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Delusions of Guardiandeur

Last week the Guardian ran an article by John Harris on the Bristol Cable, a news cooperative launched in 2014. The Cable is committed to producing high quality journalism. In this it isn’t exactly unusual. But it is different from most other startups in one very big way. Rather than spend dollars on production and receive back pennies in revenue from Google and the other info-monsters, the Cable has sought to establish itself as a co-operative venture with its readers.

The Cable, constituted as a community benefit society, has somewhere around 600 members.* These people are “legal shareholders” of the Cable. That means that they “participate in strategic decisions, workshops and events” and they pay a minimum of £1 a month each to support the organization.

It is important not to be starry-eyed about this model. 600 supporting members in a population of 440,000 is useful, and tantalizingly close to break even, but it is not overwhelming. But, crucially, membership means engaging with issues of funding, and hence of power. This isn’t just a vague aspiration. The Cable has just received a £40,000 grant from the Reva and David Logan Foundation and the members have been debating how the money should be spent. The members are not being asked to pay for a good thing while remaining excluded from consequential decisions.

This carries with it huge potential. Instead of a core of professionals who control the editorial and production process and intermediate between the state and other institutions and a consuming audience, the Bristol Cable model implies a degree of fluidity between the role of producer and consumer – readers learn how journalism is made by making it. The members also share in conversations about how resources are spent. If it moves into regular surplus it can regularise these conversations, so that the journalism remains connected to the needs of members.

There are tensions between participation and the publishing objectives of the organization, which the Cable is keenly aware of. But nevertheless, the membership already discovers itself through collective decision-making. As such, isn’t an object to be manipulated (or “enlightened”) by professionals. Nor is it a mutually oblivious and endlessly divisible mass that can be served up to advertisers.

So, the membership could very easily become a point of origin for economic cooperation. Instead of being advertised at, individuals could use meetings to discover and articulate shared economic as well as journalistic needs. The model could also be used to develop a different kind of political subjectivity. Instead of a newspaper endorsing a candidate to readers who only have the newspaper in common, members would develop a nuanced understanding of what other people think, and hence of the horizon of political possibility at any given time. In other words, the Cable is closing in on the emancipatory possibility of democratic media to remake both economic and political life along egalitarian lines.

Contrast all this with the Guardian‘s own membership scheme. At its inception several people, myself included, argued that it would only flourish if members were given some degree of power over the future direction of the paper, if members could communicate with one another as equals in decisions about what the Guardian was for, how best it could serve its readers and members. The possibilities were enticing. The contents of the website and the paper would no longer have been shaped in black box isolation by insiders. They would have come to reflect the wishes of the paper’s supporters as well as the pressure of events, the operations of sophisticated lobbies and the editors’ amour propre. And supporters would have come to know one another better, as they associated on the basis of shared political and economic interests and geographical proximity.

This would not have meant abandoning journalistic standards, or printing feelgood pabulum that the members wanted to read. It would have meant that journalists worked as partners with members to develop a better understanding of the world. And, similarly, the members would have been able to capture the political and economic benefits of scale for themselves, rather than seeing them captured by corporate oligopolies and a electoral duopoly. (This dynamic would have helped establish the Guardian as a paying proposition in the United States, too.)

At the time the Guardian decided against all this. The one meeting I attended there in 2012 had plenty of network entrepreneurs and advertising types. They spoke highly of the Guardian‘s brand. They talked up the possibilities of attracting an upscale audience to real-world events, about social hubs and about “monetizing” members. In a very polite showdown between exclusivity and participation, exclusivity won. Hence the membership model adopted. The opportunity to shape the nature of the Guardian over time in collaboration with others has been rejected. Instead, being a partner means a 20% discount on tickets and being a patron means, what else, “exclusive behind-the-scenes functions” for only £599 a year.

It is easy to see why the advocates of exclusivity were so persuasive. For one thing they knew how to sell, while the democratisers weren’t as slick. But more importantly. members in this approach are invited to look up, at the marvels of the Guardian, not at one another. Power and glamour remain at the centre. Rubbing shoulders with well-heeled people who think you ever so glamorous is much more appealing to editors and executives than the hassle of having to do what members tell them to do.

Membership was meant to be a way of shoring up the paper’s finances and guaranteeing free access to the website’s content. But in January the paper reported that it expected operating losses of £53 million in the year to March 2016.

