Author: Richard Barbrook
MEDIA FREEDOM: FROM GUTENBERG TO CYBERSPACE by Richard Barbrook
Nowadays, almost everybody believes that media freedom is an essential prerequisite of a modern democracy. When an authoritarian regime is overthrown, the first act of the new democratic government is usually the abandonment of direct controls by the state over the media. With the worldwide spread of political democracy, credible politicians can no longer advocate muzzling the media in the name of some higher social goal, such as the defence of the national interest or the liberation of the dispossessed. On contrary, voters rely on the unshackled media to expose the abuses of those with power and wealth. Cynical of the self interest of their rulers, they believe that the media are often the most effective defenders of their democratic rights.
At the same time, many people are also convinced that the dominance of the media over our societies is slowly destroying democratic politics. Within all industrialised democracies, most citizens feel increasingly powerless to influence political decision making. By turning political conflicts into a branch of show business, the media are often blamed for exacerbating this crisis of representation. For many voters, their feelings of exclusion from the political process are confirmed by the nightly spectacle of self obsessed arguments between professional politicians on the television news bulletins about matters unconnected with the concerns of ordinary people. Instead of providing an opportunity for rational debate between rival ideologies, the media are accused of having transformed contemporary politics into a series of spurious quarrels, mindless soundbites and trivial photo opportunities.
Yet, the bitter struggles to win freedom for the media weren’t fought to provide an arcane spectator sport for political couch potatoes. For the revolutionary heroes of the past, the fight to abolish censorship and other restrictions was necessary to allow ordinary people to produce their own media. In their view, the involvement of citizens within the media was an integral part of popular participation in democratic politics. Our contemporary unease about the role of the media derives from the contradiction between the rhetoric of the past and reality of the present. In theory, media freedom is needed so that everyone can participate as citizens of a political democracy. However, in practice, the winning of freedom for the media has actually turned most people into spectators of the political process. This pamphlet explores and explains the history of this contradiction within the concept of media freedom. For, if we can understand how we arrived at our current predicament, we can also discover how to resolve the contradictions of media freedom in the interests of the majority of the population.
Societies Without Media
There can be no modernity without the media; there can be no media without modernity. Because the media are so pervasive and omnipresent in our contemporary world, it is easy for us to forget that the media are a very recent invention. For the majority of our existence as a species, human beings have lived without any need for newspapers, radio or television. In nomadic tribes, peasant villages or small towns, human societies were organised around groups of extended families. Within their own little worlds, people lived their daily lives isolated from everyone but their immediate neighbours. Although people did move between different places, each human community developed its own specific hierarchies, myths, rituals and languages. Because the lives of nomads, peasants or town dwellers unfolded within limited geographical areas, people directly communicated with one another through words, music or images. In the immediate reality of the present, our ancestors needed either no tools or only the most rudimentary equipment for face to face discussions and live entertainment.
In this oral culture, the recording of events was hardly known. The history of families, communities or tribes would be recounted in highly romanticised versions by poets and storytellers. But, for the most part, the experience of past generations was passed on directly to young people through working alongside or listening to their elders. The skills of herders, peasants or artisans were never learnt from a textbook. Within these enclosed little worlds, politics was carried out at the level of the tribe, village or town. For most of history, human societies have been controlled by hierarchies derived from the extended family, with power vested in a single patriarch. However this tyranny was sometimes checked by the ordinary people. For example, in classical Athens or medieval Switzerland, the arbitrary authority of monarchs and priests was replaced by the agora, which was the public meeting of the male members of a community. Even in this restricted form, direct democracy was only made possible by the limited geographical area of classical Greek towns or medieval Swiss villages. Because every male citizen could meet in one place for face to face discussions, it was practical to have popular participation in political decision making. Crucially, when all citizens attended the agora in person, there was no need for a mass media to report and comment on the political process.
While various kingdoms rose and fell, tribal, rural and urban societies continued largely unchanged. Sometimes, after being destroyed in a civil war or foreign invasion, an individual community would disappear. But, for the most part, the great events of history didn’t intrude into the personal lives of ordinary people. Self sufficient within their own communities, they could ignore the tumults of dynastic and religious disputes. However they couldn’t escape from these hierarchies altogether. Both monarchs and priests lived off the systematic expropriation of part of the livestock, crops or money of the people through taxes, rents and tithes. In return, dynastic and religious leaders offered protection from earthly and divine threats to the community. For this task, they created a caste of loyal bureaucrats and priests, who could impose the same social and religious order across many different local communities. Unlike the mass of the population, these servants of the crown and the church needed to communicate across space and time. For their work, it was necessary to record and remember events in writing.
