Spooky prescience from the author of ‘The Making of the English Working Class’
Historians are classically shit at prophesising anything, but, back in early ‘60s, a Marxist one predicted the future.
The BBC had just aired a three-part lecture series attacking the New Left – the then-emerging movement of radical students and academics calling for a socialist politics beyond Stalinism and watery Western social democracy. And E.P. Thompson, one of the highest-profile New Leftists, set about writing his own talk in response.
Originally, the intention was to get it broadcast on the BBC. If Auntie was happy to transmit three hours of reactionary propaganda, the reasoning ran, it would surely have to give the New Left some sort of right to reply.
But when the Corporation rejected Thompson’s lecture, he turned it into an essay instead.
‘The Segregation of Dissent’ was published in The New University journal in 1961. As the name suggests, it dealt with how radical politics was being banished from mainstream political life. And, from a twenty-first century perspective, it’s fascinating.
This is for two key reasons – 1) because it predicted the future with frightening accuracy; and 2) because so much of its critique of 1961 could just as easily have been written about 2018.
Thompson begins by describing how it had become increasingly difficult for political dissidents to get their voices heard in the mainstream.
Once, printing presses and public meetings gave radicals a way to communicate with the masses. But by the mid-twentieth century, the centralisation of the media, the centralisation of party politics, and ‘the gross conforming idiocy’ of the Westminster machine had made that infinitely harder.
‘Today, orthodox political thought assumes the viability of our formal democratic procedures,’ Thompson observes. ‘But these procedures are becoming more and more empty of real content, public life more enervated, and controversy more muffled.’
The ideological distance between Labour and the Tories was shrinking rapidly. Both now stood for ‘equality of opportunity within an acquisitive society’. And that reflected a broader elite consensus – one that united party bosses in parliament, the upper echelons of the British state, and, crucially, the media.
The result was a sort of multi-tentacled Establishment cartel that ruthlessly policed the public sphere. To depart from their consensus was ‘simply to proclaim one’s political irrelevance’. ‘Heretical opinions have no effective party-political existence’, Thompson says – and if a viewpoint wasn’t championed by either of the two big parties, the media attacked it, distorted it, or ignored it altogether.
He takes nuclear weapons as an example. By the late ‘50s, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was ‘winning wide public support’ (Labour members also voted in favour of it at their 1960 conference).
But nukes and allegiance to NATO were ‘part of that religious area behind the Establishment which one may not question’. And, as a result, both the media and the political class utterly failed to acknowledge this shift in grassroots opinion.
‘It is a very serious matter,’ Thompson says, ‘when an issue can come to the point of commanding millions of votes at a party conference, while it still lies under the prohibition of our major media.’
Thompson describes a system in which the BBC, ITV and the big newspapers decided what was worthy of coverage – taking their bearings from the ever-narrowing patch of ideological terrain occupied by the Labour and Tory leaderships – and how those issues should be represented.
To illustrate, he looks at another hot topic of the time – Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell’s attempts to abolish Clause IV of the party’s constitution, which committed it to public ownership.
The Clause IV debate had been ‘taken up, shaped and altered out of recognition’ in the media’s ‘vast distorting hall’, Thompson contends. The major news outlets magnified right-wing Labour figures like Gaitskell and Anthony Crosland, while opposing arguments were ‘personalised, caricatured or dramatised’.
But Thompson argues that, in certain circumstances, the media found unorthodox opinions quite useful. It didn’t block them out entirely. Instead, it used them to its own advantage.
‘A tinge of angriness, an image of rugged independence – these are marketable qualities in favour with viewers’, he says. ‘The odd licensed radical may even give an air of openness to a system which is in fact three-quarters shut.’ Occasionally giving a platform to political outsiders served ‘to legitimise the system.’
But if left-wing opinions were sometimes tolerated, their ‘earnest and effective advocacy’ wasn’t.
‘Dissent of any kind cannot appear … except through the intermediary of the producer. And the producer selects the participants, arranges them in interesting patterns and determines questions of emphasis and tone,” Thompson says.
But that sort of tokenistic representation doesn’t help the Left further its cause. ‘If dissent is to ever stand any chance of self-propagation, it must appear – not as sensational ‘copy’ nor as a gimmick in some ‘free speech corner’ but – again and again.
‘It must present its arguments systematically and continuously, in its own tone, according to its own strategy, selecting its own points of engagement, over a long period of time.’
Liberals should’ve been allies in this fight for fair media representation, Thompson argues. But that classical commitment to free speech and the political rights of the citizen had failed. The liberal tradition had lost its nerve.
I think this section is worth quoting in full – and as you read it, don’t just think about liberal journalists in 1961, but die-hard, Corbyn-bashing, centrist dad Remainers in 2018, too
The ‘liberal intellectual often does not notice the real forces which determine our political life because he does not feel himself to be unfree. In his island of mild dissent he is often able to speak, to argue, and to communicate with others like himself to his heart’s content.
‘Where he has a grievance, there is generally a remedy to hand which does not entail any major appeal to public opinion. He may say what he wants because he wants to say so little.
‘If the intellectual thinks of the forces of conditioning, he thinks of them as something done to other people – the masses – by other people – the advertisers and the press.’
Liberals, Thompson believed, were afflicted with a ‘profound spiritual pessimism … and a complacent belief in the efficacy of piecemeal reform’.
To them, the masses were evil and stupid. Stability was ‘the supreme social virtue’. The present society was imperfect, but safe. Radical change was always bad, because it risked letting the forces of irrationalism take control. Taken together, it meant they were unable to see ‘the encroaching authoritarianism of the Business Society’.
Having effectively predicted neoliberalism – ‘the authoritarianism of the Business Society’ is as succinct a definition as I’ve come across – Thompson wraps up by forecasting the long process of political and media homogenisation that would eventually lead to Kinnock, Blair, Cameron and a climate so bitterly hostile to outsiders like Corbyn.
‘Politics may soon settle down into a game of power at the top, with the media conditioning attitudes to which the politicians adjust their images in the hope of floating the marginal voter their way. From image to echo and back again, it is a system of political tautology in which principle need not enter. It might, indeed, be called ‘tautocracy’.’
And given that so much Thompson rails against in 1961 is still true now, it’s no surprise that his prescription for righting big politics and the media is just as applicable to 2018:
‘We may now have reached a point where the concentration of power is such that we must either subject it to new democratic controls – which will involve changes of a revolutionary order – or change will go on, willy nilly, in directions both authoritarian and irresponsible.’