It isn’t too late for the paper to stop pretending that it is a high-value brand experience or a coffee shop. It could still adapt to, and help articulate, the kinds of progressive energy so visible in the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns, not to mention Occupy and UK Uncut. People want power over their own lives and have less and less in common with those who cling to the top of steep hierarchies. Yes, there will be coordination at the centre, and yes, there will always be a tension between what people want to believe and what people can honestly report. But these difficulties and ambiguities can no longer be obscured by professional condescension in the service of a manipulation.

There are signs that the editor Katharine Viner grasps this. In the Guardian she is quoted saying that “over the next three years, a growing and far deeper set of relationships with our audience will result in a reimagining of our journalism, a sustainable business model and a newly-focused digital organisation that reflects our independence and our mission.” Quite what she means by “a growing and far deeper set of relationships with our audience” I don’t know. I do know it sounds a lot less disgusting than “exclusive behind the scenes functions”.

More tellingly, perhaps, the Financial Times reports that the Guardian‘s has shelved plans to open an “an events hub” in Kings Cross.

[One thing is for sure, the Guardian aren’t about to pay me for this piece, so if you appreciate it you can buy a copy of The Greatest Invention: Tax and the Campaign for a Just Society. Half the proceeds go to the Tax Justice Network, and half go to the publisher, which is me. Or you can go and watch a Justin Bieber video. Either way, we’re done here.]

*[Update: the Bristol Cable now has 750 supporting members.]

Why Did New Labour Die?

Peter Hyman’s article about the failure of New Labour is fascinating mostly for what it cannot bring itself to say. The financial collapse of 2007-8 merits one mention:

“Far from the economic crisis destroying Brown’s premiership, it actually saved it. It gave him a purpose. Without it, having achieved his life’s ambition, his premiership would have fizzled out before it had started; a sparkler with no sparkle.”

Note the choice of words here. In Hyman’s piece the smoothly technical ‘economic crisis’ hyperlinks to ‘financial crisis’ on the Guardian site, a form of words that comes dangerously close to describing what happened.

More seriously, Hyman doesn’t seem to realise the extent to which the crash destroyed New Labour’s pretensions to economic competence. To say that it saved Brown’s premiership by giving him something to do is, to put it politely, to confuse a detail with the big picture.

Martin, A Quick Word

Martin, About the Corbyn piece. One or two things need a tweak, maybe. First off, while your memories of life ‘close to the epicentre of the Corbyn milieu’* are thrillingly fearless, it’s a bit of a worry that you have nothing to say about Corbyn as a person, rather than as a type, until halfway through the article. Did you ever meet him? Perhaps say if so.

When you do get round to Corbyn you say that ‘his intellectual CV gives an impression of slow-minded rigidity’. And that’s a bit of a problem. In your leisurely preamble you write that at the New Statesman you agreed ‘pretty much’ with James Fenton when he said ‘I want a government that is weak against the trade unions’. You go on to say that Christopher Hitchens’ enduring love for Trotsky is ‘one of the most saliently endearing facts’ about him. In their different ways your witty friends were wrong and stunningly, stupidly wrong, weren’t they?

For all their faults, Corbyn and his contemporaries on the left of the Labour party – the Bennities, let’s call them – were campaigning for equality at home and abroad. What a laugh, I know! But the things they marched for – anti-racism, gay rights, democracy in Africa and Latin America – they were right about those things, weren’t they, at a time when a lot of people were for various reasons wrong? The monosyllabic bigots were wrong, of course. But those who eloquently insisted that these things were distractions from the purity of class struggle were wrong, too.

The Labour left were also trying to find a way out of the UK’s industrial unrest and low productivity through greater industrial democracy. They were trying to create a politics that wasn’t Fenton’s blunt trauma unionism or Hitchens’ swooning pash on Trotsky. They understood that the post-war settlement was in crisis and they could see clearly what the New Right had planned if they failed. They did fail, of course. They could have done with your help, maybe. But you were too busy trading ‘taunts and teases’ with Christopher Hitchens to pay much attention. Fair enough, you had things to do, novels to write. But it doesn’t seem like something to boast about, that you had no idea what was at stake politically, in the epicentre of your milieu.*

In retrospect Corbyn and his friends seem to have been much more curious about the world than you were. They were trying to find a future, with all the uncertainty and upset that that brings with it. Thatcher meanwhile promised a return to the old verities – landlordism and low pay. Good news for a satirist, I suppose, not so much for the actual Keiths and Lionels, though.

Corbyn and McDonnell have continued to show some considerable intellectual curiosity. They were the first people in Parliament to engage seriously with the issues raised by the Tax Justice Network, for example, and they have been willing to consider challenges to the zombie orthodoxy that surrounds money. (Didn’t you write something about money, once, Mart?) They are trying understand how the world works. You don’t have to pay attention to these things but tracing the outlines of the here and now, I don’t know, it might be more interesting than reminiscing about the old days at the New Statesman.

