The Null Device

The Murdochian Vice

Rupert Murdoch, the patriarch of the Right in the English-speaking world over the past few decades, has bought 5% of VICE, the hipster magazine/record label/documentary producer:
Fox, which was spun off from News Corp earlier this year, confirmed the $70m (£45m) deal, which marks the latest stage in the evolution of Vice from an off-beat Canadian magazine into a global brand frequently dubbed the hipsters' bible.
One does wonder what Murdoch's motivation is: is this a purely business decision, that of the last of the old broadcast-age newspapermen seeing his original world's time running out and trying to break into the new paradigm, either from scratch (the ill-fated Daily iPad magazine) or by buying his way in (MySpace, and now VICE)? Or is it Murdoch, the quintessential right-wing ideological warrior, responding to a different shift—namely, the political Right's electoral and opinion-forming base being set to shrink as the scared old people eventually die and their ranks aren't replenished by younger people who aren't sufficiently scared of gays, boats, gays on boats, atheism, socialism, uppity sheilas or brown people to pick up on watching FOX News or agreeing wholeheartedly with the Rush Limbaughs and Andrew Bolts of this world that everything's going to hell. (And if they agree that everything's going to hell, they'd be more likely to pin the cause on being neoliberalism and regulatory capture by sociopathic elites than foreigners, feminism or the decline in traditional values, which is not quite the message Murdoch and his ilk would approve of.)

As such, what if the purchase of a stake in VICE is the first stage in creating a means of selling the values of the Murdochian Right to the sorts of nominally socially progressive trend-seeking young urbanites—let's call them “hipsters”—who typically regard the Tories/Republicans with disdain, or if that's a bridge too far, of instilling a cynical contempt for leftist idealism, that places it behind the (obviously uncool) old Right among those in the know.

The positional good of Cool that is the currency of hipsters and the readership of VICE has a number of paradoxical properties, which emerge from it being not an absolute quest for truth or an ideal for living, but a positional good in the marketplace of status. One of these properties is that anything that's too obviously right on, and thus must, to a novice, be obviously cool is not really cool. (Imagine, if you will, a provincial teenager from a small village somewhere obsessively studying the classics of cool, and then, one day, moving to the big city and gravitating to the epicentre of hipness they have read about—say, to Dalston or Williamsburg, Newtown or Neukölln, or the equivalent in your city of choice. He spends some weeks hanging around bars, posing in his meticulously styled clothes and hairstyle, looking dishevelled and insouciant in precisely the right way, before being noticed and getting invited to a warehouse party. At that party, another hipster (about the same age, equally sharply styled, though having been in town for six months longer) asks him what music he's into, and as he reels off a curriculum vitæ of classically cool and credible bands—say, Joy Division, the Velvet Underground, the Smiths, Neutral Milk Hotel—you can almost hear her eyes rolling back, over the sound of the DJ segueing from Hall & Oates into a hard-wonky mashup of an old Michael Bolton track.) So for cool to function as a peacock-tail-style proof of connectedness, it must be disconnected, at least to some extent, from anything objectively inferable from first principles, and consist at least partially of arbitrary conventions, and furthermore, it must not be possible to fake knowledge by merely going by what is commonly known to be cool and reeling off a list of the classics.

One side-effect of this is that cool is not intrinsically connected to earnestness or principles, whether it's the inherent authenticity of post-punk guitar rock or the principles of the New Left; it can ride with such principles while they're outside of the mainstream (and function as a shibboleth in themselves), but no further. Sooner or later, major recording labels will discover grunge rock and “alternative music” and flood the market with authentically rough-sounding bands; soon after that, the hipsters will cede that territory, abandoning the equation of roughness with authenticity and look elsewhere, an then we get electroclash, Yacht Rock and new waves of Italo-disco made by hardcore punks. The same can go with ideals, no matter how lofty. The cool kids were all vegans who boycotted Nike sweatshops once, but once vegetarianism and anti-sweatshop campaigns went mainstream, they're more likely to be artisanal carnivores with meticulously curated vintage Nike collections. Conspicuously boycotting meat and sweatshop-made trainers is like showing up at a loft party in Bushwick and enthusing about this awesome band named The Pixies whom you've just discovered.

Assuming that someone like Rupert Murdoch wants to sell right-wing politics (or at least cynicism of, and disengagement from, the ideals of the progressive Left) to hip urbanites, the help of VICE Magazine could be indispensable. The wilfully contrarian tone VICE has often adopted is not too far from downward-punching conservative humorists like P.J. O'Rourke and Jeremy Clarkson, and with a bit of guidance could be put to use against overly earnest progressives. Granted, actually selling membership to the Conservative Party (or its equivalent) would be a stretch too far, though it's conceivable that, with a few strategically dissembling attack pieces, a Murdoch-guided VICE could, for example, hole the Australian Greens (whom Murdoch has said must be “destroyed at the ballot box”) below the waterline amongst crucial inner-city demographics. (A piece about how the dreams of “leftist utopians” like Stalin, Mao and Guevara have caused vast amounts of suffering, with an insinuation that that's what the Greens would have in store if they ever came to power, may be enough; similar calumnies have worked remarkably well among older demographics in the Australian.) In Britain, meanwhile, while saying nice things about David Cameron may be a dead loss, subtly building up Boris Johnson could be doable, as could attacking the critiques of Bullingdonian privilege often brought to bear against blue-blooded Tory politicians. Indeed, a sort of “hipster Bullingdonianism”, a celebration of privilege à la Vampire Weekend and rejection of the by now mainstream idea that soaring inequality is bad or dangerous, could be not too far from a Murdochian Vice.