In the pre modern world, most people couldn’t even read and write. In addition, the holy book, religious commentaries and legal texts were often written in a sacred language which was incomprehensible to the mass of the population. By making legal and sacred knowledge inaccessible to ordinary people, monarchs and prelates asserted their claim to divine authority over many different local communities. In contrast to the public meetings of the agora, the conduct of public affairs was transformed into the private concern of kings and priests. Because monarchical and sacred power was derived from God, there could be no open discussion of the policies of the king by his subjects or matters of religious controversy by believers. Crucially, with the public excluded from political and religious debates, there was no need for the media within this divinely ordained order. For example, even propaganda praising royal decisions was condemned for undermining the power of the absolute monarchy by exposing the reasons for the arbitrary decisions of the king. Not surprisingly, when the first printing presses were developed, both monarchy and church were immediately hostile to the new technology. Frightened of the spread of knowledge outside the chosen few, kings and prelates restricted the ownership of printing presses to their most reliable followers and strictly censored the publications printed. Thus, from the beginning, the use of the media by ordinary people was vigorously resisted by those with political and religious power.
The Republic of Letters
The origins of the mass media are inextricably linked with the beginning of social and economic modernisation in Europe. The emergence of the media wasn’t simply the result of the development of innovative techniques of working or the invention of new forms of technology. Long before the end of the medieval period, the principles of printing and the printing press had been known in China without causing a social upheaval. In contrast, the first experiments of the Gutenberg printers had a dramatic impact in Europe because of wider political and economic changes occurring within the continent. Under the divine rule of kings and priests, the public hadn’t been allowed to discuss political or religious controversies. But, when the struggle for democratic liberties started, the demand for media freedom could be articulated for the first time. Above all else, the early radicals championed the rights of individuals to print their own views without interference from the monarchy or the church.
During the early modern period, the need for the protection of the rights of individuals had been created by the spread of the money economy. In medieval Europe, the countryside was organised as a patchwork of landed estates held together by familial relationships. But, over time, this feudal system slowly started to disintegrate with the emergence of capitalism. At the centre of this social change, there was a profound transformation in the nature of property. Instead of being enmeshed within familial relationships, land and other goods were turned into commodities: the absolute and unconditional property of specific individuals. In turn, the growth in individual ownership of property paralleled the dominance of the money economy over social production. As more and more necessities were produced only for exchange, so society itself became constructed through money. As the influence of the extended family declined, so the social division of labour was created through commodity exchanges. Therefore, with the demise of feudal social relations, atomised individuals increasingly satisfied their collective needs through the spontaneous and reciprocal interconnections created by market competition. As daily life became organised through the market, information about economic and political changes from outside the enclosed world of the village or town was needed to foresee the future movement of prices and the supply of commodities. For the first time, the ordinary people needed to communicate across space and time in their everyday activities. In early modern Europe, the pioneers of the media were ready to fulfill this new social need by reporting important political and economic events in their newspapers and journals.
The media weren’t only developed to facilitate the functioning of the new economic system. Crucially, the development of the media was also closely connected with the emergence of political democracy on a national scale. Under feudalism, private wealth and political power were simultaneously combined in the hands of the monarchy and aristocracy. In contrast, in early capitalism, a clear separation between the private world of individual property owners and the public sphere of the constitutional state was established. Over time, individual private ownership slowly became the only legitimate form of property. The abolition of feudal property relations created a dialectical separation between the private and public spheres of human existence. On the one hand, the social production of necessities was increasingly privatised by the individual property owners. On the other hand, the rise in individual commodity production undermined the private control of the state by the absolute monarch.
When social production was organised through market competition, an impartial legal framework was needed to regulate the monetary relations between individuals. In everyday circumstances, isolated producers were linked together in civil society by an endless series of reciprocal business deals. But, when there were disputes, the state had to act as the impersonal interest of the system by arbitrating between litigants through the legal system. By turning the state into an impartial umpire of civil society, political power could no longer be directly connected with the economic relationships between individuals. Instead the dominance of some individuals over others was established through the impersonal relations of exchange, which were backed by the impartial sanctions of the law. Thus the laws of the constitutional state had two dialectical purposes. On the one hand, the legal system defended private autonomy by protecting individual rights, including from arbitrary actions of the state. On the other hand, the law also punished individuals for damaging the interests of the state, which protected the interests of civil society as a whole. The creation of the constitutional state was designed to regulate this separation between the private sphere of individuals in civil society and the public sphere of citizens of the republic. Under the rule of law, the constitutional state became the expression of the private interests of the atomised individuals within civil society in a public form.
According to the bourgeois revolutionaries, a constitutional state could only be established by the participation of individual property owners within political decision making. In their view, each individual was not only an egotistical, self sufficient property owner, but also a moral, social citizen. In the early modern period, critics of the absolute monarchy created their own meeting places for public discussions of political issues, such as cafés, freemasons’ lodges and salons. Rejecting the hierarchical world of the court, individuals debated as democratic equals within these institutions. By using their reason, the revolutionaries tried to find solutions to their collective problems. Inspired by the classical Greek cities and medieval Swiss villages, Jean Jacques Rousseau claimed that this form of direct democracy should be used to run the constitutional state. In face to face debates in an agora, the individual members of civil society would discover the ‘general will’, which expressed their collective interests. But, in practice, it was impossible to apply the direct democracy of a village or small town to the emerging nation states, such as Britain, France or the USA. Because of their size, political decisions couldn’t be taken by a public meeting of all citizens. As a consequence, Tom Paine and other revolutionaries advocated the creation of a representative democracy. In their view, the ‘general will’ of a large country could be formed by the representatives of local particular interests discovering their common interests in parliamentary debates. Instead of personally attending the agora, individual members of civil society would participate in political decision making by electing representatives to express their views in a parliament.
