Marxism In The Media Essay, Research Paper
Holy Smokes, Kids! It’s Marxism in the Media!!
Media Theory and Criticism
March 29, 2001
“To my distress and perhaps to my delight, I order things in accordance with my passions. I put in my pictures everything I like. So much worse for the things—they have to get along with one another.”
The above quote raises some interesting questions one must consider about the mass media. What decides which messages the media portrays to the consumer? What must a medium contain that makes us want to watch it? Maybe the artists just make what interests them. Or perhaps the messages are simply used for entertainment and are based on what sells or what is popular. This is true to an extent but this is merely a scratch in the surface of these burning questions. There are many theories that seek to explain the purpose of the mass media, but this paper will discuss Marxist media theory. This paper will get past the surface and discuss the goals and purpose of the media in Marx’s opinion.
In its truest form, Marxism is a humanistic group of thoughts and ideas that states that everyone should have equally productive lives. It strives to dismantle the class struggle between the Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. Marx believes in a humanistic ideology that parallels the thought that everyone is created equal.
Marxist theorists conceive that one important role of the media is to reproduce the status quo. Simply stated the media is said to perpetuate norms. Like previously stated, a class struggle exists between the upper and lower classes and it is quite evident. The upper class had a stronghold on the media because they had the most money. Therefore, they were able to control what everyone thought was the desired lifestyle and culture norms. They used the media to convince the other classes that what the upper class enjoyed should be what is desirable. This is in a way similar to Picasso’s quote. He painted things that appealed to him rather then what others wanted him to.
By keeping the status quo, the capitalist economic system stays in motion. “American Capitalism finds its sharpest and most expressive reflection in American cinema.” (Marxist Overtones 1; cited from Eisenstein’s Film Form)
There are many things that could explain why the upper class’s perspective was disseminated upon the masses. First off, it takes money to run a medium. Since they have the most money, they have the luxury of running the media. Also, with money comes education. Not only were the lower classes poor in comparison, but they were also less educated. Because of their underprivileged status, they were very susceptible to being manipulated. They lacked the knowledge to think for themselves, so they bought in to the status quo that was generated by the upper class.
Economism, or vulgar Marxism, is a key feature in explaining the media’s role according to Marx. This is also referred to as the base/superstructure model. In economism, “the economic base of society is seen as determining everything else in the superstructure, including social, political, and intellectual consciousness.” (Marxist Media Theory 1) This maintains that the media is used as the base of society. Society is referred to as the superstructure. Clearly, media shapes society even today. Since consumers rely on the media for information and entertainment, (ex. Television and radio new, magazines, newspapers, Internet), they are shaped by whatever forms of media they chose to be an audience to. The media manipulates everything from popular fashion to the food people consume.
Media can also be seen as a means of production according to the Marxist school of thought. It simply disseminates the ideas of the ruling class and defuses any alternatives. This creates a perception of popular culture that is really only based on one group’s opinion.
“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.” (Marx and Engels 22)
This quote states basically that the media will manipulate those who lack the ability to think for themselves on certain issues. This is true because the media gatekeeper is in control of what information is presented in the various forms. Also, the mass media produces false consciousness in the working classes. This leads to monolithic expressions of ruling class values being perpetuated while ignoring any deviation of said ideas.
“The mass media still perform their job of distracting people from the realities of U.S. society and of “clouding their minds” with ideas that the ruling class wishes them to have.” (Berger 45)
Another of Marx’s theories is that mass media acts as an amplifier. This means that media institutions are locked into the power structure, thereby acting in tandem with the dominant institutions in society. This reproduces society’s viewpoints not as one idea among many, but rather as the central or natural perspective. The media also has a tendency to the unpopular and unconventional and draw on the values that are most widely legitimated. Portrayals of violence in the media have often been approached in terms of whether or not they serve to legitimize the forces of law and order. For this reason, mediated communications are widely supported by police, judiciary, and schools.
A more noticeable example of media as an amplifier is the coverage of elections. Voting is seen as an ideological practice that sustains the myth of democracy. The media is used to cover this intently to get the point across to the viewers that they have a choice. The impact of election coverage is conceived as reinforcing political values that Western democracies widely share. During an election year there is information about the event on literally every channel. Therefore, people are presented with the idea that they should vote because it is a great privilege. However, the happenings of this year’s election might have swayed people to think that the voting system is defunct or useless. The interesting thing is that when the recounts were happening, the media did nothing to hide that something was wrong. One must ask if the media’s purpose was to bring this out in order to change the system.
