Quote: “I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.”

In the above quote, Mill distills his general argument that utility – the “greatest happiness” principle –  and liberty are not mutually exclusive; rather, each relies on the other for its growth within the social and governing orders. The establishment of liberty elevates the interests of the individual over the society as a whole while simultaneously introducing the individual to the greater interests of the community. The interdependence of liberty and utility is the underpinning of man as progressive being. Where utility or liberty do not exist in concert or one without the other, then man regresses into a state of either selfishness or oppression or both.

The mutual dependence of these two propositions unfolds, for example, through the debate and exchange of individual opinions unencumbered by the imposition of individual or institutional dogma. Each opinion, regardless of its paucity of truth or absurdity, is open for expression. For Mill, the art of persuasion coupled with the agglomeration of individual opinions within social fora institutes an informal system of checks against fallacies of logic and falsehoods often injected into social and political discourse. Through this free exchange of dialogue, the individuals acquire a heightened understanding of what constitutes the welfare of the society as a whole.

On the other hand, both liberty and utility are perverted when society and the individual are so closely wed that each cannot be discerned, or social interests are subjectively defined by one group and imposed on another. The process of free public debate, though, ostensibly obviates this regression from the precepts of utility and liberty – endowing the individual with the ability to appropriately combine and divorce the boundaries of the individual and social spheres of interest. What affects the individual alone is not of interest to the community or governing institutions, but individual action that concerns the welfare of the greater society is subject to inspection by the group.

While I find On Liberty intricate and enlightening, I believe that Mill’s attempt to extricate the paradox of individual participation under a Utilitarian-liberal socio-political model (that of freely promoting and sustaining one’s independence while acknowledging and incorporating the interests of the whole) is, at its core, contradictory despite his attempts at particularity and, regarding his discussion on the liberty of the individual in relations to society, seemingly inapplicable due to the actual nature of communities and man. I find Mill’s tone regarding liberty and freedom of opinion espoused in On Liberty in stark contrast to a relatable issue in the later-published Considerations on Representative Government. In the latter text, he expresses doubt in the ability of the common man (or woman) to actively directly participate in producing the decisions of government despite his assertion in the former that free discussion of opinion could serve to educate individuals through the distilling of information on an issue to the truth. Does Mill mean to imply the existence of intellectual elitism and that only individuals of a heightened intellectual composition can participate and benefit from the free exchange of ideas? Is the common man restrained by his mental faculties from reconciling his interests as an individual with those of his community? Mill does not adequately address these questions central to his examination on the mutual influence of liberty and utility.

Baring the Emperor

September 14, 2008

For centuries, political theorists have pointed out that the beating heart of democracies is the existence of a free and vigorous media system that effectively informs polities about issues relevant to the welfare of the nation. In the current presidential race, however, we see that American televisual media – and print media to a slightly lesser extent – fail as providers of this public service necessary to the existence of democracy. In this post, I will focus solely on the televisual media due to the recent report stating that 46 percent of Americans’ have a “heavy reliance” on TV news and the medium’s power to elicit emotional, impulsive reactions through the transmission of symbolically powerful imagery (which I will touch on in a future post).

In democratic systems, the televisual media must serve the public, not corporate interests or those of the governing institutions and parties – which oftentimes go hand in hand, as Robert McChesney examines in Mass Media, Poor Democracy.  Coverage of the Iraq War, for example, has been almost non-existent since the primary season began; hence, the lack of the conflict’s visualization has produced the faulty perception of a “successful surge” in spite of continued violence and ethnic cleansing in Iraq (as Dr. Juan Cole draws attention to here). All the while, the leadership of the mass news media giants (GE, News Corp, Time Warner, etc.) cross-pollinate the news’ supposed interest in public service with those of oil, defense, finance, and other politically-sensitive industries by sitting on multiple corporate boards and shuffling ad revenue to the mass media; thus succumbing news agencies, if they can be so-called, to their leaderships’ multiple corporate interests and/or the perils of the market. Essentially: no share of the market = no ad revenue = no news. As a result, policies that maximize the news media’s earning potential are implemented irregardless to its benefit to the public good.

Additionally, news outlets’ engage in self-censorship because of financial shortfalls (resulting in staff cuts), the prestige of securing a high-level source (and the fear of losing the source), and, in some cases, laziness. In the end, they fail to research stories and rely solely on government sources or “researchers” from non-profit organizations (they too, in many cases, only use government sources) instead. Hence, the that-would-be humorous-if-the-stakes-were-not-so-high observation of an LA Times article by The Independent writer Robert Fisk:

Here are the sources – on pages one and 10 for the yarn spun by reporters Josh Meyer and Mark Mazzetti: “US” officials said”, “said one US Justice Department counter-terrorism official”, “Officials … said”, “those officials said”, “the officials confirmed”, “American officials complained”, “the US officials stressed”, “US authorities believe”, “said one senior US intelligence official”, “US officials said”, “Jordanian officials … said” – here, at least is some light relief – “several US officials said”, “the US officials said”, “American officials said”, “officials say”, “say US officials”, “US officials said”, “one US counter-terrorism official said”.

