In general Marxists tend to focus on the role of the mass media as being concerned with the proliferation of the status quo as opposed to pluralists who focus on the role of the media as one of promoting free speech. Marxists tend to view capitalistic societies as societies of class domination and the media is viewed as the arena where clashing views with the status quo are quashed. Control is increasingly concentrated in capital and the media is one tool used for the maintenance of the situation due to its ability to relay messages/propaganda that foster the interests of the dominant or ruling class. The media has a special type of power to keep things as they are. Yet the academic view of how powerful or how direct the effects of the media’s messages on audiences actually are appears to vary depending on the times. McQuail (1987) discusses four stages of how the media has been viewed to affect audiences:
In the first stage which extends from the early 1900s to the late 1930s the media was considered to be very powerful and McQuail designates this phase the all-powerful media. In this phase the media was reflected is having a type overarching control over it audiences.
2. In phase two (that lasted up until the 1960s) the use of film as an indoctrination or powerful influence was investigated. For example, the harmful effects of the media on children, especially television, was investigated in the 1950s. It was during this time that different variables were considered to determine the extent of the media’s influence. The media was no longer seen as this great all-powerful shaper of opinion, but instead moderated opinion depending on the context.
3. The third phase resulted in a return to the understanding that the media could indeed influence audiences strongly, especially through advertising and how the media shaped the content of the message before exposing it to the audience. For instance, the civil rights movements of the 60s and protest against the war in Vietnam in the United States began as small protests but were immediately perceived as large overarching protests due to their portrayal by the media.
4. The fourth phase of conceptualizing media influenced occurred in the late 70s and incorporated a social constructionist type of flair by assuming the media exerted influence by constructing meanings. Meanings are corporative held by audiences based on how the audience constructs the meaning of the message (e.g. Hall et al. 1980).
While the actual degree of influence the media can exert over its intended audience may vary give a number of variables including how research on the effects of media is conducted, the zeitgeist of the times, and how much access the audience has to alternate forms of information (such as the Internet today) there is no question that the media has exerted important influences on its audience since the industrial revolution. As the communication capabilities of the media improved it became more accessible and the audience influenced by it grew from a few people to large masses. Blumer (1951) described these mass audiences in terms of four major dimensions that have relevancy to the Marxist notion how the media is used to influence the masses. It is also important to note that Blumer described the notion of a mass audience shortly following World War II. He had witnessed both Nazi Germany’s and Communist Russia’s manipulation of the media to target the populations of each country and his four dimensions of mass audiences may not be fully applicable in the era of social media. The four dimensions of the mass audience according to Blumer (1951) are:
1. The mass audience includes members from all walks of life, all social classes, locations, economic statuses, and cultural groups.
2. The mass audience is essentially an anonymous group composed of anonymous individuals. Blumer use the term anonymous to designate the notion that the mass audience is composed of members that do not know necessarily know one another as opposed to earlier notions of small communities that were more intimate (however, with the creation of the internet this has changed somewhat).
3. Mass audiences engage in little interaction or exchange of their experiences. Since the mass audience is comprised of individuals who are anonymous (do not know each other) and separated from each other they do not have a chance to interact in the same manner that a small community does (again the internet and social media has altered this somewhat).
4. Mass audiences are not tightly organized and do not act in unity with one another. As a rule mass audiences did not form of crowds or groups.
The powerful media would be optimally effective in controlling a mass audience such as Blumer (1951) described because of the mass audience’s lack of unity or familiarity and inability or lack of desire to critically evaluate the messages. This type of power would consist of an “invisible” type of control. VeneKlasen and Miller (2002) describe four types of power:
1. Power With. This type of power is a result of building collective strength, collaboration, and sodality. This type of power seeks to build equitable relations between people or between groups.
2. Power To. This type of power refers to the ability to shape one’s life for one’s conditions. While this is generally considered to be applied to individuals it can also refer to a type of power that groups or social classes can exert in shaping their own circumstances.
3. Power Within. This type of power has to do with a sense of self-knowledge or self-worth, the ability to recognize one’s differences in others’ differences in respect both.
4. Power Over. This type of power is generally the type of power most people define when discussing influence or power. This type of power has often been associated with negative affect such as coercion, force, discrimination, and/or repression. This type of power is considered the zero-sum situation where in order to exert or possess this type of power one group for one person must take it away from some other group or person. This is the type of power that Marxists are typically referring to when discussing the effects of the all-powerful media.
The ultimate notion of the all powerful media can be illustrated in the “hypodermic needle theory” of the media that was relatively popular in the 1940s and 1950s (Davis and Baron 1981). This theory implies that the media has a direct, immediate, and very powerful effect on the audience. This type of inoculation effect of the media is especially effective if one considers Blumer’s (1951) notion of the mass audience. Several important factors contributed to this powerful influence on the receivers: First, the rather quick rise of radio and newspapers led to the media being able to deliver its message to mass audiences. Second, Hitler’s use of mass media in Germany served as a shining example of how the mass audience could be influenced by a small group exploiting the media for its own means. Third, along with the propaganda machine used by Hitler the advertising industry had emerged during this time and behavioral psychologists like John Watson were involved in using psychological principles of persuasion in media messages for advertising. Fourth, in the 1930s studies known as the Payne Fund studies at investigated the impact of motion pictures and the behavior of children and found a strong relationship between how children behave and the types of films that they watched.
