Monday, July 18, 2011

News International and the myth of power

Lord Acton famously said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The English anthropologist and social scientist Gregory Bateson argued that power does not exist in relationship and that, in fact, it is a myth. He said, in Steps to an ecology of mind (1978) that

‘…the myth of power is, of course, a very powerful myth, and probably most people in this world more or less believe in it. It is a myth, which, if everybody believes in it, becomes to that extent self-validating. But it is still epistemological lunacy and leads inevitably to various sorts of disaster’.

Bateson’s view on power was critiqued at the time, particularly by other social scientists and therapists who felt that to deny power was to deny the experiences of abused people, particularly women. On the surface, this seemed a reasonable critique; what reasonable person could deny that an abuser has power over the abused? However, this critique misses the wider point of Bateson’s argument, which is that the conventional (erroneous) use of the term power is that of a metaphor drawn from the language of physics (along with terms like energy, force, impact and so on), which have no place in a biological, social world of information, context and meaning. Instead of thinking of power in human relationships, we would be better served by reflexive dialogue about the metaphor of power, and see ourselves as simply parts of a larger situation. For this to be necessary, both sides in a conflict would need to be proud and humble rather than arrogant.

The sort of disaster that Bateson alluded to, and that humanity is facing is, in part, linked to the self perpetuating pursuit of the myth of power. Hand in hand with the myth of power is the concept of profit. To be rich, in the conventional epistemology, is to be powerful, and therefore, to control resources is seen as an imperative by states that wish to maintain and increase power.

Noam Chomsky recently wrote (available here) ‘there is every reason to suppose that today's policy-makers basically adhere to the judgment of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s influential advisor A.A. Berle that control of the incomparable energy reserves of the Middle East would yield "substantial control of the world." And correspondingly, that loss of control would threaten the project of global dominance that was clearly articulated during World War II, and that has been sustained in the face of major changes in world order since that day’.

Later in this article Chomsky writes:

‘Systemic risk in the financial system can be remedied by the taxpayer, but no one will come to the rescue if the environment is destroyed. That it must be destroyed is close to an institutional imperative. Business leaders who are conducting propaganda campaigns to convince the population that anthropogenic global warming is a liberal hoax understand full well how grave is the threat, but they must maximize short-term profit and market share. If they don't, someone else will.

This vicious cycle could well turn out to be lethal. To see how grave the danger is, simply have a look at the new Congress in the U.S., propelled into power by business funding and propaganda. Almost all are climate deniers. They have already begun to cut funding for measures that might mitigate environmental catastrophe. Worse, some are true believers; for example, the new head of a subcommittee on the environment who explained that global warming cannot be a problem because God promised Noah that there will not be another flood’.

 In short, the pursuit of the myth of power with its attendant need to maintain profits and control resources has led to the loss of countless lives in the Middle East, active denial of the reality of global warming, and as I have indicated elsewhere, the abuse and misuse of ‘evidence’ in rushing through incompletely trialled medicines for the sake of short-term gain.

Relevant to the current situation with News International, Bateson (1978) also wrote

‘What is true is that the idea of power corrupts. Power corrupts most rapidly those who believe in it, and it is they who will want it most. Obviously, our democratic system tends to give power to those who hunger for it and gives every opportunity to those who don’t want power to avoid getting it. Not a very satisfactory arrangement if power corrupts those who believe in it and want it…Perhaps there is no such thing as unilateral power. After all, the man ‘in power’ depends on receiving information all the time from outside. He responds to that information just as much as he ’causes’ things to happen… it is an interaction, and not a lineal situation’.

 Clearly the Murdoch entertainment/propaganda machine has been intimately linked with, and and has been a mouthpiece for, the political/corporate elite who routinely have been committing crimes against humanity. The stone that has been lifted by the telephone hacking scandal has shed light on some worrying relationships between the elite and the media and sent all sorts of people scurrying for cover. Perhaps now is the time to challenge the world order typified by the pursuit of power by the elites.

Bateson discussed how Goebbels, the Nazi Minister for Propaganda, believed he was powerful and in control of the Nazi propaganda machine when in reality he was guided by informants (effectively Goebbels was dependent on feedback) and ultimately his belief in his control of the system ultimately led to its destruction. The arrogance and confidence of a mileau where the hacking of telephones and bribery of police was condoned (or even encouraged) would indicate that News International, like Goebbels, was lured into believing in its own 'power'.

Let us not fall into the same fallacious trap that power can be overcome with more power, but instead through humility, dialogue, persistence and by recognising our own part in this very dangerous situation.


Bateson, G. (1978) Steps to an ecology of mind. London: Paladin.
Chomsky, N. (2011) Is the world too big to fail? The contours of global order. accessed 18th July 2011.