This is a taster of an interesting piece by John Bellamy Foster and Robert W Chesney in the US journal Monthly Review. Follow the link at the end to read the rest of the article
The past half-century has been dominated by the rise of media to a commanding position in the social life of most people and nations, to the point where it is banal to regard this as the “information age.” The once-dazzling ascension of television in the 1950s and ‘60s now looks like the horse-and-buggy era when one assesses the Internet, smartphones, and the digital revolution. For social theorists of all stripes communication has moved to center stage. And for those on the left, addressing the role of communication in achieving social change and then maintaining popular rule in the face of reactionary backlash is now a primary concern.1 The Arab Spring and the media battles of the elected left governments in Latin America are exhibits A1 and A2. Any serious left critique or political program must account for and embrace communication or risk being irrelevant and impotent.
To address these emerging concerns, over the past four decades the “political economy of communication” has emerged as a dynamic field of study, and one where considerable radical scholarship has taken place. The field addresses the growing importance of media, advertising, and communication in advanced capitalist societies, examining how the capitalist structure of communication industries shapes their output, as well as the role of media and culture in maintaining the social order. In particular, the field explores the way media “depoliticizes” people, and thereby entrenches the privileges of those at the top. It highlights the importance of government policies in creating the communication system, and the nature of the policymaking process in capitalist societies. In North America the decisive founders of this area of research were Dallas Smythe and Herbert Schiller. In Europe a generation of scholars coming out of the 1960s launched the field, and there the work was more closely attached to a re-reading of Marx. Perhaps the most visible manifestation of the research in the United States has been the stellar critique of journalism produced over the years by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky.2 Countless left activists are versed in the material today, a testament to the field’s value and importance.
To no small extent, political economists of communication, including one of us, identified themselves as in the tradition of radical political economy, but with a sophisticated appreciation of media that had escaped their predecessors, locked in the past as they were. Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy were occasionally held up by political economists of communication as representing the sort of traditional Marxists who underappreciated the importance of media, communication, and culture.3 Because of the preeminent role of their 1966 book, Monopoly Capital, Baran and Sweezy tended to receive more criticism than other radical economists who were likewise seen as negligent in this area. Smythe’s seminal 1977 essay, “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism,” while acknowledging Monopoly Capital’s strengths and importance, devoted more criticism to it than to any other work.4 The pattern has persisted in subsequent writings.5
We were never especially impressed by this criticism.6 To us, Monopoly Capital, and the broader political economy of Baran and Sweezy, far from ignoring communication, provided key elements for a serious study of the subject. Its emphasis upon the importance of giant corporations operating in oligopolistic markets provided a very useful way to understand media markets. Specifically, Baran and Sweezy’s take on the “sales effort” and the role of advertising in monopoly capitalism was and is the necessary starting point for any treatment of the subject.7 Few other economists came close to them in making advertising a central part of their political economy of capitalism. In doing so, they made the media and communication industries central components of modern capitalism.
Along these lines, one of our favorite pieces by Baran and Sweezy was their 1962 written testimony to the British Labour Party’s Advertising Commission, headed by Lord John Reith, the iconic former director general of the BBC. The Advertising Commission was established as part of the Labour Party’s reconsideration of the use of commercial advertising on British radio and television. Later published in Science and Society as “Theses on Advertising,” and largely unknown to this day, Baran and Sweezy’s testimony took the political-economic arguments concerning the role of advertising in contemporary capitalism, that were later developed in Monopoly Capital, and applied them foursquare to understanding media.8 The analysis of the deleterious effects of advertising on media operations and content, as well as society as a whole, is powerful and ages well. The piece also suggests that Baran and Sweezy, far from being determinists who thought any struggle for reform was a waste of time unless or until capitalism was overthrown, had a keen sense of the importance of media policy fights in the here and now. The Advertising Commission Report was finally published in 1966, and reflected the views of Baran and Sweezy with respect to the key roles played by oligopolistic markets, the decline of price competition, and the role of “the monopoly power of established firms” in the rise of modern mass media advertising.9
In addition, Baran and Sweezy had sensitivity to the importance of technology and its capacity for changing the nature of capitalism and the nature of society that was mostly unrivalled among economists, left, right, and center. Their work placed emphasis on examining those “revolutionary” technologies, like the steam engine, electricity, and the automobile, which provided the basis for capitalist expansion for generations and turned the world upside down in the process. In 1957 Sweezy characterized the United States as being in the midst of a sweeping “scientific-industrial revolution,” due to the confluence of the corporate expansion into directing research and the rise of permanent militarism in the 1940s. In a careful review of economic history, contemporary scientific and technological developments, and with a look toward the horizon, Sweezy put the invention of the computer and the emerging communication revolution at the center of a technological revolution that would be every bit as profound as that wrought by the steam engine. To those who found this hypothetical, if not preposterous, Sweezy responded: “Come back in another thirty years. The transformation of society implicit in the new technologies will then be in full swing and you will be able to see signs of it on every hand.”10
Yet, to read Monopoly Capital one was left, somewhat paradoxically, with little sense that communication per se was of much interest to its authors.
This changed in 2011 when we discovered a missing chapter written for Monopoly Capital on culture, communications, and mental health, “The Quality of Monopoly Capitalist Society II.”11This chapter was originally drafted by Baran and was later edited and revised by Sweezy following the death of his coauthor. It had been intended as the penultimate chapter ofMonopoly Capital.12 Baran tragically died of a heart attack in March 1964 with a planned redrafting of this chapter undone. Sweezy was therefore left with the task of editing and completing the chapter, to which Baran had meant to add more material related to the mental health section, which was only loosely related to the culture section. Sweezy worked extensively on the chapter in November 1964 and perhaps later, editing the manuscript, cutting out considerable material from the original draft, and adding some new material related to communications. He gave this later version the title “The Quality of Monopoly Capitalist Society: Culture and Mental Health.” In the end, however, he elected to leave it out of the book, recognizing that there were issues that the two of them had not sufficiently worked out together.13