13 December 2005
Years ago there was an excellent journal called Propaganda Review that unpacked the manipulation of reality practiced by the emerging corporate state, especially the covert funding of the ‘arts’, for example, many of the sci-fi movies of the 50s that had evil ‘aliens’ invading the Earth, were actually financed by the DoD. Replace the ‘aliens’ with communists and the message was clear; aliens equals communists equals the anti-Christ.
Around the same time, Herbert I. Schiller published a book called ‘Culture Inc. – The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression’. Schiller, who has sadly since died, wrote extremely presciently about the central role the media and what has become the cultural industries, plays in shaping our understanding of the world and how it works. This is especially true of history, especially in light of the current onslaught on our senses and sensibilities, the ‘war on terror’.
Reading ‘Culture Inc.’ again, all these years later, one thing is clear, that of the parallel role that anti-communism played in the struggle for ‘hearts and minds’ to the current one played by the ‘war on terror’. Underpinning both campaigns are the economics of capitalism and the need to undermine and/or destroy all opposition to corporate capitalism.
The historical parallels between the two campaigns are all too real as are the techniques used but exposing the relationships is not as easy as it seems, so deep-rooted are the prejudices that have been created over the generations, especially the fear created around the word communism, a fear that has little to do with the former Soviet Union.
Actually, “anticommunism” had a long and nasty record in American history. The same spirit was expressed decades before the Russian Revolution under a variety of labels. Campaigns and vigilantism were undertaken against those who were called “anarchists,” “aliens,” “terrorists,” and, of course, “communists.” … An editorial, for example, in Harper’s Weekly in 1874 could have been written anytime in the last forty-five years. It read:
“[The] cartoon on our front page sets one phase of the labour question in a very clear light, and will serve to warn reflecting working-men against some of the dangers upon which misguiding leaders may precipitate them … Communism is a foreign product, which can hardly be made to flourish on American soil.” (p.14)
Schiller goes on to say:
The Russian Revolution itself invoked an orgy of vituperation and fear in the country’s affluent strata, fed by the alarmist exaggerations and distortions of the American press. (p.14)
The thread that links the process, as the Harper’s editorial shows, is the need to equate any opposition to the rule of capital with that of an ‘alien’ ideology, communism and by association, organised labour and eventually all opposition to capitalism.
During the 1940s and 1950s the ‘threat’ of communism reached a fever pitch and its alleged link to an external threat became central to the propaganda effort. The ‘threat’, if that’s what it can be called was linked directly to:
the possibility that significant chunks of the excolonial world might break away from the world business system, adopting some form of socialist economy. This possibility was transmuted by the governing class and its enthusiastic accomplices, the media, into the “Soviet threat.” (p.15)
Schiller points out that:
… perhaps the most significant effect of the protracted anticommunism of the postwar period is invisible and immeasurable. It is embodied in the muddled debate, the absence of a genuine spectrum of public opinion and expression, a popular culture saturated with political propaganda, and a numbing acceptance of a political environment in which the president of the United States tells anti-Soviet jokes. (pps.16-17)
Sound familiar? The objective, ultimately, is to create an environment that makes any alternative to capitalism unthinkable, eventually even the most minimal of reforms. As Schiller points out, any interference with the ‘market’ is a “perilous step toward concentration camps.”
Perhaps more than anything else, ‘Culture Inc.’ gives the lie to the idea that the ‘neo-con’ cabal is some new departure where the reality is that the ideology of a rampant capitalism, with no organised opposition is now free to come out into the open. Furthermore, this process was already well underway by the late 1970s with onset of the Reagan presidency. The idea that the public has only two choices open to it; either big government or big business and of course it was and still is, big media that peddled the propaganda line that big government was bad.
Big business today is the locus of systemic power. It is the site of the concentrated accumulation of the productive equipment, the technological expertise, the marketing apparatus, the financial resources, and the managerial know-how. It is a tangible reality, not a metaphor. Moreover, the interests of big business are most powerful in the formulation of national and international policy. (p.19)
However, big government is only bad when viewed in the context of the social component, social security, health, housing, education and so forth. Note that big government is not bad when applied to ‘defence’ and ‘national security’. As Schiller puts it:
The coercive agencies of big government are the instrumentalities by which the privileged maintains its grip on the social order. (p.20)
That the onslaught on organised labour and anticommunism are intimately connected is apparent from the activities of the state and big business in the aftermath of WWII with the advent of the Cold War. Under the guise of the ‘containment’ of communism with the Truman Doctrine, the leaders of organised labour were coopted into the process, well before Senator Joe McCarthy. The trade union movement was purged of communists and ‘fellow travellers’ with the able assistance of its leadership. The Taft-Hartley Act, had union leaders sign affidavits that they were not members of the Communist Party.
