The information society: selling the system
This is a chapter from ‘Stop Supporting Capitalism – Start Building Socialism’ by Stan Parker, published by Bridge Books (2002). Published by agreement with the author.
Capitalism cannot live by bread alone – if ‘bread’ is a metaphor for the whole range of goods and services produced and sold on the market. The profit system needs the consuming time of workers as well as their producing time (Harvey, 1982:448). And to make both capitalist production and consumption possible, it needs the appropriate consenting ideas of the vast mass of the population. This consent doesn’t have to take the form of active support – apathetic or even despairing acquiescence will do.
The task facing the active proponents of capitalism is to sell the system to the mass of people – most obviously at election times but implicitly at all other times. Increasingly sophisticated methods to do this are used in an increasingly ‘information’ society. We must first be educated (trained would be a more accurate word to describe what really goes on) to take our place in capitalist society. We must consume as much as is profitable for ‘business’ to sell us. The mass media of communication are there to tell us what we should think and do. The mass media and hegemonic Cupertino of the subordinate mass combine to produce a culture of consumption.
So this chapter will examine four related processes designed to preserve and put an acceptable face on capitalism: education, the mass media, hegemony, and a culture of consumption.
Education of the young is the first way in which they are given a foretaste of what life will be like when they reach adulthood. Most children are given a deceptively benign introduction to capitalist schooling. At first no pressure is put on them to do other than play and have their natural inquisitiveness and sense of adventure stimulated and satisfied. But this soon gives way to the real business of education. Schooling takes the place of kindergarten. Some children don’t even have the benefit of kindergarten – they are thrown straight into school. Starting with first year children, a concept called ‘career education’ has been used to permeate all academic subjects at all levels of education:
The whole curriculum, from start to finish, is conducted within an atmosphere of competition and stress, together with a weeding-out process which segregates those with supposedly superior talents from those less fortunate. This is accomplished through the use of tests, examinations and grading, all of which have a direct bearing upon ultimate occupations and potential earnings. Such an environment prevents the pleasurable pursuit of education as a primary end in itself. The young find themselves involved in an intensive training programme, presented under the guise of education, which will ultimately affect the price of their labour-power and in many instances can prove disastrous healthwise (Ghebre, 1994:107).
Thus schools – or at least the general run of state schools and even many of the fee-paying schools – produce minimally skilled workers for wage or salary labour. These institutions ‘educate’ workers to an ideology of compliance. Schools play an essential role in maintaining the status quo. ‘A capitalist society requires certain general human traits and institutional features, and schools function to fulfil these demands’ (Liston, 1988:16).
Education for life has long been a goal set up and discussed by teachers and others. Capitalism is increasingly eroding that role, transforming it into education for employment (or unemployment). The idea is ‘that school should equip children from all social backgrounds with a greater understanding and experience of the world of work, and in the process equip them with social and technical skills required by employers’ (Cohen, 1990:51).
The raw material of education – the acquisition and evaluation of knowledge – is strongly influenced by its capitalist environment. As Cohen ruefully admits, ‘Really useful knowledge has come to mean skills which help you get on and make it, not insights that help you combine with others to build a better world’ (1990:52). The privatisation of the public realm, the permeation of market values into the most intimate reaches of personal and social life, is apparent at all levels of education.
Privatisation is particularly evident in academia itself. Academics are increasingly obliged to act (and some no doubt willingly act) as agents of capital within the public sector (Slaughter and Leslie, 1997:9).. They look for commercial funding for projects that are tied to national policy institutions and are partnered by prestigious firms, usually national or multinational in scope. Their own advancement is no longer dependent primarily on publications. Instead it depends at least partly on success in marketing activity. The scope of subject relevance is limited tacitly to exclude challenge of the status quo.
The University of the Third Age (U3A) is a network of voluntary educational groups catering for the ‘serious leisure’ needs of older people. It is proud of its emphasis on learning for its own sake, on not issuing paper qualifications linked to the labour market. I attended a U3A economics group meeting on multinational corporations and listened patiently while details of the structure and operation of those corporations were given but not examined in any critical way. I put a question which suggested that a system based on meeting need, not seeking profit, would abolish multinational corporations. I was ruled out of order. Most of the audience indicated their approval of that ruling and the rest looked sheepish. Capitalism had done a good job on them.
