progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

Book review: Dan Hind

The Return of the Public is in part a history of the concept of public opinion and democratic participation. It is also a critique of the advance of neo-liberal ideas, their implementation through state and corporate bureaucracies, and of the diminished concept of the “public service ethos” of elite institutions.

Dan Hind's proposal for media reform deserves serious consideration, especially in the wake of “hackgate”, the MPs' expenses scandal, and the global financial crisis which resulted in the British banking sector receiving a bailout with public funds.

The good work of a few journalists to investigate allegations of corruption in high places has struggled to make waves in the face of hostility or indifference, and from the institutional constraints imposed on their work by the current system of commissioning news content.

Consider the MPs' expenses scandal: a story Heather Brooke worked on for a number of years. When the story was offered to the News of the World, it was turned it down because it wasn't sexy enough. A story about the structure of political power was rejected as it took place in an insufficiently titillating milieu. Hind borrows the distinction between structure and milieu from C. Wright Mills, along with a separation between mass and public forms of media, and uses these concepts to critique existing public service broadcasters like the BBC.

When the expenses scandal did break, the emphasis was on bath plugs and duck houses – expenses data was searched for evidence of outrageous claims which would attract the attention of the masses and thus sell newspapers. A public media would have asked more searching questions about the effect of privilege on the legislative output of parliament – and years before any hint of widespread abuse of expenses.

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Hind suggests part of the license fee should be set aside for “public commissioning”. Power over allocating resources for investigative journalism would be given to the people through the ballot box. Citizens would vote on the journalistic projects they would like to see funded.

For example, a team of journalists within a large town, city, or sub-region, could put forward proposals to produce news content for that locality. Funding would be proportional, thus preventing the localisation of resources and journalism co-operatives operating at a national level to compete for funding.

This reform would introduce democratic participation to the functioning of public service broadcasting, and extend funding of public service journalism to print media, whether in the form of newspapers, magazines or websites.

Public commissioning would give to citizens the powers that they exercise elsewhere, which Albert Hirschman called “exit, voice, and loyalty”. It is also reminiscent of Paul Hirst's model of associative democracy or associationalism, where autonomous organisations periodically bid for state funding in a process decided by ballot.

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To the commonplace assumptions of a dichotomy between state institutions and market-oriented enterprise, public commissioning offers a distinct democratic challenge. Choice takes place in the context of the formal equality of democratic participation (“one member, one vote”) rather than the inequality of purchasing power within a marketplace (“one pound, one vote”).

On his blog for the book, Hind makes use of the micro-payment system Flattr, which allows users to distribute an amount of money each month to content-creators. Flattr is not an example of Hind's proposal in action – because rather than commissioning projects in advance of their production, users are in effect rewarding the content-creators and content that they have consumed already – but it gives some indication as to the ease with which the commissioning process could take place.

Social networking has had spatial and temporal effects on journalism with reportage involving more sources from sites like Facebook and Twitter. Though Flattr provides a means for rewarding news and commentary emerging from the blogosphere and social networks, Hind's arguments in the book are strong enough to make a distinction between recognition in the marketplace and the process of commissioning. (Having said that, if sites like Flattr grow in stature, it may be possible for a small number of content-creators to fund future projects – though clearly this is merely a form of implicit support.)

What is remarkable about The Return of the Public is that Hind does not confine himself to media reform – indeed, he spends more than half of the book constructing theoretical and historical arguments for republican governance.

In advocating a change to company law to boost employee ownership and workplace democracy, Hind does not lose sight of macroeconomic considerations, and he realises the need for monetary reform to create a public system of credit.

Hind has produced a valuable work which deserves to be as widely read as The Spirit Level. It is a must-read book, especially for Labour Party members concerned about the influence of media barons like Rupert Murdoch. I recommend you buy the book, read the blog, and Flattr the author.

Book review: Owen Jones

I like Owen Jones. As a media commentator he comes across well on television, radio, and in print. He “speaks human” and is able to express with clarity and humour a radical (and from this) grass-roots Labour perspective on British society. Sadly, these are exactly the qualities which have held people back in professional politics over the period that Jones describes in his new book.

Chavs: the demonisation of Britain's working class explains how working people went from being portrayed as “the salt of the Earth to the scum of the Earth”. Jones charts the defeats and consequent decline of the labour movement during the ruling class assault of the past three decades, a class war which is seldom referred to as such because it is fought from above.


Jones uses interviews with working people across the country to challenge stereotypes which have emerged in the wake of the growing power of capital over labour, and the consequent unemployment, casualisation, and wage stagnation.

In this regard, he has produced an accessible book which deserves to be widely read and debated over the next few years. His vision of a revived labour movement, focused on increasing the role of trade unions and co-operatives in the economy, is one that I share.

But I believe the book has two weaknesses:

1) The definitions used by Jones to categorise working people mistakenly draw a distinction between people who depend on an earned income from a wage or salary. I dislike the division of workers as being either “working class” or “middle class” on the basis of a level of autonomy they have over their work because this is only an apparent difference, and not one central to labour markets in a capitalist economy.

The emphasis on what economists call the “labour process” is welcome, however – it matters to people's mental and physical health. But the use of the concept of autonomy to divide working people into two groups leaves Jones open to a line of attack which distracts from the central premise of the book. So although it does not distract from his argument within the book, it is a weakness that critics can seize upon.

Like the terms “left” and “right”, the use of discrete categories of “working class” and “middle class” are detrimental to understanding the forces at work in contemporary politics, disguising what is the key divide in society between suppliers of labour and owners of capital. It is this inequality of power which should be at the forefront of debates on class.

An acceptance within the Labour movement that there are two categories of class amongst labour-suppliers makes it easier for our opponents – seeking to deny that economic rule by the few undermines the living standards of the many – to claim that there is a yawning chasm between the needs and aspirations of more affluent and less affluent workers.

2) Chavs pays insufficient attention to capital-owners, beyond the tacit recognition that there are too few in the form of an endorsement of co-operative enterprise. Perhaps a sequel could look upwards, at the composition and alignment of the ruling class.

If I was writing a follow-up, I would call it Top Dogs and Fat Cats: the disappearance of Britain's ruling class. It would look at how power-relations have become obscured as inequality has increased, and would make the case that the primary strategy of the capitalist class is to disappear from the view of politicians and electors.

Top Dogs and Fat Cats would go back further in time than the past few decades of neo-liberal consensus and the preceding post-war settlement, to the Industrial Revolution and the split between ownership and control both in terms of the joint-stock corporation and the British state.

Economic power was rendered invisible as feudal rule and an agrarian economy gave way to the rule of capital in an industrialised economy. In recent years, the dispersal of power to supra-national bodies such as the European Union and transnational corporations has added a layer of complexity and thus further uncertainty to the question of who governs in British society.

No doubt, Owen will follow up Chavs with another book if he gets the chance. But, much as I would look forward to reading it, I hope he is able to spend more time writing commentaries and appearing on TV and radio in the next few years. Labour needs talented people like Owen.