Propaganda Review – Part II Das Kulture By William Bowles

20 December 2005

If people are stripped of the ability to manipulate truth, to make their own things and their own history, they may continue to act properly, but they lose the capacity to think for themselves about their own rightness. They stagnate or surrender. If truth is located beyond the mind’s grasp, if it is something that exists but cannot be touched, then culture cannot be advanced or defended. Made consumers, spectators, restrained from voluntary action, people become slaves, willing or not, happy or not, of powers that want their bodies. Those who steal from people their right to make artefacts (in order to sell junk to them) and those who steal their right to make their own history (in order to destroy their will to cultural resistance)-these can be condemned, for they steal from people the right to know what they know, the right to become human. – Henry Glassie,

Passing the Time in Ballymenone: Culture and History of an Ulster Community

Space (and time) precluded me from dealing with Schiller’s superb analysis of the corporatisation of culture, so after some reflection I decided the subject deserved a further presentation.

As someone who has been involved with ‘culture’ in one form or another for most of my life, I have wrestled with issue of the relationship between culture and politics. Not being a Bertold Brecht, the idea of using art as an overtly political vehicle has never appealed to me. It takes a particular sensibility to make propaganda, art and more specifically, it requires a special time and place; the Bolshevik Revolution, Germany in the 1930s, Cuba in the 1960s come to mind where art and politics resonated in consonance.

The corporate world has no such qualms nor concerns. For one thing, it has as its disposal a literal army of skills and talents and the blessings of the state to create a universe of realities for us to get lost in. And, as economies are now dominated by handful of interlocked corporate entities bent on maintaining their power, with the media and communications at the centre of the mix, the issue of culture in its broadest sense should now occupy all who oppose the imperium.

I and a host of observers are fond of quoting the first of the self-conscious propagandists of our age, Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, but the fact is the reality we live in now is far more insidious and dangerous than the world according to Goebbels, his was a world of black and white, a world of extremes in every sense of the word. Ours is, by contrast, layered like an onion, peel away one layer and another is revealed … Ours is a world where, at every turn, from birth to the grave, Culture Inc. – shapes or tries to – our every perception. It has constructed a very special kind of onion for us to live in.

The brilliance of Schller’s book is that it exposes the objective forces that underpin the images and the ideas that shape the world we inhabit; Kulture with a Kapital K as in Das Kapital.

As Schiller makes quite clear, underlying the process is economics, not that economics, politics and propaganda don’t intersect and feed off each other but the kinds of fundamental changes that have taken place right under our noses, has brought the role of Culture to the fore as the major weapon with which to maintain the rule of Capital.

One such seemingly innocuous process was the redefining of the corporation as a ‘person’, a decision that has reverberated down to the present in the most profound ways. In 1886, the Supreme Court in a landmark ruling voted unanimously that corporations were “persons” and consequently were entitled to the protection of the 14th Amendment. This “fiction” enabled corporations to take advantage of the “due process” clause of the 14th Amendment and to shield themselves from regulatory action that might be proposed on behalf of the community or the work force. (p.47)

The terrible irony of corporations using the 14th Amendment to avoid being socially accountable was the fact that:

… the inequality between white and black that the 14th Amendment was supposed to overcome has instead been transposed into perhaps an even greater inequality between the corporate person and the natural person. – Robert Sherrill, – Hogging the Constitution.

The historian Howard Zinn noted that the 14th Amendment:

… had been passed to protect Negro rights… [but] of the 14th Amendment cases brought before the Supreme Court between 1890 and 1910, [only] nineteen dealt with the Negro, [whereas] 288 dealt with corporations.

How the use of the 14th Amendment by corporations has come to be so central to the present situation is illustrated by the following

[I]t becomes more and more difficult to maintain the difference between individual and corporate speech. Differences between forms of address become harder to sustain, or even perceive. – Richard Bolton, ‘Canadian Notes’, Afterimage.

This transformation is based upon series of legal decisions that have transformed the nature of public discourse, a process that has followed the transformation of economic life from that of small-scale, land-based production to the giant industrial corporation. The transformation has been “nothing less than extraordinary.”

And once again, the only (brief) time this process was to some extent, curbed was when capitalism itself “was on the defensive and hardly capable of asserting its immunity to public accountability”, during the period of the New Deal.

WWII changed all this, with the US coming out unscathed and the undisputed economic winner and the following 30 or so years saw unprecedented growth and a restored strength to the American economy. In addition, the war spurred the development of an entirely new range of information-based technologies led first by television and joined later by computers, satellites, cable and finally, the convergence brought about by the digital domain.

