Base, Superstructure and the Irish Property Crash: Henry Silke

The “Great Western Crisis” starting in 2008 has reinvigorated much debate on capitalist crises and causation, Marxist scholars have long debated crisis theory falling into a number of major theoretical positions, at a crude level they can be divided into three (sometimes overlapping) major positions: that is the theories of financialisation, overproduction/underconsumption, and the tendency of the rate of profit to decline. This paper discusses the role of communications and the media in capitalist crises drawing from the literature of both crisis theory and communications theory to investigate the relationship. The paper discusses the role of communications and the media on two levels, firstly on a functionalist level, that is how communication tools and channels play a role in the dissemination of information and secondly on an ideological level of how media can play a role in normalising market and class relations including support for elite political policies. The paper returns to the concept of base and superstructure noting a strong dialectical relationship between economic base and media and communications superstructure that can be found in trends of media concentration, media crisis and media work practices. The paper also discusses the dialectical relationship between media, markets and the wider economy….

…As discussed in Marxist literature, the broader economic base including the relations of production have a dialectical relationship with the various superstructures of society (including the state and the media). The tripartite relationships between the state, the media sphere and powerful economic interests may act to reinforce class relations and economic trends including periods of economic crisis. This is at least partially because the media—through ownership, institutional practice, alongside content, agenda setting, and overarching ideologies—tends to act to defend or at least defer critique of the economic and political system it is based on…

…The paper looks at the Irish economic crisis to explore these issues by briefly investigating the Irish Times and Irish Independent (two key political and economic papers in the Irish Republic) treatment of three key points in the downturn: The Irish property market on the run up to the 2007 general election (on the cusp of the crash); the blanket bank guarantee of 2008, where the state effectively guaranteed the debts of the entire Irish banking system in its totality, and finally the introduction of the National Asset Management Agency, a state sponsored bad bank aimed at cleaning up the (then) private banking industry…

…While media effects is a contentious issue amongst academic researchers, the empirical findings informing this paper point to the conclusion that that overall blanket positive coverage of the property market, the downplaying of the oncoming crisis and more fundamental deep seated ideology of housing being first and foremost a commodity has had some effect. In May 2007, the lack of critical analysis of either the residential or commercial property markets even on the cusp of a major crash meant that the newspapers at best failed in their normative watchdog role and left society and state ill prepared to deal with the outcomes. At worst, the papers could be considered to have been the ideological mouthpiece of the property industries, that is as uncritical “in-house” journals that privileged and pushed policies beneficial to the narrow economic interests of property developers, financiers, speculators, landlords and estate agents. The papers even if they were unaware of their obvious bias towards industry actors seem to have been so blinded by neo-liberal ideological assumptions that the concept of market “self-regulation” was above question.

The newspapers dependence on sourcing from the property industries coupled with a close economic relationship to the industry poses obvious questions around impartiality and independence, questions that neither newspaper group have sufficiently answered since the crash. Overall it is very likely that the coverage of housing in 2007 contributed to the housing bubble itself, the newspapers highly ideological defence of the market at a time of both heightened awareness and a critical juncture in the political cycle may have acted to reassure buyers and speculators, moreover the newspapers concentration of attention on stamp duty reform rather than key structural issues underlined assumptions of “market self-regulation” and that all would return to “normal” post political “interference” on the market; again acting to reassure market actors that the “normality” of bubble economics would continue. Moreover the newspapers framing and promotion of stamp duty reform in 2007 helped push the policy to the top of the agenda and see its eventual realisation. Stamp duty of course proved to be a red herring as the policy of abolition was enacted and did not prevent the crash. The view that the print media elongated the property bubble is supported by Julien Mercille’s (2013) research which also found a hugely favourable view of the property market before 2008 that he maintained sustained the rise in house prices…

…It could be argued that now with the onset of a severe housing crisis alongside the “tsunami of homelessness” (RTE News 2014) we are reaping the fruits of a non-critical media sphere. The coverage of housing throughout the crisis seems to have remained wedded to the market with the assumption that only private developers and private markets can supply housing leading therefore to discussion of how to best remove “market barriers” for the benefit of the aforementioned actors (much like 2007); the basic questions around how satisfactory housing policies may be achieved have rarely been discussed outside these parameters. Likewise, the newspapers treatment and framing of other political policies such as the blanket guarantee and NAMA most likely had some affect. There were some exceptions to this, in particular in some opinion pieces. However, the key trends and frames point to a “captured press”, that is, a press in service of a narrow class based interest. The Irish crisis with the fundamentally important role of the print media therefore acts as an exemplary case study of the base-superstructure relationship between the mass media and the market economy. The Irish experience concurs with much critical theory on the role of mass media in capitalist society in terms of economics, power and politics and seems to verify the long suspected role of the media as a structurally important part of the modern capitalist state rather than an objective “watchdog” holding truth to power…

…The links between super-structure and base are of long standing interest in Marxism; that is the dialectical and reflexive relationships between the economic base, economic actors, class relations and the superstructure of the state and various aspects of civil society. Two key elements of the superstructure are institutional political processes and institutional media processes. There are many other elements of the superstructure such as education, religion and various state and cultural organisations, however media and politics are two important elements of the superstructure coming from both state and civil society (Gramsci 1971/2003), and it would seem two of the more overtly political elements in the structures of power, and most importantly they represent two elements where cracks of agency may just exist.

