Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Libya experiencing the gift of Western "freedom"

David Cameron recently stated that the "Arab spring is a step further away from oppression and dictatorship and a step closer to freedom and democracy." Is this true? What does "freedom and democracy" actually mean to Cameron? Will the Libyan people be allowed to determine their own future? Recent history suggests otherwise. As Curtis White explained:

"The Iraqis, for instance, are learning that their "free elections" (if they ever come) are not free to produce certain kinds of results: they can't elect Arab nationalist; they certainly can't elect socialists of any stripe...and they can't elect persons out of step with Western free market theory. (Which is to say that they can't elect anyone not open to the idea that their "oil rich" country won't continue to get fleeced by Western markets.) The possibility of freedom comes to the Iraqis only in the context of its impossibility"(White, 2003, 'The Middle Mind', xii).

Sadly, those celebrating on the streets of Tripoli will quickly learn that the possibility of freedom also comes to them only in the context of its impossibility. Indeed, if Gaddafi had remained subservient to the economic interests of Western elites he would still be in power and 'our' leaders would continue to remain silent about his brutal crimes.

Despite the fact that the justifications for attacking Iraq - WMD, Saddam's links to Al Qaeda - have been exposed as lies, the mainstream media continues to present Western leaders' stated goals as axiomatic. Jeremy Paxman, Mark Mardell and Tom Bradby et al would never seriously claim that Libya might have been bombed for rapacious reasons.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

To what extent is the media responsible for the riots?

We tend to think of the media as a neutral 'window on the world'. Journalists have a lazy relationship to reality. Reality comes first - it is in the driving seat and determines what we read in the newspapers and watch on the news. According to the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, however, it is reality that has a lazy relationship to images and other forms of representation. Something about representation determines or produces reality. Reality is in the back seat.

You switch on the news. It's a live on-the-spot report from a site that has been attacked by rioters. A reporter stands before a debris-strewn street of London and tells us, with just the slightest hint of disappointment, that all is quiet for the time being. Prompted by our henchman in the studio, she portentously explains that there are fears that violence might erupt again tonight here and in other parts of the country. Needless to say, her prediction proves right. Had the rioters watched the news? Are they putting on a show for the cameras? As Baudrillard whimsically asks In The Evil Demon of Images: "What else does the media dream of if not raising up events by its very presence?"(1986, P.22).

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The riots and our selfish society

"She is ruthless. She'll walk over and tread over anybody. She'll eat them up and spit them out for her breakfast. That's what I like about her, really" – Alan Sugar talking about a candidate on The Apprentice (Series seven, Episode eight).

Over the past several days riots have spread across Britain. The scenes of violence and looting are distressing to watch. How did modern Britain reach this point? Who is responsible? How can we ensure that things improve? The rioters are selfish, lack discipline and respect for others, cry David Cameron and his ideological bedfellows. If this is true, it surely has something to with the fact that these conservative values have been allowed to thrive for a very long time. Sue Gerhardt elaborates:

"For most of the period since the rise of industrial capitalism in the early nineteenth century, collective values such as solidarity and co-operation have been unwelcome to the authorities, although they were sustained by the socialist and trade union movements until the late twentieth century. Eventually, however, such values were eroded by rising prosperity and the pursuit of material security above all else - a project that spread from the middle class downwards as wealth increased. The new culture developed the 'I' at the expense of the 'We' (Gerhardt, 2010, 'The Selfish Society', P.25).

The claim that parents are to blame seems plausible, but Gerhardt is quick to point out that

"Although it is largely parents who convey many of these unconscious messages to their children, our moral behaviour - selfish or unselfish - is not just about the values of individual parents. Parents themselves are heavily influenced by their social relationships. Without being aware of it, they pass on the culture in which they are immersed. Just as children don't choose the family they are born into, so too parents don't choose their society. They respond to it and adapt to its norms, often unwittingly. If everyone around you is behaving selfishly, it is difficult not to join in"(ibid, p.9).

What do we see when we look around? Soldiers being sent to fight in wars for oil, rapacious politicians claiming false expenses, immoral journalists hacking the phone of a murdered child. It is also impossible to ignore the media's obsession with celebrity and ostentatious displays of wealth and privilege.

We are not born with a burning desire to wear Nike trainers and Rolex watches. We want them because we are encouraged to believe that having expensive consumer goods will make us happy. Thus, it is no surprise that designer stores were looted by those who are excluded from consumerism due to their lack of economic resources.

Excessive consumption has become ubiquitous in Western societies, but it does not make us genuinely happy. It provides an illusion of happiness when the values we really crave, such as kindness and co-operation, are not allowed to flourish. This suits the capitalists just fine because they can only continue to make huge profits if people want and buy more goods.

It is very easy for politicians to be sententious about the riots. However, if they really want to build a society that is less selfish, they must stop pandering to the narcissistic demands of the super-rich and start meeting the real needs of the poorest socio-economic groups.