life to come.

    The second set of three eternal questions is:

    Where do we stand?
    Where do we want to go?
    How do we get there from here?

    These questions form the basis of most human progress. On can see the scientific method emerging from these questions, and technological progress is mainly based on them. While it is true that some useful discoveries such as penicillin and vulcanizing rubber were accidental, the bulk of humankind’s progress was purposeful. Bridges, skyscrapers, medical equipment, universities, corporations and almost all the rest our species creates are developed by the intelligent application of these questions. They are everyday tools for scientists, engineers, and teachers—even the guy who runs a small dress shop in a small, dusty, dry Texas town relies on these questions.

    I am glad to see you well on the way to answering the first question. Problem identification is the essential first step toward success. I look forward to seeing how you answer the next two. There are answers. There is a method for developing, planning, and building the systems that the answers will identify.

  4. David C says:

    You know critical commentary is keen when it’s profoundly depressing.

    I especially appreciate Murdoch-as-Caesar (and the futility of attacking one figure even as the Republic continues to collapse from its pervasive corruptions…) But there’s always a darker analogy (and perhaps even more apt?): Murdoch as Alfred Hugenberg. (and we all know how that one ended up.)
    From this perspective, sometimes a few sharp (metaphorical) knives, while not saving the Republic, might help to shape the coming Empire for the better…? It is important for a society to publicly rein in the worst of its worst–even when structural corruptions remain untouched–if only to keep the worst of the worst from becoming the new, acceptable norm. Hardly an inspiring rallying-cry, though.

    On a very different note (but still pessimistic): one of the reasons that asset capitalism in America IS so untouchable is that it really does distribute wealth widely (though certainly not equally) within the borders of the polity. Americans now are fantastically wealthy by all historical comparisons; even the worst-suffering in the U.S. today remain far better off in this moment than they would’ve been in the ’30s or the 1890s or anytime earlier–or than if they lived in another part of the world. The genius of contemporary asset capitalism is that its worst horrors are relocated out of view–across borders, and/or into the environmental future–which then become abstractions that it is difficult to become truly outraged about or mobilize around.

    We (readers of this blog) ARE phenomenally wealthy (by historical standards)… are we truly willing to give up some of that wealth (access to our new Macbook Air) for something as abstract as food for non-Americans or the health of our own great grandchildren?

    (okay, I’ve just finished “The Windup Girl” by Bacigalupi, so that’s where the super-gloom comes from…)

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