1980s >> 1984 >> no-961-september-1984

Free the airwaves!

The rapid development of the technology of communications makes present social relations more and more outdated with every day. The obstacle to a more free use of these exciting new channels is the same as that which has held back the spreading of knowledge for hundreds of years: the fact that a minority class possess and control the means of communication just as they do the means of production in general.

In 1637, under a decree of the Star Chamber, whipping, the pillory and imprisonment were to be the penalties for publishing without the consent of the licensers, who were headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In later years, an invidious “tax on knowledge” known as the Stamp Duty was the slightly more subtle method used to prevent the majority of the population making “subversive” use of their growing literacy. In 1831, however, and in defiance of the Stamp Duty laws. Henry Hetherington brought out the Poor Man’s Guardian, a “weekly newspaper for the people, established contrary to law, to try the power of ‘Might’ against ‘Right’, price Id”. On the front page, in place of the official government red stamp was a black one inscribed “Knowledge is Power”, with a drawing of a printing press and the words “Liberty of the Press”. The first paragraph of this journal is worth quoting from, if only to demonstrate the difference between this early working-class paper, and its latter-day name-sake, the Liberal Man’s Guardian:

No more evasion; we will rot trespass, but deny the authority of our “lords” to enclose the common against us; we will demand our right, nor treat but with contempt the despotic “law” which would deprive us of it.

The Stamp Duty was finally abolished in 1855, but not before Hetherington had served a prison sentence for his pains.

The capitalist state is a coercive machine and overcomes the sporadic resistance of individuals and groups by resorting to force or the threat of it. But it could not survive for long if it had constantly to use such brutal (and costly) methods. In the course of the nineteenth century in Europe there gradually evolved an ideology of reformism, the intention of which was to replace repression with placatory gestures to accommodate the working class into the administration of their own exploitation. This presented the ruling class with a dilemma on the question of working-class literacy. As a Justice of the Peace was quoted as saying in 1807:

It is doubtless desirable that the poor should be instructed in reading, if it were only for the best of purposes — that they may read the scriptures. As to writing and arithmetic, it may be apprehended that such a degree of knowledge would produce in them a derelish for the laborious occupations of life.

In 1870, this dilemma was solved through the enactment of the Education Act. which provided for a standard system of state-controlled schooling, capable of manufacturing the raw material for modern industry: literate, numerate and disciplined wage-slaves. The tradition of independent working-class self-education continued to flourish, however, in Mechanics Institutes, in bodies such as the Workers Educational Association, and through the carefully preserved bookshelves of knowledge passed down from one generation of workers to another, cherished for the relevance of their contents to the problems which confront workers: the works of Marx and Engels, of William Morris and Robert Tressell.

The early twentieth century witnessed an explosion of large-scale communication technologies, once again under the strict and stifling control of the state or of private business interests. In 1984, more than one hundred and fifty years after the publication of the Poor Man’s Guardian, it is still illegal for anyone to broadcast publicly over the airwaves to others, without the (unlikely) approval of the BBC or IBA. The 1949 Wireless Telegraphy Act allows the Home Office almost total power to control and regulate the use of the frequency spectrum. The capitalist class monopolise the land and factories across the world (including the state capitalist Russian empire); the air itself, however, is no more immune from this tragic abdication of responsibility for our world and lives which we make by allowing a minority to possess that world.

The 1930s saw the evolution of the new culture industry, with an increasingly uniform state-regulated leisure entering the sway of the world market. In marketing communications as a commodity in itself, huge profits were accumulated. The big telecommunications multinationals such as IBM. ITT, Western Electric and AT & T are usually to be found on the list of top ten US companies today.

Of course, there have continually been attempts at various levels to evade this monopoly. In 1962 a young Irish businessman. Ronan O’Rahilly, tried to promote a recording of Georgie Fame and came up against the power of EMI, Decca, Pye and Philips, who between them cornered 99 per cent of the market. All the radio stations, including Radio Luxembourg, were working hand in glove with these companies, so O’Rahilly founded Radio Caroline. In 1967, however, the Labour government’s Marine Broadcasting Offences Bill outlawed all the pirate stations and later that year the BBC’s new 4-channel radio service came into operation with Radio One as a pop channel, all safely under the control of the (Labour administered) capitalist state.

Communications technology in the twentieth century has been developed according to the needs of profit and, as a corollary to this, according to military needs. By the mid-seventies there were, according to NASA, about 3,700 satellites in space. Of these, only a handful were communications satellites; the vast majority served the military establishments of the superpowers, in command and message systems, logistics, interception and surveillance.

Under capitalism, the latest advances in communication technology will be used to improve the efficiency of profit accumulation while dividing people more and more from one another and from their own self- determined needs. For example an advertisement for one of the home microcomputers on the market speaks of the delights of “balancing the family budget” (working out what you can no longer afford after splashing out on the computer) and of “the fascination of controlling your own private little world” as being “addictive”.

With the advent of socialist democracy, there could be a great proliferation of multilateral communications systems. We must forget the false division between the passive entertainment of the media and the active process of education. In the words of Brecht, “Radio must be changed from a means of distribution to a means of communication”. But for the devices at the disposal of humanity to be used to enhance, rather than obstruct, the democratic control of society, we must replace the social relationship of employers and employed which permeates the world today with social relationships of equality and co-operation:

A microphone is not an car, a camera is not an eye and a computer is not a brain . . . as we design technological systems, we are in fact designing sets of social relationships. (Mike Cooley, Architect or Bee?)

The forms which communication takes will be directly related, in other words, to the form which society takes. If we are to start communicating with one another globally on the sophisticated level which modern technology has made possible it is a social revolution, rather than a technological revolution, which is urgently needed.

Clifford Slapper