Critical Media and Communication Studies Today: A Conversation between Dwayne Winseck and Christian Fuchs. Part 4
Dwayne Winseck: Christian, as always I hope that you’re well.
Wow, you’ve certainly put a lot out there for consideration. Let me do my best to respond to some of what you’ve said about ideology, alienation and Garnham’s critique of what he sees as the critical marxian political economy of communication school.
First of all I need to clarify that I have not criticized Smythe for being too reductionist but actually praised him for his point that traditional communication and media studies’ focus on ideology, texts and effects distracted us from two fundamental elements that help to constitute a critical materialist (Marxist or otherwise) political economy of media and communication: first, the economic importance of media industries and specific firms in their own right and, second, through the provision of communication infrastructure, news and information flows, and advertising that serve as central coordinating mechanisms in the capitalist economy as a whole. So, the critique here is that so-called ideology critique has too often served – past and present – to divert our attention from these economics realities.
Based on this, I’m afraid that I have to disagree with the example that you offer using social media in an attempt to illustrate why ideology is as important as economic considerations to a political economy approach. You say that a “techno-deterministic techno-optimistic ideology” has been necessary to turn social media into a new site of capital investment and accumulation, in other words, to turn things like Facebook, Twitter, Flikr, LinkedIn, etc. into hot new markets and sites for investment. Given that, you say that our task is as much to understand and critique this ideology as it is to focus on economic arrangements and media capital accumulation models?
I do not agree that ideology has been essential to the emergence of social media as significant new markets and sources of financial investment. Indeed, the notion that techno-optimistic ideology serves as the handmaiden of capitalism and is behind speculative booms followed by, first, the dot.com crisis and then the Global Financial Crisis is misguided in my view. I think that several of our colleagues have done extremely impressive work that helps shed light on how ideas, knowledge circulation and, if you will, a more modest conception of ideology that goes by some other name works. I have in mind the work of Peter Thompson, Aeron Davis, Wayne Hope and Marc-Andre Pigeon.
Each of them have focused closely on knowledge flows and the role of very specialized, high end financial market and business news services and databases among a trilogy of groups – institutional and high end financial investors/traders/analysts, corporate insiders and financial journalists. In its most basic of outlines, knowledge and data flows among the first two groups far more quickly before it ever reaches mass media channels such as CNNfn, MSNBC, Wall Street Journal, Your Hometown Daily News Outlet, etc. Financial journalists play the role of switching node here, but the differences in who is speaking to whom, the narrow vs mass audience, and vast differences in temporality (ie. insiders get stuff in milliseconds and zero time delay and trades are executed in a flash) mean that it is what is happening inside the elite groups and the narrow conventions that they share and subscribe too rather than techno-optimistic hyperbole/ideology that gets attached to all new media.
Instead of ideology, then, I think we need to pay attention to specialized, elite knowledge and channels of communication, on the one hand. The rhetoric, language, myths and uses of media and ICTs are important in their own right, and are structured by class, primarily greasing the slide of new media from novelty to part of the furniture. This is similar to the Abercrombie, Hill and Turner critique of the ‘dominant ideology’ thesis in 1980. It is not the ideology is irrelevant, but rather that its grip is mostly present among elites and diffuse across other social classes as a whole (a point that C. Wright Mills also made). Much more could be said along these lines, but my basic point is that vast flows of capital investment into media doesn’t involve ideology but rather ‘fast circuits’ of data and knowledge production, which, from analysts and consultants of the dot.com era (analysts/snake-oil sales reps, H. Blodget, M. Meeker, etc.) and standards and rating agencies (Fitch, Standard and Poor, Moodys), have systematically torqued their data and sold investors (and the political class) a bill of goods that later turned out to be little more than Ponzi-like schemes.
To move on to the points you made about social totality, I think we may be closer on this than might initially appear. I think that the ambition of trying to make the connections between media and ICTs and capitalist modernity as a whole is one that gives political economy some of its impressive reach and allows it to provide compelling accounts of our times, sometimes. I agree with you that the Culturalist Turn has resulted in simplistic/cultural reductionistic analyses that neglect class and the economy, and lead to fragmented portraits of the contemporary condition that actually recursively feed into, and reproduce, the fragmentary character of contemporary societies that are our objects/subjects of study to begin with.
Again though, I think the thrust of my work is more towards, lets say, a better sense of the interplay between top-down macro-level, deductive approaches that aim to synthesize complexity into a portrait of the social totality based on propositions derived from Marx versus a bottom-up examination of what Botanski calls ‘situations’, or ‘contexts of action’, where emergent properties and how people actually think, act and so on arises out of empirical observation. Discovering such emergent properties through empirical observation means that you have to bracket aside, at least for the moment, your own politics and agendas, lest you superimpose that on the conditions and ‘subjects’ (people) at hand.
