Arguments for socialism: In the spotlight

[Green Left Weekly, #289, September 10, 1997]

It is a now a commonplace that the untimely death of Princess Diana has put the spotlight on the media. But the issues raised go far deeper than questions of media intrusion into the private lives of famous people.

The media response following the fatal car crash in Paris has been hyper-real, an excess of unprecedented proportions. Surveying the whole media-driven Diana phenomenon we might well ask: what sort of society do we live in?

Diana has been eulogised as "the most famous woman in the world", "the queen of hearts" and the "people's princess". While this is right over the top, Diana was seen by many ordinary people as being different to the other royals, more human and genuinely concerned and caring. She wanted a more meaningful role in life than the stifling one laid out by protocol and tradition and she rattled the bars of her gilded cage.

But, for all that her life was circumscribed, it was a very comfortable existence, free from the mundane material concerns of ordinary people and maintained at some expense by the British workers through their taxes.

In Britain, of course, royalty and everything that goes with it plays a very definite social role. It is part of the apparatus by means of which the capitalist class maintains power in a society in which the working class constitutes the overwhelming mass of the population.

Legitimised by tradition and buttressed by the state church, royalty puts on a considerable show for the masses: there are the palaces and castles, the parades and ceremonies, formal appearances, knighthoods, the House of Lords and the Crown Jewels. It's all there to dazzle ordinary people and to mask or soften the unappealing face of the financiers and industrialists who really control the country. Although she chafed against aspects of it, Diana was a part of this system.

In late 20th century capitalism, the media has assumed gigantic proportions and saturates society with its output as never before. The Diana phenomenon is only the most striking example of the media-created, media-driven popular fascination with "stars", "personalities" and "celebrities" whose lives, love affairs and careers are presented as far more glamorous, exciting and interesting than our own could possibly be. On the international stage, British royalty is just a part of all this. This whole industry not only sells magazines and boosts TV ratings, it has a definite social function.

The media are certainly not catering to what "we" want: that is a ridiculous notion. The huge media corporations shape and mould public taste. The "celebrity" racket is the modern equivalent of the "bread and circuses" of ancient Rome. It is meant to distract working people from their drab, stressful and deeply alienated and unsatisfying lives, and prevent them concentrating on the struggle to build a new society. It's ideological junk food and just as unhealthy as the edible variety.

Let's step back for a moment and look at the context in which the “death of a princess” show is unfolding.

Every day, according to widely cited UN figures, some 40,000 children in the Third World die of preventable diseases! That is, they would be easily preventable if these countries were not being strangled by imperialism through the World Bank, the IMF and the giant First World corporations.

And in the relatively well-off western countries, the overall quality of life of the working-class majority is inexorably falling as the welfare state is dismantled, unemployment rises ever upward and job security and working conditions sharply deteriorate.

Capitalism simply doesn't work for the majority. Things are bad and they are getting worse. In this regard, the popular feeling for Diana brings to mind Marx's remarks about the role of religion, that it is a cry for pity in a pitiless world.

But we don't need soporifics, of any kind. We need a new society, a socialist society where the satisfaction of people's needs — not the profits of the corporations and their millionaire owners — is the guiding principle of all economic and social life.

Anything which prevents working people from clearly focusing on their situation and developing a course of struggle to change it is reactionary and must be rejected.

We need to leave behind the fantasy world peddled by the dream factories of the capitalist media with their "stars", "people's princesses" and all the rest. The task is to create a real world where ordinary people's lives are beautiful, rich and meaningful.