With the establishment of representative democracy, media freedom became an essential element in the creation of a constitutional state. Because of physical limitations, every citizen couldn’t personally take part in the discussions of the legislature in the capital city. But, in their debates in parliament, the politicians were guided by public opinion, which reflected the views of the voters. Crucially, citizens could communicate their opinions to their representatives in the legislature by publishing their own newspapers and books. Thus, although the holding of a national agora was physically impossible, two way communications was created between politicians and citizens using the printed word. Despite being dispersed across the country, citizens simultaneously expressed their views through their elected members of parliament and through their own publications. Therefore, as a right of citizens, the freedom of communications was an integral part of the formation of the ‘general will’ of the nation. According to the revolutionaries, individual citizens directly shaped the policies of the state by engaging in reasoned debates over political issues in print.
Because the written text overcame the physical limitations of face to face discussions, media freedom was vitally necessary to allow the participation of all citizens within political decision making. Therefore one of the first tasks of the bourgeois revolutions was the abolition of censorship and other restrictions on the media imposed by the absolute monarchy. Instead, in bills of rights and republican constitutions, the media were promised their freedom from direct government interference. Under the rule of law, newspapers and book sellers could now print almost anything without the need for prior authorisation. As with other constitutional rights, the absolute freedom of the media was only restricted by the need to protect the rights of other citizens, such as the laws against libel and slander, or to defend the interests of society as a whole, such as the laws against sedition or treason. Even when these laws were defied, the state still encountered great difficulties in punishing miscreant publishers. Because of the need for due legal process, many governments discovered that the bad publicity of court trials often outweighed the benefits of punishing those who broke the law. Except in the most extreme cases, the media had won almost complete freedom from controls over the content of its publications.
By the late eighteenth century, this participatory form of media freedom had been put into practice. Because hand operated wooden presses were cheap to buy or hire, individual citizens could print their own publications on their own printing presses. During the early modern period, revolutionary heroes such as
Benjamin Franklin or Jean Paul Marat earned their living by selling their own pamphlets and newspapers to their followers. Not surprisingly, these revolutionaries had a personal interest in preventing any reimposition of censorship and vigorously supported legal guarantees for the freedom of the press. Because they were both journalists and printers, these radicals believed that their political right of the freedom of communications was made possible through their economic right to own their own printing presses as private property. At this moment in history, media freedom was assured by the unity of the social citizen and the private property owner in one person, who was simultaneously a journalist and a printer. Thus radicals not only sold their publications to their fellow citizens as commodities, but also shaped the policies of parliament by their arguments in print. Just as trade and commerce bound together civil society, so competing newspapers and book sellers contributed to the creation of the ‘general will’ of all citizens. In the same way as the division of labour between individuals produced social wealth, so the printing of publications with different viewpoints created a common political culture. The ideological rivalry between different journalist printers was underpinned by a common consensus to respect the economic laws of bourgeois society.
After the triumph of the bourgeois revolutions, censorship and other restrictions by the monarchy and church were swept away. Instead individual citizens could directly participate in political decision making by publishing their own newspapers or books. Through their reasoned debates over political issues in print, the atomised citizens directly influenced the policies of the state. Thus the views of individuals were not only indirectly represented in the legislature, but also directly expressed in print. As moral citizens, individuals possessed the right of media freedom to shape the policies of the republic. But this political right could only be exercised through the private ownership of printing presses, which derived from their economic rights as members of civil society. By seizing the land of aristocrats or indigenous peoples, citizens in France and the USA temporarily realised this revolutionary aspiration, which was reflected in the legal protection of media freedom in these countries. Yet, even with the widespread ownership of private property, the female majority of the population was still excluded from exercising many of the rights of citizens, including media freedom. According to the bourgeois revolutionaries, the participation of men in the public sphere of the constitutional state depended upon women looking after the children in the private sphere of the household. Thus, although everyone had the formal right to take part in two way communications, only male property owners possessed the means to exercise media freedom in practice. In the republic of property owners, the exercise of media freedom was confined to male members of the bourgeoisie.
The Industrialisation of the Media
After decades of struggle, the bourgeois revolutionaries had finally abolished censorship and other restrictions on the press in western Europe and north America. Yet, at the very moment of victory, the ability of male citizens to exercise this media freedom was being fatally undermined by the continued modernisation of the economy. Responding to market competition, entrepreneurs started expanding production by hiring wage workers and introducing new types of machinery. After successive restructurings, innovative capitalists discovered Fordism: the mass production of commodities using semi skilled workers on assembly lines. In turn, the resulting expansion in the number of workers created the consumers for the commodities produced on the assembly lines. Crucially, the successful introduction of Fordism changed the form of property ownership within bourgeois societies. Because of the increased amount of investment needed for mass production, most individuals no longer possessed enough capital to fund their enterprises from their own resources. Instead, individuals had to come together to form collective forms of capital ownership, such as joint stock companies and bank investments. Moreover, as Fordism spread, the production of commodities by individual property owners was increasingly marginalised. Therefore, increasing numbers of individual property owners were forced to join the propertyless working class. With the development of Fordism, the individual owners of private property were gradually separated into a minority of shareholders of joint stock companies and a majority of wage workers.
