The Tyranny of Profit by Stuart Sim

In the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in 2009 the media tycoon James Murdoch delivered a devastating attack on the BBC, and by implication public services in general, arguing that there ‘is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit’. It is a view neatly summing up an entire lifestyle that goes under various names: neoliberalism, market fundamentalism, globalisation, or to bring out its negative side more forcefully, ‘casino capitalism’, as it was dubbed by the political economist Susan Strange. If people in Murdoch’s position are telling us that profit is the primary motivator of human action then so are their many media outlets. That has a far-reaching effect on the public consciousness, encouraging us to believe this is our true nature and free-market capitalism our destiny as a species. In the aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal we are all only too well aware of just how far the Murdoch media empire was willing to go in its pursuit of profit, which puts an interesting spin on what James Murdoch means by ‘independence’.

The dismissive tone Murdoch adopts towards public service can only be depressing to anyone who thinks there is more to life than its economic aspect, and in its vision of society as primarily a means for generating profit for homo economicus. In other words, we cannot really trust anyone, or any institution, which is not concerned to make a profit out of their activities – in the public sector no less than the private. Yet tacitly or otherwise we go along with this notion in our everyday affairs in the West, where the profit motive now dominates in so many areas, even in those in which its impact is at best highly suspect, perhaps even counter-productive. This is certainly so in healthcare and education, for example, neither of which would seem to be all that well suited to the application of such a regimen. We are all living under the tyranny of profit these days and the notion that competition must apply in every area of human affairs. The line that is taken by the most vocal advocates of profit is that we are all naturally competitive. Recent studies in neuroscience (as outlined in the Royal Society for the Encourage­ment of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce’s ‘Social Brain’ project), pro­vide little in the way of evidence for this contention. In fact, the Social Brain project tends to suggest that human society functions better if we are coop­erative. It really is time to start investigating why the pursuit of profit has managed to cast such a spell over us.

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