Likewise in the wider base both media and communications play an indispensable role in the commodity circuit. This paper proposes a move towards a Marxist crisis theory of communications that would attempt to link the various aspects of the base-superstructure relationship in a holistic fashion. It is important to state that the relationship between ideological, institutional and material factors should not be considered as artificially separate spheres but rather as overlapping parts of a totality, which act to influence each other, moreover, all of which are “born into” particular historical and social structures. We make our own history but not in the circumstances of our own choosing. Likewise, while we have agency over our ideas they cannot be separated from pre-existing ideological structures. The base-superstructure concept is a tool, therefore, that allows us to attempt to deconstruct various elements of society at work and investigate their influences over other elements. The base or material factor generally is key as it is upon the material structures of society and economy that the political and ideological structures rest; however as discussed above there are periods when the superstructural elements can be more influential and this subjective element liberates us from an overly deterministic outlook and allows at least some political agency.

The full paper is available here

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So What’s Wrong with One Man Owning all the Media Anyway?

Today’s Irish Examiner, Irish Daily Mail and Irish Times front pages all ran with the ongoing story of Denis O’Brien’s unprecedented attempts to gag the media from reporting Dail speeches; normally covered under Dail Privilege. While the press has been gagged from reporting the words of Catherine Murphy TD, the story has exploded both nationally and internationally and acted to expose, in the clearest fashion, the dangers of media concentration and oligarchical ownership. Whilst various journalists, editors and broadcasters working in the O’Brien empire have claimed that O’Brien does not interfere in editorial matters, it is now beyond credulity that the man who has successfully gagged RTE, The Irish Times and has threatened Broadsheet.ie with legal action does not interfere in the papers and radio stations that he owns and controls.

Today’s O’Brien owned Irish Independent is a clear example of this; whether O’Brien directly interferes or his editors are well enough house trained for him not to need to has little relevance, today’s Indo speaks for itself.

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The front page, unlike the Times, Examiner and Mail is not concerned with the constitutional crisis involving Dail privilege and press freedom. Rather, the Indo returns to its old favourite of attacking public sector workers for the possibility of getting a 2% pay ‘increase’. The front page article  does not use the expression ‘pay restoration’  framing this as a pay increase rather than a extremely modest restoration from cuts of at minimum 14%. The paper doesn’t seem to hold the same concern towards the monies the state lost on the Siteserve deal, the very story O’Brien lawyers are busy gagging. To get to the story of the week we have to wait until we get to page 22 where we are met with a short news report and no editorial comment. The Saturday weekly political supplement contains nothing on what is probably the most important media story since Section 31. It is also worth remembering that O’Brien’s company Siteserve (at the centre of this scandal) has received contracts from Irish Water, It is also worth remembering that O’Brien’s media empire has led the way in support for the charges as well as demonisation of the movement opposing the; a conflict of interest worthy of an editorial or two one might think?

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What Catherine Murphy TD Said In The Dail About Denis O’Brien

The Broken Elbow

The Irish people are being denied the right to know about serious allegations being leveled at prominent Irish businessman and billionaire, Denis O’Brien by virtue of a High Court injunction forbidding RTE from broadcasting a programme about his controversial purchase of the infrastructure and utility support company, Siteserv.

In particular the programme is believed to have investigated his dealings with the liquidator of Siteserv, Kieran Wallace and the CEO of the Irish Banking Resolution Corporation, Mike Aynsley.

Denis O'Brien Denis O’Brien

Mr O’Brien’s road to a business fortune began when, according to the Moriarty Tribunal, he almost certainly greased the palm of Government Minister of Communications, Michael Lowry in 1995 to secure a lucrative mobile phone contract on behalf of Esat Digiphone, a consortium he headed.

Similar allegations that he was shown favoritism over his purchase of Siteserv were aired in Dail Eireann yesterday by the Independent TD for Kildare, Catherine Murphy…

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A note on the difference between left and right in Ireland

Cunning Hired Knaves on how political orientation is represented by Irish news organisations:

Cunning Hired Knaves

“How do they manage to make the bad guys look good?”
“Dead easy: the bad guys write the script”

A recent interview with journalist Gene Kerrigan, conducted by David Manning of MediaBite, was titled ‘Ireland’s invisible, but omnipresent, right-wing’. In it, Kerrigan noted how mainstream Irish politicians were seldom referred to as right-wing in the media, even when their policy approach was the same as the likes of Angela Merkel, and how the outlook of political correspondents was the same as that of mainstream parties, but they are seldom referred to as right-wing journalists.

