Creating Technology for Social Change

Summary of Week 5: The Political Economy of Communications

We began class on October 3rd by reviewing ideas for our final projects. Throughout the week, students blogged about their proposals. Project topics range from Hip Hop Culture in Civic Media to Supermarket Pastoralism to the Ethics of Activist DDOS Actions. Sasha encouraged us to really push ourselves to think deeply about the intersection between our subject areas, participatory media-making, and civic action. This, in essence, is at the heart of civic media.

Next, we launched into discussing the readings for the week, which were about the Political Economy of Communications. Political Economy is the study of social relations, particularly power relations that govern the production, consumption, and distribution of resources. We were asked to read Nicholas Garnham’s Contribution to a Political Economy of Mass-Communication as well as Paula Chakravatty’s and Yuzhei Zhao’s Introduction: Toward a Transcultural Political Economy of Global Communications. We started by reviewing Garnham’s piece, and began an in-depth a discussion about Marxist Theory.

The core principle of Marxist Theory is about labor time. Fundamentally, Marx argues that people take a certain amount of time to live and work, and any time that is left over is used to “be human.” The amount of time people spend working also depends on whether they are in the base or superstructure of society. According to Marx, the base refers to those who produce material goods and the superstructure refer to those who do immaterial and ideological work. In feudal society, there is a hierarchy where landowners get to determine laborers’ labor time, and if the laborer refuses to work on the land, then (s)he will be removed by brute force. During this time, the farmers are the base and the landowners and clerical class are the superstructure.

Feudalism is then replaced by industrialization. In industrial society, the base refers to the workers in factories or those building infrastructure and engaging in manual labor, whereas the superstructure continues to be the people in all the institutions that do ideological, immaterial work in places such as churches, schools, courts, the press, etc. Industrialization also made the “means of production” more efficient with the invention of machinery. This creates an ongoing struggle between those who own the “means of production” and those who sell their labor skills to operate the machines. And with industrialization, productivity is increasing, but then why is the value of labor time decreasing or staying steady? Your social being determines your social consciousness so under the feudal system or the industrial system, you will evaluate how successful the system is based on your place in society.

So, how can we view the communications and media industry through the Marxist lens? First, the superstructure uses media either consciously or unconsciously to reinforce their dominant place in society. This happens either because the dominant class owns media outlets or those in power use media outlets for propaganda, mean-making, and identity formation to secure their place in society. Second, creating media is part of an economic process. The industrialization of culture includes communication technology innovation, expansions into new markets, and the privatization of public broadcasters, among other things. Creating media is people’s livelihoods. For example, to make movies or print newspaper, one needs a lot of machinery. As described above, there is an ongoing struggle between those who own this machinery (the superstructure) and seem to have power to control the outputs and those who operate it (the base). Ultimately, the superstructure wants to accumulate wealth and keep power, but in order to do this they not only have to control the communication industry, but also ensure that the masses consume their outputs to keep generating revenue.

After reviewing Marxist theory and applying the lens to the communication and media industries, we discussed Garnham’s critiques of this lens as well as critiques to the base and superstructure model. Garnham’s critiques include:

1) While mass media are tools of ideological domination, culture is NOT ALWAYS an industry. Everyone creates and spreads culture all the time.
2) The ideas that get generated within the superstructure are independent from the masses. There are a lot of things happening in film narratives other than the domination of the ruling class.
3) This third point about psychoanalysis was a bit mysterious to us all. We cut exploration into this point short. “Such idiocies need detain us no further.”
4) Marxist writings about cultural industries do not acknowledge that you are selling the audiences to advertisers. The audience becomes a commodity.
5) Cultural consumption is not always a need the way natural resources are, and so you have to adapt cultural products and markets to the tastes of the masses in order to actually generate revenue from them.

The class asserted that the Marxist lens and the base and superstructure model were too simplistic and is very limiting in how it conceives of human agency. Also, it is important to remember that the dominant class only controls a certain type of culture because everyone is always producing it too.  

We moved on to Chakravartty and Zhao’s piece, which discusses neoliberalism, transculturation, media imperialism, and hybridization. We focus on neoliberalism and Thomas Friedman’s argument in the The World is Flat which believes that because of technology and the rate of mobility around the world, eventually everyone will be a level playing field.

After a short break, the class divided into four working groups and each team created a theory of social change. Drawing from our reading, we created visual models that demonstrated how to make social change in society. The first group focused on tools and levers of change. The second group used water as a metaphor for social change and portrayed different “streams of activism or causes”, while the third group created two models. One model showed how to assess a situation and ask for change in a peaceful, democratic society, while the second model focused on an extreme hierarchical society with a base and superstrutures. The last group tried to create a formula for social change in their model.

Each student will reflect more on these theories of social change in upcoming blog posts.