Thus, this theory suggests that a mass audience could be uniformly and directly influenced by a powerful media that “injects” them with appropriate messages designed to trigger a specific response. The message (the needle or the bullet in the magic bullet theory) as a direct and powerful influence on the masses was reinforced in 1938 when the Orson Welles broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” on radio resulted in widespread panic that aliens have landed in the United States. However, election studies looking at voting patterns in the 1940 American presidential elections contradicted the notion of the media as a magic bullet or hypodermic needle. Nonetheless, in Marxist analysis of the media this edition of the media is viewed as being “locked” in the dominant power structure and acts in unison with the dominant institutions in any society. The media presents viewpoints of the dominant institutions not in terms of one of many alternative perspectives but as the central or “natural perspective” (Curran et al. 1982). The mass media attempts to avoid issues that are unconventional or unpopular and instead focuses on viewpoints that are widely legitimized and of value to those in power (Murdock and Golding 1977). The media acts as an ideological mechanism that serves to legitimize, renew, amplify, and extend the predispositions of the dominant culture or dominant ideology and not to create new ways of thinking (Curran et al. 1982).
The materialist stance that social states determine consciousness is a central part of Marxist theory (Curran et al. 1982). This notion assumes that ideological stances or positions are in effect a function of class positions such that the dominant class of the society also represents the dominant ideology of society. Marxists are in direct opposition to the idealist stance where consciousness itself is supreme and not dependent on class position. Marxists traditionally viewed ideology is a type of false consciousness resulting from the identification of the dominant function is to spread the message of the dominant ideology (which is the values of the class that owns and controls the media). In a capitalist society the mass media functions to conceal class struggles and to create the illusion that they do not exist (Curran et al. 1982). What this means in strict Marxist terms than media functions as a method of “production” of ideology which in a capitalist society represents the ownership of the ruling class. The mass media simply spreads the ideas of the ruling class and denies or condemns other alternative ideas. Marx used the term “means of mental production” to signify the media as an ideological apparatus spreading its message to those who lack the “mental production” to evaluate it (Heywood 1994). In capitalistic societies the mass media produces the type of false consciousness accepted by the working class whereby goods or possessions are viewed as projections of the values of the ruling class internalized by workers and this denies the possibility of any other interpretation of the current state of affairs.
It is important to understand that not all Marxist thinkers accepted these premises. For example, Althusser did not agree with the notion of false consciousness and emphasized that ideology is the way by which people experience the world (Curran et al. 1982). Althusser’s view of Marxism stresses the notion that ideology is a determining force in its own right and that the mass media’s ideology in capitalist societies contributes to the production of the capitalist system, but does not define the state of affairs. Volosinov argued that ideology is not a product of consciousness, but instead produces it (Curran et al. 1982). Thus, Marxist theorists would agree that the mass media has some type of ideological power but would disagree as to its extent or nature.
Power can also be considered to be visible, hidden, or invisible (Lukes 2005; VeneKlasen and Miller 2002). Visible power is apparent such as the power of a dictator or the power of a president. Hidden power rests in the attitudes of the individual’s or group such as certain types of biases. The methods of communication of a society, religious attitudes, and education (especially the process of educating the young and the types of facts and content of education they receive and internalize) represent forms of invisible power.
The notion of invisible power has its origins in Marxist philosophy about the pervasive strength of ideologies, beliefs, and values in the formation of class values and the concealing of the exploitation of groups and contradictions concerning the accepted values of a society. Marxists believe that the exploitation of the masses was not the only force behind a capitalistic society but that the status quo was bolstered by the dominance of the value system of the ruling class. This value system imposed on the masses resulted in a “false consciousness” that would oppress the working classes and keep them from recognizing their oppression as they engulfed the value system of the ruling class (Heywood 1994). This false consciousness is a type of invisible power and was especially noticeable in Lenin’s ideals such as the analogy of workers accepting crumbs that fall off the table or that are handed to them as opposed to taking their rightful place at the table (Heywood 1994).
Gramsci (1971) used the term hegemony to explain the dominance of one social class over other classes. Gramsci viewed the capitalist state as being made up of two overlapping systems: a political society that ruled by way of force and a civil society that ruled by means of consent (Gramsci 1971). The civil society was a form of public sphere where political parties trained people to take for granted the values of the bourgeois state. Thus, the civil society was the sphere where beliefs and ideals were shaped and formed. The “bourgeois hegemony” was enacted in public life through the media and also through educational institutions and through religious institutions. These institutions, especially the media, wielded a form of invisible power (hegemony) designed to maintain the status quo. The media continued to inject the working class with the values of the ruling class and manufactured the consent that these conditions are acceptable.