Considering that Fisk is commenting on the print press, just imagine (or watch) the folly that is the televisual news.

It can be safely argued that the perception of the current system as a medium for informative news is ludicrous. Of course, the news can never be totally objective but, according to McChesney, a publicly financed news media – though not government controlled – would exorcise the for-profit corporate interests from the industry. I, however, do not believe that McChesney’s proposal goes far enough to correct the ills plaguing the existing media system.

The televisual news media, which is misleadingly sold to the public as impartial and effective, must be completely delegitimated in order to encourage political inquiry and restore constructive political debate. The way this proposition can be achieved is by baring, in full, the reality of democracy’s metaphorical emperor for all to view. I propose a media system in which the televisual news is government-owned and directly controlled by the executive office; thus removing any pretense of the media as impartial (meaning removed from government/party and/or corporate interests) and “informative.” It simply becomes obviously propagandistic.

The masses’ acknowledgment of the government-managed televisual media’s illegitimacy will spur individuals, whose natural inclination is to discover the truth, to seek out alternative sources of information in print form.  The print media has one significant advantaged over the televisual media sources: it is not constrained temporally by the nature of the medium; therefore, the textual media (a term in which I allow to encompass the print press and the Internet), has more potential as an informative agent and, according to my proposal, must remain under private control. Even more, publication on the Internet incurs drastically reduced costs for the publisher and, as a result, offers a multitude of information providers. The individual’s natural desire for truth will drive them to locate multiple sources of information in order to discover what is factual.

Some may argue that my proposal is faulty because the true nature of individuals are not as I describe. In response, I point to the case of the Iranian media system. All televisual media, including news and entertainment, is government-owned and -operated. With this being the case, the average Iranian understands that the government pursues its own agenda via televisual transmission and, as a result, turns to print media which remains partially free. Despite the imposition of some restrictions by the state, journalists energize the nation’s political debate by providing a wide selection of newspapers (in fact, they have more nationally-distributed newspapers than the United States) addressing a variety of topics relating to the public good. Even further, many Iranians consult multiple news sources in a search for truth.

Due to the current nature of partisan politics and the near-universal affinity for neoliberalism, the likelihood of implementability of my proposal is slim. At the same time, though, it may be too early to discount a measure as radical as complete government control of the televisual news media. With the help of grassroots movements and Internet assistance, pressure can be applied against the ruling elites in an effort to enact media reform.

Joseph Schumpeter’s essay The Sociology of Imperialism is a dramatic departure from his contemporaries’ approach on the subject, who viewed geographic expansion as a necessary component of the capitalism. Contrary to this prevailing belief, Schumpeter argues that imperialism is pre-capitalist and, a result, its source cannot be attributed to capitalism. Instead, imperialism is a result of atavistic tendencies among the traditional ruling elites and the remnants of pre-capitalist social structures.

Capitalism and capitalists, according to Schumpeter, are merely subject to these atavisms due to the current inability of the bourgeoisie to overcome the traditional socio-political structures of power. For example, he claims that tariffs and trade barriers are originally mercantilist policies enacted by absolute monarchs for the purposes of nationalism and, tangentially, maintaining stability domestically. In the modern capitalist system, however, the bourgeoisie are subtly coerced into support these ostensibly regressive policies in order to pacify the elite’s concerns over its socio-political standing; thus, indirectly promoting imperialism because of capitalism’s inherent need for (forcible) expansion. Or, as Schumpeter puts it: “The bourgeoisie seeks to win over the state for itself, and in return serves the state and state interests that are different from its own.”

Capitalism’s need (forcible) expansion, though, can be offset through the adoption of free trade policies worldwide — which Schumpeter predicts will eventually occur. Generally, war is unprofitable to the economically dominant capitalist class. They will, therefore, free themselves from the atavisms of the past, politically challenge the old elites, and usher in an era of free trade on a global scale. In other words, Imperialism can exist under capitalism, but a causal link between the two does not exist.

While Schumpeter’s essay provides a rebuttal to the ever-popular Marxist analyses of imperialism, I find his analysis faulty on two accounts. Firstly, The Sociology of Imperialism defines imperialism too rigidly, viewing it only as militaristic expansion. Modern scholars such as Arrighi and Wallerstein convincingly show through empirical analyses that imperialism can be pursued economically as much as it can militarily.   Secondly, Schumpeter fails to adequately explicate the manner through which the bourgeoisie will change the existing order. Even though he discusses at length how the capitalist classes became attached to the atavistic order, he is vague, and perhaps necessarily so, as to how the two factions de-link.

The Sociology of Imperialism offers a theory that provides a thoughtful starting point for the conceptualization of the phenomenon, but in the end leaves the reader less than convinced concerning its conclusions. Personally, I find that Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital or Lenin’s Imperialism. The Highest Stage of Capitalism provide more insight than Schumpeter’s work.