You write that Corbyn is ‘without the slightest grasp of the national character’ having just quoted him saying that ‘anyone who wants to be a beekeeper should be a beekeeper’. The ‘national character’ is a nonsense, I think we can agree. But from my limited knowledge of the inhabitants of these islands, the idea that everyone is entitled to enough outside space for a beehive or two is about the most British thing I have ever heard. Maybe it isn’t very funny. But it isn’t very funny to be in a short-term tenancy with no garden, so perhaps the voters will forgive Corbyn for not being a brilliant satirist.

And then there is the terrorism. It’s tricky that one, isn’t it? Because Corbyn has been right about the War on Terror all along. He opposed that invasion of Iraq that Hitchens was so keen on, too. He is arguing for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian Civil War as he has done from the outset. Intellectually curious politicians with a sense of humour and a firm grasp of the national character meanwhile have been alternating between wanting to bomb Assad’s troops and wanting to bomb ISIS. Civil wars are horrible, and the people who are good at fighting them – including the CIA and MI6 – tend to be appalling bastards. But finding a way to stop them, that’s the trick, isn’t it? Bombing everyone in turn doesn’t seem that promising. It’s a bit exterminate all the brutes, no?

What was that you said about Corbyn, that he seems ‘essentially incurious about anything beyond his immediate sphere’? You don’t need to be curious about Corbyn, now any more than you were then, but there’s a world beyond the immediate sphere of the opinions you happen to have right now, the words that seem to fit together, the ambled circuit of the same perimeter. You can’t keep pronouncing on things you can’t be bothered to understand. You didn’t understand Corbyn then. You don’t now.

You can see what I am getting at, can’t you? You call Corbyn humourless and clueless about his country. You say that his approach to foreign affairs is childish and obviously so. You know what your many no doubt envious and talentless detractors are going to say, ‘Oh there goes Mart, whatever he writes about, it’s always really about him.’

Get out of whatever rut you are in, find out what people are like before you roll them up tight in a larky name. Stop groping at profundities like a prat. Do the work,

All my best,

Dan

*Do milieux have epicentres?

The Politics of Money

At present too few of us understand the financial system well enough to know how to reform it, even though, as J.K. Galbraith once remarked, ‘the process by which the banks create money is so simple, the mind is repelled’. But after the events of the last few years all of us can appreciate that the creation of credit is fraught with the potential for abuse. And even a brief examination of the historical record shows that privately owned banks have repeatedly jeopardised the common wealth by exploiting the arcane power of debt creation. Finance should be subject to a prolonged inquiry by the population organized as publics to determine whether and how it should be reformed. Perhaps they will conclude that the central banks in Britain and the United States should only give money to state institutions, either as loans or transfers, as circumstances dictate. State-owned development banks could fund industrial expansion in particular regions and sectors and defined publics would exercise responsible control over their activities. Private banks could continue to take deposits from private investors and use them to make loans. But they would no longer have access to the state’s capacity to generate near limitless credit; they would no longer be able to create bubbles in asset markets; they would no longer need to be bailed out by taxpayers who do not understand and are required to believe, the fate of the sucker through the ages.

Of course a public system of credit might lead to reckless cronyism or bureaucratic torpor. But the current system already does. Employee-owned companies might become unjust and sclerotic. But the corporations they would replace already are. Once generally distributed knowledge can provide the basis for legislation the people might still decide that the current structure of the private sector cannot be improved without unacceptable risks. Or they might decide to abolish private property and try to create a world without exploitation. My own hope is that they will move to democratise the workplace and the system of credit in the context of a steady shift from private opulence to public justice.

The Return of the Public, 2010

How Do You Change the World?

The Greatest InventionJeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership elections and Bernie Sanders’ barn-storming campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination have brought economic justice into the very centre of political debate in the English-speaking world. Ideas that once seemed marginal are becoming part of a new common sense.

Since 2003 the Tax Justice Network has been analysing the offshore system and the global economy on which it depends. Its members around the world have been developing both a critique of the current order (Treasure Islands, The Price of Offshore) and a programme of reform (automatic information exchange, country-by-country reporting). Working on a shoestring, they can claim to belong to one of this century’s most influential NGOs.

To order a copy of The Greatest Invention: Tax and the Campaign for a Just Society, visit commonwealth-publishing.com. The book is available as an ebook and paperback direct from the site. It can also be found at a
number of online retailers.