If they refused to sign the affidavits, their unions lost essential government protection against employer practices. If they complied and signed, it was all too likely that would be prosecuted for perjury on the testimony of government-supplied informers … By the early 1950s, most, though not all, of the trade unions … had ousted from their ranks members and leaders who challenged U.S. foreign policy … Once these ousters had been achieved, the organized component of the labour movement ceased being a serious source of concern to corporate management. (p.24)
Organised labour’s “near-unqualified endorsement” of the Vietnam war was obviously deeply entwined with anticommunism as was the fact that anticommunism “set the parameters of discussion and policy: larger issues of the social order could hardly be expected to receive critical attention, much less organized action.”
This left big business a free hand to get on with the business of taking care of the rich. Issues such as basic needs, the environment, nuclear energy, public versus private interests “received short thrift.”
The results of this are all too apparent today just as they were following the defeat of the US in Vietnam.
When the political and economic tide turned after the defeat in Vietnam and the international economic boom subsided, organized labour was without direction and unable to resist its rapidly eroding situation. (p.25)
Big business, in order to maintain its profits shifted production to low-wage areas and the public had very little inclination to support organised labour given its history of collaboration with big business.
Labor’s corporate business “partners” savagely cut wages, laid workers off, speeded up the work pace, and demanded “give backs” of gains that had been won over half a century. (p.25)
Ultimately, labour’s voice disappeared from the “national dialogue.” And in words that apply exactly to today’s situation Schiller says
A voice that was formerly influential in agenda setting, that could be offering alternatives to the deepening socioeconomic crisis and to the political miasma that engulfs the nation, now is, in fact, practically inaudible. (p.26)
This is the setting that forms the background and context for the bulk of ‘Culture Inc.’ for today’s situation would be unthinkable without the central role of the media and state propaganda in preparing us for the ‘war on terror’.
The essential elements remain the same; an external ‘threat’, largely invisible but nevertheless pervasive, a threat that challenges the existing social order or, as both Bush and Blair put it, ‘Western civilization’ whereas in the previous period it was communism or the ‘anti-Christ’.
The revolutions in information technology, in their formation during the time Schiller wrote ‘Culture Inc.’ but nevertheless quite apparent even then, consisted of:
[the] industries that serve as the sites for the creation, packaging, transmission, and placement of cultural messages—corporate ones especially—[that] have grown greatly as their importance and centrality to the corporate economy increases. (p.30)
Actually, a community’s economic life cannot be separated from its symbolic content. It’s effects were already apparent. Quoting Jeremy Seabrook on the general process of commercial production … who notes that although there is greater efficiency, there is a cost, a very high cost!
The price paid by working people for the ‘successes’ of capitalism has been in terms of the breakdown of human associations, the loss of solidarity, indifference between people, violence … and a sense of the loss of function and purpose. (pps. 31-32)
What is of particular importance in the context of the global spread of the ‘market’, led by US capitalism, is the role the so-called cultural industries play in the selling of the message. This is where ‘Culture Inc.’ is so valuable, even though the processes described by Schiller were still in formation in 1989, the central elements were long in place. The new technologies, satellite, cable and the digital domain, along with the slew of mergers and acquisitions in the media, communications and cultural industries completed the process that today is now firmly entrenched globally.
A process that has been exploited to great effect, most notably through the lack of political participation that followed the effective destruction of the Labour movement and of a viable political opposition to capital and the resultant social vacuum that has been created, a vacuum that has been filled by the corporate media and the cultural industries, particularly film and TV.
Reclaiming the public space that has been appropriated by the corporate class must figure highly on our agenda, for without it, we are at the mercy of Schiller‘s “concentrated accumulation of the productive equipment, the technological expertise, the marketing apparatus, the financial resources, and the managerial know-how” wielded by capitalism.