The economics of social amusement
To-day, under the fully ripened rule of capitalist production, the public amusements are in close organic relation with existing social conditions, just as was the case in previous historical periods.
All the institutions of entertainment and recreation—including the public games, football, baseball, boxing, and horse racing—are thoroughly organised on a capitalist basis. They are owned and controlled by private property owners with no other object in the main than financial profit. To-day the professional player who once occupied but a minor rôle now covers practically the whole field. The great majority of the players both in the theatres and in the sports are wage-workers. Exploitation and oppression prevails in the production of our most thoroughly enjoyable entertainments just as in any other sphere of industry. The means of amusement have become largely standardised “factory products” and as dependent uppn the fluctuations of supply and demand as any other commodities.
As in other industrial fields, science and machinery have been applied to the production of amusement, especially in the mechanical devices, rides and so on, of the Pleasure Park and in the cinema. The enormous growth and popularity of motion-pictures is one of the striking phenomena of our times. It has become of all forms of popular amusement the one peculiarly characteristic of the latest phase of industrialism; In the cinema industry, which is claimed as the third in point of size in theUnited States, vast quantities of capital have been invested. It is organised internationally and the market for its products is the whole world.
Summing up the above, then, we may say that the public amusements under capitalism have lost all trace of their once intimate connection with social tradition, with communal, religious, or political life. We no longer attend the dance, the games, or the theatre as a rite, as a religious duty, or as a social function. The bourgeoisie of to-day have their own strictly class amusements and relaxations, and these to some extent retain social, and even political, characteristics. But the great popular games and entertainments with which we are here concerned are purely commercial in their methods and aims, and when an individual desires diversion and can pay for it he goes to the place where it is for sale and buys as much as he can afford or cares for.
Nevertheless, the social amusements occupy a place of greater prominence than possibly at any time in the past, and certainly they absorb the permanent labours of a far larger proportion of the population and cater for an immensely greater audience. The primary organisations for amusement are now permanent instead of being temporary and periodic. Every large city has its scores, its hundreds, or its thousands of theatres and cinema-houses—many open every day in the year. Here, then, is proof that, in spite of having shed their traditional character, these institutions draw their vitality from some deep social necessity and are a response to an insistent social demand.
Let us consider the manner of life of the masses of the people in modern communities. The great majority are workers engaged in the production and distribution of wealth. Destitute of property, they sell their natural energy to the owners of capital. They have no control over their labour and no interest in its product. The peasant, even when a tenant, has an interest in the land and its products that is unknown to the industrial worker. In the highly organised spheres of production the labour of the workers is machine-regulated to a degree of monotony never before known. The machine has ousted the craftsman, so that the “joy of workmanship” exists to-day only as a rare and curious survival. The typical worker in the most technically developed industries is the machine-feeder—the man at the power-press, punching holes in a metal sheet—all exactly alike—so many per minute—all day—for hundreds of days.
Even outside the workshop, the worker’s life is a monotonous routine. Home-life and comfort is more of an ideal than a fact. Living in the ugly congested areas of the great cities, he has little opportunity for healthy exercise in the open or of invigorating contact with the glory of beauty of Nature. His poverty will not allow him any really elevating luxuries, and the continuous round of exhausting and degrading toil leaves him with neither the energy nor the desire for self-education or for artistic or scientific pursuits. His life is like a narrow groove running in a perpetual circle; habit and ignorance make him fearful of changing the groove, and even when he does so he discovers that in general all the circles open to him are very much alike. Moreover, he cannot afford to take chances—he may have a family dependent on his regular wage, and in any case the prospect of unemployment is no enviable one. Occasionally, here and there a worker kicks, succeeds in breaking the circle and achieves a precarious life of greater freedom, excitement and variety as a tramp or a criminal; but the ideal of the mass of the workers necessarily is—a permanent or “steady” job, which almost inevitably spells inescapable monotony.
But this is not all. The lives of the toilers have always been narrow, drab, and monotonous. But to the slave or the serf, and even the peasant of our own day, the world itself was a relatively small place, often not much larger than the village or district in which he lived.
To-day, however, the whole world has been knit together by commerce and communications, and the horizon of knowledge has been enormously extended to include every land and every race and nation. Modern literature opens up for the reader the whole world, and describes—if only superficially—every part of the earth, every class in society, and every period of the past. Even the penny newspaper brings us news from “the ends of the earth.”
