The Cultural Apparatus of Monopoly Capital: An Introduction

By Foster, John Bellamy; McChesney, Robert W. | Monthly Review, July/August 2013 | Go to article overview

The Cultural Apparatus of Monopoly Capital: An Introduction


Foster, John Bellamy, McChesney, Robert W., Monthly Review


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.' The Arab Spring and the media battles of the elected left governments in Latin America are exhibits Al 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. …

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