Time and again I’ve discovered this to be true when I observe what people do with the media/Internet, or pay close attention to what others who study such things have to say. That is, I’ll discover that people actually employ elaborate, even if unreflective, practices that tell us about how they feel about others with whom they communicate, privacy and surveillance, etc. They can tell you about such experiences too, reflexively. The expressions that emerge from what people are actually doing often clash with the reigning practices and strategies of Facebook, ISPs, Google, etc., as one can see in their Acceptable User Agreements/Policies, etc. The fact that you spend a lot of time looking at these things all the time in your work is one, among many things, that has impressed me so much with your work.
So, key point on this? We need to focus more on textured interplay between macro and micro level analysis, theoretico-deductive approaches versus inductive but still theory-grounded empirical observation. There are too many ungrounded analyses that regurgitate politico-theoretical propositions in light of each new round of communications media (Internet, web 2.0, etc.) as if that constitutes analysis.
Let me turn, quickly because this is becoming far too long, to some points you raise about Garnham. First, you say that you want to insist on a “Critique of the Political Economy of X” or “the Critical Political Economy of X”, and do not personally want to be associated with Neoliberal Political Economy of X.
While I want to consider what I do as fitting within the ‘critique of the political economy of communication’, I do not have the same qualms as you do with respect to other strands of political economy on offer. I put this out in more elaborate form in a long introductory essay to our new edited collection to which you contributed, The Political Economies of Media, which just came out last month.
The key point that Garnham is making, it seems to me, is that critical Marxist political economists have spent more time denouncing markets and commercialization than studying how they actually work, are structured, change over time, etc. Of course, there are exceptions to this, and your work is among such exceptions. However, the rule remains . . . .
One thing that I’ve done recently is joined with Eli Noam, a Professor of Finance and Economics at Columbia University, and also an expert from within the mainstream of economics in all aspects of telecom, media and Internet economics. He’s also recently published the authoritative Media Ownership and Concentration in America (2009). I’ve learned a great deal from the work that I’ve done with him on the International Media Concentration Research Project. I’ve produced reams of evidence on all manner of the telecom-media-Internet industries in Canada covering the past 25 years as part of this project. By simply gathering, organizing and trying to make sense of this data, from the bottom, over such a long span of time, have allowed things aplenty to emerge that I could not have anticipated or derived from propositions drawn from Marxist political economy.
I can’t go any further here into this, but on this point let me just say that there are others who you and I also know well and I think respect as heterodox, if not Marxist political economists, such as Paschal Preston, Guillermo Mastrini and Martin Becerra. They are also part of this project. Even Noam and Robert McChesney, from what I understand, are on the phone or sharing emails once in a while to compare notes and update data for both of their purposes, and in particular the important work that McChesney spearheads by way of his powerful advocacy organization in the US, Free Press.
And we must remember too that it was others such as the institutionalist Joseph Schumpeter in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (see part I) as well as the radical American sociologist C. Wright Mills, in The Marxists, who argued that the point when it comes to Marx, is that first and foremost we need to know our Marx. They both, each in their own way, praise Marx the sociologist and economist, but condemn him, again for their own reasons, as political theorist and prophet. We must each have our Marx, so to speak, carefully and judiciously selecting the things from him that we think still apply – expansionary and dynamic tendencies of capitalism, pressures toward consolidation, congenital instability and crisis tendencies, power and class distinctions – while rejecting other elements that we don’t believe work: e.g. base/superstructure model of society, ideology, labour theory of value, etc.
So, this is why I speak of political economies of communication. It is meant to (1) prise away this approach from its conflation with a Marxist analysis in many circles, (2) to reflect that there are several schools of thought (e.g. Marxian, liberal, institutional, heterodox, etc.), (3) that rather than the whole of society being subordinated to the universal rule of exchange value (the market), we still see multiple economies (as Aristotle said) where we produce things for ourselves (DIY, self-sufficiency, Wikipedia, YouTube videos), for others and our neighbours (gifts, social economy) and for the market (exchange); (4) that communication, media and information goods are atypical commodities, as Garnham but also the Cultural Industries School never fails to stress, that can only be forcefit into the commodity mold through the force of the state, law and intellectual tyranny of conservative Chicago School economics that works to achieve in the realm of thought (ideology) what cannot be achieved in the ‘real world’: the sublimation of everything to the principles of market exchange.
Whilst I am aware of the power of Chicago School thought and how it has buttressed the imposition of a neoliberal template on many areas of life and the world (and dictatorships through Latin America), we have not yet seen the universalization of the market as the measure of all things, as Marx felt, and as those who still subscribe to his views and speak uniformly of neoliberalism tend to think.
I agree with you about the globalization of capitalism generating increased socio-economic inequality, especially in the heartlands of capitalist modernity (Europe and North America). However, elsewhere – China, India, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, etc. – the embrace of capitalism has not just aggravated social economic inequality, but fueled incredible levels of growth and development to the extent that what used to be the periphery now serves as the outposts of new, in many cases, authoritarian, unbridled capitalism states that increasingly look to one another for ‘models of development’ and inspiration rather than even the liberal ideals of capitalist modernity. This can be seen especially with respect to China and how it is viewed now in Africa and Latin America. It was also clear at our conference in Istanbul, where the speakers on the plenary made it absolutely clear that the political masters in that city and Turkey’s political capital of Ankara no longer kowtow to the west and sing from the hymn sheets of liberal democracy that go along with capitalist modernity but reject that in favour of some new mélange of politico-religious-hyper-technologized iron-state view of capitalism.