By contrast, then, with what the imagination can offer, the real everyday life of the mass of the population to-day appears vastly meaner, duller, and narrower than ever it did in the past. The imagination has been stimulated, and a yearning for variety, beauty, colour, and excitement produced which in real life can find no outlet, no satisfaction. Hence the widespread efforts to escape from reality into the boundless world of fiction and romance, and hence the enormous consumption of romantic literature and the fascination of millions by the “movies.” Naturally, it is the adolescent and young people who are primarily affected—youth is the period of romantic visions, but there are no restrictions of age in the drawing power of the cinema. Once the habit of seeking emotional stimulus in the “movies” has become rooted, it becomes almost a necessity of existence, as anyone can discover by a few minutes’ conversation with a “movie-fiend.”
Doubtless the thirst for thrills and the desire to escape from deadening reality is as readily satisfied by the stage-drama and the novel, but the motion-picture has peculiarities that make it well fitted to be the most popular vehicle to this end. It tells its story in visual pictures instead of verbal description, it can be exceedingly vivid and convincing, and it is cheap and easily accessible. The cinema demands less mental energy than reading, requires less imagination than the drama, and calls for only a small amount of intelligence. It is therefore eminently adapted to the recreational and imaginative needs of a population starved of beauty and intellectually stunted by over-work and mal-education.
The cinema has thus become the popular entertainment of capitalism par excellence. Its development is so immense that it even threatens the regular theatre with near extinction. Its audience is the most gigantic in the world’s history. Its statistics are almost incredible. In 1920 the estimated number of picture-theatres in the United States was 17,000, and the daily attendance ten millions. The figures for the British Isles in the same year were 5,000 picture-theatres with an average daily attendance of six millions—the attendance having almost doubled in three years. As far back as 1917, the attendance for the year in the British Isles was well over one thousand millions (“Ency. Britt., new vol. 30).
The social influence of the cinema, and its value in direct propaganda, is immense. In its indirect influence in fostering and inculcating all the mental habits and moral ideals of the bourgeoisie, in cultivating a worship of wealth and luxury, and an unthinking response to nationalist sentiment, its effect upon the minds of the workers is pernicious in the extreme, doing much to blind them to the fundamental cause of the very drudgery, degradation, and meanness of life which impels them to seek oblivion and stimulation in the glamour of the film.
We shall not here discuss the artistic level and possibilities of the cinema. It is sometimes claimed that it has a brilliant artistic future, and this may be so. One thing, however, must be insisted upon, and that is, that the admittedly low artistic standard of the majority of moving-pictures is due first to the low intellectual development of the vast masses of wage-slaves who form their audience, and secondly to the necessity of hiding from this audience the truth about social life. It is not due to the incapacity of this producer or that—the producers are business-men first and “artists” a long way afterwards, and—“what pays goes.”
In conclusion : may we hope for a healthier, more artistic, and more intelligent standard of popular entertainment in the future? The answer is plain. So long as the mass of the people have to endure arduous, monotonous toil and poverty, so long will the present widespread craving for thrills and illusion continue. Existing conditions of labour leave the average workers mentally and physically exhausted and with neither time nor inclination for intellectual or cultural development. While these conditions remain, the prevailing popular forms of diversion will be those which readily stimulate the crudest emotions by the most obvious means and make little call upon the intellect.
While, therefore, it is quite likely that, with the growing revolt against capitalism, a small but increasing section of the population will demand and receive a higher standard of recreation and of dramatic art—such a section of course exists to-day—until capitalism is destroyed, things will remain much as they are or, possibly, for a time, even become worse.
With the reorganisation of society on the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, and the consequent disappearance of slavery and drudgery, will come a rebirth of the real spirit of association and conscious co-operation that capitalism has done so much to destroy. Public recreations will become again truly social, and they will be the vivid expression of the joy in life and the fellowship of free and equal men and women. A wider and nobler education will make possible the utilisation of an abundant and increasing leisure to understand and enjoy the titanic, wonderful drama of the universe in which we live. Artificial and hectic amusements and exaggerated melodrama will no longer be necessary in order to make us forget the meanness and narrowness of our lives. Only that art will flourish that genuinely represents the unfettered response of the human mind to the beauty, the wonder, and the tragedy of the Universe and Life.
R. W. HOUSLEY.
(SOCIALIST STANDARD, FEBRUARY 1925)