All the News Fit to Buy: Samir Amin, the Death of the Dissolve, Media Power
Global capitalism has often been caricatured as a Godzilla-sized octopus, sucker-studded tentacles tenaciously gripping the globe. No doubt no slander or libel is directed at real, fleshy octopi, who are delightful creatures with impressive flexibility and intellect. But let’s take a leap into the fantastical and mistake capitalism for a real octopus––well, what do we expect of such a beast? We know from the caricatures, and our own elementary observations, that the octopus has tentacles and suckers. When it wants to conceal itself, though, the octopus has other, more diabolical weapons to deploy. Camouflage, sheer speed, and, of course, its cloud of ink. Before losing our heads in this multi-armed analogy, let’s remember that capitalism relies just as heavily on ink for its own evasive manoeuvres as the humble mollusk.
Capitalists do not carry around bags of ink to throw in workers’ faces in a pinch. Capitalists deploy ink in even more subtle ways. Money is, at this time in history, the master of media. We could even say that capitalist oligopolies are the animating intelligence behind almost all media, providing the axioms that govern how the masses receive and process information. Why is this? In the majority of cases, the media propagated to the world flows to us directly from monopolistic companies. At the corporate level, shareholders and management determine information policy and what kind of standard the company’s output will conform to. Samir Amin writes about how this process operates in our own moment:
“What is unfolding is not what is called a ‘market economy’ but a ‘market-oriented society. Within this framework, media…realizes that [its] autonomy has diminished, relatively speaking. Without necessarily becoming instruments at the beck and call of others, they find themselves in situations where they have to fulfill useful functions that are necessary to guarantee the success of deployments of supreme powers of global monopolies.”¹
Even when people working in media are not mere sock-puppets for capitalist firms and states, therefore, they have to conform to the overall logic of the system itself. That logic is capital accumulation directed by imperialist monopolies and the states that nurture and protect them. Independent and democratically minded reporters working for a large news corporation, for instance, might submit and occasionally even publish reporting that informs and educates the public in a way that escapes the mandate of the organization, but this will become increasingly difficult if it conflicts with the needs of the stockholders, advertisers, or, in some cases, a reactionary commentariat.
Media remains an autonomous entity within society, but it is nonetheless subordinated to capital. Usually, this does not mean a resort to absolute falsehood in reporting or the fabrication of outright propaganda in a film studio. Instead, capital prescribes the limits of what can be said in media, valuing ideological consistency secondarily and profitability primarily. Just as capitalist profits could be compared to a form of taxation imposed on workers, the logic of the capitalist system operating within media can be compared to a form of censorship, occasionally enforced with an iron hand but usually operating in a subterranean way, absorbed and normalized by the people employed within these firms.
Profitability also determines the editing and selection process in creating media and the form in which it’s published. Online, the fact that most websites earn money though advertising means that whatever drives the highest statistics is what will be featured. The recent shutdown of the film site The Dissolve illustrates the fate of even relatively populist and “inclusive” enthusiast media sources under this ruthless profit regime. While producing writing that was of a high standard of craft and tending to include either soft left-liberal or apolitical content, the site was nevertheless shut down by its corporate owner, Pitchfork. In the rushing waterfall of monetary flows, the most ardent ideals are bound to falter against the current. As capitalism does, it is intensively commodifying cultural production of all sorts, taking some of the inherent goods of the internet––its low level of entry, its openness, its networked structure, its immediacy––and using them in a parasitic way, beating writers into submitting to low or no pay for high value product. Take this blog as an example, though I would hesitate before claiming that I could generate “high value” for anyone here.
It’s easy to “feel” the spatial vastness and fluid networking of the internet and see it as empowering for artists and other creators. To do so is ignoring that even a potentially liberating space, if controlled by parasitic forces, will be “enclosed’ and put to work for the bosses. Of course, that enclosure is not complete, and there are oppositional forces using the Internet to facilitate their activities. But they do so against the ingrained logic of how media, online or not, functions in capitalism. Capitalists need depoliticized, misinformed, atomized subjects, and the bourgeois media does its bit to produce those subjects. It gives you the hunger before you start to feel that you need what it’s feeding you.²
In that way, media fits right in with the rest of contemporary capitalism. It’s crucial for communists and the rest of the radical left to understand this and use it as a basis for rallying resistance to the colonization of everyday life in all its qualities by capitalism. Not just resistance, even, but the overthrow of the entire situation, and the beginning of a long road to socialism. We had best start using our imaginations now.
1. Samir Amin, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism (Monthly Review Press, 2013), 36-37.
2. All of this would, of course, benefit from an injection of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and the role of the Marxist party in struggling for dominance within these “civil” institutions, but I did not have the space for it nor the foresight to realize how invaluable such a contribution is.