The mass media of communication
Before the invention of newspapers, radio and television, people had to rely for information, knowledge and entertainment mostly on unmediated interaction with other human beings. We know little about the formation of public opinion in pre-mass media times. There were teachers and preachers and grapevines along which news and views could travel. Those lines of communication still exist today, but they are overshadowed by the power of the mechanical and electronic media to tell us what is going on in the world, what politicians decide when faced with problems, and which camp the multitude should follow.
During the last few decades, and in parts of the world often described as economically developed, far-reaching social and economic changes have taken place. From having a majority of the working class making goods, the emphasis has shifted to providing services and handling information in various ways. In a word, industrial capitalism has changed to information capitalism. This doesn’t mean that the exploitation of labour by capital has ceased, or even been diminished. Rather, the nature of that exploitation has changed, as Morris-Susuki (1997:65) spells out:
Industrial capitalism, based on direct exploitation of the manufacturing workforce, is transmuted by the process of automation into a new system where exploitation increasingly encompasses all those involved in the creation of social knowledge and in its transmission from generation to generation. Against the idea of a ‘post-industrial’ or ‘information’ society which has spontaneously and painlessly become ‘post-capitalist’, we can counterpose the idea of ‘information capitalism’ where high levels of automation and the ‘softening of the economy’ coexist with new and widening spheres of exploitation of the many by the few.
Ruling class ownership and control of physical capital – land, factories, railways, etc. – has not ended. Instead the powers and privileges associated with that ownership have been vastly increased and secured by extension of that ownership to ‘information’ capital (newspaper, radio and television companies, and so on). Some information is regarded by economists as a ‘free good’, but the means of mass communication are today certainly not free. Furthermore, those means of communication are jealously guarded by national governments on behalf of their respective ruling classes. In times of war, the television stations of the enemy are included in the targets to be ‘taken out’ as part of the campaign. As Coleman (1997:162) points out, the control of free speech has become more humane, but new technology has enabled it to become more subtle and effective:
Where once power elites severed the tongues of dissenters, perhaps now the policy is to switch off the microphone; a more civilised, but no less undemocratic, form of gagging. If the modern resistance to unregulated discussion, in Britain if not elsewhere, draws the line well short of massacring workers in Manchester or surrounding the Hyde Park gates with police, we have yet to see what response there would be for a struggle for equal access to and control of the contemporary means of mass communication.
The interests of information capital seem to be best served, not by denying workers all access to the media, but by allowing selected small minorities of them to have a piece of the action, to give the semblance of some measure of free speech. Thus we have phone-in radio programmes which purport to be ‘the voice of the nation’. But, as Coleman (1997:125) notes, ‘Phone-ins often accentuate the gulf between the authoritative expert and the humbly questioning laity.’ Television consumer watchdog programmes serve the same deceptive purpose. A few customers have their complaints against inefficient or unscrupulous companies upheld and compensated for. This is designed to strengthen our confidence in making purchases where we are subject only to normal, rather than exceptional, exploitation.
Defenders of the mass media point to the choice available to consumers as justification for its increasing role in telling us what to think and what to buy. But the 500 television channels promised for every household will bring only an illusion of variety and choice (Martin and Schumann, 1997;18). Choice at the margin hides denial of choice at the core. If all candidates at an election stand only for slightly different ways of running capitalism, then those who wish to reject the profit system and live in some other kind of society are given no choice at all.
A mass in its most human form is happily co-operative, giving and taking, sharing, creative in its actions and experiences, stressing the indissoluble nature of the individual and society. A mass in its least human form is cruelly competitive, isolated, ignorant, easily inflamed by base emotions, elevating and glorifying the individual above society, empowering and blindly following power-hungry and often psychopathic leaders to destructive ends.
