A major project of mine is trying to paint how power works, how it flows. I can’t see where it is or whether particular humans have it. But I get a better idea by thinking about why power structures were built in the first place. I guess the project is like an intellectual archaeological dig.
There’s no name for power relations, only representation. Because in knowing we control, and in controlling we know. The concept here is that we know through abstract ideas which represent what we know. Many layers of assumed truth are built into every packaged idea.
Using the allusion of a road map, even if one has never seen the actual road, one can imagine it by just looking at a map. But the representation itself may have an origin elsewhere, out of sight. Finding the origin is my project so I can see structures clearly today.
As far as I can tell the dark secret of power is that no one has it. We are all equal, expending frantic energy on what is ultimately nonsense as a defence against impotence. Not power to rule the world, but existential power. What is the purpose of my life? What is this all for? I get that all this money needs to be spent, but is that it? Shouldn't I be able to do more than this?
The media is the primary way power systems teach us how to want, but for the same reason its own power is invisible. The media and other power structures are not natural. They require centuries of thought, around which an entire eco-system was built to maintain them. It is difficult to explain to someone the reason they live their life the way they do is because of structures, which were built to help them live that way.
But I want you to consider, dear reader, how journalism’s collective forgetfulness of its fundamental job of assuming the veracity of power structures is exactly the place for this archaeology to start.
The system operates autonomously, it is meant to. But too few people remember why and for what purpose all the pieces were built. I’ve written about this before.
In the media, this is especially true, but so too in business, government and security. In media, we have journalists and people who do journalism. They are not the same person. And now that I’ve written it like this, you know exactly what you are too, regardless of where you work. You’re either trained to have this thought or trained not to have it. Which one are you?
The first group of people understand the machinery of media, business, prisons, psychiatry, policing, and advertising. They implicitly seem to comprehend how there was a time before humans invented a particular institution, and a time afterwards – and they know why.
They realise their role play is fake, but also that the larger illusion – order and form in society – relies on the role being played. And they recognise how to manipulate this machinery for their own benefit. Most importantly, they see a difference between actual power and the trappings of power (money, possessions, titles, accolades, etc).
The others – the 99% – need not understand their worldly roles at anywhere near the same depth. They turn up to work (accepting the basis of needing to work) to sit obediently at a desk.
The overarching institutions were created for them. They didn’t invent the keyboard, the newspaper, the cheque, the baton, the gavel – nothing. Their role is simply to plug in. But they are allowed to exist if, and only if, the machinery of the institution operates smoothly.
Because there is a ratio. In the same way a viable human society can only tolerate a certain number of murders before it become unviable, modern society can tolerate a certain number of people who do journalism, so long as actual journalists – the ones who understand the institution’s power – are playing their role correctly.
If the ratio tips to the former, the machinery gets rusty and its cogs grind horribly together. This grinding creates friction and centrifugal force. We can already hear the rasping of the gears. Consider the disappointing trend of media chasing ad revenue. When the grinding starts, if the original purpose of journalism is forgotten, who knows how many other parts of the system will break?
The fourth estate’s purpose, journalists like to say, is to “speak truth to power.” Fine. But how many realise the implications, the expectations? Do they realise the job assumes “power” exists in a particular form, and their role is to speak truth to it, not tear it down? A better question is: if they knew from the beginning, would they have taken the job?
Where is this power? What is media’s purpose? The moment a journalist in 2016 puts fingers to keyboard, they accept that power constitutes the truth of democracy, parliamentarianism, taxes, civil service and all the rest. The media’s purpose is the maintenance of the status quo, the connecting glue between desired action and ultimate outcome. A straight line runs from its failure to the failure of society. Perhaps media’s forgetfulness of its role answers why the western world feels verging on breakdown. The illusion is melting because the magicians are distracted by cats.
Here’s a breakdown of the media’s role. People are encouraged to vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. The maintenance is: “voting exists as a concept.” That’s the level from where the entire conversation starts.
In this society, the conversation cannot, and must not, begin with “should a person vote?” or “should society be a democracy?” and when was the last time you saw an article asking whether there “should there be a leader, at all?” Power won’t allow it, power won’t even allow us to think about it.
But when a journalist chooses to chase ad revenue, they choose not to report things which maintain those assumed truths. When you choose to purchase that chocolate bar, you’re also choosing not to spend the $2 on the infinity of other options instead.
Until a journalist chooses to write about a topic, society exists in a quantum superposition of multiple eigenstates. The minute a story is chosen, the form of society collapses onto a single state. The power structure, the “system,” being maintained here by the media is the sum of all these decisions.
The mistake is to think the other possibilities sent to oblivion somehow never existed. As if there’s a law of the universe bending towards the status quo. Nothing could be more wrong. But the effect of more cat stories may result in fewer political stories, and so fewer people voting. Some may not see any problem with that, but a society in which 40% of a population votes is radically different to one in which 50% vote.
Both realities are possible and the instrument of the fourth estate is the only thing standing between.