Monday, September 29, 2008

Are the Media all Powerful?


Are the Media all Powerful?

One of the immediate problems faced by socialists everywhere is that everywhere the vast bulk of the mass media is hostile to socialism and uses its considerable power to defend the status quo i.e. capitalism.

Sometimes this bias is absolutely blatant and includes not only pro- capitalist but also pro –government propaganda as in most of the world’s dictatorships or Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News in America. Sometimes it more subtle and, as with the BBC, hidden beneath a veneer of impartiality and commitment to political neutrality and the representation of different points of view. But always the fundamental stance is the same: capitalism is the sensible, natural and inevitable way of organising production. Anyone who thinks otherwise is at best an eccentric and most likely a wicked ‘extremist’ because ‘everyone knows’ that ‘moderates’ are good and ‘extremists’ are bad and that anyone who wants to abolish capitalism is an extremist by definition.

Where television, the most important mass media, is concerned this basic stance affects not only news bulletins but also the choice of panellists on discussion programmes, the themes of and commentary on documentaries, the story lines and characters in soap operas and drama series, the nature and tone of game shows- in short the total output. And obviously it is the same with newspapers. Their pro-capitalist standpoint is reflected, first and foremost in what is and, most importantly, in what is NOT reported, as well as in how it is reported, how it is commented on in editorials, and opinion pieces, and again it runs all the way through to the cartoons and the sports coverage. Nor is the basic position any different in thefilm industry, radio or any of the other forms of mass media.

This should not surprise us. Mass media are forms of communication which enable small groups of people to communicate simultaneously with vast numbers of other people. They all involve considerable capital outlay and are therefore owned either by people with lots of capital i.e. capitalists or by states which at bottom represent the interest of the capitalist class. The pro-capitalist bias of the media is therefore, under capitalism, absolutely inevitable. It is one part of the general phenomenon of ruling class ideological dominance noted and explained by Karl Marx in 1845 (before most of the modern mass media even came into existence)

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. (The German Ideology).

The questions that arise therefore are how much does this ruling class control of the media matter, and how can it be challenged? Let’s take the second question first. It is obviously vital that socialists should develop their own means of communication - newspapers such as Counterfire or other forms such as posters, leaflets, magazines, websites, blogs, films etc – and they should also try, wherever possible, to get their ideas across in the capitalist media. However, while capitalism exists and the capitalist class remains in power, socialist media will not be able to displace the bourgeois media, and socialist ideas will not be able to obtain more than marginal representation , anymore than it is possible for socialist education to replace state schools and bourgeois universities. Thus the crucial issue becomes how strong is the grip of the bourgeois media on the minds of the majority of working people and how can that hold be broken?

Clearly the media, taken as a whole, are very influential and sometimes it seems like they can manipulate people at will, stirring up xenophobia and racism one minute, whipping up war fever the next, and always blotting out any challenge to the system. But it is important to understand there are always definite limits to the media’s power.

For a start there are always some people in society (albeit a minority) who reject the media view of the world pretty much as a whole. If you are reading this article it is likely that you are part of this minority. Moreover, we (I am part of it too) are not in any fundamental or innate way different from other people who don’t (as yet) reject the dominant view – it is simply that we have had experiences that have led us to question the system more than others.

Secondly, the vast majority of people who accept much of what the media says, nevertheless remain sceptical of some of its messages. For example, in Britain, throughout the twentieth century the large majority of newspapers supported the Conservative Party and only a small minority backed the Labour Party but this did not stop Labour winning a number of general elections. And in America today the media is overwhelmingly behind the Bush administration’s $700 million bail out of Wall St. but this doesn’t stop it being highly unpopular with the American public.

Then there are things which are so unpopular that the media themselves know they would be wasting their time trying to sell to people - for example, mass unemployment. There are times when the ruling class, privately, thinks that a dose of mass unemployment would be just the thing to undermine the unions and break working class resistance, but they know they can’t say this openly. The best they can hope for is to convince people that some scapegoat (immigrants, refugees, greedy trade unions etc) is to blame, but they always have, at least to pretend to care about unemployment.

In general it is clear that where media influence is at its weakest is when reality diverges most radically from its preferred message and especially when the issue is one which affects people directly as part of their everyday experience. One of the reasons why capitalist economic crisis creates opportunities for socialism is not just that workers are radicalised by the suffering inflicted on them but also because the crisis dramatically exposes and undermines the story the capitalist class wants to tell about itself.

However, the circumstance in which working people are particularly likely to see through and reject the lies of the media is when they are engaged in collective struggle, because then they themselves become the news and their own actions and experiences are what is being lied about. When the collective struggle is also a MASS struggle, when it starts to involve the majority of the majority of the working class in action, for instance in a general strike, then the hold of the mass media really starts to break down., especially as this is also a situation in which the working class gets a sense of its own power and develops the confidence to look for alternatives.

Combine conditions of crisis with mass struggle and one further ingredient is needed, the mass revolutionary workers party with its own media to articulate an alternative socialist worldview. Include that in the equation and we will break not only the grip of the media on the minds of working people but the power of the capitalist class as a whole including its power over the media.

John Molyneux

29 September 2008


Anonymous said...

Very nice post -- and I can relate to it more than others because I am part of a mass media organization myself. Btw, just one thing -- the bail-out plan envisages a package of $750 billion (you have inadvertently written $750 million).
I read your book "Arguments for revolutionary socialism" as the introductory work on socialism -- truly loved it. Look forward to reading more stuff from you.

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