The Propaganda Role of The Crown

I just watched the first episode of the second season of the Netflix show The Crown, a biographical story about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. While it has a seductive human-interest plot, is very well produced (clearly aimed at the more sophisticated viewer), it essentially functions as propaganda for the monarchy. Summarily, here are my thoughts:

The monarchy was established and functioned for centuries as a medieval, autocratic hierarchy reinforcing – with brute force – a ‘divine right‘ of privilege and spectacular inequality. During the early twentieth century, however, the idea of this increasingly came under threat from an emboldened and democratically enfranchised population who were no longer so willing to accept it. The monarchy thus realised it needed to reinvent itself in order to perpetuate its unjust wealth and privilege, a process it has been perpetually engaged in ever since.

Crucial to the monarchy’s latest phase of reinvention (often referred to as ‘modernisation‘) has been its embracing of films (e.g. The Queen and The Young Victoria) and television shows (e.g. The Crown and Victoria) that romanticise, humanise and even criticise the royal family. Indeed, the royals’ ability to make postmodern critiques of themselves is vital to their legitimisation. In other words, if they can be seen to be self-critical, even take the mickey out of themselves (e.g. the Queen parachuting in at the Olympic opening ceremony), then they can be tolerated by the public because “they seem like an alright bunch”.

This is, in essence, the propaganda role of The Crown; it serves to romanticise, humanise, even criticise, and thus legitimise the monarchy. Ultimately, while we may be entertained by it, we should not let it distract us from the reality of what the monarchy is; namely, an institution that represents and perpetuates hereditary privilege and extreme inequality.

P.S. If you, like many, think the monarchy is an absurdity and agree that hereditary public office goes against every democratic principle, then do check out and join Republic, the campaign group fighting for the abolition of the monarchy and the replacement of the Queen with an elected, democratic head of state. 



Book Review: ‘The New Poverty’

The New Poverty

Reviewed by Callum Alexander Scott for Peace News, December 2017 – January 2018 | Issue 2612 – 2613

Stephen Armstrong shows how consecutive governments have abandoned Britain’s most vulnerable citizens and overseen the gradual dismantling of a welfare state that once protected them. Importantly, Armstrong also tells the stories of those most affected.

Beginning with the 1942 Beveridge Report – the founding document of Britain’s welfare state – Armstrong outlines how, by adopting its recommendations, postwar governments were largely successful in eradicating what the report called the five ‘giants’ blocking the road of reconstruction: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. Today, 75 years on, these five evils have returned and, as Armstrong argues, many of those postwar achievements are now in ‘grave danger of being entirely undone’.

The statistics are shocking. In the UK, the world’s fifth-largest economy, there are now over 13 million people living in poverty, with an estimated one in five children living below the poverty line. Worse still, two-thirds of children in poverty live in a household where someone works. Work, Armstrong writes, is no longer a guaranteed path out of poverty.

The reasons? Armstrong points to decades of deregulation in the name of a ‘flexible labour market’, along with shady employment practices and adjustments to the benefit systems, which have left millions in low-paid, precarious employment. These folks drift in and out of the official definition of poverty each year – they are the ‘new poor’.

Blending statistical data and analysis with some truly horrific personal stories, Armstrong explains with great clarity how these new poor have the odds increasingly stacked against them, from the premiums they pay on energy bills and food shopping to the culture of debt engulfing them as a result of the financialisation of our economy.

Armstrong shows how the poorest are increasingly forced to rent homes in substandard and hazardous conditions. On health, he shows how unaffordable treatment has led to the gruesome rise of DIY dentistry and a ‘black health economy’. People in the poorest neighbourhoods now not only suffer longer GP waiting hours and generally poorer health, but they die, on average, seven years earlier than those living in affluent areas.

You cannot turn the pages of this book without feeling a visceral sense of outrage. With chapters on digital deprivation (the poorest 20 percent of the population lack access to the internet, depriving them of work opportunities and democratic participation), the socio-economic divisions across Britain underscored by Brexit, and the failure of our media to adequately report what’s going on, this is a timely book that deserves a wide readership. Highly recommended for all concerned citizens.


Inequality: When the Masters Propel us Further into Class Conflict

This article was published at on 20 January 2017. See here.

Aristotle once explained that if wealth ever became too skewed into the hands of too few people, then the majority might well exercise their ‘numerical superiority’ to redistribute that wealth.