Because of the peculiarities of information production, media companies were among the pioneers of Fordism. When a newspaper was published, the majority of the costs of production were incurred in the creation of the first copy of a print run by its journalists and printers. However, unlike other Fordist industries, the owners of newspapers weren’t able to use machinery to replace expensive skilled workers with cheaper semi skilled assembly line operators. Instead they employed the new technologies to displace the costs of their skilled workers through the repeated reproduction of the products of their labour. Because of the dramatic increase in the productivity of media labour, the price of each individual newspaper fell rapidly as further copies were printed. During the bourgeois revolutions, the artisan methods of printing ensured that most publications were too expensive to be purchased by the rural and urban poor. For the first time, after the rapid fall in price caused by the economies of scale of industrialised publishing, almost everyone could afford to buy a copy of a newspaper.
As in any other sector, the industrialisation of newspaper production involved the simultaneous mechanisation of production and proletarianisation of the direct producers. During the late eighteenth century, individual journalist printers had produced their own newspapers on simple wooden printing presses. But, with the advent of Fordism, newspapers could only be created by the collective labour of large numbers of wage-workers on mechanised presses. Because of this scale of production needed large investments of capital, single individuals could no longer afford to publish their own newspapers. Instead, joint stock companies and large banks took control of the new mass circulation newspapers. Crucially, the industrialisation of publishing didn’t only prevent most individual citizens from expressing their own opinions in print. As mere employees, journalists and printers were only allowed to reproduce views acceptable to their employers within the Fordist media.
The Fordist organisation of information production was enhanced by the advent of the electronic media. Although originally developed as a new type of point to point communications, amateur experimenters soon discovered that radio communications could also be used to create a new form of media. Within the small world of engineers, radio broadcasting was initially developed as an electronic version of the eighteenth century press. Because everyone owned a transmitter, the broadcaster engineers could simultaneously produce and receive radio programmes. Like the journalist printers of the bourgeois revolutions, each individual could directly exercise their right of freedom of communications over the airwaves. But, this electronic agora did not last long. Using mass production techniques, radio set manufacturers soon started producing simple receivers as consumer commodities. Under Fordism, most individuals could only be listeners.
In the 1920s, the radio set manufacturing companies were at the leading edge of the second industrial revolution of electronic technologies, which was transforming the economies of the major capitalist countries. The application of scientific advances in production was encouraged by the adoption of the techniques of Fordism. By using Taylorist labour discipline and assembly lines, manufacturers were able to lower the price of radio receivers until almost everyone could afford a set. As in other sectors, the radio receiver was turned into a mass consumption commodity by the dramatic increase in the productivity of labour and capital achieved by the new methods of Fordism. At the same time, the successful adoption of Fordism by radio set manufacturers encouraged companies in other sectors to reorganise their methods of production. In turn, this process transformed more individual private property owners into wage workers, which created more consumers for mass consumption commodities.
The mass ownership of radio sets formed the basis for the Fordist organisation of radio broadcasting. The industrialization of publishing had been encouraged by the rapid obsolescence of the political news printed by daily newspapers. The advantages of economies of scale in media production were intensified in radio broadcasting. In this new technology, the transmission of music and speech over the airwaves simultaneously produced and distributed the same programme to many different receivers. Instead of printing many individual copies, a radio station broadcast a continuous flow of instantly obsolete programmes. This technical attribute of broadcasting encouraged the industrialisation of programme making by radio stations. With many hours of airtime to fill, radio stations needed paid workers to create a constant flow of programmes for their listeners. As in newspaper publishing, the high costs of employing skilled media workers were displaced by transmitting the same radio programme to many different listeners. Like the mass circulation newspapers, radio stations needed the maximum possible audience for each programme to increase their economies of scale.
During the bourgeois revolutions, individual journalist printers had both created and owned their own newspapers. Because printing presses were cheap, all citizens could express their own views in print. In the early 1920s, the broadcaster engineers had briefly recreated this two way form of communications over the airwaves. But, with the industrialisation of publishing and broadcasting, individual citizens could no longer directly exercise their right of freedom of speech in print or over the airwaves. This development reflected the changes caused by the spread of Fordism. Because of economies of scale, a clear division between the producers and consumers of the media had been created. In both newspaper publishing and radio broadcasting, large banks and joint stock companies employed paid workers to create information and entertainment for the audiences. Thus, although everyone could now receive the media, the majority of the population couldn’t participate within the production of the media. The Fordist development of the media had restricted the right of freedom of speech in print or over the airwaves to a minority of share holders. As a consequence, both media producers and consumers were prevented from freely expressing their own views. Thus, after industrialisation, there could be no form of two way communications within the media. Instead, there was a one way flow of information and entertainment from the mass circulation newspapers and radio stations. Under Fordism, most individuals could only be consumers of the media.
