Can we use classical marxism to inform our understanding of global media?

yes, we can!
At a moment of change in world politics, Stephen Hill revisits the key ideas of Marx and Engels to explore international power relations in a new media landscape. Introduction
In this article, I want to look how classical Marxism can inform our understanding of the political and economic relationships underpinning global media. I will argue that although the Communist Revolution may have failed to materialise in the UK, transformations in global media raise interesting questions about how we interpret Marx’s work. In particular, I will focus on the international nature of the relationship between the proletariat (the workers) and the bourgeoisie (the ruling class) and argue that access to the ownership of the means of cultural production as opposed to material production is what defines political power. funding highlights the way new media technologies have redefined the political landscape of the 21st-century. I want to begin with a brief overview of the work of Karl Marx and Frederic Engels on the nature of capitalism as outlined in The Communist Manifesto (1848). production emphasised its underlying principles. For Marx, the key idea is that during this period society moved from a body of selfsufficient private producers to an isolated mass of workers with no rights to the product they make. as he calls it) is particularly problematic for Marx because, unlike trade based on use value, profit always involves some sort of exploitation. • Marx is also particularly concerned with change in the ownership of the means of production. In particular, he sees a contradiction in emerging patterns of industry, which rely upon the communal production of goods that are owned privately. For Marx wage labour creates a twotier society in which the interests of the workers (the proletariat) are oppressed so that the ruling class (the bourgeoisie, who own the factories and farms) can make profit. This exploitation clearly has the potential to bring about Communist Revolution, in which, according to Marx, the proletariat will seize control of the means of production. For Marx and Engels, the economic contradictions of capitalism make this inevitable. Both men fervently believed that capitalism destroys its own market: wages are kept to a minimum to


The Communist Manifesto
In the Communist Manifesto examples of the development of capitalist methods of economic exchange help bring to life a model of society in which the economy is the bottom line. • Marx plots the shift from trade based on ‘use value’ to ‘exchange value’ and creation of ‘profit’ as the principal motivation for economic activity. • Profit (or surplus value

Although communism has not transformed the leading world economies of the 20th century in the way that Karl Marx predicted, the manifesto he wrote with Frederick Engels in 1848 remains the definitive account of the advent of capitalism. The document, originally published as a political pamphlet, plots the social consequences of the economic changes of the Industrial Revolution at the beginning of the 19th Why now? century. It seems timely to revisit The term capitalism the work of Karl Marx at precedes the Industrial this moment of change in world politics, as the United Revolution, and is essentially a refinement of States appoints Barack the economic liberalism Obama its 44th president Adam Smith talks about on January 20th and so mark the departure of eight in The Wealth of Nations (1776). The changes to years of American centre agriculture and industry in right politics. Moreover, the reliance of his campaign the UK bought about by mechanised communal on internet-generated

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ensure maximum profit; people therefore cannot afford goods, and so supply becomes greater than demand. Consequently, weaker capitalists go out of business, and have to join the ranks of the proletariat and become workers; this leaves the bourgeoisie depleted in numbers and vulnerable to attack. Eventually, Marx argues:

The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into state property.
The proletariat then re-arranges the state into a communist operation and at this point the state itself dies out:

When at last it becomes the real representative of society it renders itself unnecessary.

state: he did not anticipate the complex political and trading alliances that characterise contemporary global relations. This is perhaps surprising given that the period in which Marx was writing is often described by historians as the Imperial Century: a period in which 10 million square miles were added to the British Empire. In this sense the proletariat/ bourgeoisie model does not entirely fit the arrangement of domestic labour in the nineteenth century; historically Britain’s wealth was based on Empire and owed as much to the exploitation of the colonies as it did to UK-based workers.

The bigger picture
This international dimension has been foregrounded in recent years by the decline of both heavy industry and manufacturing in many first world economies. In the UK, the skilled labour force of working-class cities like Sheffield, Glasgow and Manchester has been unable to compete with the lower wages and minimum employment legislation in the developing world. Such is the global nature of multinational organisations that in Marxist terms it could be said that, by and large, the West now ‘out-sources’ for its workers. Companies like Nestlé’s and McDonald’s, for example, ensure maximum profits by operating wherever

What revolution?
Of course, in Britain, as with most of the Western capitalist economies, the revolution did not happen. This raises questions about the usefulness of Marx’s predictions. And in countries where revolution has taken place (like Cuba and Russia) the result has been strong structures of state, rather different from the utopian vision envisaged by Marx. So, 160 years after its publication, it is easy to reject the blueprint for social change outlined in the Communist Manifesto. Perhaps part of the problem is that Marx saw economic activity in terms of the political landscape of an individual sovereign 50

Grammar School system and the emergence of a knowledge-based economy. Education is at the heart of social class; consequently a more educated society is inevitably a more middleclass one. However, the upward mobility of Western lifestyles has not happened in isolation; it can be seen as a direct consequence of the exploitation of other parts of the globe, from the tea plantations in India to the decimation possible in developing of the Brazilian rainforests. countries, where labour To live in a Western is cheap and capitalism is economy is, therefore, to unimpeded by concerns acknowledge our relative for human rights or the advantage over the rest environment. In this of the world’s population, sense, the relations and contradictions of economic not just economically but in terms of life expectancy, exchange outlined by health care, access to clean Marx in the Communist drinking water and so on. Manifesto fit our global The kind of poverty economy very well; the that underpinned the developed world stands comfortably in the shoes of Industrial Revolution in England in Marx’s lifetime the bourgeois ruling class, is unthinkable today. It with the developing world is perhaps unsurprising, assuming the subordinate therefore, that when former position of the workers. Deputy Prime Minister This raises a question: are we premature in thinking John Prescott asked a group of unemployed that the revolution has teenagers what class they failed to materialise? To thought they were in a answer this, we may need recent BBC documentary to think about what it on social hierarchy in the means to be a member UK they replied confidently of the bourgeoisie (the ruling class) in the twenty- that they were middle class. Of course their use first century. of the term differs from old style definitions of The new relative social ranking – not bourgeoisie least because the girls had In 2008 many people in neither the property nor Britain could be defined as ‘bourgeois’, or middle-class, education to mark them above the ranks of the without necessarily being working class. However, in ‘owners of the means global terms their relative of production’. This is position is very much that partly due to the legacy of compulsory education in the 20th century, the

of the bourgeoisie. So what exactly does ‘bourgeois’ mean in 2009?

Ownership of the means of cultural production
To understand how to define the ruling class in a global society it is perhaps useful to return to the Imperial Age of the 19th century and the rapid expansion of the British Empire. This achievement begs the question: how did Britain, a small island with a modest population, achieve economic supremacy over half the globe? Clearly, this was partly due to Britain’s military strength, underpinned by her maritime experience as an island nation, together with technological advancement, courtesy of engineering giants like Isambard Kingdom Brunel. However, what also made the British Empire possible was the communication system: the All Red Line, as it was known, enabled messages to be sent from Ireland to Newfoundland and from Suez to Bombay, Madras, Penang, Singapore and Australia. Although the telegraph was rudimentary and undeveloped, it put in place a ‘nervous system’ or network that exported British models of education, democracy and religion to the four corners of the globe.

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hostages by Islamic extremists in Iraq has been highly sophisticated in its manipulation of international media. Most notable was the murders of Americans Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley and British citizen Ken Bigley: a story which dominated headlines for weeks after their capture on September 16th 2004. At various intervals, Ultimately the Cultural videos of the captives Communist Manifesto imperialism reading out political could not foresee the and the media statements addressed way in which ownership revolution to their respective of the means of cultural Britain’s empire is long governments and begging production would define gone; yet we live today in for assistance were posted the ruling class in the 20th an age of Western culture on fundamentalist websites, century; this is what limits imperialism that has its and subsequently picked its relevance today. The origins in the British Empire up by international news last century has seen some and the Americanisation agencies. The media circus very real global conflicts of much of the Developed which preceded their over territory and space; World in the 20th century. eventual beheadings did yet frequently in periods of Few major cities in little to save them, and peace, access and control the world are without played right into the hands of cultural production access to a McDonald’s of the extremist groups, has shaped the path of or a Starbucks, whose making anti-Western modern history. From aggressive economic hostility the centre of public Nazi propaganda to the principles exemplify all debate and highlighting censorship of mainstream that Marx feared about the the chaos ensuing from Hollywood cinema in capitalist system. the Allied invasion of The People’s Republic of Similarly, the increasing Iraq in 2003. DVDs of the China, global tension is individualism of audience beheading of American played out in the politics engagement with media soldiers retail in Baghdad underpinning the media forms experienced through for 75 pence, while the economy. Testimony to this digital technology and the execution of Saddam is the Cold War between internet gives people in Soviet and American Hussein has had over 2 the West a far greater grip government in the second million hits on YouTube; on culture than those in half of the century: an technological innovation developing nations. That ideological stalemate is such that the revolution many of those people that brought the threat will not be characterised covet Nike sportswear and of nuclear Armageddon learn to speak English from by a call to arms, but is to the forefront of public happening all around us in American films reinforces consciousness in everything this commanding position. the media. From Al Qaeda from the race to put man on However, since the to Fathers for Justice, the moon to popular fiction terrorist attacks of 9/11, headline-grabbing media about espionage military stunts are now at the global politics has become coalitions. The emergence forefront of world politics. increasingly characterised of the US as the world’s We are living in an age in by headline-grabbing biggest super power can which political expression is media stunts, as opposed be explained by its role becoming more ephemeral to traditional channels of in World War 2 as well as as the traditional channels political expression. conflicts in the Middle East of expression seem less For example, when and South East Asia; yet tangible. The party politics Chechen rebels took 1100 underpinning this has been pupils and staff hostage at of Westminster seem the not so silent march of the Beslan School in North redundant in the face of Western culture in the Ossetia, before massacring global fear and the ‘war form of entertainment, 334 of them, digital video on terror’, while domestic food and clothing. In this cameras were specifically issues of education, welfare sense, we in the West are positioned so that footage and health seem to slide all ‘owners of the means could be broadcast on further from the prevailing of cultural production’ the internet. Likewise, climate of expectation. because it is our culture the capture and murder of British and American that dominates the globe.

Marx argued that it is the consciousness of man that determines society. On that basis, man has the power to be the agent of social change – providing that change can be imagined. Increasingly, however, it would seem that it is our media consciousness that determines our social position within the global economy. The predominance of information-based industry requires cultural knowledge and not just financial resources. Moreover, the proliferation of information technology in the 21st century has the potential to undermine international relations of state and power that have endured since the days of the British Empire. The rise of China’s economic importance and the Tiger economies of South East Asia (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea) highlight this. Most recently, the election by the American people of Democrat candidate Barack Obama on November 4th 2008 is perhaps a reflection of a change in Western perceptions of the changing nature of their own global position. In a speech given at the beginning of his election campaign, Obama reminded potential voters of sentiments expressed in the original Declaration of Independence of 1787, a document that preceded the Communist Manifesto by some 59 years:

patriots travelled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution.
As the first black American president it would seem that if Obama remains true to those ideals, he may be able to stem the hostility towards the West that has gathered momentum since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In this respect, Obama’s understanding of the role of the internet in mobilising the political interests of the outsider is perhaps of special significance. Unlike McCain’s campaigns, or indeed those of previous Democrat candidates, Obama’s funding did not come from large corporations and rich business men, but small scale donations from bluecollar Americans. Eighty five percent of Obama’s funding came from online donations of less than $100. Obama’s victory therefore is not just a victory for black America but a victory for the internet in asserting the power of the proletariat. Perhaps therefore by embracing the positive attributes of the new media landscape, we can harness global media to secure a peaceful future: a future in which the population need not cower in fear and misunderstanding of wars on terror waged illegally on our behalf. Stephen Hill is Head of Media at the Burgate School and Sixth Form Centre.

Farmers and scholars; statesmen and

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