Marxism and the Media

Logos of capitalist mass media

“There be no shelter here, the frontline is everywhere”
– Rage Against the Machine

Perhaps nothing elicits more disagreement and debate among Marxists and other left activists than a discussion about the media. There is no doubt that the mass media is omnipresent, mediating every aspect of our lives. How one relates to and interprets the world is largely colored by how the media informs us. The disconnect between what is happening on the ground, and how it is reported in the media becomes even more clear during periods in which workers and youth engage in mass struggle. Excluding those directly participating in the Occupy movement, the public at large was presented with a somewhat distorted picture of what was happening on the ground.

This divides activists into two broad camps: one that seeks to court better media coverage, and the other that sees it solely as a tool of the capitalist class. What is clear to both groupings is that in the mass media we have the domination, or hegemony, of ruling class ideas.

Noam Chomsky, in his book Manufactured Consent, has argued that corporate ownership results in the interests of the ruling class being represented in the mass media. His theory assumes that the mere capitalist ownership of the mass media determines the content of the media.

To be sure, there is some truth to this. In the United States today, the vast majority of media outlets are owned by six large corporations: General Electric, Comcast, Disney, News Corp, CBS, and Time Warner. Not only do these companies control the vast majority of television, radio, and newspaper properties, they also own the majority of outdoor advertising, and have an increasing stake in the internet.

In addition, there are other large companies that may not directly own stock in the media, but who are also major stakeholders: the advertisers. Under capitalism, the consuming audience, or rather, the attention of the audience, is sold by the media owners to the advertisers as a commodity.

Despite the left’s long tradition in the print and alternative media (papers, journals, books, and online), the barrier to entry into mass visual media is just too steep. So there does seem to be a correlation between ownership of the media and the hegemony of ruling class ideology. Nonetheless, despite these elements of truth in the Manufactured Consent model, such an analysis is ultimately anti-dialectical and un-Marxist. As dialectical materialists, we must look at the internal contradictions in any phenomena. Nothing is static and unchanging, and internal contradictions themselves are the motor force for change and development. Small quantitative changes accumulate over time and lead to qualitative leaps, changing the entire character of the system.

The first step in understanding the media in a dialectical manner is to understand that content itself is not directly handled by the bosses. Working journalists and media workers—not the bosses—actually produce the content of the media. With the exception of totalitarian regimes, the boss does not stand around the newsroom micromanaging the flow of information. Journalists, including the foremen of journalism known as editors, manage the production of news and other content. The direct control exerted by the owners of capital is over how media is distributed. In other words, the bosses directly control factors such as marketing, positioning, and the broadest direction of the media.

However, this broad direction is limited, in most cases, to the owners and managers of the media dictating the overall orientation of the organization. For example, the use of the term “job creators,” as opposed to “capitalist”; the use of “Jewish neighborhood,” as opposed to “Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank,” etc. The particular story chosen, and the overall treatment and balance of the story, is almost always the product of working journalists.

This broad direction is by no means small meaningless control; it has a major impact on the content. Certain cases, such as the recent firing of Fox News journalists for reporting on links between Monsanto’s genetically modified products and cancer, show that the rights of working journalists are often seriously limited by the bourgeoisie. However, nine times out of ten, control of the final product ultimately remains with the workers. The one-sided, conspiratorial Chomsky model cannot adequately explain the situation.

Media is an unusual commodity under capitalism, as it contains within it some qualities of the handicrafts of pre-capitalist society, and other qualities of modern commodity production. Unlike handicraft production, a complicated and social cooperation between workers is required to produce mass media. In this, it resembles a factory. However, it is quite unlike the average commodity in that each instance of media production—a particular news story, a particular feature film, a particular music video—is unique. A news story from yesterday will not get airtime today, unless it has been re-shot or re-edited and given a new angle.

There is more that is unusual about this commodity. On the face of it, when one buys a newspaper, one believes one has purchased a commodity. But in actual fact, the real commodity in this transaction is not the newspaper, but rather the reader. All media news—electronic or otherwise—functions in this way. The vast majority of revenue generated in this transaction is not from the cable subscription or the small sum of money that the “consumer” spends to acquire a paper. Rather, it is the large advertisers that fund the media that are purchasing a commodity. That commodity is the attention span of the audience. This creates a relation of forces whereby which any desire of the owners to direct the content of the media is mitigated by the perceived tastes and preferences of the audience.

Also, unlike other mass-produced commodities, such as a coffee cup, the owner of capital has a more limited control over how each product is produced. In the case of the coffee cup, the owner of capital can directly dictate in detail the composition of the commodity in order to maximize profit. The size, weight, dimensions, materials, color, texture, graphic design, can all be decided in advance. However, when it comes to the media, the owners of capital can only provide the most general guidelines while the media workers themselves have “creative control” over how the final product is produced and presented.

