We are often told, even by so-called “left libertarians” who claim to be in favour of markets but not corporatism, that modern corporations, with their evil limited liability protections, favours from the state and so on, can roll over a democratic government and shaft the general public. Up to a point, Lord Copper. In fact, the situation is far more complicated. Some firms seem remarkably weak when confronted with some pressures, which makes me wonder why Hollywood movies still insist on portraying corporate executives as flinty-eyed, heartless bastards on the take. (The irony is, of course, that some of the most ruthless corporations are in the film business).
As evidence, Brendan O’Neill has this excellent piece in the Telegraph about Tesco’s, workfare, and the influence of the “Twitterati”:
“What could be worse than the government’s workfare programme?”, almost every columnist in the land is currently asking. I can think of one thing worse: the awesome and terrifying power of the commentariat and its slavish groupies amongst the Twitterati to strike down initiatives like workfare and almost any other government project that they don’t like. That’s the real story here. Forget the historically illiterate wailing about young people being forced into “slave labour” or the idea that getting yoof to work in return for money is the Worst Thing Ever. The ins and outs of workfare itself pale into insignificance when compared with the new power of tiny cliques of cut-off people to override public opinion and reshape modern Britain.
The speed with which first Tesco, that supposedly arrogant monolith of the high street, and then others withdrew from the workfare scheme was alarming. It was a testament both to the sheepishness of modern corporations (remember this next time someone starts banging on about “free-market fundamentalism”) and to the authority of the therapeutic, suspicious-of-wealth, pro-state, anti-big-business sections of the well-fed media classes, who can now put powerful institutions on the spot simply by penning a few ill-thought-through articles with the word “SLAVE” in them.
One possible quibble: has this not been the case for decades, even centuries? Consider that the opinion-forming classes have tended to be concentrated in the London area, have tended to have an influence out of all proportion to their numbers? This is hardly new. What has changed, clearly, is that in the age of the internet, the speed with which this class can make its voice heard accelerates.
I always thought it was a bit optimistic to imagine that blogging, the internet and so on would massively shift the balance of forces in terms of who gets to influence debate in a country like the UK. The mainstream media still carries big influence, especially television. And our political class, drawn as it is from a relatively shallow pool of talent, is as susceptible to the influence of such opinions as it ever was. However, what I think has changed for the better is that more of us, such as O’Neill and so on, can attack the conventional wisdom through the medium of the internet rather than hope that our letters get printed in some corner of a newspaper.
There is also more of what we might call a “swarm effect” these days with certain issues; I think the internet definitely magnifies this phenomenon. Another consequence is that memory of certain events gets ever shorter as the news cycle spins faster and faster. The Singularity is near!!!.
Update: Guido Fawkes has a delicious twist on this whole business about “workfare” – it involves the Guardian.