Marxism and the Media

There have been many ideologies throughout history – social, political and religious – that are, and have been the cause of revolution, fighting, and death.  This does not seem surprising if you consider the term ideology from a Marxist perspective, or rather, as tools for the capitalist ruling class to exert a level of control over the lower working class.  And so, there is one ideology that stands out from the rest in that revolution itself is at its core.  Marxism was derived from studies of political economy conducted by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. 

Marx and Engles worked across much of Europe, leaving a trail of social and political unrest.  They incited revolution in the working class (or proletariat) through the distribution of Communist literature.  The idea that a worker had to sell his labour at a loss so that the owners of industry (or Bourgeoisie) could capitalise on that shortfall, was central to his argument.  His studies of political economy led to the development of socialist theories on exploitation, alienation of the workforce, base superstructure, and class consciousness.  Marxism, as an ideology, was born.

In his theory on base superstructure, Karl Marx considers how religion, philosophy and other socially conscious ideas are used by the bourgeoisie to influence and manipulate the proletariat.  It is within this structure that the media industry has come to exist as a vehicle for the ruling class to naturalise capitalism, therefore making it seemingly impossible to replace.   This is highlighted by James Curran (2002 : 149) in his book ‘Media and Power’ where he writes:

“The media are increasingly big business.  They have a material interest in promoting market-friendly policies.  Their principal shareholders and top executives are wealthy people with a stake in the status quo.  They influence the ethos, direction and goals of these organisations through the setting of policy, the hiring and firing of key staff, and the allocation of rewards”.

Marx and Engels might not have envisaged how globalisation would become rampant in a modern capitalist society since after all, it has emerged as a practice in recent times, and only made possible by improved travel links, digital communications and the internet.  This globalisation is apparent not just in media companies, but also in manufacturers, meaning that such companies can now increase their profits by moving the proletariat to countries with low levels of economy and an unregulated, exploitable workforce.  In the western world this move leaves a void in the working class, which in turn, induces a change in social standing, and with it the introduction of the term “white collar worker”.

The media industry now modified itself in order to stay relevant and continue supporting the capitalist agenda, introducing the concept of consumerism.  The entertainment era came about as a result, and it further centralised the media as a means for capitalist control. One of the most apparent ways this is accomplished is through alienation, or how media is now consumed on personal devices.  The industry also exploits audiences by capitalising on social events, through false advertising and by neutralising class consciousness through the notion of audience power over the media in choice and consumption.  This in fact, could not be further from the truth since the pluralism that exists in today’s market only applies to brands, which are themselves monopolised by industry giants like News Corporation or Viacom.  As already explained, media ownership can exert control over the product at a global level.  It therefore becomes apparent that there exists no such pluralism in terms of content, rendering audience power equally non-existent.  This is reinforced by Curran (2002 : 153) when he explains:

“People can influence the media by their allocation of time and money.  This said, the degree of consumer influence that is exercised depends upon the extent of real choice in the market (which tends to be constrained…by a number of factors)”.

As progressive as the capitalist agenda has been in its struggle to remain as the ruling ideology, Marxism has been equally progressive in its sustained oppositional stance.  This began when Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci pioneered the application of Marxist principles to counter a ‘false consciousness’ instilled by modern capitalism.  Gramsci theorised that as capitalism was by then so intertwined with western culture, the only way to overthrow it was no longer through revolution but through infiltration.  He advocated the use of psychology to achieve cultural ‘hegemony’, by introducing radicalism within a society. Feminists, environmental extremist groups, civil rights movements, and other anti-establishment organisations would then unite against capitalism (Atkinson, 1999).

Gramsci’s theory was parallel to those of ‘Cultural Marxists’ at the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt University, which later became known as the Frankfurt School.  Some of its members managed to apply this theory first hand. Atkinson (1999) goes on to explain that when the Nazis came to power in 1933, they escaped to the United States and sought refuge in universities.  For Herbert Marcuse and the others, it was the perfect opportunity to ‘plant the seed’ and quietly start reforming.  Many unsuspecting students studied Politics and Psychology under them, students who are now themselves world leaders and captains of industry (including the Media Industry).

In contemporary media it is not uncommon for mainstream outlets to bring the plight of radical groups to its audiences; news on Greenpeace activism, battles against inequality of all kinds, public investigations of government agencies such as the BBC, the police and the NHS always feature prominently in news channels and newspapers, on the other hand they still maintain an authoritarian view of society.  It seems that media corporations serve this underlying scheme from the Frankfurt School just as much as they serve themselves. However, white collar workers now freely consume media for the sake of being entertained. In many ways, the media industry seems to have successfully accomplished what other industries could never achieve; that is, to exert capitalist control over the masses, and to have them subject themselves to that control voluntarily.

Christian Gadd (993 words).

Semester 1 (September – December 2013) : Media, Culture and Society.

 

Bibliography

Curran, J., 2002. Media and Power. London: Routledge.

Atkinson, G. L., 1999. About the Frankfurt School. USA. Available from http://frankfurtschool.us/history.htm [Accessed 15/12/13].

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About Christian Gadd

Christian Gadd
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