Kerrigan’s claim about the description of politicians can be verified by a simple test.

A Nexis search of Irish news sources for “Clare Daly” in the past year returns 495 results. 22 of these, or 4.4% contain the adjective “left-wing”.

A Nexis search of Irish news sources for “Joe Higgins” in the past year returns 400…

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And we’re back!

The one on the left is 26 pages today. The one on the right is 28. #weareback! Hat Tip: eagle eyed Kitty Holland

A big day for the Irish Times as the property section has overtaken the news section for the first time since… well for the first time since that nasty business. As it stands rents are rising, evictions are increasing and journalism is thriving. Expect to see lots of articles on why landlords need tax incentives, why developers need to be forgiven and above all why rent control is impossible.

Drowning in its own Bias? Thoughts on Waning Media Power and Social Media as Organising Tool

In previous posts we have discussed the fact that the Irish Water protests and movement has continued to grow despite being written off numerous times by mainstream media. Moreover  the movement has sustained itself  against overwhelming media bias, sensationalism and negative framing, in what has seemed an almost overt  attempted to de-legitimise the movement.

Yesterday Rory Hearn of the Geography department of Maynooth University published a paper which sheds some light on this process by (in part) looking at attitudes towards media among water activists and the use of social media as an organising tool, something we previously discussed here. This gives some empirical evidence towards the suspicion of waning media power among at least a significant segment of the population. A survey was conducted with over 2,500 anti water charge activists on their reasons for becoming involved, their attitudes towards the current government, tactics and future political preferences. Here we will highlight the reports findings about the media. The full report can be found here.

The report highlighted the mistrust of the mainstream media by the activists, and their preference of social media as a source:

The issue of the media was repeated as a significant theme in the respondents’ answers throughout the survey. They referred to the media portrayal of protestors as ‘biased’ and that the media was acting as ‘government supporters’. They criticised the media for its ‘failure to be objective’. They expressed strong feelings of contempt and anger at the coverage of the protests by the mainstream media. 86% of respondents described the media portrayal of the anti-water movement as negative. This composed of 45% describing it as ‘undermining the campaign’ and 41% saying it was ‘unfair’. Significantly Q 14 shows that protestors’ principal source of information about the campaign is overwhelmingly coming from social media as opposed to the traditional media. 82.6% were most informed about the campaign from social media. Only 6.4% of respondents were most informed from traditional media outlets

This is hardly surprising given the sensationalist nature of the mainstream coverage that would have been very much at odds with the lived reality of activists.  Moreover the report states:

In particular it was noted that they have used social media very effectively as a way of providing information that the mainstream media has not covered. The movement has, according to respondents, overcome the ‘propaganda’ from the mainstream media, gained attention of foreign media, and ‘brought the issue to national attention’. It has done this through ‘the effective use of social media to discredit mainstream media’. Respondents are concerned that ‘lies in the media with the help of the Gardai about the real number of protesters is unjust and unfair and if others knew how many were really there they might get interested and get educated about it’.

The report highlights issues that have been debated over the last number of years as  traditional media (print, television, radio) has been challenged by newer forms of publishing, social network sites and blogs that allow alternative views to be broadcast at a fraction of the traditional cost.   Easy access to alternative or external (extra national) forms of media through the internet allows people to escape the dominant media of their country if they wish, and on rare occasions so called ‘citizen journalism’ on the internet may break through dominant frames or agenda. However some research suggests that most news sourced on the internet comes from the websites of mainstream media groups (Castells 2009 p. 196).  However looking at the number of hits on youtube from uploads on by Irish water activists (sometimes in the hundreds of thousands) this may not be the case, though further research is necessary to confirm this  one way or another.

This so called ‘communication revolution’  may represent a paradigm shift in communications  as new forms of broadcasting through the internet have allowed for new forms of mass media and new forms of audiences and alternative forms of communication (Castells 2000, 2009). The contemporary media sphere sees numerous ‘entry points’ which can be utilised by producers/writers/reporters or political activists and has the potential of a mass audience.[1] The technological revolution for McChesney offers historical possibilities in other words the possibility that the internet might finally herald the advent of an open and inclusive ‘public sphere’ (Schuler and Day 2004 p. 3). And this has been certainly been the most extensive and  effective use of social media in Ireland to date. However it is important to remember that dominant groups have successfully usurped (or more commonly co-opted) such potentials many times before, and to date the traditional mass media still holds a vastly dominant position.  The success of the Irish movement’s use of social was made  possible by the mass dissemination of facebook in the Irish population with reports that up to half of the entire population have facebook accounts. This of course has inherent dangers as it gives a single company with little democratic oversight considerable powers.