The Nationalisation of the Media
Although it was based upon active participation, the implementation of the eighteenth century model of media freedom was restricted. The journalist printers were only a minority of the population. The publications of the artisan presses were few in number and very expensive. The right of free speech in print couldn’t be exercised in practice by men without property and all women. Out in the countryside, most people couldn’t even read or write. In contrast, after the industrialisation of printing, the majority of the population had access to media products for the first time. Aided by the development of primary education, better transport and the postal services, the mass circulation newspapers soon created a nationwide readership for their publications. Because of industrialisation, individuals could now obtain large amounts of printed entertainment and information at cheap prices. However the greater availability of printed material could only be achieved through the exclusion of the majority of citizens from participation within the media. Because large amounts of capital were needed for industrial production, individual citizens could no longer express their own opinions in print. Within the electronic media, the disappearance of the right of freedom of communications for individuals even became embodied within the new technology. Except for a small number of station owners, the majority of the population could only buy radio receivers. Thus, in both newspaper publishing and radio broadcasting, there could only be a one way flow of communications in the Fordist media.
Even though it was impossible for most individual citizens to own a printing press, the mass circulation newspapers still enjoyed the media freedom won by the journalist printers. Yet, despite the revolutionary origins of their immunity from state control, the industrialised media quickly abandoned any connection with left wing politics. Under the control of joint stock companies and banks, the mass circulation newspapers were unsympathetic to the emerging socialist movements. In order to win a large readership with a low cover price, these publications relied upon advertising from capitalist businesses and bribes from corrupt politicians. As a consequence, the mass circulation newspapers either promulgated right wing politics or printed only scandal and trivia. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some owners of popular newspapers used their publications to campaign for imperialist foreign adventures and against progressive social policies. For example, the American mass circulation newspapers helped to provoke a war with Spain and the British press denounced any concessions to the trade unions. When radio broadcasting was developed, the new electronic medium was even more dependent upon those with power and wealth. Unable to sell their programmes directly to listeners for technical reasons, commercial radio stations could only fund themselves with revenue from advertising. In the USA, the most popular radio network was owned by a cartel of receiver manufacturers and financed by the leading Wall Street bank. Not surprisingly, the majority of its programmes were devoted to promoting the products of its advertisers and airtime was only available to right wing politicians.
Because the output of the industrialised media was dominated by advertising and conservative politics, left wing activists soon became disillusioned with the model of media freedom established by the bourgeois revolutionaries. Therefore, in its place, they tried to create a new form of media freedom, which would allow radical views to be expressed in print and over the airwaves. For the bourgeois revolutionaries, media freedom had been founded upon the absence of state controls and the private ownership of printing presses. In their view, the political right of freedom of communications rested upon the economic right of private property. In contrast, left wing politicians believed that the political right of free speech in the media for all citizens was being blocked by the economic right of private property exercised by the owners of mass circulation newspapers and commercial radio stations. Therefore they began advocating increased state controls and the end of private ownership within the media. According to some of the Left, the state had become the protector of democratic liberties, rather than its greatest enemy.
Ironically, this demand for the nationalisation of the media was a consequence of the development of market competition between private property owners. As the traditional feudal hierarchies collapsed, the state emerged as the defender of the collective interests of the atomised individuals within civil society. Externally, the state protected the people from incursions by foreign enemies. After successive wars, individuals from various villages or towns were transformed into citizens of specific states, which were particular territorial spaces forming separate national markets. Internally, the state also protected the members of civil society by providing the legal framework for market competition. By becoming an impartial umpire in civil disputes, the state slowly developed its own institutional autonomy from the personality of the king. After the bourgeois revolutions, the deprivatisation of political power was accelerated. Under the post revolutionary constitutions, the state was controlled by elected representatives, who could make laws to protect the interests of all citizens from miscreant individuals. Thus, by combating both external and internal enemies, the state emerged as the collective expression of the public interest of the competing members of civil society. Enclosed within the boundaries of a specific state, the inhabitants of different villages and towns had been transformed into citizens of a single Nation People, with its own particular institutions, customs and language.
According to left wing radicals, the collective equality of citizenship of the Nation People provided the antidote to the selfish privileges of the private property owners. In their view, the contradiction between political and economic rights could only be ended by the nationalisation of all private property. Then, as the embodiment of the ‘general will’, the state would guarantee a reasonable standard of living for all citizens in return for participation in work and political activities. However the radical statism of the early socialists was simply a logical conclusion of the growing autonomy of the state from civil society within contemporary capitalism. As the struggle for democracy was won, a distinct caste of professional politicians and administrators had emerged to administer political power. Because the citizens weren’t able to rule themselves in an agora, the collective needs of the individuals within civil society could only be fulfilled through the actions of the state. Over time, the autonomy of the state bureaucracy slowly increased, especially in periods of national emergency. In the name of protecting the interests of all citizens, the government was able to override the rights of particular individuals. Crucially, with a monopoly over the administration of political power, the politicians and bureaucrats could increasingly run the state in their own interests. Thus, far from guaranteeing the political rights of all citizens, the demand of the Left for the nationalisation of all private property would have completed the process of emancipation of the state from any form of popular control.
