Case Studies

Marxism and Global Media by Stephen Hill, first published in Media Magazine

Can we use Classical Marxism to inform our understanding of Global Media? Yes, we can!


In this article, I want to look how Classical Marxism can inform our understanding of the political and economic relationships underpinning global media. I will argue that although the Communist Revolution may have failed to materialise in the UK, transformations in global media raise interesting questions about how we interpret Marx's work. In particular, I will focus on the international nature of the relationship between the Proletariat (the workers) and the Bourgeoisie (the ruling class) and argue that access to the ownership of the means of cultural production as opposed to material production that is definitional of political power. To revisit the work of Karl Marx is, I believe, pertinent at this moment of change in world politics, as the United States appoints Barack Obama, its forty-fourth president, on January 20th 2009; marking a departure from years of American centre-right politics. Moreover, the reliance of his campaign on Internet generated funding highlights the way in which new media technologies have redefined the political landscape of the twenty-first century. First, however, I want to begin with a brief over-view of the work of Karl Marx and Frederic Engels on the nature of capitalism in The Communist Manifesto (1848).


While Communist Revolution may have failed to materialise in the leading world economies of twentieth century in the way that Karl Marx predicted, the manifesto he wrote with Frederick Engels in 1848 remains the definitive account of the advent of capitalism. The document, which was originally published as a political pamphlet, plots the social consequences incurred by the economic changes of the Industrial Revolution at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Though the term ‘capitalism’ precedes the Industrial Revolution, and is essentially a refinement of the economic liberalism Adam Smith talks about in The Wealth of Nations (1776), the changes to agriculture and industry in the UK brought about by mechanised communal production emphasised its underlying principals. For Marx the key idea is that during this period society moved from a body of self-sufficient private producers to an isolated mass of workers with no rights to the produce they make.

The Communist Manifesto

In The Communist Manifesto figurative examples of how man first entered into capitalist methods of economic exchange help bring to life a model of society in which the economy is the bottom line. He plots the shift from trade based on “use value” to “exchange value” and creation of “profit” as the principal motivation for economic activity. Profit (or surplus value as he calls it) is particularly problematic for Marx because, unlike trade based on use value, profit is always at the expense of somebody else's exploitation. Another aspect of life under capitalism that is of particular concern to Marx is change in the ownership of the means of production. In particular, Marx sees a contradiction in emerging patterns of industry, which rely upon the communal production of goods that are owned privately. For Marx wage labour creates a two-tier society in which the interests of the workers (the proletariat) are oppressed so that the ruling class (the bourgeoisie, who own the factories and farms) can make profit.

This exploitation clearly has the potential to bring about Communist Revolution, which in Marx's logic will be characterised by the proletariat seizing control of the means of production. However, for Marx and Engels it is the economic contradictions of Capitalism that make this inevitable. Both men fervently believed that capitalism destroys its own market: as wages are kept to a minimum to ensure maximum profit, people cannot afford goods and so supply becomes greater than demand. Consequently, weaker capitalists go out of business and have to join the ranks of the proletariat and become workers, leaving the bourgeoisies depleted in numbers and vulnerable to attack. Eventually, Marx argues: “The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into state property”. The proletariat then re-arrange the state into a communist operation and at this point the state itself dies out: “When at last it becomes the real representative of society it renders itself unnecessary”.

What Revolution?

Of course in Britain, as with most of the Western capitalist economies, the revolution failed to materialise, which raises questions about the usefulness of Marx's predictions. And, in countries where revolution has taken place (like Cuba and Russia), this has been characterised by strong structures of state, which hardly resemble the utopian vision held by Marx. So, 160 years on from its publication, it is easy to reject the blue-print for social change outlined by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto. Perhaps part of the problem is that Marx's vision of economic activity is limited to the political landscape of an individual sovereign state: it did not anticipate the complex political and trading alliance that characterise contemporary global relations. This is perhaps surprising given that the period in which Marx was writing is often described by historians as the ‘Imperial century’: a period in which ten million square miles were added to the British Empire. In this sense the proletariat/bourgeoisie model is a less than exact fit when it comes to the arrangement of domestic labour in the nineteenth century. Historically, Britain's wealth was based on empire, and owed as much to the exploitation of the colonies as it did UK-based workers.

