The reactionary imagination

In his classic text The Sociological Imagination, C Wright Mills observed that ‘men do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change and institutional contradiction… the big ups and downs of the societies in which they live.’ [1] He argued that the job of sociologists therefore was to relate personal troubles ‘within the character of the individual and within the range of his immediate relations with others’ to ‘matters that transcend these local environments’. [2] In other words for Mills, sociologists and other public intellectuals should help people to see how their personal experiences relate to broader social and historical forces.

Dan Hind has recently drawn on Mills’s discussion of the interrelationship between these macro and the micro realms (which Mills termed ‘structure’ and ‘milieu’) and pointed to the media’s systematic failure to explore the former.  Hind notes that

those who together hold the power to shape our shared understanding have… concentrated on milieu at the expense of structure, even as the structures in which it operates have become more colossal, global rather than continent-wide. … There are always good reasons for individuals to avoid certain subjects. Powerful individuals and institutions will seek to shape the way they are described.  In large part their ability to do so is what we mean when we say that they are powerful.

In this article I would like to explore these ideas further. I will suggest that an elite dominated public realm (broader than just the media) not only leaves people unable to adequately understand the ‘troubles they endure’; but that this lack of understanding creates a vacuum into which reactionary, and often racist, ideas flow. Understanding this dynamic can help us better situate right-wing ideology within the broader landscape of elite power and this in turn can help us better connect our fight against racism and other forms of prejudice with struggles over the economy and workers rights.  What follows is intended as an introductory piece to form the basis of a more detailed treatment of particular examples or case studies. 

Our starting point is the observation that our public sphere is not the even playing field of liberal theory, but rather is dominated by powerful interests. This fact is probably most widely recognised on the left in the case of the mainstream media, perhaps because it is the domain to which most of us are most regularly exposed.  A wealth of evidence from decades of media sociology has shown that elite perspectives dominate the media whilst radical perspectives are marginalised or excluded altogether.  Beyond academia, probably the best known theoretical articulation of this phenomenon is Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman’s Propaganda Model, which was first developed in the 1980s and has been doggedly applied in the UK by Medialens.  The Propaganda Model is a theory of media performance rooted in political economy.  It describes how certain ‘filters’ influence media output.  In its original formulation these filters were described as follows:

(1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and ‘experts’ funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) ‘flak’ as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) ‘anti-communism’ as a national religion and control mechanism.[3]

Whilst this and other radical critiques of the media are relatively well known in radical circles, it is perhaps less well understood that similar ideological constraints operate in other public domains.  Indeed it has been pointed out by Eric Herring and Piers Robinson in discussing the Propaganda Model that the institutional tendency to filter out critical perspectives applies not only to the media but also to the academy. Herring and Robinson note that that ‘university research is heavily dependent on funding from the state, corporations and foundations which have their origins in corporate profit; and [that] there is a revolving door of personnel between the universities, corporations and the state.’  They argue that whilst certainly committed to critical work, academics generally ‘operate without questioning or even acknowledging the existence of elite power or their own role in buttressing it, never mind assisting those who are organising efforts to challenge it.’

The same observation could of course be made of the world of politics and policy making. Think-tanks are hopelessly compromised by their dependence on wealthy individuals, corporations and foundations – a dependence which is not even tempered by the significant public subsidy traditionally enjoyed by universities. It is well understood that political parties are heavily dependent on corporations and wealthy individuals for patronage, and we could add that senior civil servants and politicians increasingly enjoy close relationships with the corporate world. Senior staff are seconded to banks and other large corporations, whilst former politicians and civil servants regularly take up positions on corporate boards or are appointed to lucrative advisory positions.

Similar institutional pressures also come to bear on the ‘third sector’ – the host of charities, NGOs and pressure groups which seek to promote change around specific issues. Such organisations often depend on foundations and wealthy individuals to remain financially viable; on the corporate media for publicity; and a sympathetic ear in governments for their advocacy.

In short, our entire public sphere is entangled with and embedded in networks of concentrated class power. The net effect of this is that certain ideas and perspectives threatening to these same interests tend to be marginalised or obscured and that certain salient facts are prevented from impacting on official public discourse. Perhaps the most immediate example of this is that the very reality of this power is itself obscured. This is no marginal point. As Hywel Williams observed in his much overlooked book Britain’s Power Elites, ‘[the] hidden nature of intellectual power is one aspect of the more generally concealed nature of the British power elites. … The moment they are revealed for the elites they truly are their power will be taken away from them.’ [4] As Dan Hind has observed in the case of the media, we are left with an impoverished public sphere incapable of understanding, let alone addressing, some of the most crucial political issues of our time.

The inability of our public institutions to develop an adequate understanding of social and economic problems can create considerable public confusion; but it can also encourage the growth of reactionary, and often racist, ideas. In the absence of crucial insights and understandings which might threaten elite power, other rationales are required to explain personal troubles and social problems that cause us anxiety.  Without self-organising and developing independent forms of public knowledge and understanding, people remain as vulnerable to what we might call ‘the reactionary imagination’ as they are inclined towards more rational and humane perspectives.