There are 10 comments on "The Murdochian Vice":

Posted by: James Earthenware Sun Aug 18 15:53:14 2013

A lot of feminist writers are already critical of vice being defacto-right wing anyway, but I don't necessarily agree with the reasoning in their critiques, for exactly the reason you state; that cool is generally arbitrary, transient and apolitical/reactionary...and probably has been this way since the late 70's when individualism became more important than ideas about the collective good.

Because Vice are already cynical about any sort of idealist left notions, I don't think Murdoch would have any interest in, or gain anything by interfering directly...

what is unique about Vice is that at a time when 99% of newspapers and magazines can't make a profit due to loss of advertising revenue; Vice is inundated with advertisements and is hence a profitable model. Also they don't have to pay journalists big money as they can give some crack addict 50 dollars and BAM there is the story! So I think it is purely a business decision.

Posted by: acb Sun Aug 18 16:02:04 2013

Vice also has a solid readership, a credible reputation (both for being hip/fashionable and in the fig-leaf sense of “it has good reportage”—a modern equivalent of “I only read it for the articles”) with its target audience, and the ability to influence a demographic who are becoming increasingly politically significant. Currently, it is politically undirected; under Gavin McInnes, it did have a cokey douchebag right-wing slant, though this is less pronounced since he left.

If Murdoch wishes to neutralise the nexus between young people and the new generation of progressive activism, or to depoliticise the power-bases of progressive movements he is on record as opposing, influencing Vice's editorial direction would be immensely useful.

Posted by: acb Sun Aug 18 16:04:12 2013

The question remains open of how long-term are Murdoch's intentions. Is this about undermining the Greens by making earnest progressivism less cool than Tony Abbott's speedos, or about making it more likely that, in a decade or two, today's twentysomething hipsters will shift to the right and age into the News Corp. demographic, or both?

Posted by: Greg Sun Aug 18 22:59:06 2013

For some time now, a lot of Murdoch newspapers have been losing money, and are operated mainly to influence politics. For examples see http://theconversation.com/murdoch-and-his-influence-on-australian-political-life-16752 and http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/15/new-york-post-murdoch-plaything . There must be little doubt that a Murdoch Vice will be operated to influence hipsters. But will it tank like MySpace?

Posted by: James Earthenware Mon Aug 19 01:03:42 2013

Nah, seriously guys; its is a FASHION magazine. It is no more or less political than Vogue, and the assertion that a publication can "influence" it's readers is pure hogwash. ie: People violently angry > ie: NOT INFLUENCED when the Age reported fact that Gillard had to go.

Publications can only stay alive while they reflect the audiences bias.

If fashion was a threat to the conservative establishment, probably fashion would be made illegal. But fashion has never been anything more than a symbolic personal expression at best.

Also the comparison to myspace is wrong also since Vice makes lots of money and Myspace never made any money to begin with. Myspace only died completely as they tried to find a way to monetize it.

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org/acb/ Mon Aug 19 01:24:20 2013

Vice purports to be a vehicle for serious reportage, and also has affected a wilfully politically-incorrect sacred-calf-goring stance (in the Gavin McInnes years).

Also, affecting an attitude or belief can be a way of buying into an image or lifestyle. Certainly, the Left has benefited over the years from some of its causes being trendy, and attracting supporters who otherwise would have remained apolitical. A Murdoch-guided Vice could, if nothing else, work to break this link. The Left would lose the hipsters and hangers-on, regain its purity but shrink back to a hard core of beardy weirdies (plus the usual tiny number of well-organised death-cult Stalinists).

Now making, say, the Liberal Party trendy would be a much bigger ask. Making them cooler than those overly earnest vegans in sandals, however...

Posted by: Andy H Mon Aug 19 01:25:23 2013

Great assessment. In the documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times, released in 2011 and filmed in 2010, VICE is posited as being the 'right way to think about the future of journalism.' In the documentary, writers are seen as free spirits, not beholden to a desk and the ageing hacks from the sinking ship watch on as the VICE machine expands and reaches far from the fashion and music hipster bible it began as. It's been growing but their market is changing, and it amazes me it's taken this long for a deal to be made. VICE was edgy and hip and pushing the envelope in 2005 but it's old news now. It's demographic has shifted in the last few years, and those hard-to-get late teens early 20s kids have been onto the next thing for years now. What that thing is depends almost entirely on where you are, while VICE might have occupied that meeting place/reference point for people wanting to know what was col, it's underlying concept of Aryan cool has had the piss taken out of it for years.

Posted by: kstop Mon Aug 19 19:21:01 2013

Or he could just be tending to all the species in the outrage ecosystem, in his role as a conscientious drama farmer.

Posted by: Greg Tue Aug 20 14:51:13 2013

Are all the young Vice-readers of 2005 now aging / working / breeding Vice-readers in 2013? All turning 30 or something? That could be a good niche to market to.

I think this happened with radio MMM in Australia. All the young Oz-rock fans latched onto it in the 80s - now its audience is those same fans, now aged 45 and being sold different stuff.

Posted by: kstop Tue Aug 20 15:16:50 2013

I know one old-skool Vice reader - he is indeed starting to get gf pressure to help make the babies. One of our neighbours is a former Vice writer, she has a 7-yr-old. So you are 100% correct going by this sample.

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