This international dimension to capitalist economic relations has come to the fore in recent years with the decline of both heavy industry and manufacturing in many First World economies. In the UK, the skilled labour force of working class cities like Sheffield, Glasgow and Manchester have been unable to compete with the lower wages and minimum employment legislation in the developing world. Such is the global nature of multi-national organisations that, in Marxist terms, it could be said that by and large the West now outsources for proletariat (workers). Companies like Nestle and MacDonalds, for example, ensure maximum profitability by operating wherever possible in Third World countries: where labour is cheap and capitalism is unimpeded by concerns for human rights or the environment. In this sense the relations and contradictions of economic exchange outlined by Marx in The Communist Manifesto fit our global economy very well. The developed world stands comfortably in the shoes of the bourgeoisie, with the developing world assuming the subordinate position of the workers (proletariat). This raises the question, are we premature, then, in thinking that the revolution has failed to materialise? To answer this, it is perhaps necessary to think about what it means to be a member of the bourgeoisie (the ruling class) in the twenty-first century.

The New Bourgeoisie

In 2008 many people in Britain could be defined as bourgeois without necessarily being ‘owners of the means of production’. In part, this can be ascribed to the legacy of compulsory education in the twentieth century, the grammar school system and the emergence of a knowledge-based economy. As Pierre Bourdieu claims in Distinction (1979) “education is at the heart of social class and consequently a more educated society is inevitably a more middle class one”. However, the upward mobility of the Western lifestyles has not happened in isolation and can be seen as a direct consequence of the exploitation of other parts of the globe: from the tea plantations in India to the decimation of the Brazilian rainforests. To live in a Western economy is, therefore, to acknowledge our relative advantage over rest of the world's population: not just economically, but in terms of life expectancy, health care, access to clean drinking water etc. The kind of poverty that underpinned the Industrial Revolution in England in Marx's lifetime is unthinkable today. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that when former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott asked a group of un-employed teenagers what class they thought they were in a recent BBC documentary on social hierarchy in the UK, they replied most assuredly that they were middle class. Now, of course, their use of the term cannot be understood in terms of old-style definitions of relative social ranking; not least because the girls had neither property nor education to mark them above the ranks of the working class. However, in global terms their relative position is very much that of the bourgeoisie. How, then, we begin to define the bourgeois in 2008 requires careful consideration.

Ownership of the means of Cultural Production.

To understand how to define the ruling class (bourgeoisie) in a global society, it is perhaps useful to return to the time of Marx's writing: the Imperial Age of the nineteenth century and the rapid expansion of the British Empire. When considering this achievement, the question that hangs in the air is: how did Britain, a small island with a modest population, achieve economic supremacy over half the globe? Clearly, our military might, underpinned by our maritime experience as an island nation, played a part in this, as did our technological advancement courtesy of the engineering giants like Isambard Kingdom Brunel. However, what also made the British Empire possible was the communication system: the All Red Line, as it was known, enabled messages to be sent from Ireland to Newfoundland and from Suez to Bombay, Madras, Penang, Singapore and Australia. Rudimentary and undeveloped though the telegraph was, it put in place a nervous system that co-ordinated the export of British models of education, democracy and religion to the four corners of the globe.

Though Brunel's ship, The Great Eastern, laid the first transatlantic cable within Marx's own lifetime, ultimately it is The Communist Manifesto's inability to foresee the way in which ownership of the means of cultural production would become definitional of the ruling class in the twentieth century that limits its relevance today. The last 100 years have seen some very real global conflicts over territory and space. However, in the intermittent periods of peace it is often access and control of cultural production that has shaped the path of modern history. From Nazi propaganda to the censorship of mainstream Hollywood cinema in The People's Republic of China, global tension is played-out in the political relations underpinning the media economy. Testimony to this is the Cold War between Soviet and American governments in the second half of the century: an ideological stalemate that brought the threat of nuclear Armageddon to the forefront of public consciousness in everything from the race to put man on the moon to popular fiction about espionage military coalitions. Though the US's emergence as the world's biggest superpower can be explained by its role in the Second World War as well as conflicts in the Middle East and South East Asia, underpinning this has been the not so silent march of Western culture in the form of entertainment, food and clothing. In this sense, we are all owners of the means cultural production because it is our culture that dominates the globe.