Indeed the crafting of the reactionary imagination is precisely the institutional role of the ideologues of the populist right. Powerful media organisations like the Sun and the Daily Mail provide a coherent (if not necessarily rational) world view capable of deflecting anxiety and discontent away from those individuals who own and control such institutions, and other elites with whom they are closely connected.

This is the reason that xenophobia and anti-immigrant attitudes are so prevalent in the popular press and why they have also been adopted by a significant portion of the political class.  Life in Britain since Thatcher has become harder and less secure for more and more people and this has coincided with an increased alienation from public life.  Objectively speaking these experiences are symptoms of the state sponsored neoliberalism that has subordinated society more and more to the imperatives of profit and private power.  However, the fact that this same political project has provided substantial benefits for the corporations and wealthy elites who dominate our public sphere more or less excludes this fact from official public debate.  Immigration offers a compelling explanation in its place.  Danny Dorling referred to this in a recent interview with New Left Project:

[L]ife is getting worse for people in general as inequalities widen.  It becomes harder and harder to buy a house or rent a house.  It becomes harder and harder to send your children to the school that you went to.  It becomes harder to find a job, harder to move around.  All this is because of inequalities and I could go through each major social issue and show you how if you increase inequality it gets worse. … Alternatively you can’t get your children into a good school (you think!) because the immigrants are going to the school.  You can’t get a house because the immigrants have got all the houses and you can’t get a job because the immigrants have got the jobs.

It is perhaps worth stressing that this sort of scaremongering and scapegoating, so characteristic of the populist right, is not necessarily driven by a conscious desire to deceive.  So in the case of the tabloid press, though facts are routinely misrepresented and stories may even be fabricated, it does not follow that journalists and editors who work for such publications are disingenuous. The economic model of the right-wing tabloids requires both that they advance the economic interests of their proprietors and advertisers, whilst at the same time speaking to the social experiences of their working class and lower middle class readership. It is this dynamic that drives reactionary ideology – and it is not limited to immigration or to the tabloid press.  Once any critical scrutiny of social structure or systemic forces is precluded from political debate we are left vulnerable to all kinds of prejudices.

Without any understanding of how capitalism and its institutional structures reproduce inequality, how can we explain the persistence of social disadvantage? We may hold to liberal values, but without any understanding of the basic inequity of our social and economic system the temptation must always be to blame those at the bottom of society for their failure to rise to the top. And in countries like Britain and the United States, where for historical reasons ethnic minorities are more heavily concentrated in lower socio-economic groups, the temptation for the dominant ethnic group is to look to cultural and racial differences to explain the persistence of patterns of inequality.

The reactionary imagination can have an equally pernicious effect on international politics. Without an understanding of how corporations dominate the world markets, international institutions and the trade policies of the rich countries, how can we explain the persistence of poverty in the developing world? Again we may hold true to liberal values, but in the absence of such context the temptation is to blame the victim, to look to ‘cultural’ factors for example to explain persistent corruption and poverty.

It is this same dynamic, I would suggest, which explains the rise of Islamophobia in Britain. Mark Curtis has observed that in discussions of foreign policy the ‘ideological system promotes one key concept that underpins everything else – the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence.’ [5] If such benevolence is not in doubt, how can we explain the hostility towards Britain when it invades and occupies Muslim countries?  It could be a manifestation of Britain’s failure to communicate its noble purpose (as is sometimes assumed) or perhaps less charitably it could be taken as evidence of the pathological and xenophobic nature of Arab, Pashtun or Muslim culture.  And equally, if there is nothing wrong with British foreign policy, then why do British Muslims widely hold what Tony Blair called a ‘sense of grievance’?  As Blair himself remarked, apparently in exasperation, ‘Nobody is oppressing you. Your sense of grievance isn’t justified’.  How then to explain this ‘sense of grievance’ if not by reference to some pathological culture or ideology?

All these examples show how intellectual taboos created by the elite domination of our public realm can indirectly foster forms of social and racial prejudice.  This suggests that behind the crass reactionary propaganda produced by right-wing institutions like the now defunct News of the World lies a deeper systematic failure shared by the liberal media institutions.  This perspective should underline the need to combat racism and other prejudice not only with an appeal to the values of equality and human rights but also with an analysis of inequality and class power; as well as highlighting the need for a public space capable of offering radical and independent analysis and fostering a more democratic and egalitarian political culture.


[1] C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2000) p.3.

[2] Ibid. p.8.

[3] Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media(London: Vintage, 1994) p.2.

[4] Hywel Williams, Britain’s Power Elites: The Rebirth of a Ruling Class (London: Constable and Robinson, 2006) p.23.

[5] Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (London: Vintage, 2003) p.380.

Tom Mills is a freelance investigative researcher based in London, a PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde and a co-editor of the New Left Project. This piece originally appeared on NLP.