City City Bang Bang, Columns

A world outside money?

You can control what you can buy, even that which you cannot afford to buy. In today’s world what is terrifying is what you cannot put a price to. One big reason why WikiLeaks is so threatening to established structures in world, even those that ostensibly believe in guaranteeing the right to free speech, is that it stands, at least for now, beyond the pale of the financial system. It cannot be bought over, it cannot be bribed and it cannot be offered the inducement of advertising support. That leaves the option of intimidation, something that the state is usually quite good at as we can see from what is happening to Julian Assange.

In some ways, what we have been seeing in India is the increasing role played by money in institutions that were hitherto kept at some distance from it. The Radia tapes point to something deeper than a few journalists behaving inappropriately; they show us how money is infecting journalism, not necessarily by way of bribing individuals but by its very presence and importance. In the last few years the line that has got blurred the most is not just the one between editorial and advertising but between the journalistic interests of the title and its business interests. Increasingly, as editors speak the language of business and speak in terms of brand valuations, and as the language of journalism is drained of its ideological content and becomes secular, the desire and ability to control news becomes greater. What we are seeing is a spirit of mutual envy between business and media; the former lusts at the power wielded by media particularly given its relatively modest financial scale while the latter is waking up to the possible financial rewards that can accrue from leveraging its assets, namely that of readership or viewership that believes what it carries. By monetising ideas like credibility and power, it becomes possible for journalism to becomes part of a larger unified system that shares common interests. The oppositional nature of journalism becomes a selective one, and is used to generate a larger asset base in terms of greater ratings and abandoned when it doesn’t work.

Structures bound in money show a strong ability to protect themselves and use crises to further entrench themselves. The financial meltdown last year has not resulting in weakening the power of corporations; they availed of massive financial injections from governments and are back doing what they have always done. Once we have started measuring the progress of nations in exclusively financial terms, and given that the organised corporate world contributes an ever larger share to that number, governments have no choice but to support business, through thick and thin.

Valuations are particularly useful instruments of conquest for in their occasional extravagance, they point to the premium that conquerors are willing pay for the power that their acquisitions bring them. Money becomes a colonist when deployed in this way. A recent transaction in India saw a company pay a price that was over thirty times the annual profit of the acquired company. As a larger trend, we see how local corporations surrender their independence to their multinational counterparts when the price becomes one they simply cannot refuse. The ability to buy creates the ability to conquer, and this works just as well when Indian companies go shopping internationally.

The Internet started out being a structure that stood outside money. It is still relatively scale neutral in that no one institution or corporation can use muscle their way into our consciousness on the Internet. The medium is largely elective, and is led by what interests people rather than broadcasters believe interests them. Of course, money is increasingly a critical part of the Internet story; in fact most successes are framed through its lens with stories of easy billions in valuations creating a new generation of cyber-entrepreneurs. But even so, the nature of the medium makes control that much more difficult. In particular, social media with its effervescent stream-of-consciousness character becomes potentially a strong counterpoint to the information created by established power structures. We saw this at work in the Radia tapes issue, where the pressure created by those on Twitter made it impossible for media to ignore the story, in spite of its best attempts.

Social media is again a structure that does not depend on money, in an overt sense, at least today. One cannot become more popular by spending more. Traditional advertising, by which companies had the right to intrude into our consciousness with a high degree of certainty does not work on the Internet. What companies need to do instead is to present themselves in a way that make them human and interesting, so that people want to have a two-way dialogue with them. Nothing would make things easier for corporations than being able to monetise social media in a way that gave them greater control over it, for as things stand, they have to rethink their entire model of how to make people buy their stuff.

What we are seeing today is the beginning of a truly profound change. If structures that bypass money are indeed able to withstand the pressure that is and will continue to be put on them by the existing power elite, then it will redefine the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. Money serves a critical purpose in our social and economic life, but is there a world outside it? We are on our way to finding that out.