Profit society likes things to be privatised, not socialised. Business-friendly governments – there is no other kind – promote the mass communication industry. According to Keane (1991:192), privatisation of the means of communication under state control
is likely to penetrate the heart of everyday life – reshaping our language, our sense of time and space, our basic likes and loves. It may be that citizens will no longer invest any hopes in public life. Perhaps they will amuse themselves to death, spending their spare time ‘grazing’ the new abundance of pre-censored, commercialized radio, television, newspapers and magazines. Perhaps they will be persuaded to privatize themselves, to regard politics as a nuisance, to transform themselves silently and unprotestingly from citizens to mobile and private consumers.
One of the most popular types of radio and television programme is the soap opera. The label ‘soap opera’ was first attached to dramatic sagas broadcast by American radio in the 1930s. Drama of this sort was found to be the cheapest way of filling in the gaps between the commercials for detergents which sponsored the shows. The business has expanded enormously. Every week the studios receive messages of love, hate, advice and enquiry about people who do not exist. Soap operas are worthy of close critical analysis, and Jay (1986:167) offers just that:
Most soap operas, for most of the time, play a part in confirming social prejudices which support capitalism. Implicit in the drama, or as the critics say ‘written into the sub-text’, are all sorts of notions about the world we live in… They include the ideas that people suffer from something horrible called ‘human nature’ – an incurable condition that can only be softened or controlled but never removed. It means that people are innately anti-social or irrational. Other assumptions include the idea that the majority of people are not intelligent or responsible enough to exist socially without bosses, political leaders and police forces to keep them in order.
The role of soap operas in promoting acquiescence in the profit system is also recognised by Chomsky (1991:370), who links that role with the electoral process and the public education system, both of which have the same goal:
The citizens in a capitalist democracy must be diverted by emotionally potent oversimplifications, marginalized, and isolated. Ideally, each person should be alone in front of the television screen, watch sports, soap operas or commercials, deprived of organizational structures that permit individuals lacking resources to discover what they think and believe in interaction with others, to formulate their own concerns and programs, and to act to realise them. They can be permitted, even encouraged, to ratify the decisions of their betters in periodic elections. The rascal multitude are the proper targets of the mass media and a public education system geared to obedience and training in needed skills, including the skill of repeating patriotic slogans on timely occasions.
If individuals are isolated when subject to largely one-way communication, they are cut off from sources which could challenge the validity of the overt and covert messages received. The audiences for soap operas, newspaper stories and political pronouncements are guided subtly towards conformity. They are made to feel uncomfortable about challenging anything beyond the superficial differences in what is presented to them. Stratman (n.d.:49) sums up this situation:
The media generate a kind of false community, dominated by corporate values and corporate images of the world. To join your fellow humans in this community, all you have to do is surrender your real feelings and values to agree with whatever it is that the media say that other people think… however contemptuous of the politicians and corporate leaders who parade across the screen, however a person feels about the reality presented by the media, he can still be made to feel that ‘nobody feels this way but me’.
Discussion of the mass media leads us to consider another and related feature of capitalist society, the way in which its victims are persuaded to cooperate in their own exploitation. It is one thing to have a substantial part of your labour power stolen from you, to endure poverty, wars, environmental degradation, and so on. It is quite another thing to be convinced that there is no alternative to things being that way, that no changes but the most superficial ones are worth the effort of even thinking about. That craftily critical supporter of capitalism, Galbraith, taunts us with the observation that ‘the controlling contentment and resulting belief is now that of the many, not just of the few’ (1993:10).
Marx can be forgiven for not having recognised and analysed the ways in which hegemony has come to play such an important part in the sustenance and development of capitalism. In his day the information society was in its infancy. Poorly educated workers, without the vote and subject to a more brutal form of class and property society than we have today, could more easily have felt that it was their system, not ours. A number of writers have contributed to our understanding of what hegemony is and how it works. I start with one of the clearest statements, perhaps an unlikely find in a book mainly about leisure:
Hegemony entails class domination through the participation of subordinate classes. In our daily work and leisure activities we participate in creating the conditions and social relations that shape our lives… Hegemony varies in strength; it is never total, secure, complete but is susceptible to attack, degeneration, undermining, displacement. A practice is hegemonic to the degree that its structure is defined by elites, by centralized social structures, and even by the physical space and objects available for the practice – relative to being controlled by its practitioners. A study of the commercialisation of leisure reveals how that part of our lived experience supposed to be free of domination is transformed by capitalist development. The expropriation of the means of leisure is a prerequisite for commercialization… A generation that grows up with purchased leisure may not develop the skills of self-entertainment (Butsch, 1990:8).