The Totalitarian Media
The contradiction between the democratisation and bureaucratisation of the state haunted the struggle for media freedom. During the 1789 99 French revolution, the Jacobins pioneered a new definition of the freedom of communications, which extended this right beyond the small number of journalist printers. Ironically, this more democratic form of media freedom was developed during a period of emergency rule, which had been imposed to fight against royalist uprisings and foreign invasions. According to the leaders of the Jacobins, the establishment of a dictatorship in the short term was needed to create the conditions for the foundation of a democratic republic in the long term. As a consequence, the rights of particular individuals could be justifiably violated by the state in the interests of the whole Nation people. Using this argument, the Jacobin government abolished the media freedom of the journalist printers and introduced tight state supervision over all newspapers and other publications. Although censorship had been tyrannical under the absolute monarchy, the republican government believed that the suppression of publications advocating the return of the old order was completely legitimate. As well as these restrictive measures, the Jacobins also used the media for the political and moral education of the people in republican values. In their view, the civil war had been primarily caused by the ignorance of the benefits of democracy among the population. Therefore, alongside the organisation of popular festivals and public education, the Jacobin government subsidised the dissemination of republican propaganda by newspapers and book publishers.
After the overthrow of the Jacobin government, its supporters were convinced that the experience of these emergency measures had laid the basis for a completely new model of media freedom. According to Babeuf and other radical Jacobins, the freedom of communications for all citizens could only be achieved by the nationalisation of all printing presses. Although they would no longer possess the economic right to own a printing press, the citizens would be able to determine the opinions expressed in the newspapers and books published by the state by exercising their political right to vote for their own parliamentary representatives. Thus, instead of media freedom being restricted to a limited number of journalist printers, all citizens would indirectly have their views expressed in the state owned media by their elected government. However, this new form of media freedom anticipated the limitations of the Fordist media. In Babeuf’s utopia, citizens could only be consumers of the publications of the nationalised printing presses.
Despite its democratic aspirations, this new form of media freedom was also restricted by the Jacobin belief in the need for a revolutionary dictatorship in the short term to create a democratic republic in the long term. During the 1848 French revolution, Blanqui and his Jacobin supporters called for all political power to be temporarily transferred into their own hands. According to these Jacobins, a revolutionary dictatorship was needed to educate the French people in the values of republicanism. Under the old order, the views of the majority of the population had been corrupted by false ideas, especially by reading newspapers owned by the bourgeoisie. As a consequence, they were incapable of electing a new government in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. Inspired by Babeuf, Blanqui and his followers advocated the nationalisation of all printing presses. Under Jacobin control, the state owned newspapers and book sellers would produce propaganda in favour of the construction of the new society. Thus, in Blanqui’s vision, the citizens would abdicate their media freedom to a temporary revolutionary dictatorship, which would determine the content of all newspapers and books in their long term interests. In the name of democracy, the media was to be controlled by a caste of unaccountable politicians and bureaucrats.
Although Babeuf and Blanqui influenced revolutionary movements across Europe, these two radical Jacobins were never able to put their version of media freedom into practice. In contrast, after the 1917 revolution, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to implement the Jacobin model of media freedom within the Russian Empire. Inspired by Babeuf and Blanqui, Lenin claimed that the old order had ideologically corrupted Russian people, who were consequently incapable of deciding who should control the new republic. Therefore, in his view, a short term revolutionary dictatorship was needed to create the conditions for the establishment of participatory democracy in the long term. Crucially, the Bolshevik leader believed that the primary task of this dictatorship was the elimination of incorrect ideas among the Russian workers and peasants. Therefore, after their seizure of power, the Bolsheviks systematically suppressed all opposition newspapers, including those run by Marxists and anarchists. Alongside these repressive measures, they also greatly expanded their own media to indoctrinate the Russian people in their own ideology. During the early 1920s, the revolutionary dictatorship published national and local newspapers, established the first radio stations within Russia, created a national film industry, organised revolutionary festivals and distributed posters by radical artists. Following the advice of Blanqui, the Bolsheviks were determined to educate the population in the values of the new social order.
According to the Bolsheviks, the contradiction between political and economic rights within the media had been resolved through the nationalisation of the media. In Lenin’s model of media freedom, the propertyless majority of the population abdicated their political right of media freedom to the minority of professional revolutionaries, who ran the nationalised newspapers and radio stations on their behalf. Crucially, the Bolsheviks derived their claim to absolute political power from their knowledge of the correct revolutionary ideology. Because they had been corrupted by the false ideas of the old order, the Russian workers and peasants were unable to express their long term interests through regular elections. As a consequence, the revolutionary conspiracy had to use the nationalised media for the education of the population in the correct ideas of the new society. Therefore the majority of the population was excluded from any direct or indirect participation within the media. At the same time, media workers were also prevented from expressing their own opinions in print or over the airwaves. In order to guarantee the ideologically correct content of the media, the Bolsheviks turned all journalists, printers, broadcasters and engineers into employees of the revolutionary state. Thus, by the early 1920s, Lenin and his followers had instituted a new definition of media freedom: the one way flow of propaganda from the ruling party to the population.