Furthermore, particularly in news media, but also in media in general, deadlines mitigate the contemplative control of management, and to a degree, the editors. By the time a piece lands at the desk of an editor, it is usually already too late to try to micromanage the content. At best, the options for an editor faced with a piece she or he does not want to broadcast or print are to either scrap it entirely, or to suggest minor edits.

With some rather notable exceptions, such as Fox News, the vast majority of capitalist media outlets are beholden to standards such as “professionalism” and “objectivity.” In most reputable organizations, a “wall between the editorial team and management” exists, which prevents daily intervention of the bosses. Again, what the bosses control directly is access and distribution.

Yet, it is an undeniable fact that the ideas expressed in the mass media are not the ideas of the workers who produce it. How do we explain this perplexing situation? For a Marxist, the explanation can be found in Karl Marx’s architectural analogy of base and superstructure. The base, or foundation, of any society, is the means of production and the relations of production that correspond to it. On this economic base, and dependent upon it, exists the superstructure of a society. The ideology, laws, traditions, state and other institutions of any society depend in the final analysis on its economic foundations.

As Marx explained in The German Ideology: “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore the ideas of its dominance.”

Therefore, bourgeois society creates institutions that support capitalism and corresponding ideas such as “liberalism,” “conservatism,” and the abstract concept of “freedom,” which get far more play than ideas that go against this grain. Capitalist ideology is dominant in the media because capitalism is dominant everywhere. Unlike Chomsky’s mechanical conception, we need not look at control of the media as a conspiracy in order to provide an explanation.

As Marxists we understand the main contradictions at the base of capitalist society. In order to make more profits, the capitalists are compelled to create more and more “grave diggers” of their system: the proletariat. The struggle between these two classes is irreconcilable. The proletariat has its own interests and values that conflict with the capitalist base and superstructure. The key question is whether or not the proletariat is conscious of itself as a class, and can therefore struggle as a class in its own interests.

The struggle between the corresponding world views of these two classes, and the apparent primacy of bourgeois ideas deserves further elaboration. Two thinkers in particular offer interesting models for understanding how and why media workers produce media that takes positions that are opposed to their own class interests.

The first is the “Marxist” philosopher Louis Althusser. Famous for his theory of the “Ideological State Apparatus,” Althusser arose from the tradition of academic Western Marxism. Although he made very significant political blunders, and the upshot of his ideas are ultimately defeatist, he does offer some insights into how capitalist ideology permeates society.

Althusser did not understand the state to be merely “a special body of armed men,” which he called the “Repressive State Apparatus.” He also saw an elaborate “Ideological State Apparatus,” which includes concepts such as the family, the media, religion, nationalism, sex, gender, etc. According to Althusser, these create the conditions by which capitalism reproduces itself. In other words, each of these institutions in their current form reinforces the ideology of capitalism.

Althusser believed ideology to be inescapable. In a famous example, he tells of a policeman who stops a citizen on the street. The moment the police officer cries out, “Hey, you!” it matters very little what the citizen chooses to do. Whether the citizen chooses to respond or ignore the officer, he is “constituted” as a criminal subject. In other words, the ideological apparatus of the state comes into play and defines the citizen as a criminal for that moment.

To extend this theory to a media worker, any time a journalist attempts to challenge the hegemony of the ruling class in the media, the authority of “professionalism” and “objectivity” comes into play and “constitute” the journalist’s effort as “activism” or “subjective.” In other words, if you tell the story from the point of view of the ruling class, you are “objective,” but if you take another view, you are “subjective” and an “activist.”

While this theory ultimately leads to defeatism, it does highlight one very important point: we do not need to imagine the bosses as directly controlling the media in order to understand why media produced by the workers is polluted by an alien (capitalist) class ideology. We do not need to look at the empirical and mechanical model of Manufactured Consent to understand how the media supports the ruling class.

Another, more fluid, Marxist thinker is the founder of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci. Often misunderstood by academics as a reformist of some sort, much of his work was written while he was imprisoned by the Fascist regime in Italy in the 1920s, and is therefore colored by some one-sidedness, given the situation in which he wrote.

In Gramsci’s understanding of society, a superstructural phenomenon known as “hegemony” creates the conditions whereby capitalist society maintains control over the workers, not only by coercive means but also through the use of cultural conduits. Elaborating on Marx’s dialectical understanding of capitalist society, he showed how the ideas and values of the two main contending classes are locked in perpetual conflict.

Gramsci argued that through presenting bourgeois cultural values as neutral, the ruling class presents its interests as the interests of the general public and their values as “common sense” values. In other words, since bourgeois ideas are well-developed and well-promoted, all classes in society are encouraged to accept these ideas at face value. So for example, when workers—including journalists—champion “free markets,” they do so against their own interests because of the “hegemony” of the alien, ruling class.

The radical difference between this idea, and the idea of Althusser and Chomsky, is that Gramsci held that the working class could counter this hegemony by the promotion of counter-hegemonic culture and values. He believed that challenging the “normalization” of capitalist exploitation was pivotal to political struggle.

