Archive for August, 2009


We can edit it for you wholesale

August 28, 2009

It’s hard to avoid irritation at this self-serving crap from “head of Channel 4, Julian Bellamy”. I don’t even mind the backpatting Big-Brother-was-just-great-for-my-career flannel – it at least has the merit of honesty.

Nor is it quite hyperbole to claim that

Big Brother has been the most influential show of the modern era. Even it’s most vociferous critics would admit that. Quite simply, it revolutionised TV. It pioneered new technologies and fundamentally altered how viewers watched television.

This is not at all far off the mark. And that’s the problem.

The ‘revolution’ Big Brother offered – if it offered anything of the sort – was not on what we, on this side of the screen were doing. It was
what people like Bellamy were doing on the other side. Big Brother was the first successful, popular example of innovations in editing technology – fast digital editing – changing the kind of television programmes we could watch.

The economics of the show only work once digital editing exists. Hours and hours, days and days, of raw, unedited footage can be rapidly spliced into a convincing storyline: a process either slow, or horribly expensive (or both) with traditional analogue editors, but within the bounds of possibility once footage can be digitised and rapidly chopped up, reassembled, and slotted neatly into place. It’s a classic example of a capital-intensive investment pushing out labour, in fact; you move from human camera operators and skilled editors into glorified CCTV and a fast hard-drive.

The participants cost next to nothing. The sets are cheap. You save on expensive labour. And with so much raw footage to choose from, you have an extraordinary amount of control over the final output. Charlie Brooker explained the whole process, quite brilliantly, here.

But this means that Bellamy’s claims about Big Brother offering ‘a remarkable insight into the values and behaviour of the noughties generation’ are seriously disingenuous. We weren’t privileged to witness, like visitors at the safari park, strange creatures in their natural habitat; we weren’t even watching people, thrown into a weird situation and responding to it. We were looking at something that was, from top to bottom, largely constructed elsewhere, off-screen, away from whatever we were viewing.

Big Brother showed us a remarkable insight into what Endemol, Channel 4, and their advertisers and sponsors think we wanted to see of the ‘values and behaviour’ of the ‘noughties generation’. They don’t really like us very much.


They think it’s all over

August 25, 2009

Well, it isn’t.

First, the numbers don’t support it. Behind a certain amount of excitable flapping and squawking over a few decentish headline stock prices, much of the underlying data is grim: unemployment here continuing to rise, foreclosures in the US and late UK mortgage payments still rising, and wage settlements grinding to a halt.

All these matter hugely for both economies, since – with credit lines still jammed – they’ll directly affect consumption. And with consumption spending driving 80 per cent of US demand growth during the boom years[*], that’s a big blow to growth across the whole economy.

Coupled with the immense pressure now being exerted on government spending as a result of the bailouts, and it should be clear that future prospects for capitalism in its neoliberal heartlands remain somewhat shaky. The trillions now sloshing around the financial institutions may, eventually, trickle into the rest of the economy, stimulating a boom. But the underlying weaknesses remain.

That’s the real story here. The numbers are only part of it – and, really, only a fairly small part. The truth of the last 18 months or so is that the entire existing economic order, “neoliberalism”, the economic rules of the game we’ve lived under for twenty or more years now, suffered a massive seizure. But instead of changing that order, even in capital’s own terms, rejigging the institutions, rewriting the rules, doing everything just a little bit differently – we’ve placed the sickly patient on a drip.

That’s the meaning of the bank profits and the bonuses. Zombie neoliberalism is still with us, lumbering on as if nothing had happened. Yet it is far weaker than previously: without a purge of the banks and the financial institutions, killing off the insolvent and the incompetent, there is no reason whatsoever for any of them to reform. And without reforms, they will expose capitalism to the same illnesses it contracted last time: contagion, the spread of financial plague from economy to economy, and systemic risk.

But of course, the banks and the institutions couldn’t be allowed to collapse, whatever Mervyn King may have wished. They were peering into the abyss after Lehman Brothers collapsed. The grim prospect of an almighty domino effect loomed, with the ties between collapsing banks pulling more and more of the economy down behind them.

So the bailouts. The patient is hardly cured; more drugged to the eyeballs, and weakened.

[*] figure from Glynn (2004), Capitalism Unleashed, p.53


New Labour’s ideological hit man

August 12, 2009

There’s an interesting detail in Decca Aitkenhead’s Monday interview with Peter Mandelson, in which Aitkenhead notes his peculiarity, in their conversation, of returning again and again to the same point in his past:

…it’s striking that Mandelson’s point of reference goes all the way back to 80s, the era he returns to in conversation unprompted, time and time again. “It was like the wild west,” he says nostalgically at one point. “It was tough.” Interestingly, he also says that, excluding his present position, his favourite ever job was as Labour’s campaign director back then.

This must seem, to most readers as well as the baffled interviewer, like “nostalgia” for a piece of ancient personal history: and who, after all, does not look back on some long (and successful) battle with a warm smile? No doubt the entitlement that Mandelson – quite literally – claims grows directly from the struggles of his (relative) youth. Because if Mandelson says he had to be the hit man, and that the battle against the Left in the Labour Party – never, tellingly, referred to as such in this interview – was “tough”, he is being entirely honest. New Labour cut its teeth in those battles. It formed itself out of the comprehensive, shattering defeat of a credible left in British politics – a defeat that Mandelson played a decisive role in.

But the popular image of Mandelson as merely a sinister manipulator, or superficial spin-merchant (tediously reprised here) was never accurate. The man himself identifies his real significance:

“Who was it who wrote the policy review in the late 80s? Me. Who presided over the creation – who was one of the architects of New Labour, and of that change in policy that created a new political force in the 90s? Me. Who enjoyed driving new policy as a minister at the beginning of this government, and is now doing so again? Me. So I’m certainly not a policy blank. My big preoccupation is policy.”

And it is this role he has returned to in government: here calling for “industrial activism” in the new, post-crash economy; there staking out a defence of government intervention. He has, since re-entering the Cabinet, been the only minister even beginning to take seriously the thought that the wheels had come off New Labour’s old, debt-and-property economic model.