Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Middle Class Serfdom

In 1944, Friedrich Hayek published The Road to Serfdom. The book acquired biblical status on the English-speaking Right for its claim that socialism equaled authoritarian centralized planning equaled serfdom - or so the Right interpreted the book to be saying.

The inverse was also asserted as true (although, in logic, inverses of propositions do not follow from the proposition): if no socialism, then no serfdom. That has been taken to mean "if capitalism, then freedom." Milton Friedman was a famous exponent of this view, as were Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and 25 years after their rise to power the belief that capitalism blocks serfdom while socialism makes it has become conventional wisdom.

Enter Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch retains personal control of News Corporation, which had revenues of around $24 billion last year. It has vast holdings in every mass media, from print newspapers to film studios, television, and satellite broadcasting. To describe just the original corner of this personal global empire, Murdoch owns nearly 30 Australian newspapers and nearly 30 Australian magazines, in addition to television stations. His presence is equally decisive in the rest of the English-speaking world, even if he does not control the same share of each national market. In the UK, Murdoch owns The Sun, covering the tabloid end, as well as The Times, now also a tabloid, but still high-end. Murdoch has powerful positions in emerging markets in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. See how much time it takes you just to scroll through this list of his holdings (a list that some readers complain is incomplete).

All of this is not enough for Murdoch. For the last several months, he has been trying to buy the U.S.'s leading business daily, the Wall Street Journal, also controlled by a wealthy family, the Bancrofts.

Forget for the moment that Murdoch is a right-wing ideologue whose acquisitions often - though not always - become platforms for agitation against government-based social development, social spending, public investment, and egalitarian and inclusive politics of any kind. (You've probably heard of Murdoch's Fox News.) Forget too that Murdoch practices the Reagan-Thatcher politics that he preaches (News Corp paid 7% in taxes on revenues last year, and runs much of its revenues through offshore tax havens).

Just think about the structure. Thousands and thousands of journalists and other staffers work day in and day out to put out a high-quality paper like the Wall Street Journal. But one very wealthy mogul decides he wants it, and approaches the wealthy family who owns it. The families sit down and come to an understanding. The work and wishes of the families' "soldiers" are entirely irrelevant to the fate of the business they make. Finally it is the heads of the families that decide.

Why exactly is this NOT serfdom? Why isn't it serfdom when one man controls the fate of tens or hundreds of thousands? Why isn't it serfdom when there is no limit on what the one man wants, what he can have, what he can control? Is this not economic serfdom? Should we call it capitalism serfdom? Are we un-dumb enough to see serfdom and deregulated markets as compatible ? Are we un-dumb enough to have a real conversation about how capitalism doesn't equal freedom? I don't mean in China, but in the US, Australia, and the UK?

The richest man in France is trying to do the same thing. Bernard Arnault already owns the business daily La Tribune. He now wants to buy the country's other business daily, Les Echos. Then one company and one man will own the national daily business press in the country of France. Not serfdom?

The journalists at Les Echos have struck about this. Their American counterparts are completely silent. Do they think they have absolutely no rights as workers at these papers?

Not serfdom?

No comments: