9 August, 2009 — Relay
The Media, the Left, and Power
In The German Ideology, Marx said the following about the media: “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 ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.” Since Marx’s time, “the means of mental production” in society have expanded into a globalizing capitalist media and cultural industry that encompasses both print and electronic mediums, news and entertainment. The media is a contradictory institution; it is once a means of production and a terrain of struggle. “The class that is the ruling material force of society” continues to rule the media and therefore is a very powerful “ruling intellectual force” in society. Yet, control of the media by the ruling class is being opposed by media democracy struggles.
Robert McChesney, eminent historian and political-economist of the media, founder of the Free Press, leading U.S. and international media activist, and author of The Political Economy of the Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas (Monthly Review Press, 2008) and Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of the Media (The New Press, 2008), spoke with Tanner Mirrlees, of the Socialist Project, about contemporary media capitalism and 21st century media democracy struggles to understand and change it. — Tanner Mirrlees.
Tanner Mirrlees: Why do you think it is important for progressives to understand the media and participate in media democracy struggles?
Robert McChesney: The media is one of the key areas in society where power is exercised, reinforced, and contested. It is hard to imagine a successful left political project that does not have a media platform. The media was not a major political issue for earlier generations of the Left. In the 19th century, a very different media system was in place. 19th century socialists wouldn’t be talking much about the need to criticize the New York Herald Tribune because they weren’t organizing people who read the New York Herald Tribune. It was much easier and more common for the Left to have its own media. The workers had worker papers. They weren’t consuming mass-produced commercial media products. But this started changing in the first half of the 20th century. Capital accumulation colonized much more of popular culture and communications. Capitalism became the dominant mode of producing and distributing information in society. The media has since become central to politics; it is a central concern for anyone that wants to understand politics and intervene politically. The challenge for us is to understand, use, and struggle to change the existing media.