Lukes (2005) discussed two meanings of hegemony. The first meaning is of an unconscious psychological process that is internalized and cultural in nature. The second meaning of hegemony is a more focused strategy of domination of one group over another group(s). This double meaning of hegemony has led to some confusion about the nature of the invisible power of hegemony; however, according to Marxist thought there really should be no confusion. On the one hand the media is manipulated by the bourgeois to impart their values and maintain the status quo and on the other hand it is psychologically accepted by the working classes. In this sense the media exerts a form of power over the working class but this power operates on many levels. On one level it forcibly courses the working class to accept the status quo and on a deeper psychological level it operates as a form of internalized agency. The media and other societal institutions function by internalizing the value systems of the ruling class in the working classes. Thus, all four forms of power are utilized.
This invisible power is a barrier to effective liberation on the part of the working class and also a barrier to self-awareness, self knowledge, self-esteem, and equality. (Chomsky 1989). The media operates as an ideological apparatus to reinforce the values of the ruling class. Interestingly, the strategies the media to reinforce their control over the working classes were used by Lenin and Stalin in their attempts to qualm complaints of the working classes in a socialist system. This process of hegemony and the use of the media as a type of ideological apparatus manipulated by the ruling class or party in power have been also referred to by feminists and other civil rights supporters in their explanations of how they are marginalized.
Thus, hegemony allows the ruling class is able to operate at the level of thought or ideas and at the level of having power over other classes. This allows the ruling class to repress any consciousness of change in the working-class. Gramsci (1971) notes that hegemony explains why people are more apt to attempt to find their place or fit into an existing social structure rather than seek to change society or to rebel as was predicted by Marx. In long-standing capitalistic societies the constraints on consciousness have been passed down in the form of social structure and government organization and these constraints are propagated by the media. Together the social structure and government organization effectively discourage any type of rebellion or complaints to change the system. Attempts by some groups to call attention to the unfairness of the status quo or to enact change are viewed as rebellions and as subversive.
Chomsky (1989) expanded this view beyond the Marxist notions of class struggle and consciousness. Chomsky was concerned with these to be sure, but he was also concerned with how the media functioning as a tool of the current political parties in power in the United States was able to focus the attention of the mass audience away from relevant issues and on issues that could be used to distract the mass audience. Chomsky’s ideas expanded from inhibiting class struggles to outright thought control in democratic societies. This particular type of hegemony is concerned with the same issues that Marx was concerned with; however, it puts them in a more moderate or relevant light. Chomsky (1989) notes that propaganda delivered by the media functions in the same way in a democratic society as violence functions in a dictatorship. While ordinary people in the middle classes are capable of remarkable things and express a fundamental need to be creative this propaganda frustrates this fundamental need. For the system to change people need to be able to confront current forms of authority (e.g., the media) and the coercion that challenges the legitimate interests of society. Private control over public resources such as the media and information is the major form of authority that needs to be challenged according to Chomsky. Corporations own the media which in turn influences the mass audiences that rely on the media for information. The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States guarantees free speech and a public exchange of ideas. However, a small minority actually has access to the type of ideas and information that is transmitted to the masses and this situation is detrimental to freedom and creativity in such a society. A more sensible way to govern is a rationalist — libertarian socialist state that functions with public input and not by a republic where representatives are backed by corporations and private interests influence those who make decisions. The current system involves a minority of people imposing necessary illusions on the majority that allow the system to perpetuate itself. The media manufactures consent because the majority accepts the illusions of the propaganda imposed on them. Thus, hegemony is maintained by the powerful media.
Blumer, H. 1951. Collective behavior. In: Lee, A.M. ed. New outline of the principles of sociology. New York: Barnes & Noble, pp. 167-219.
Chomsky, N. 1989. Necessary illusions: Thought control in democratic societies. Boston: South End Press.
Curran, J., M. Gurevitch, and J.Woollacott. 1982. The study of the media: Theoretical approaches. In Gurevitch, M. et al. eds. Culture, society and the media. London: Routledge, pp. 11-29.
Davis, D.K. And Baron, S.J. 1981. A history of our understanding of mass communication. In: Davis, D.K. And Baron, S.J. (eds.). Mass communication and everyday life: A Perspective on theory and effects. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing, pp. 19-52.
Gramsci, A. 1971. Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International Publishers.
Hall, S., Hobson, D., Lowe, A., and Willis, P. (Eds.). 1980. Culture, media, language. London:
Heywood, A. 1994. Political ideas and concepts: An introduction. London: Macmillan.
Lukes, S. 2005. Power: A radical view. London: Mcmillian.
McQuail, D. 1987. Mass communication theory: An introduction. 2nd Ed. London: Sage.
Murdock, G, and Golding P. 1977. Capitalism, communication and class relations. In: Curran, J. et al. eds. Mass communication and society. London: Arnold, pp. 12-43.
VeneKlasen, L. And Miller, V. 2002. A new weave of power, people and politics: The action guide for advocacy and citizen participation. Oklahoma City: World Neighbors.
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