It has also  been  argued that the online alternative media are at the core of (rather than simply reporting) the alternative social movements as they act as a force for organisation rather than simply reporting their actions and opinions (Coyer, Dowmunt and Fountain 2007).  This of course is nothing particularly new, as political newspapers were often seen firstly as organising tools and secondly as newspapers, or as Lenin (1901) expressed it the newspaper acted as the organisational ‘scaffolding’ for political movements or parties.[2]  The southern Mexican Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) movement were probably the first group to do so on an international scale in the mid-1990s. Since then many movements, most notably indymedia, have been able to use cheap production tools and cheap distribution on the internet to disseminate their views often breaking into the mainstream. However it is important not to confuse the dissemination of counter hegemonic views with counter hegemonic power, while sub-altern groups may be given a voice this does not guarantee political or economic power. For example the anarchist Worker’s Solidarity Movement (WSM), an organisation counted in the dozens, but with savvy programmers, is the second most popular political party on Facebook in Ireland with over 50,000 followers, this compares very well to Fine Gael (Ireland’s largest political party and major coalition partner) with only 10,000 followers. While the WSM is second only to a resurgent Sinn Fein (with 65,000 followers), nobody would argue that this popularity translates offline into political power.[3]

Others are  cautious around recent developments. For example theorists Chakravartty and Schiller (2010 p. 677) maintain that:

‘it would be at best naïve to assume that the authority of economic science that underpins digital capitalism and is reinforced across academic, policy and media fields can be simply undone through the transformative power of blogs, social networking and other user generated content’.

Moreover Blumler and Gurevitch (2001) also warn that the internet’s potential to facilitate more participatory political communication is dependent on considerable resources such as time and finance. David Simon in his testimony on the future of journalism discussed the need for a funded full time media workers:

But democratized and independent though they may be, you do not – in my city — run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at City Hall, or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars and union halls where police officers gather. You do not see them consistently nurturing and then pressing sources. You do not see them holding institutions accountable on a daily basis.

Eugenia Siapera (2013) warns that some of the windows of opportunity for citizens and political activists opened by the new forms of media production and distribution are closing. This is due to the development of the new online media ecosystem that sees an increased concentration of distributive power on internet platforms such as Facebook or Google (Siapera 2013 p. 14). The new powerful internet distributors operate by the logic of what Siapera defines as infomediation.  This can be defined as a process of bringing together information producers and information users to exchange contents and secondly to record as much data on users as possible to sell onto third parties – the process of immanent commodification. This leads to not only an introduction of new categories of news and information content but also the likelihood that the hierarchies will be related to how the infomederies may ‘value’ and monetise their readers; as  different audiences will be of different value to various advertisers. This according to Siapera is likely to impact on the actual distribution of news contents customised to fit the appropriate type of audience (Siapera 2013 p. 16). While on the one hand social media allows the easy dissemination for alternative views and politics it may be also argued that political activists must be cautioned against establishing isolated echo-chambers rather than engaging with wider society.

References:

Blumler, J.G. and Gurevitch, M. 2001. The new media and our political communications discontents. Information, Communication and Society, 4(3), pp.435-457.

Castells, M. 2000. The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed.  Oxford: Blackwell.

Castells, M. 2009. Communication Power. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Chakravartty, P. and Schiller, D. 2010. Neoliberal newspeak and digital capitalism in crisis. International Journal of Communication, (4), pp.670-692.

Coyer, K., Dowmunt, T. and Fountain, A. 2007. The Alternative Media Handbook. London: Routledge.

Lenin, V., I. 1901. Where to begin. Iskra,   

Preston, P. 2009. Making the News: Journalism and News Cultures in Contemporary Europe. New York, NY: Routledge.

Schuler, D. and Day, P. 2004. Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civil Society in Cyberspace. Cambridge, Ma ; London: MIT Press.

Siapera, E. 2013. Platform infomediation and journalism. Culture Machine, 13pp.1-29.

[1] Castells (2009 p. 55) calls these new form of communication mass self-communication, as they are potentially broadcast to a global audience and because the production of the message is self-directed and often the reception of the media is self-selected. These new forms of media hold a potential for subaltern groups and ideologies previously excluded from the mass media

[2] ‘The role of a newspaper, however, is not limited solely to the dissemination of ideas, to political education, and to the enlistment of political allies. A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organiser. In this last respect it may be likened to the scaffolding round a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour’ (Lenin 1901).

[3] Number of Facebook followers correct as of 22/04/2015.