Although it was supposed to be only temporary, the Bolshevik dictatorship soon became the permanent form of government of the Russian Empire. Under Stalin, the few remnants of democratic control over the executive were finally abolished. By the early 1930s, the dictator had created a fully totalitarian system of political rule, which completely dominated the lives of the Russian people. Although he relied on state terror to maintain his rule, Stalin also used the nationalised media to mobilise support for the policies of his regime, especially for the rapid industrialisation of the country. Impressed by the success of the Bolsheviks, revolutionaries from around the world imitated their methods of organisation, including their views on the role of the media. As in Russia, the media were used for the one way flow of ideology from the revolutionary conspiracy to the people. Thus, when the Bolsheviks set up the Communist International, the first condition of its membership was that all revolutionary newspapers and other media were to be placed under the complete control of the leaders of the local Bolshevik party.
Although imitators of the Bolsheviks triumphed in some underdeveloped or colonised countries, the revival of radical Jacobinism encountered greater difficulties within states with democratic constitutions. Ironically, the extreme right opponents of the democratic republic applied the methods of the Bolsheviks with greater success than their left wing opponents. In both Italy and Germany, fascist parties overthrew democratic governments and established totalitarian dictatorships. While the local Bolsheviks had been supported by radical workers, these fascist parties mobilised the discontented members of the petit bourgeoisie and the peasantry, who were either afraid of losing their private property under the rule of the Left or hoped for jobs as functionaries of the new regime. According to the fascists, the ‘general will’ of the people couldn’t be created by democratic elections. Instead the atomised members of civil society needed to be united into a single Nation People by a totalitarian dictatorship under the control of a charismatic leader. By submitting to this leadership, the Nation People would be able to conquer its external and internal enemies, especially those associated with left wing ideas or from different ethnic groups.
Not surprisingly, the fascists also believed that individuals had to abdicate their political right of media freedom to the charismatic leader of the ruling party, who would express their opinions for them in print or over the airwaves. After their seizure of power in 1933, the Nazis implemented their totalitarian plans for the media through the Ministry of Propaganda, which purged all opponents of the regime from the newspapers, radio stations and the cultural institutions. At the same time, the Ministry also organised the propagation of Nazi beliefs to the German population through the media and the arts. Above all else, the state controlled media disseminated the speeches of Hitler to the people. By listening together to the Nazi leader on the radio, the fascists believed that individual Germans would be transformed into a unified Nation People. As in Bolshevik Russia, the totalitarian organisation of the media in Nazi Germany ensured the complete autonomy of the newspapers and radio stations from any form of popular control.
Fordism and the Public Service State
The totalitarian states of Bolshevik Russia and Nazi Germany were the most dramatic examples of a fundamental change in the role of the state within the world economy. In 1914, the global trading system was torn apart by the outbreak of war between the great powers. As the fighting intensified, direct state intervention was needed to organise the production of munitions and other military supplies. In addition, welfare benefits had to be greatly expanded to relieve wartime poverty. Despite some relaxation of controls in the immediate post war period, the advent of the 1930s Depression finally discredited the liberal economic policies of minimal state interference and free market competition. Within the industrialised countries, the slump had been precipitated by the advent of Fordism. By reorganising their methods and technologies of production, companies had greatly increased the quantity of commodities available in the marketplace. However the spread of Fordism didn’t immediately lead to increased prosperity for ordinary people. Instead there was a global crisis of overproduction, which was caused by the lack of profitable markets for the output of the Fordist factories.
In response, the state was forced to intervene within the economy to ensure that the rapid growth in production was synchronised with a parallel increase in consumption. Without rises in wages and more welfare spending, the expansion of production remained limited by the low living standards of the working class. Without controls over the banks, the bulk of personal savings wouldn’t be invested in industrial production. Under Fordism, the state could no longer simply provide the legal framework for market competition between independent producers. Instead, the state and the joint stock companies had to collaborate in the joint management of the national economy. By the late 1940s, an alliance of politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists had been created to introduce new economic policies, such as the creation of a welfare system, minimum wage laws and controls over the financial sector. Although private ownership remained dominant within western societies, both left wing and right wing governments increasingly used nationalisations and regulations to combat the collapse in production and to direct the modernisation of the economy. In the aftermath of the Second World War, every developed industrialized country depended upon concerted state intervention to create a virtuous circle of rising production and consumption.
Within western Europe, interventionist economic policies were pioneered by the Socialist parties. In the late nineteenth century, these organisations had been founded by the followers of Marx within the working class movement. According to Marx, the winning of universal suffrage would inevitably lead to a social revolution, which would extend democracy into the workplace. But, by the late 1940s, the Socialist parties had abandoned this revolutionary goal. Instead they adopted their own version of Jacobinism, which was centred on the control of private property by the state. But, in contrast to their Bolshevik rivals, the Socialists rejected the need for a revolutionary dictatorship. Far from leading to the end of political rights, they believed that the nationalisation of private property was needed to protect the democratic republic from the authoritarian ambitions of capitalists and bankers.
