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Capitalism and the Mass Media

On or about February 24, 1848, a twenty-three-page pamphlet was published in London. Modern industry, it proclaimed, had revolutionized the world. It surpassed, in its accomplishments, all the great civilizations of the past- the Egyptian pyramids, the Roman aqueducts, the Gothic cathedrals. It’s innovations- the railroad, and telegraph had unleashed fantastic productive forces. Just as important it swept away all the hierarchies and mystifications. People no longer believed that ancestry or religion determined their status in life. Bringing us more on this topic is Perspectoverse’s Hiba Riaz.


Soon, in fact there would be just two types of people in the world: the people who owned property and the people who sold their labor to them. As ideologies disappeared which had once made inequality appear natural and ordained, it was inevitable that workers everywhere would see the system for what it was, and would rise up and overthrow it. The writer who made this prediction was, of course, Karl Marx, and the pamphlet was “The Communist Manifesto”.

Considering his rather glaring relevance to contemporary politics, it’s striking that two important recent books about Marx are committed to returning him to his own country. “Marx was not our contemporary,” Jonathan Sperber insists, in “Karl Marx: A nineteenth-century life” which came out in 2013, he is “more a figure of the past than a prophet of the present.” Gareth Stedman Jones explains that the aim of his new book, “ Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion” is “to put Marx back in his nineteenth-century surroundings”.

The process of developing a theory of mass culture and politically effective interpretation of the symbolic forms that organize social life has emerged from the transformations within capitalist society itself. Mass culture confronts us as a primary element of this society. By the same token, mass culture cannot itself be understood or analyzed except in the context of its role in producing and reproducing the social relations of capitalism. It is essential not to fall prey to the false dichotomy of labor and symbolic interaction, or to that between a libidinal politics and a politics oriented toward economic transformations. The very possibility and effectiveness of mass culture lies in the way it organizes symbolic mediations and symbolic interactionism in relation to the body and subjectivity as they are affected by the capitalist division of labor.

Just as it is false to seek the distinctive reality of advanced capitalism in the autonomy of the psychological or the symbolic from the economic- it is also inadequate. To frame the distinction between the 19th and 20th century capitalism only or predominantly in terms of the changing relation of society and state. A broader and deeper mutation has occurred. The capitalist mode of production has evolved by transforming, in two phases, the relation between the economic and the symbolic dimensions of social life. In its first phase, it severed the economic from the symbolic, dissolving earlier social formations and producing the social conditions that Marx analysed. But this process, which was always incomplete and contradictory, had consequences which led to the second phase of capitalism. Now the economy, moving for itself, attempts to subsume the symbolic.

Insufficient attention has been paid to normative and conceptual issues concerning capitalism, media and culture. Moral economy approaches might help fill this gap by valuably providing a richly critical ethics-based approach to economy and society, compatible with the best political economy. There is now widespread acceptance that capitalism is a meaningful way to describe a vital systematic aspect of the world in which we live, and a growing appreciation that a critical understanding of this mysterious entity might be helpful for humanity. It is not clear however that there has been a similar growth in attention to capitalism in recent debates about culture and the communication media.

This is in spite of the fact that developments in these realms seem to confirm a sense of capitalism’s onward march, and in some respects are at the core of recent changes in capitalism. In particular, the rise of the internet and mobile communication emerged from a new and evolving type of capitalist activity, centred on Silicon valley, which presented itself as benign, and was accepted as such by commentators. The social media produced by Silicon Valley have further fuelled the continuing growth of promotional communication, including the rise of ‘self-branding’, an increasing insertion of competitive behaviour into people’s efforts at self-realisation.

In cultural policy, the view that very lightly regulated markets are the most efficient and ethical way to allocate resources and coordinate economic activity has gained ground to a remarkable degree. It has been manifested in attacks on public service media, and in cultural policy’s fostering of ‘creative industries’ in the interests of economic growth, rather than for their contribution to well-being or other non-economic goals.

Of course, there have been many valuable treatments of the above developments, but rather few of them draw explicitly on theories of capitalism to conceptualise their analyses. Fewer have been linked to a serious effort to understand capitalism with explicit sustained discussions of how evaluations of it might be grounded. No doubt this lack partly derives from genuine difficulties. There are many plausible competing understandings of capitalism. Although it is difficult to assess that in some conceptions, seem to be everywhere and everything - and therefore, nowhere and nothing in particular?

These combined difficulties have made it hard for critics of capitalism-media-culture relations to construct reasoned critiques that can transcend divisions on the left and carry weight beyond it.

Written by Hiba Riaz

Illustrated by Disha Kariwal

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