Who’s afraid of corporate shills?

Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy, edited by William Dinan and David Miller
A new book on scary shills whitewashes the intellectual failures of the left, and shirks the task of putting forward a political alternative.

A couple of generations ago, the Western political establishment worried about Communist propaganda seducing the masses and subverting democracy. Today, in the absence of a significant threat to capitalism, it is anti-capitalists who are more likely to talk about the menace of propaganda emanating from corporations and subtly entrenching their power to the detriment of democracy.

Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy is a collection of essays on the pernicious influence of corporate spin and lobbying, edited by William Dinan and David Miller. They are also authors of A Century of Spin: How Public Relations Became the Cutting Edge of Corporate Power. Their books neatly embody a significant and ultimately conservative strain running through contemporary left-wing thought. Talking up the alleged ascendancy of ‘neoliberalism’ is a common but unconvincing way of spinning the collapse of the left at the end of the last century, and the consequently diminished significance of ideology across the political spectrum. Similarly, their preoccupation with corporate propaganda and spin conveniently obscures the left’s failure to develop an engaging critique that can mobilise a substantial movement in today’s political circumstances. There is no shame in that failure, but blaming it on Svengali-like corporate mind control doesn’t help.

In their introduction to Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy, Dinan and Miller suggest the success of recent films like The Constant Gardener, Syriana and Thank You For Smoking, all of which feature villainous corporate lobbyists, is ‘a welcome sign that the ideas in this book are penetrating the mainstream’. In fact, despite being an archetype of big business itself, Hollywood has always shown a certain disdain for capitalism and its functionaries. And there is little in Dinan and Miller’s book that would shock anyone who reads and watches mainstream media, and is familiar with scares about genetically modified food, stories about the machinations of Big Tobacco and Big Oil companies, and the general idea that PR types are pretty sleazy. The question perhaps is whether a book like this can go beyond popular cynicism about big business, and at least point the way towards an analysis of the relationship between capitalism and how it is represented, endorsed and critiqued.

Rather than analysis, though, most of the chapters comprise seemingly endless lists of the names of PR firms, lobbyists and their clients, and especially the manifold interconnections and associations between them. The prevailing attitude is one of exposure rather than critique, as if simply joining the dots to connect the various players constitutes a searing indictment of contemporary capitalism. In fact, these passages are often reminiscent of the boring bit in Book 1 of Paradise Lost, where Milton catalogues the demons holed up in Hell with Satan, and we wonder when the action is going to kick in.

In fact, as the name suggests, the Third Way was meant to fill a vacuum left by the demise of the left and the post-Thatcher exhaustion of the right, a crucial factor missed by Clark. Why would ascendant and all-conquering neoliberals feel the need to work with Demos, a think tank established by former members of the Communist Party of Great Britain? The rise of think tanks is indeed an important development, reflecting the diminished importance of political parties of left and right as vehicles for ideas, and the increasing reliance on the rhetoric of ‘expertise’ and ‘research’ rather than the interests and desires of the public.

Dinan and Miller note in their own chapter: ‘The focus on public opinion has – if anything – grown comparatively less in the recent past, as the ability of ordinary people to make a difference in politics has declined.’ They also include interesting chapters by Aeron Davis and Olivier Hoedeman on ‘elite-to-elite spin’ – which has nothing to do with influencing public opinion – with reference to the London Stock Exchange and the Brussels ‘Lobbycracy’ respectively. This is a crucial observation, but the fact that ‘corporate power’ is premised on the emptying out of politics and the public sphere suggests that simple exposure of how lobbyists operate won’t solve the problem. What’s needed instead is a serious and critical public engagement with ideas.

The ‘follow the money’ line of argument actually contributes to the diminishment of public debate. Dismissing political opponents’ ideas on the basis of ‘guilt by association’ means adopting a less critical approach than if one actually sets out to argue against them. So why not give everyone the benefit of the doubt and engage in open debate? Dinan and Miller argue that there is an important distinction between engaging in democratic debate and ‘subverting’ it in clients’ interests. No doubt there is a difference between arguments made in good faith and those based on deception, but it is naive to imagine there is a rigid distinction between ‘interested’ and ‘disinterested’ positions. Politics is all about interests, after all. Identifying that a speaker is arguing in the interests of Big Oil, for example, is not a counter-argument, though it might raise questions worth pursuing.

The preoccupation with who is making a case rather than what they are arguing reveals a complacent belief that politics is about goodies and baddies, and also assumes the public will credulously imbibe corporate spin unless it is unmasked. In fact, people don’t respond homogenously to messages in the media, but interpret what they read and hear depending on their own experience, and the influence of those around them – that’s why some ideas are more influential than others among particular groups of people. This raises the question of whom the authors of Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy are addressing. Dinan and Miller say in their conclusion that the book and related websites like Sourcewatch and Spinwatch are meant as means of ‘popularising the truth about corporate spin and corporate power’, but one wonders how popular the mentality of such websites can ever be.

The problem is that ‘the truth about corporate spin and corporate power’ is understandably met by most people with a cynical shrug rather than political engagement. Telling people they’re dupes is hardly inspiring, and the posture of ‘exposing corporate lies’ quickly gets boring. Dinan and Miller mention in passing the desirability of ‘direct representation of popular interests’, and they’re quite right that this is what’s needed to bring democracy to life. But it can’t be achieved by simply exposing or even removing the negative influence of corporate spin. What’s needed is a positive assertion of those putative popular interests. Moreover, the character of any new popular politics cannot be taken for granted, and it is particularly unlikely to resemble the imaginary, pre-neoliberal ‘revolution’ fondly if hazily evoked in Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy.

By whitewashing the failure of the left in the twentieth century, and obscuring the need for a thorough reinvention of politics, the book propagates a delusion far more misleading than anything put out by corporate shills.

Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy, edited by William Dinan and David Miller, is published by Pluto Press. (Buy this book fromAmazon(UK).)

First published on spiked.