Another aspect of Marxist thought constitutes the individual as position holders through the effects of social relations. This idea is called the constitution of the subject. In this idea there is a mutually interactive between the subject (humans) and the object (conditions of human existence). The individual is a self-conscious being whose’ actions are explained by personal beliefs, intentions, preferences, etc. These personal items are shaped through ideological state apparatuses such as family, school, and the mass media. In other words, Individuals gain a sense of identity and understanding of reality through those three influences.
Marxism is a school of thought that holds many criticisms. These are due in part to a few notable limitations. First off, it is argued that Marxism is not an objective science but rather an ideology and holds little empirical research. In fact, other than media study of certain texts, little research is possible. Some researchers have even been accused of being too doctrinaire or dogmatic. In other words, it is possible to see works of popular culture with only Marxist notions in mind.
“The danger for Marxist media analysts is that they know the answers before they ask the questions. That is, Marxists are also prisoners of their own thought, and the questions they ask of a work of popular media are often rather limited.” (Berger 58)
Berger also states that perhaps Marxist ideas are to simple to be worth much. Marx’s idea of utopian idealism could lead to chaos and disorder. Sometimes what is favorable is not what is right.
Another weakness is that the orthodox notion of false consciousness is a bit misleading in its suggestion of a reality undistorted by mediation. Marxist perspectives lead us to ignore the various ways in which audiences use media. For example, it is a bit ridiculous to think that reality is shaped by all media when some fantasy portrayed in film is unrealistic. For example, in the movie
There are also some strengths in Marxism. Marxist theory in the media draws attention to political and economic interests and highlights inequalities in media representation.
The mass media also play a role in gratifying those who feel alienated. Alienation can be described as separation of, or distance between the classes. The media distracts the individual from his or her alienated feelings by creating fantasy and distracting their minds from their situation. The problem here however is that this creates a vicious cycle. If a person feels alienated, they will be a consumer to something that costs money to remedy it. Then they will need to work to earn more, causing them to feel more alienated.
Film writer and director James Cameron has a few works that contain classic examples of Marxism. Perhaps his most famous work, Titanic, there are several Marxist overtones. The most prominent is the depiction of heroism by the lower class. This example is kind of a twist on Marxism because the media usually offers heroes to represent the upper class. This is done to mask the idea that a class system exists in order to prevent the culture from revolting against capitalism.
In conclusion, there are many examples of Marxism present in all forms of media. The main purpose of course is to create the status quo and create a perspective that hides the fact that the class struggle exists. Also, media is used as an amplifier for certain ideas such as politics. All in all, it could be said that the media is a tool designed by the upper class to gain control of the lower class.
Berman, Marshall. “A Dialectical Humanism,” Nation Vol. 269, Issue 17. November 22, 1999. p. 23
Berger, Arthur A. Media Analysis Techniques 1998. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. 220 pp.
Kendrick, James. “Marxist Overtones in 3 Films by James Cameron.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. Vol. 27, Issue 3. Fall 1999. p. 36
Marxist Media Theory. Online. Internet. March 22, 2001. Available: www.aber.ac.uk/media/documents/marxism/marxism01.html
Other Works Consulted
Allen, Robert D. ed. Channels of Discourse, Reassembled. 1987. Chapel Hill: the university of north Carolina press. 405 pp.
Harvey, David. “Marxism, Metaphors, and Ecological Politics.” Monthly Review. Vol. 49, Issue 11. April 1998. p. 17
Gimenez, Martha. “Marxism, Human Nature, and Social Change.” Monthly Review. Vol. 51, Issue 7. December 1999. P. 45
Lowy, Michael. “Marxism and Romanticism in the Work of Jose Carlos Mariategui.” Latin American Perspectives. Vol. 25 Issue 4. July 1998. p. 76
McLellan, David. ”Then and Now: Marx and Marxism.” Political Studies. Vol. 47 Issue 5. December 1999. p. 955