Butsch goes on to describe how most contemporary leisure practices are not entirely the impositions of profit-seeking capital, nor are they entirely the free expression of what consumers want. They are a combination of both. Ideas for new products, services and experiences are not simply reflections of capitalism but are also mass-mediated expressions of people. Consumers participate in shaping new products and practices, which corporations in turn shape into profitable sales and supporting mass culture.
Some years ago Gorz (1966:328) recognised the hegemonic nature of capitalism and the vital role that workers play in keeping it going: ‘Workers endorse the employers’ power every day, by clocking in on time, by submitting to work which they have no hand in organising, by taking home pay-packets… Modern industry’s dominant tendency is no longer the maximum exploitation of the workers. The dominant tendency is to ‘integrate’ the workers into the system.’
For capitalism to stagger from one crisis to the next, to alternate between boom and slump, to produce extremes of wealth and poverty, but to provide tolerable conditions for most of the people most of the time, it is not necessary that everyone wholeheartedly supports the system. It is better for ‘stability’ that the way things are organised and controlled is not even seen as a system, as one possibility among others. The commitment of subordinates to the system is likely to take the form mostly of pragmatic acquiescence rather than normative or ideological involvement (Hill, 1990:3). However keen on the ideology of the profit system its beneficiaries and apologists may be, however wise they may appear to be in selecting for support the best of all possible systems, it is safer for them to rely on TINA (‘there is no alternative’), as Miliband (1994:11) spells out:
Hegemony… is usually taken to mean the capacity of ruling classes to instil their values into subordinate classes and to turn these values into the ‘common sense of the epoch’. By now, hegemony has acquired an additional meaning: it must also be taken to mean the capacity of ruling classes to persuade subordinate classes that, whatever they may think of the social order, and however much they may be alienated from it, there is no alternative to it. Hegemony depends not so much on consent as on resignation.
Kolakowski (1978:242) carries the argument a stage further, echoing and developing the Marxist claim that the prevailing ideas of the time are those of the ruling class, formulated and disseminated as a result of that class’s ownership and control of the intellectual and cultural as well as the physical means of production. He also outlines the challenge facing workers to overcome the prevailing status-quo culture and to substitute a revolutionary and egalitarian culture:
… hegemony signifies the control of the intellectual life of society by purely cultural means. Every class tries to secure a governing position not only in public institutions but also in regard to the opinions, values and standards acknowledged by the bulk of society. The privileged classes in their time secured a position of hegemony in the intellectual as well as the political sphere; they subjugated the others by this means, and intellectual supremacy was a precondition of political rule. The main task of the workers in modern times was to liberate themselves spiritually from the culture of the bourgeoisie
But the challenge has not been met and hegemony persists. The bourgeois culture extends far beyond intellectual life and politics. It permeates education, the family, everyday life, work and leisure. No aspect of social structure and individual life is untouched by capitalist values, though they may be resisted. If those values are ubiquitous today we must remember that they have not always existed and need not exist indefinitely into the future.
A culture of consumption
Historians and archaeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities.(Marshall McLuhan)
The incessant witless repetition of advertisers’ moron-fodder has become so much a part of life that if we are not careful, we forget to be insulted by it.(The Times)
These quotes, appearing among others on the back cover of a book by Robinson (1998), illustrate from different points of view the pervasive role that the process of persuading us to consume performs in capitalist society. Advertising is part of this process, but so are the associated ‘industries’ of marketing, market research, public relations, lobbying, think tanks, image and presentation consultancies, consumer advice and protection bodies and programmes (Beder, 2000:276). Late capitalism is increasingly a culture of consumption. Shop till you drop is a popular injunction (perhaps buy till you die is too morbid an idea to be successfully marketed).
