In Europe, going back to medieval times, the people who participated in the political life of a country were generally divided into three classes or estates. The Fourth Estate is a societal power, force or institution whose influence is not consistently or officially recognized as such. ‘Fourth Estate’ most commonly refers to the news media, journalism or ‘the press’. H. G. Wells was very dissatisfied with the quality of history textbooks at the end of World War I, and so, between 1918 and 1919, produced a 1324-page work which was published in serial softcover form in 1919 – titled The Outline of History. Wells noted, “The Trade Unionist tried to make the best for himself of the existing capitalism and the existing conditions of employment; the socialist proposed to change the system.” Wells observes the trade unions (p. 977) went on to become a real Fourth Estate in the country.
The term ‘Fourth Estate’ makes implicit reference to the earlier historical division of the Three Estates of the Realm: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. The idea of the press as a “Fourth Estate” came to prominence during the nineteenth century. In 1837 Robert Carlyle referred to “A Fourth Estate of Noble Editors” in The French Revolution: A History, and in On Heroes and Hero Worship (1841) stated that “Burke said there were Three Estates in parliament; but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” In the US the term fourth estate is used to place the press along side the three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. In this case the fourth estate refers to the watchdog role of the press, one that is important to a functioning democracy.
In 1799 and 1800 during the Napoleonic Wars the Combination Acts were passed by the Pitt government. The laws forbade societies or amalgamations of persons for the purpose of political reform, and made interference with commerce and trade illegal. The Combination Acts were passed for fear of industrial unrest and prevent industry from being held to ransom in time of war. The landed gentry, who controlled Parliament, did not understand industrial society, and harsh legislation was their way of maintaining law and order. Under these conditions workers in many industries found themselves intolerably squeezed. It became necessary for workers to make agreements – illegal though they were – against games of underselling. These agreements had to be made and maintained by secret societies or clubs – established for other reasons, to mask the wage-protecting combination. The fact these associations were illegal disposed them to violence directed against traitors and those who would not join.
In 1824 the Trade Union Act passed with the goal of relieving this tension by conceding the right of workers to form combinations for “collective bargaining.” This allowed unions to develop with a large measure of freedom; the 1871 Trade Union Act secured the legal status of trade unions. As a result of this legislation no trade union could be regarded as criminal because “in restraint of trade”; trade union funds were protected. Although trade unions were pleased with this Act, they were less happy with the Criminal Law Amendment Act passed the same day that made picketing illegal. The first great phase of the struggle was over with the removal of the primary legal disabilities under which the trade unions had previously struggled for existence. They had won recognition from society, and were now to start on a long campaign for freedom of action to attain their objects.
The Industrial Revolution was a time when national labor unions began to form in the United States. Samuel Gompers (1850-1924) was a founder and one of the leaders of the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions (FOTLU) that was established in 1881. FOTLU worked for compulsory school attendance laws, regulation of child labor, the eight-hour day, safe and sanitary working conditions, and work-place democracy. FOTLU evolved into the American Federation of Labor (AFL) lead from 1886 to 1924 by Gompers. Most of the work associated with the unions consisted of testifying before Congress and State Legislatures on labor laws, rallying the troops at labor rallies, and negotiating strike settlements. Gompers was well known and respected for his integrity, his generosity, and his willingness to stand up to power. He stressed cooperation by labor and management to obtain management concessions. Under his leadership the AFL grew from a few struggling labor unions to the dominant organ in the US and Canadian labor movement.
The fact of the matter is that democracy requires informed citizens. No governing body can be expected to operate well without knowledge of the issues on which it is to rule, and rule by the people entails that the people should be informed. In a representative democracy, the role of the press is twofold: it both informs citizens and sets up a feedback loop between the government and voters. The press makes the actions of the government known to the public, and voters who disapprove of current trends in policy can take corrective action in the next election. Without the press, the feedback loop is broken and the government is no longer accountable to the people. The press is therefore of the utmost importance in a representative democracy. Governments, it is argued, cannot be held accountable if citizens are ill informed about the actions or activities of officials and institutions.
Liberal theorists have long argued that the existence of an unfettered and independent press within each nation is essential in the process of democratization, by contributing towards the right of freedom of expression, thought and conscience, strengthening the responsiveness and accountability of governments to all citizens, and providing a platform for political expression for a multiplicity of groups and interests. This separation between the people and the state becomes more important when the economic interests of the powerful so frequently dominate society. In our modern world, the interest of “the nation” is no more than the collective interest of those who wield political and economic power. Today, the state is the executive branch of the ruling class. When a newspaper claims to speak to and for the nation – that is, to and for the people – but instead appears to speak for the government, it abandons any claim it may have had to independence of thought and action.
The mainstream media – no longer the fourth estate – supports the neoliberal project that has reduced everything to markets, undermined regulations, stagnated wages, introduced risk, precarity and uncertainty, and brought about major economic crisis. In post-truth politics social media assists political actors who mobilize voters through a crude blend of outlandish conspiracy theories and suggestive half-truths, barely concealed hate-speech, as well as outright lies. These “populist” voters now live in a media bubble, getting their news from sources that play to their identity-politics desires, which means that even if you offer them a better deal, they won’t hear about it, or believe it if told. The American Legislative Exchange Council supported by the Koch brothers develops model bills supporting the rubric ‘right to work’ touted as giving workers freedom not to join unions. While it is based on individual rights of non-union members to enjoy benefits of union representation, its primary purpose is to weaken unions.
Only 10.3% of American workers belong to unions today, approximately half as many as in 1983. That’s a level not seen since the 1930s, just before the passage of the labor law that was supposed to protect workers’ right to organize. Unions are important because they help set the standards for education, skill levels, wages, working conditions – basically quality of life for workers. Unions continue to work to establish laws improving job conditions for their members through legislation at the national, state and local level. The legitimacy of the neoliberal state is not to be found in bureaucratic monopolization of knowledge (as per Weber’s theory of the modern state), but on the contrary in the empty formalism – or even ignorance – of its experts. Those that come to occupy elite policy-making positions have toolkits and methodologies with which to analyse a problem, but no substantive knowledge of how it works or what caused it.1
The actual individuals – the economic elite – who control the decision-making undermine other associations, like unions, under the rhetoric of personal freedom. The economic elite remove decision-making out of hands of the working class and rely on the politicians they own and the media they control to provide explanations of reductions in social programs. Unions once again must become agents of change. A recent poll obtained from nearly 3000 respondents show that 48 per cent – nearly half of the non-unionized workers – would join a union if given the opportunity to do so. It is necessary to unionize more than the industrial workers. This change process includes two prongs to address the value gap – introduce the living wage, and support the formation of unions. Labor unions emerged as the most powerful and organized political force during the 1960s – they must become the new fourth estate.
1 William Davies (Sept 2016) The Neoliberal State: Power Against Politics http://research.gold.ac.uk/23094/1/The_Neoliberal_State_Power_against_polit.pdf