So, this points to one other thing that I have found problematic with the main lines of critical marxian political economies of communication, and that is the notion that neoliberalism constitutes a uniform horizon in which nations around the world are simply folded into capitalism. I don’t think that there is one capitalism but rather a variety of capitalisms with their own specific characteristics that need to be understood and, once again, studied at two levels: first, in terms of distinctive qualities but also, and second, in relation to the common fundamentals that harmonize things.
Again, it is the interplay between the two dimensions that is key, and it is the uniform preoccupation with the generic characteristics of capitalism that those who invoke notions of neoliberalism lay all their stress that seems like an overly easy short hand for real observations. It also struck me as odd too that whilst neoliberalism was supposedly remaking the world in the singular image of Anglo-American capitalism, the number of regulatory institutions within just our field alone exploded worldwide, from something like 14 in 1990 to 90 a decade later and around 150 or so today. Regulators translate the general ‘logics’ of markets, technology and rule-making in specialized domains into the specific rules and procedures that compose the local political economy to which they are being adapted, as Sassia Sassken puts it. There’s a lot of ‘translation’ work that goes on in this and I think it belies the overly generic notions implied by the rhetoric of neoliberalism.
And besides, just as neoliberalism was seen to be triumphant circa 2000, what happened? A decade of crises, that’s what, starting with the collapse of the dot.com bubble in 2000 and instability ever since, coming to a head once again since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007/8ff. And unlike what David Harvey, the crisis didn’t start on the margins, or get displaced there, but in the core and wreaked its havoc in Europe and the U.S.
So Marx should be back in light of Global Financial Crisis. Indeed, the instabilities of capitalism are visible all around us and sharp jolts and crisis tendencies emerge one day, disappear the next, and reassert themselves the day after that. This is crazy instability, precarity. However, the underlying universalist notion that many interpret as leading to economic, social and cultural homogeneity does not follow. This is another one of the key points that Garnham makes when he likewise advises that we reject notions that the media are bound up with forces of cultural homogenization, cultural imperialism, etc.
I agree, and thing it is important to remember the other side of Marx, who stated that, in the face of the tumultuous, disruptive dynamism of capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air”, by which he meant the break down of traditional societies and ossified ways of life and thinking. The upshot of that, however, is not the superimposition of a higher level of homogenous integration (again, contra what notions of ideology often suggest) but greater levels of sociological differentiation, as sociologists from Tarde, to Parsons, to Habermas, Giddens, Bauman and many others in between have noted. And that is mirrored in the domain of media and ICTs because it seems to me what we are seeing is not total integration and convergence under an ever smaller number of corporate rulers, but simultaneously and paradoxically, both consolidation in some dimensions, generally those with general utility like functions (Google, Facebook, etc.) and where economies of scale (but not scope) are strong, ie. integration between tv and film, but not tv, film and Carriers/Internet, to wit the misfortunes/calamities of AOL Time Warner, News Corp/MySpace, Vivendi Universal, etc. (with exception of recent Comcast NBC-Universal merger). Garnham in his school marmy way is admonishing us to understand this reality and seems to believe that until we reject our dogmatic ways, we won’t even be able to see things clearly, let alone understand them. I have some sympathy but . . . .
Finally, I do not agree with you that alienation is a unique pathology of capitalism. Of course, it was the task of Critical Theory, in particular Eric Fromm and Herbert Marcuse to lay out a theory of alienation combining Freud with Marx to understand alienation under capitalism. That bore some fruit, but try raising it with most feminists today. It ain’t gonna go anywhere, as far as I know. The bottom line on this for me is that alienation is not a capitalist problem, but an existential one. Here, Marx does not offer much of value. We must read our Sorensen Kieregaard, J. P. Satre, Lu Xun, and Albert Camus for insights on that.
That, in my view, is not an indictment of Marx, but rather a marker of the scope and limits of his thoughts. I hope that the above ideas clearly indicate that I am no turn-coat enemy of Marx and some of the many important thinkers who have translated his ideas into central pillars in the critical marxian approach to the political economy of media and communication. I continue to be interested in this work and draw on it often and extensively, while still hoping that I may make some modest contributions to it. However, I do not believe that such an approach holds the magic key to understanding our times, and in fact believe that adhering too closely to a marxian view of political economy will only impoverish us.
Well, Christian, this has really gotten out of hand. It’s dragged up a whole ton of ideas that I’ve been thinking about for a long time now. There’s obviously much more to say, but I think I’ll leave it here for now and await your response. I’d say that we wrap it up after that, perhaps returning some time in the future to pick up where we leave off.
Cheers and all the best, Dwayne