Cultural Imperialism and the Media Revolution

Though Britain has long since handed back its empire, we live today in an age of Western culture imperialism that has its origins in the British Empire and the Americanisation of much of the developed world in the twentieth century. Few major cities in the world are without access to a McDonalds or a Starbucks and their aggressive economic principals exemplify all that Marx feared about the capitalist system. By the same token, the increasing individualism of audience engagement with media forms experienced through digital technology and the internet gives people in the West a far greater grip on culture than those in developing nations. That many of those people covet Nike sportswear and learn to speak English from American films reinforces this commanding position. However, since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when hijacked airliners were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in Washington, global politics has become increasingly characterised by headline-grabbing media stunts, as opposed to traditional channels of political expression. For example, when Chechen rebels took the 1100 pupils and staff hostage at the Beslan School in North Ossetia, before massacring 334 of them, digital video cameras were positioned to allow footage to be broadcast on the Internet. Likewise, the capture and murder of British and American hostages by Islamic extremists in Iraq has been highly sophisticated in its manipulation of international media. Most notable was the murders of Americans Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley along with that of British citizen Ken Bigley: a story which dominated headlines for weeks after their capture on September 16th 2004. At various intervals, videos of the captives reading out political statements addressed to their respective governments and begging for assistance were posted on fundamentalist websites and subsequently picked up by international news agencies. The media circus, which preceded their eventual beheadings on September 20th, 21st and October 7th 2004 respectively did little to save them and played right into the hands of the extremist groups: making the anti-Western hostility the centre of public debate; highlighting the chaos ensuing from the Allied invasion of Iraq in 2003. That DVDs of the beheading of American soldiers retail in Baghdad for seventy-five pence, while the execution of Saddam Hussein has over two million hits on YouTube, it is clear that technological innovation is such that the revolution will not be characterised by a call to arms, but that it is happening all around us in the media. From Al Qaeda to Fathers for Justice, headline-grabbing media stunts are now at the forefront of world politics. We are living in an age in which political expression is becoming more ephemeral as the traditional channels of expression seem less tangible. Not only does the party politics of Westminster seem redundant in the face of global fear and the War on Terror but also domestic issues of education, welfare and health seem to slide further from the prevailing climate of expectation.


Marx argued that “it is the consciousness of man that determines society”. On that basis, man has the power to be the agent of social change providing that change can be imagined. Increasingly, however, it would seem that it is our media consciousness that determines our social position within the global economy. The predominance of information-based industry requires cultural knowledge and not just financial resources. Moreover, the proliferation of information technology in the twenty-first century has the potential to undermine international relations of state and power that have endured since the days of the British Empire. The rise of China's economic importance and the tiger economies of South East Asia (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea) highlight this. Most recently, the election by the American people of Democrat candidate Barack Obama on November 4th 2008 is perhaps a reflection of a change in Western perceptions of the changing nature of their own global position. In a speech given at the beginning of his election campaign, Obama reminded potential voters of sentiments expressed in the original Declaration of Independence of 1787, a document that preceded The Communist Manifesto by some 59 years: “Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution”. As the first black American president it would seem that if Obama remains true to those ideals, unlike his predessor, he may be able to stem the hostility towards the West that has gathered momentum since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In this respect, Obama's understanding of the role of the Internet in mobilising the political interests of the outsider is perhaps of special significance. Unlike McCain's campaigns, or indeed those of previous Democrat candidates, Obama's funding did not come from large corporations and rich business men, but small-scale donations from blue-collar Americans. Eighty-five percent of Obama's funding came from online donations of less than $100. Obama's victory therefore is not just a victory for black America but a victory for the Internet in asserting the power of the proletariat. It is perhaps, therefore, through embracing the positive attributes of the new media landscape that we can harness global media to secure a peaceful future: a future in which the population need not cower in fear and misunderstanding of wars on terror waged illegally on our behalf.

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