The important point to note here is that to Gramsci, the domination of capitalist ideology is not an inescapable reality; it is not automatically determined by the material base, i.e., the private ownership of the media outlets.

Therefore, the eradication of bourgeois ideas and values can only begin with the mass struggle of the workers against capitalist society, and can be completed, in the final analysis, only with the end of that society.

As with the sites of production of other commodities, the sites of media production are simultaneously sites of struggle. Journalists and other media workers can and must struggle against the domination of capital over their professions and over humankind. The struggle of media workers is connected to the struggle of all workers against capitalism. Through mass struggle, workers can fight back and win. Many media workers are unionized, for example, with the powerful Communications Workers of America.

Just as all of human society will be transformed under socialism, so too will the media. Released from the domination of capital, the media will no longer be the preserve of mediocrity, trash culture, and crass consumerism. Without the need to sell human attention spans in commodity form in exchange for advertising dollars, the media will see a flourishing of the arts, entertainment, and genuinely revolutionary journalism as a part of workers’ democracy.

Under the current system of so-called “professional” and “objective journalism,”an inherent bias for the capitalist system exists. When a reporter is taught to be “objective,” what she or he is being taught is to look beyond the subject. This is different from being “impartial,” if that were even possible. The appeal to objectivity, that is, to reality that exists outside subjectivity, is in fact simply a subordination to the hegemony of the bourgeois worldview. Journalism does not exist in a vacuum. Unless journalists adopt the Marxist analysis of class struggle as a revolutionary praxis, they will present the capitalist view by default.

Some would argue that “socialist” forms of media already exist in such institutions as PBS and NPR in the United States. Yet, there is a huge difference between these state and public forms and genuinely socialized media. Not only are these media outlets beholden to capitalist ideology under the thumb of “objectivity,” they are completely undemocratic institutions modeled after corporate America. Both NPR and PBS depend heavily on contributions from the same corporations that are the customers of commercial media. Increasingly, “commercial-free” public programming is “sponsored” by “non-commercial” corporate endowments.

Under socialism, a democratic regime would replace the dictatorship of capital in media production. Myriad points of view would be openly expressed and not hidden under the pretense of false “impartiality.” We would have truly “public” media, with access to the media means of production (studios, cameras, printing presses, transmitters, etc.) allocated democratically, based on the amount of support a certain viewpoint has in society. Freed from the profit motive and with public ownership over the media infrastructure, there would be a more varied, fluid, and broad flow of information, reporting, and journalism. Ideas and viewpoints would sink or swim based on whether or not people actually support them, instead of having an unelected, undemocratic minority determining what it is “the public wants.”

Today, viewpoints representing a tiny minority get the majority of the print and airtime. In addition, the newsroom would be run democratically, with supervisors and editors subject to election and recall by working journalists. Liberated from the constraints of capitalism, journalists could truly realize the axiom of their profession and “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”

The current factory forms that cage journalism will wither away along with the state as humanity progresses under socialism. As specialization becomes a relic of the past, all of humanity will be able to serve the noble functions of journalism. All who wish to do so will be able to participate in the artistic merits of entertainment production, storytelling, reporting, etc.

One could argue that social media already does this to some degree; but who owns these companies? Websites such as Facebook are already large corporations that operate in the same way as the mass media in selling our attention as commodity. Twitter chose to block certain Occupy Wall Street material and #hashtags. This is why we insist on public ownership of the media under democratic workers’ control.

You cannot rationally plan what you do not control, and you cannot control what you do not own. As long as these outlets are privately owned, they have the “right” to do whatever they and their financial backers please. Furthermore, these “social” media outlets are hardly social in how they are produced. The media produced by these forms are singular and isolated. People sitting at home on a computer or checking in with a smartphone are hardly in a position to challenge capitalism where the real power of the workers to change society lies: the point of production. Only under the higher stage of communism, in which society is organized on the basis of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” can social media truly have a leveling effect.

Alternative media outlets are important in that they are often expressions of the class interests of the proletariat. The publications of the Workers International League and the International Marxist Tendency, to give an example, consistently put forward a perspective for the liberation of humanity from the wretched rule of capital. Yet, the alternative media is just that, an alternative to the current mass media which is a tool of the capitalist class. In and of themselves, these small alternatives cannot supplant or “get around” the mass media. We cannot be content to merely challenge the mass media through social or alternative platforms. We must aim to take the media into democratic public ownership, to be used to defend the interests of the majority.

Under socialism, the media would be run democratically, under the control of media workers and the trade unions.

We should therefore not write off media workers and working journalists as “reactionaries” due to what they are currently producing. Nothing is immutable. By the same token, media workers and journalists must struggle with their class brothers and sisters to liberate their professions and humanity from the domination of capital. Their future is tied inexorably to the rest of their class, just as the future of human progress is inexorably tied to the world socialist revolution.

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