Manufacturing royal consent

Gordon Downie takes a look at the May 20 concert of the 'Prince's Trust'

Given the historical role of the Tower of London as the state's torture and execution centre, it is curious and rather chilling that on the evening of Saturday May 20 it became the venue for a pop concert to celebrate 30 years of the Prince's Trust.

The trust was established by its president, the Prince of Wales, and purports to help "young people overcome barriers and get their lives working" (sic - www.princes-trust.org.uk/Main%20Site%20v2/About%20us.asp). By offering "practical support, including training, mentoring and financial assistance", it claims to "help 14-30-year-olds realise their potential and transform their lives" (ibid). The trust aims to focus its efforts on so-called educational underachievers, the unemployed, offenders and those in care. Its home page asks them: "What do you want to be when you grow up?", to which they are invited to fill one of four tick-boxes that list lawyer, doctor, teacher or unemployed, which is quickly crossed out as an option (www.princes- trust.org.uk/Main%20Site%20v2/About%20us.ambassadors.asp).

In addition to receiving support from the European Social Fund and the European Regional Development Fund, the trust is run in cooperation with numerous corporate associates, such as the Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds TSB, and Marks and Spencer: businesses clearly perceive the advantages that can accrue to their image of social responsibility from an association of this kind.

It is difficult to gauge the extent to which the British population accepts the existence of the monarchy, given their views are managed and manipulated by the compliant media. The latter's concentration on the personalities of the monarchy, their extra-marital affairs and assorted misdemeanours functions to depoliticise it, promoting it to celebrity status, which conveniently masks its true nature and function in capitalist society. Thus, ITV's Prince's Trust 30th birthday fundraising extravaganza, which attracted more than five million viewers, or nearly 25% of Saturday night's viewing audience, functioned to further consolidate these fabrications, while offering the Prince of Wales and his sons a prime-time opportunity to mix with, and be endorsed by, an endless supply of celebrities - whether pop stars, comedians, soap opera characters or, in interview with Ant and Dec, game-show hosts.

Such events are essentially marketing tools and, in consequence, they are acts of propaganda. They are tools used by politicians, monarchs and corporations seeking to further legitimate their power and assert their image of social responsibility and relevance.

Pop stars are particularly useful in this process, and for this occasion they included Will Young, Ozzy Osbourne, McFly, Pink, Embrace, Annie Lennox, Lionel Richie and the Sugababes. Pop stars still exude an aura of unconventionality, rebellion and dissent that is inherited from the 1960s, when, for a very brief period of time, there appeared to be some connectivity between rock music, political activism and sexual liberation. Whether this was ever more than a media fabrication is academic, as the manners, dress and behaviour associated with such rebelliousness have now been successfully routinised and commodified, making them an integral part of the pop music industry style and marketing portfolio.

Any organisation seeking popular endorsement need look no further than pop music or so-called alternative comedians: in combination, they both contribute to the short-circuiting of dissent by submitting themselves to processes of accommodation and appropriation, the results of which can be seized and utilised as ideological camouflage. Thus, the extent to which Ben Elton's smutty innuendo seemed risqué in this context is an index of the extent to which the monarchy seeks to accommodate it for its own purposes, although it is interesting that Elton's otherwise unconstrained set left the monarchy itself unscathed.

The evening also featured an interview with the three princes conducted by the perpetually cheerful game-show hosts, Ant and Dec. The questions got little further than discussing the football club preferences, favourite pop music and TV shows of Charles's sons. One can only conclude that the aim of such questions was to suggest that the princes are no different from anyone else. The absurdity of such a claim is clearly too ridiculous to warrant critical attention and reveals a crass assumption regarding what should constitute workers' cultural ambitions. Clearly, adjustment is here being measured in terms of those hyper-conformist, intellectually emaciated horizons delimited by soaps, 'reality' TV, football and Pop idol.

Such processes function to create a sense of identity between the monarchy and the rest of the population. In such contexts, celebrity and so-called popular, mass culture have an important function to assimilate and cauterise dissent, and to postpone crisis. In this sense, ITV's claim to be the "people's channel" is apposite, in as much as it attempts to manage leisure by distracting the working classes from the drudgery and repetitiveness of their everyday lives as non-unionised call-centre operatives, check-out assistants, hospital porters or cleaners. Perhaps these should be the employment categories that welcome underachievers to the home page of the Prince's Trust's website, so that the pretence that they have significant control over their lives can be unmasked for the illusion that it is.

It may be argued, of course, that such charities perform useful functions and that the Prince of Wales should be supported and encouraged in his efforts to relieve the ennui of underachievement. Clearly, the trust can point to a mass of objective evidence that young people have been helped in the ways that they describe. The problem with much charitable activity of this kind, however, is that it objectifies the problems for which its activities purport to offer solutions. By doing so, the real source of such problems - in this case the class system and associated forms of oppression that underpin capitalism - are not only obscured, but are reinforced and strengthened. As Tina Becker outlined in another context, what is needed is "Democracy, not charity" ('Historic con trick' Weekly Worker June 16 2005).

The queen's estimated personal wealth currently stands in excess of £220 million, which includes valuable real estate such as Balmoral Castle, Sandringham House, fine art, a substantial stock portfolio, horses and an extensive collection of antiques (www.forbes.com/2001/06/26/0626queens.html). Prince Charles's income from the Duchy of Cornwall in 2004-05 amounted to more than £13 million (www.royal.gov.uk/textonly/page316.asp). The aspiration of celebrities to emulate such wealth through material acquisition and what Thorstein Veblen labelled "conspicuous consumption" (Theory of the leisure class 1899) functions to make the monarchy less remote and therefore less insupportable.

Rather than unobtainable, celebrity lifestyles are marketed as something that anyone can achieve, given that many celebrities are themselves sourced from working class or petty bourgeois backgrounds, such as David and Victoria Beckham. By this tactic, the illusion is given that the distances separating proletarian, bourgeois and monarch can be significantly mediated. And, given the plethora of game shows and lottery prizes that offer a quick fix out of material deprivation and psychological emasculation, the pretence is created that material salvation is only a lottery ticket away: the monarchy loses nothing by Posh and Beck's mansion being nicknamed Beckingham Palace.

As Wilhelm Reich observed, "Every social order creates those character forms which it needs for its preservation" (Mass psychology of fascism 1933). We should be unsurprised, therefore, that capital, through its superstructural networks of disinformation and manipulation, seeks to engineer psychological types that submit themselves and internalise an allegiance to the totalising logic of the market.

In common with other products of the culture industry that are transmitted by ITV and its associates on an hourly and daily basis, week in and week out, year after year, the Prince's Trust extravaganza represents just one more element in that process of manufacturing consent that results in a submission to the systemic economic and political inequalities that are the driving force behind capitalist exploitation, expropriation and the commodity form.

Gordon Downie's Aesthetic necrophilia: reification, new music, and the commodification of affectivity will appear later this year in Critical Composition Today, published by Wolke Verlag.