By Gray, John
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 131, No. 4611
Tony Benn and Jeffrey Archer do not have a lot in common. The pious parliamentarian and the flamboyant former Tory party chairman come from very different backgrounds. Their careers are incomparable. Aside from a shared lack of irony, their personalities could hardly be more discrepant. Despite these differences, there is one crucial respect in which they are alike. Each is now marketing his personality and life experience as a media commodity.
Each has recently published a diary--Archer's covering the first 22 days of his prison sentence, in Belmarsh jail, Benn's the decade from 1991 to 2001. Each has taken to performing a sort of theatrical impersonation of himself--Archer in a play staged not long before he went to prison, in which he appeared as a fictive version of his public persona, itself partly invented, and Benn in a one-man show he is putting on throughout the country, in which he appears with his trademark pipe, mug of tea and inimitably quaint opinions.
Long blurred, the borders between politics and entertainment are now virtually non-existent. It is no longer true -- as Enoch Powell claimed -- that all political careers end in failure. Rather, failed politicians end up as entertainers. In the current media culture of revelatory diaries and confessional memoirs, kiss-and-tell journalism and voyeuristic television, ex-politicians are no different from anyone else in seeking to turn themselves into marketable commodities. Even more than Tony Benn and Jeffrey Archer, Edwina Currie and Ulrika Jonsson picked up the trappings of celebrity in different worlds; but the fact that one of them was once a politician and the other a television presenter is insignificantin comparison with the use each has made of her past. Each has recycled her life experiences as a commodity and is selling it to a public hungry for the vicarious intimacy that comes from self-exposure in the mass media.
Why the media should have developed in this way is a difficult question, but part of the answer is that the cult of celebrity has become one of the chief drivers of the economy. We are long past the time when the major part of economic activity consisted in the manufacture of industrial commodities. In societies in which affluence can be taken for granted by the majority of people, the core of the economy has come to be entertainment. Cars are still bought as means of transportation and books on the supposition that they may contain useful information, but in each case they are sold on the strength of the new experiences they promise. The chief risk facing such an economy is the mood of boredom that comes with satiety. New experiences become passe even faster than new physical commodities -- particularly when, as is commonly the case, there is actually nothing terribly novel about them. Consumer fatigue threatens falling demand -- the nemesis of a mode of production that starts to collapse as soon as it can no longer grow.
In an economy driven by the need to manufacture demand, fame sells everything else. This is most palpably true when anyone can be famous. What is novel about the entertainment economy is that it holds out the prize of fame to everyone. In the past, luxury goods were sold to the masses by linking them with the lifestyles of the famous. Today, it is the belief that anyone can be famous that sustains mass consumption. Celebrity has been made into a sort of People's Lottery, whereby the majority of people are reconciled to the tedium of their daily lives.
The mass media have always had this function. As George Orwell notes somewhere, the escapist film extravaganzas created by Hollywood in the Thirties played a significant role in dampening down mass discontent during the Great Depression. Through the spectacle of stardom, Hollywood created a phantasmal parallel world, which compensated for the drab insecurity of everyday life. …