This week, Oxfam released its annual briefing paper on the state of inequality in the world. The conclusions are as per usual: inequality continues to skyrocket (eight men now own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world) while the incomes of the world’s poorest remain either stagnant or have decreased. The reasons (again, as per usual) include a blend of crony capitalism, tax dodging and corporate/financial lobbying of governments for favourable treatment. And, of course, the entire process is driven by the innate necessity of capitalist organisations and their managers to maximise profits, no matter what the negative effects on populations and planet.

It brings to mind the eighteenth century dictum of Adam Smith, the man regarded as the father of modern economics. He wrote: ‘All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind’ (The Wealth of Nations, 1776, Books I – III). Exploring the unequal economic relationship between Britain and its colonies, he observed how the ‘merchants and manufacturers’ (not the ‘natives’ and ‘savages’ being exploited) were the ‘principle architects’ of the system and thus ensured their interests were ‘most peculiarly attended to’, however ‘grievous’ the effects on others (Books IV – V).

While many aspects of life have obviously improved since Smith was writing, it warrants stressing that despite a brief period of rising economic equality in the post-war period (known affectionately as the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’), we’ve now reverted back to levels of inequality resembling the pre-WWI era (I’ve written about this reversion here). As the Oxfam report stresses: ‘we are living in the age of the super-rich, a second ‘gilded age’ in which a glittering surface masks social problems and corruption’. So what can we expect in the future? Quite worryingly, the answer is probably a lot more social and political disorder.

Brexit and Trump – more of same

It’s worth remembering that this  ‘glittering surface’ masking the reality that Oxfam refers to is exactly what led to Brexit and Trump last year. To be more specific, the populations of two of the most advanced nations were sick of mainstream political and public figures, themselves economically secure and thus largely removed from the struggles of everyday folk, who were incessantly sprinkling glitter over the obvious injustices being committed and telling people over and again that everything was going to be okay, when it wasn’t. Why, Oxfam asks, should populations trust those who’ve delivered them ‘wage stagnation, insecure jobs and a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots?’. In this context, Trump and Brexit are perfectly understandable reactions to a flawed and elitist system.

But aside from the frightening reality of opportunistic, ego-driven individuals like Trump and Farage now being at the forefront of mainstream politics, an equally frightening consideration is what the popular reaction of the genuinely sincere and downtrodden Brexit and Trump voters will be once they realise they were duped by what was merely a different shade of glitter. Certainly, Trump’s appointment of Adam Smith’s modern-day ‘merchants and manufacturers’ – that is, bankers and billionaires – to his administration betrays the obvious fact that, as Bloomberg news put it, ‘Wall Street wins again’. Inequality will most certainly continue to rise under Trump and glitter will continue to be sprinkled, only this time it’ll fall from Trump Tower instead of the White House.

Then there’s Theresa May, the captain of the Farage-built Brexit ship. This self-styled merchant of UK business has set sail (or should I say sale) to make the UK the most ‘passionate, consistent and convincing global advocate of free trade’. Her International Trade Secretary even cited Adam Smith in his speech to back up his post-Brexit economic plans (he of course omitted the ‘vile maxim’). The problem here is that there are virtually no examples in the historical record where so-called ‘free trade’ policies (which aren’t actually free and have little to do with trade) have contributed to significant economic development, stability and income growth – especially not in the poorer countries. As a briefing paper published by Global Justice in November 2016 put it: the ‘extreme version of free trade’ that Theresa May’s government is pursuing has ‘deeply worrying implications for the battle against poverty, inequality, climate change and war’.

To conclude, it’s worth recalling here the observations of Aristotle way back in the 4th-century BC. In his classic work Politics, he explained how in a meaningful democracy the sovereignty resides with the public, and if the wealth and resources in that democracy ever become too skewed into the hands of too few people, then the majority might well exercise their ‘numerical superiority’ to redistribute the wealth and property of the rich in a more egalitarian fashion. He regarded such expropriation as unjust and argued that in order to avoid it and preserve democracy it would be necessary to eliminate poverty by establishing what in modern terms we call a welfare system: taxes would be collected and distributed to sustain relative equality and help with the acquisition of property for those struggling to attain it. Such provisions, Aristotle concluded, would be the only way to ensure the ‘support of the populous’ for elected leaders.

Indeed, as we continue to see inequality rise over the coming years, we should be under no illusion that the already fragile support for our elected leaders will correspondingly dwindle. As this happens, it will become increasingly likely that populations will find themselves ever more compelled to demonstrate their ‘numerical superiority’ over their vile masters. As history shows, greater inequality is a surefire recipe for further and more intense class conflict.