‘The immigrant’ (1917): Charlie Chaplin stars as the tramp coming to the United States, only to be charged with theft

Adriana and Titan

Instinct takes bourgeois journalism down tracks already laid a million times before. Paul Demarty contrasts the treatment given to two different maritime disasters

In the early hours of June 14, a small fishing boat - the Adriana - capsized just off the Greek coast.

Its cargo was not fish, but human beings: some 750 or so souls, en route unofficially to Italy, had been packed onto the vessel in Tobruk four days earlier. The vessel had then lost power and, after bobbing around stranded for a while, sank. About 100 people were rescued; the others - packed like sardines into a boat with no safety equipment - are presumed dead. This makes it one of the worst disasters ever to have befallen a ship in that busy sea, and certainly the worst single event in the slow-motion disaster of cross-Mediterranean migration, which has claimed 27,000 lives since 2014.

Despite its grim toll, the sinking of the Adriana has barely rippled over the Anglophone press. The Guardian offered a few articles (no surprise there), and The New Yorker offered some column inches of its own - mostly on the role of the Greek coastguard in the tragedy. (Of course, it was a controversy in Greece itself, though mostly insofar as it impacted on the elections in that country over the weekend.)

A week later, disaster struck in a very different corner of the sea - the site, close to Newfoundland, of the wreck of the Titanic. The Titan - a small submersible carrying a handful of tourists to see the legendarily ill-fated liner - lost contact suddenly. We now know, more or less, that what occurred was a catastrophic hull failure, the implosion of the sub and the reduction of the crew to a fine paté. We did not know this then, however, and there was a week when a relentless media circus covered the disaster, accompanied by a million memes and bons mots on social networks.

The discrepancy in the coverage has been widely noted by people of a broadly liberal or leftwing persuasion. On its face, it seems pretty fishy (if you’ll forgive me) that an ongoing humanitarian disaster is almost ignored, whereas a pretty farcical operational failure on an ultra-luxury tourist venture captures the world’s attention for a week. Michael Chessum, in the London Review of Books, speaks for many, no doubt, when he explains it thus:

The mass drowning of migrants does not meet the media’s criteria for a human-interest story, because the victims have been dehumanised. Centuries of racist conditioning have led us to this point, but there is a new strategy at work too. Donald Trump and Suella Braverman have an air of performative stupidity, and it comforts the liberal commentariat to believe that the far right’s spell in power is a blip. But their project is deadly serious and for the long term.1

This is a perfectly standard leftwing account of what is going on. There is some value, however, in examining the question in a broader perspective. A certain picture is painted of the bourgeois media by this discrepancy, but the details matter. Is this all motivated by racism, or narrow pecuniary interests? Does the media follow public appetites, or create them?

The answer to both these questions, naturally, is ‘yes’.

Fool’s errand

There are certain features of the Titan story, to be sure, that give the thing an intrinsically dramatic feel. There is the ticking clock of the oxygen running out (or so we thought). There is also the hubris. Those aboard the Titan may not have known it, but they were the subjects of a fascinating practical experiment in the psychology of the American bourgeoisie.

Most of them, of course, were not Americans - British billionaires Hamish Harding and Shahzada Dawood, Dawood’s son, Suleman, and the incurable Titanic obsessive and Frenchman Paul-Henri Nargeolet. Their leader, and the founder of the company that built the Titan, was, however, about as American as it is possible to get: Stockton Rush. Not only is that a name that might have appeared in any John Ford western: it points to the remarkable fact that this man descended from not one, but two signatories to the 1776 declaration of independence: Richard Stockton and Benjamin Rush.

The nicest thing one could say about Rush’s submersible is that it lacked the defects of the 1787 constitution brought about by the ringing declaration signed by his illustrious ancestors - inflexibility, rigidity and imperviousness to external pressure. Alas, he rather over-steered. The safety of the vessel was always doubtful. They cheaped out on the material in the hull, and in any case selected carbon fibre, which tends to break when pressure is high. They used various cheap components sourced from consumer stores. At no point did they seem to grasp just how far beneath the sea their objective was, nor what Boyle’s Law would do to a poorly constructed sub at that depth. Rush opted out of certifying the Titan as safe at such depths, because safety measures were a brake on innovation.

There are no end of capitalists who cut costs in this way, but Rush was unlike them in exactly one sense: he refused to insulate himself from the consequences of his actions. He really believed in that sub, goddamnit, and he would pilot it down to the Titanic to prove it. It is this that makes the story tragic - or really tragicomic - rather than simply a study in callous, heedless evil, like the opioid crisis or the Hatfield rail crash; or, most relevantly, the Byford Dolphin incident, in which a drip-drip of corporate neglect led to several deep-sea divers being explosively decompressed on a Norwegian oil rig (it is not something to Google if you are of a sensitive disposition). All these things are disasters born in the same way as the sinking of the Adriana - fourth or fifth-order effects of icy bureaucratic-capitalist rationality. There are no tragic heroes in these stories: only victims - the sacrifices demanded by human apparatuses of economic and political power that appear as if they were the Fates themselves.

Put another way, dead migrants is a ‘dog bites man’ story, and dead billionaires - smashed together into a bloody paste by their own stupidity - is ‘man bites dog’. It is not merely that it is rare, rather than gloomily frequent, for such things to happen: it is that it reverses a background expectation exactly - that expectation being that the rest of us will suffer for the stupidity of our exploiters, never those exploiters themselves.

In these respects, the instincts of the bourgeois media run happily along tracks already built by a million previous stories of hubris - by no means all as absurd as that which brought these five gentlemen to their doom. There is, nonetheless, a big lie here, which is that the media merely follows such tracks, rather than making them to some extent. That is made clear by the Adriana story, and the previous calamities inflicted upon desperate migrants fleeing the chaos brought about by imperialist wars. We could imagine a ‘human interest’ angle here: homing in on one particular victim, their origin and hopes; or even the people smugglers who run these operations. El País gave us one such story - of a Turkish oil tanker captain who joined the search for survivors.2

There is clearly an element of racism involved, since those who die in such foreordained ‘accidents’ overwhelmingly come from north Africa or the Middle East, and are subject to periodic moral panics about the assimilation or otherwise of Muslim immigrants into western European countries. Yet this is just a more acute form of a universal indifference to human suffering that is endemic to the activity of capital and to Staatsraison. The media conspire in the big lie, which is merely that the dynamics that propel people into such dangerous waters are something like forces of nature; the inevitable consequences are to be regretted in a wholly passive way, and at length forgotten. Only so many near-identical stories of unavoidable tragedy will ever cut through. But that is quite all right: through mechanisms like advertising, the media are bound to the interests of the capitalist class in general, and their standards of newsworthiness are therefore constrained by these interests.

Producing a countervailing media apparatus is no small thing. In the most direct approach, we could follow Sergei Eisenstein, who once proposed to adapt Capital into a feature film. Yet nothing so aesthetically ambitious is required: merely a sensitive interest in the fates of those discarded on capital’s altar - associated with a meaningful locus of political agency that could prevent these tragedies - could show them up not as the works of fate, but of contingent arrangements of wealth and power.

Once again, we issue our cri de coeur: for a Communist Party worthy of the name, with party media to match.

  1. www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2023/june/ever-harder-borders.↩︎

  2. english.elpais.com/international/2023-06-21/the-11-hour-anguished-search-for-survivors-of-the-shipwreck-in-greece-ship-sinking-were-asking-you-to-come-to-the-rescue.html.↩︎