Not surprisingly, corporate capitalism which must expand or die, has taken a global dimension which in turn has created a “comprehensive, corporate, informational-cultural apparatus which fills more and more national living space wherever it operates.”

Ironically, Schiller points out that there has been an enormous outpouring of “thoughtful and provocative” historical studies of the world we live in but there has been:

“pitifully little—or nothing at all—of this important work appear[ing] on the national media channels or in the historical allusions of the nation’s leaders. There is, however, what can best be described as the corporate-sponsored, mass media history machine. [my emph. WB]”

This corporate history machine:

“churns out products that are processed and calibrated to corporate specifications …be it through the news, drama, sports or historical narratives.”

Central to the problem of dealing with this all-encompassing process lies in the apparent absence of overt control, “the main lever being the internalisation of values.”

In 1988, The Writers Guild of America in a submission to a Senate committee said:

“It is our contention that the networks have deliberately and almost totally shut off [the] flow of ideas, have censored and continue to censor the writers who work for [network television] … [and] that 86 percent of them “from personal experience” suffered censorship of their work.

By contrast, the voice of the ‘traditional’ corporation, now completely integrated into a single, informational cultural space utilises the media to “strengthen the system at large, both domestically and internationally.”

“Should big corporations use their power to influence public opinion?” reads a quarter-page ad on the op-ed page of the New York Times.

“You bet” says Herb Schmerz then Mobil Oil’s vice-president of public affairs. “Corporations have as much right as anyone to plead their case before the public. If they don’t speak out on crucial issues, the voice of business is in danger of being drowned out by the chorus of its critics.”

And yet another “threatened voice” of the oil industry, editor of Exxon’s journal Exxon USA, is more outspoken on the subject:

“… if you can inject enough facts into the minds of the people who direct public opinion, you can blunt criticism in advance.”

But as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting have shown, when it comes to whose voice gets the lion’s share of public exposure, the corporations win hands down.

Fox Letter The Fox Bites (click on image to enlarge)

The landmark judicial rulings of the 60s, 70s and 80s that accorded corporate advertising 1st Amendment rights, expanding the protection of commercial and political speech thus assuring the “historical and judicial accommodation to and promotion of property rights in the United States.”

The key phrase being property rights but in the age of the computer, property has come to mean something quite distinctive:

Information as property and the use and control of information to defend property are distinctive characteristics of capitalism in the concluding years of the 20th century. (p.50)

A key judicial ruling, passed in 1978 (First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti) “[effectively] elevated commercial speech to almost the same level as editorial speech—for that too under certain exceptional conditions can be suppressed by the state …. With the Bellotti decision, the right of a corporation to engage in the political process and, by extension, in cultural affairs in general was affirmed.”

It “was an occasion … for dancing not only in the streets but in the corporate boardrooms as well.” – Rome and Roberts, Corporate and Commercial Speech, p.61.

The Bellotti decision and others “enabled corporations to deploy their immense resources and assert hegemonic authority over the informational landscape.” It is, as Schiller says, “a foregone conclusion that the corporate “speaker” will be the loudest in town.”

The process that Schiller described over 20 years ago, corporatisation not only of ‘public’ expression but of public spaces, what are called the Commons is now virtually complete, even the High Street has been privatised through the introduction of shopping malls and now extends to museums, sports, in fact all manner of collective, public and even private cultural expressions are now firmly in the hands of a few global corporations. Is it any wonder that as the opening statement says, that:

“If people are stripped of the ability to manipulate truth, to make their own things and their own history, they may continue to act properly, but they lose the capacity to think for themselves about their own rightness. They stagnate or surrender. If truth is located beyond the mind’s grasp, if it is something that exists but cannot be touched, then culture cannot be advanced or defended.

“By and large, this is a process that has taken place unnoticed, at least by the public, unnoticed because it has been unreported. The unconditional acceptance by those whose job it is to inquire—journalists and investigators—of this transformation, illustrates the complete subjugation of all independent thought that has taken place, made complete by the penetration of the academic world by corporate interests who fund entire universities and departments, ensuring that the products “internalise their values.”

It surely must be obvious that the only opposition to this global juggernaut is us, and especially you, the reader.

Culture Inc. – The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression, Herbert I. Schiller, Oxford University Press, 1989. Reprinted 1996. Buy it at amazon.co.uk or amazon.com

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