It seems a constant of British political life that the public is shocked by ongoing revelations regarding the machinations of the rich and powerful. It sometimes seems as if the campaigning journalist is the radical’s best friend, whether passing on papers of diplomatic intrigues, or showing the ‘moral stance’ of the current government to be hypocritical to the point of parody.
But time and time again, the scandals, strange as it seems, don’t bring down the government. In fact, scandals rarely do – and certainly never on their own. We can easily cast our eyes to the current developments in Italy or Haiti to see that, however foul the stench, the aroma of bad behaviour fails to translate into action.
Much of the press coverage that is gained by these revelations is, of course, extremely beneficial to the profit margins of news corporations. In this way, the secrets of one body become another’s, and the capital revenue changes hand as well. Police spies bring in success-linked-salaries for ACPO, but now bolster the profits of the Daily Mail. The Wikileaks project, however interesting and complex its intentions and intellectual heritage, has become a booming point of capital for news agencies rabidly following every sexy turn. Bradley Manning, it would seem, brings in less profit than publicising and dissecting rape allegations.
Of course, the cult of celebrity plays its part here. Mark Kennedy and Julian Assange, in their own ways, become embodiments of the stories they are involved in, acting as manifest parts of a narrative which involves around such tantalizing intangibles as covert emails and secret information. So the story has a face, and the face is commodified.
But I don’t want to suggest that we can understand these stories through a vulgar economics of ‘money = motivation.’ Rather, I think we need to look at the layers and layers of psychological narratives that different parts of society enter into.
First, we get the narrative of the rich and powerful individuals themselves. Politician, police chiefs, diplomats: all say that their record is whiter than white, that they would never hurt anyone, and only have the best intentions for everyone, everywhere, all the time. Second, we have the rest of the dominant classes. Taking in the stories of their immediate superiors, the professionals and wealthy are shocked by the revelations that their friends and colleagues are actually hypocritical and deceitful. Then there’s the bourgeois controlled media, which echoes the shock of the dominant classes through society. The ‘public’ it seems, are horrified as well.
But are the people who are really feeling the brunt of society’s damage so shocked and horrified? Do the working class kids having their EMA taken away from them – many of whom have no idea this is happening – really share the astonishment that governments cheat and abuse their privilege?
And for most, we’re only all too aware of how the state treats its ‘citizens.’ The details of police intervention may come as news, but the fact of undercover, deeply embedded operatives is something very much of common knowledge to protest movements.
Revealing lies is not the same as exposing contradictions. Pointing out those moments when the reality on the ground and the media headlines don’t match up isn’t the same as spotting those points when the ‘reality on the ground’ doesn’t match up with itself. Our society is full of indicators of such contradictions. (An example, as Mark Fisher explains, is the threat of climate change. Our society has to produce more and more stuff in order to function the way it does: but this way of doing things, based on cheap oil, is also destroying the eco-system on which our society relies. Our society is literally contradicting itself.)
In the end, the ruling class only surprises itself. I certainly don’t believe that the Tunisian revolts were started by Wikileaks: if you’re going to self-immolate, I think you have stronger reasons that a leaked diplomatic cable. The long-standing distrust that the unprivileged have for the dominant parts of society is far deeper and more naturalised than the short shocks of re-appraisal fed to us by the press.