There is profit in selling things to people who cannot really afford to buy them but can be enticed, cajoled or shamed into buying them. There is even more profit in concentrating sales efforts on people with money who can be more easily lured into buying things they don’t need but can be persuaded to want. Battery-powered dancing beer cans and waterproof bible cases are available to American consumers. In Japan you can buy a doll which precisely resembles your own child (you’re never too young to become a customer).
The culture of consumption is one example of hegemony. It creates realms of negotiation and empowerment in the consumption and interpretations that sustain the legitimacy of domination. Even trends of protest in fashion, film, music, travel and leisure soon become mass-marketed for privatized consumption.
The importance to capitalism of our role as consumers is evident in the huge amount of time, effort and money that goes into monitoring our buying habits, ‘lifestyle’ choices and financial stature (Staples, 1997:81). Apparently one consulting firm sneaks tiny cameras inside frozen-food compartments in supermarkets to chart the eye movements of shoppers in the hope of determining better placement for high-margin items (Robinson, 1998:114).
We are cast as accomplices in our own commercial seduction. Every time we hand out information about ourselves we are feeding databases with more details. Every time we buy something with a credit card we leave a breadcrumb on the trail of our consumer habits. Such crumbs of information are diligently saved, analysed, processed and disseminated by market research sparrows. Their conclusions affect the mail offers we receive, the tele-marketing calls we get, what products go on our local supermarket shelves.
The culture of consumption depends very largely on the use of technology for its maintenance and development. In theory, technology is neutral regarding the type of society we live in. We should be as able to use technology for revolutionary purposes as for status quo purposes. But the vital decisions about technology are not in neutral hands. They are in the hands of those who benefit most from the present arrangements.
Early in the twentieth century the technology of Taylorism was used to make factory production more profitable. Work operations were broken down, speeded up, priced more economically to the employer. Mattelart (1979:175) suggests that the norms of Taylorism have invaded the educational sphere: they preside over the tightening up of the ideological apparatus to watch over the commercial potential of young minds.
An adequate understanding of capitalism, undertaking not merely to understand it but more importantly to surpass it, requires understanding the various social forces that hold it together, the complex intermingling and reciprocity of politics, prevailing ideology, property rights, the functions of money, mass media, education, and much else. Bocock (1986:33) makes an admirable attempt to survey this vast field, in a passage which I locate here rather than elsewhere in the book because he concludes with the formation of the desire to consume goods and services, in other words the culture of consumption:
The workers, and others, hold the values and political ideas that they do as a consequence of both trying to survive, and of attempting to enjoy themselves, within capitalism. These activities require money; the cash nexus remains, therefore, a major means of social, economic and political control. The control exerted by the cash nexus is mediated by ideological means, for people have to come to desire the goods offered for sale. Such desires are not natural or inborn, and they are not taken for granted by modern capitalism. The desires to consume various products have to be constructed by ideological apparatuses, especially in the mass media – not only by explicit advertisements but more especially through the portrayal of life-styles in stories, films, articles, photographs and television images. No revolution led by the proletariat of the Western capitalist societies is in sight on this view, as long as their desire to consume goods and services are being formed in this way.
It would be dangerously close to a single issue approach to a complex world to believe that workers’ consuming desires and habits are the only, or even the main, thing standing in the way of their joining a revolution to abolish capitalism and replace it with a system more worthy of their potential development. However, there is much evidence that capitalism does lead us to depend on consuming for our happiness and our sense of self (‘I consume, therefore I am’).
There is nothing wrong with seeking to satisfy your own authentic needs, the needs of others and of the community and society in which you live. But there is something seriously wrong with a society that is based so firmly on commercial relationships and fosters a culture of consumption in which the basic needs of much of the world’s population remain unmet. Even under the pressures of capitalism, we are not just buyers and sellers, exploited and exploiters. Acts of giving and taking, sharing, co-operating, going out of one’s way to help others, are not usually prominent when ‘human nature’ is discussed. But such acts are there to be maximised in a new society where consumerism will be a thing of the past.