Just a few weeks ago, the majority of British people voted for Brexit – exiting the European Union. Absorbing the shock, the Guardian’s editor Katharine Viner delivered an impressive analysis of the media and Brexit, focused on “technology’s disruptions (Guardian Weekly 22.07.2016). But there might be a little bit more to the story. The story of media capitalism is inextricably linked to democracy and what the German philosopher Habermas calls the “public sphere”. Historically it all starts with the French philosopher Rousseau’s volonté générale (the public will) and the French Revolution in which, for the first time in human history, it wasn’t us who got starved, killed, brutalised, beheaded, and tortured.
Instead, it was the French ruling elite that experienced Robespierre’s guillotine, quite literally chopping the head off feudalism. Deeply traumatised by this experience, the European elite still calls it “the reign of terror”. Yet what they themselves had done for centuries and continued to do for decades throughout Europe (mass poverty, starvation, killing striking workers, preventing women from voting, etc.) was never labelled in the same way.
The European elite also learned three things form the aftermath of the French Revolution. For one, Rousseau’s volonté générale constituted a clear and present danger for the “power elite” (Mills) or bourgeois (Marx). Soon, the European elite spent the better part of the 19th century eliminating democracy. But towards the end of the century it realised that it could not prevent the expression of the public will in the form of democracy forever. It learned how to use democracy to maintain power when it realised that it could shape the public will rather successfully through mass media, propaganda, and mass deception.
Perhaps one of the first to recognise this was the German philosopher pair Adorno and Horkheimer in their “Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” (1944). But it was also American linguist Chomsky and his “Media Control – The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda” (1991) who highlighted the power of propaganda. Perhaps the prime example of “mass deception” and the “spectacular achievements of propaganda” remains signified in the person of Rupert Murdoch. Virtually every recent British prime minister got on her (Thatcher) and his (John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron) knees asking for his media support. Through the control of the media, democracy was no longer a threat but a vehicle of the elite.
In historic terms, once Rousseau’s volonté générale was controlled by the media, democracy was rolled out in Europe as it helped to gain and maintain power. The elite has always seen democracy as not much more than just “one” way to power – purely a means, or a tool. Meanwhile, progressives tend to see democracy as a virtue “in-itself” (Kant). As a consequence, the ideological start-up prime minister of neo-liberalism (Maggie Thatcher) used the media rather skilfully to gain and maintain power when she installed her deeply ideological neo-liberal programme.
As the social cost of neo-liberalism became increasingly strenuous to British society, scapegoats needed to be found. The British elite and its compliant media capitalism found two: migrants (racism) and an anti-Europe stance (British nationalism). Both enabled the elite to shift the blame of the increasingly destructive costs of neo-liberalism onto others. To blame was the migrant (the Paki corner shop) or the distant European monster bureaucracy. This also enabled the elite to continue installing neo-liberalism and winning elections – even though in a slightly modified version under Thatcher’s greatest success: Tony Blair.
Being aware of the power of blaming and relying on the assistance of media capitalism, the prime instigator of Brexit – David Cameron – combined racism and nationalism for years to shift the blame onto others while getting elected and re-elected. Britain’s Daily Mail, Sun and tabloid-TV were always there building up both – migrants and Europe – as the prime threat to Englishness. After years of blame shifting, the media only had to intensify its propaganda during the Brexit campaign and the “spectacular success of propaganda” (Chomsky) was virtually assured. Even though one of the world’s smartest intellectuals – Stephen Hawking – recently noted, “I believe it would be wrong to leave the EU” and instead of rational analysis and the better argument, propaganda carried the day.
In the end, Brexit has very clear winners. While David Cameron personally lost his job (a collateral damage), Theresa May – with Boris Johnson (the clown) as foreign secretary – continues to be in power which, after all, is the only game in town. But having shaped public opinion on Europe and migration for decades, David Cameron was able to claim that the British people have spoken and that we (the Torries) carry out the democratic volonté générale of the British people. For many, it was the Torries that defended Britain against the foreign take-over through migrants and European rule. Now post-Brexit British neo-liberalism is even freer from the EU’s regulatory regime. It can further de-regulate the few remnants of the once British welfare state. And it can better prevent European regulation of tax havens impacting on British capitalism – a small but not insignificant win for David Cameron’s personal monetary affairs.
But perhaps there is also a second Brexit winner: the US-citizen and media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Viewed from his adopted home – the USA – taking out Britain via Brexit weakens Europe and thereby strengthens the USA. It also strengthens the rule of the conservatives in Britain and thereby furthers Rupert Murdoch’s ideological agenda. This may be the “banality of evil” (Arendt) but it surely helps Murdoch.
In conclusion, Brexit resulted from an interplay of several factors – Cameron’s blame game conducted for years prior to Brexit, Murdoch’s media power, the hyping up of Englishness, and decades of the cultivation of nationalism and racism. All of these managed to out-manoeuvre the enlightened sections of the British money elite that favour internationalisation and globalisation. In the end, conservatism and nationalism won. But the British people will have to live with the consequences, as always.
Thomas Kilkauer teaches in the School of Business at Western Sydney University, Australia.