According to Blum, the leader of the French Socialists, the political rights of citizens were being undermined by the industrialisation of capitalism. In the past, the democratic republic had only needed to guarantee the juridical and constitutional rights of the individual property owners. But, with the development of Fordism, the population had been divided into a majority of propertyless workers and a minority of property owning capitalists. As a consequence, political and economic rights were increasingly in contradiction with one another, rather than being in symbiosis. For example, media freedom for all citizens could no longer be realised by the private ownership of printing presses. However, under a democratic constitution, the propertyless citizens could still elect representatives from different political parties to national and local assemblies. According to Blum, the Socialists and their allies had to use political power won in these elections to create the social and economic conditions for the continued exercise of political rights by all citizens. As under the Jacobins, the political rights of the whole Nation People had to take precedence over the economic right of particular individuals. But, in Blum’s version of Jacobinism, the ‘general will’ of the citizens couldn’t only be created by the elected government. Crucially, individual citizens influenced the policies of the democratic republic through the continual electoral competition between different political parties. In contrast with traditional Jacobinism, Blum and the Socialists believed that both government and opposition parties were valid representatives of public opinion. Therefore the state had to act as an impartial umpire between the competing parties.
In the long term, Blum and other Socialists hoped that the different political parties would reach a consensus over the administration of civil society. Instead of defending the interests of one group, political power would be exercised by a public service state, which would serve all citizens equally. After the liberation from Nazi occupation, left wing and right wing parties across western Europe did cooperate in rebuilding their devastated countries. In particular, this consensus was sealed by the introduction of interventionist economic policies. By regulating Fordism, the public service state could not only raise working class living standards, but also direct the modernisation of the major capitalist companies. Despite the economic benefits of these new policies, the consensus politics of the post war governments only partially advanced the political rights of all citizens. In theory, state intervention imposed the interests of the whole Nation People upon the individual owners of private property. However, in practice, the politicians and bureaucrats increasingly identified their own self interest with the needs of the population. Although they were supposed to be loyal servants of the public service state, these professionals excluded the majority of the population from any involvement in political and economic decision making between elections. Once again, the democratisation of the state had encouraged the bureaucratisation of power. By the late 1940s, most west European states acquired a new type of ruling class alongside the traditional bourgeoisie: the bureaucrats of the public service state.
Public Service Broadcasting
The emergence of the public service state in western Europe laid the basis for the creation of a pluralist version of the Jacobin model of media freedom. During the Second World War, most owners of the mass circulation newspapers and the commercial radio stations had enthusiastically collaborated with the Nazis. Fearing the expropriation of their wealth by the Left, these media capitalists had preferred to protect their own individual property rights rather than to fight for the political rights of all citizens against totalitarianism. With private ownership discredited, the consensus governments of the post war period had to find a more democratic method of organising the media. In the 1930s, Blum and his fellow Socialists had advocated that the public service state should directly control the media in the interests of all citizens. In his view, the ideological conflict in the mass media between competing political parties had to be institutionalised through the nationalisation of all newspapers and radio stations by the public service state. Instead of private ownership, Blum proposed that the editorial staff of the different media should be appointed by the various political parties represented in the elected parliament. In this scheme, competing political viewpoints would be expressed in the media in proportion to their popular support, rather than through the wealth of their financial sponsors. Although the public service state couldn’t create two way communications, every citizen could influence the one way flow of communications in the media by choosing between the competing political parties in regular elections.
Because of the rights won by the journalist printers in the bourgeois revolutions, this new version of media freedom was never applied to the mass circulation newspapers. In contrast, the electronic media within most western European countries were nationalised in the immediate post war period. During the 1920s and 1930s, state broadcasting corporations had been set up to compete with the commercial radio stations. Because of the technical limitations of broadcasting, it was impossible to sell their radio programmes directly to the listeners. But, by imposing an annual charge on the owners of receivers, every listener could be forced to contribute towards the costs of the nationalised radio broadcasting systems. In the same way as advertising provided an income for the commercial radio stations, so revenue from the licence fee created a secure economic basis for the state ownership of the electronic media. Thus, when the commercial radio stations owned by collaborators with fascism were expropriated, these state owned broadcasting corporations had the financial resources to monopolise the airwaves within most western European countries.
Following Blum’s advice, the post war governments decided that their nationalised broadcasting corporations should be made accountable to their audiences through the direct involvement of the elected parliamentary representatives of the citizens. In many western European countries, the sharing of party control over the state broadcasting corporation culminated in the pillarisation of the electronic media. From top managers to doorkeepers, all jobs within the nationalised radio and television stations were divided among the competing political parties in accordance with their electoral support. Based on the consensus between the different parties, all major political viewpoints were represented within the workforce of the state owned radio and television stations. By having their own supporters within the workforce of the electronic media, both government and opposition parties could use their own members to express their views on the news and other programmes of the nationalised broadcasting corporation. With the adoption of pillarisation, Blum’s version of media freedom was turned into a stable institutional structure for the administration of the state owned radio and television stations. According to its advocates, all citizens could now indirectly express their views within the nationalised electronic media by voting for their political representatives.
But, in reality, the electronic media were still outside the control of their audiences and workers. As in other institutions of the public service state, the politicians and bureaucrats in charge of the nationalised media increasingly identified their own self interest with the needs of the population. With a monopoly over the electronic media, the main political parties were able to exclude dissidents opposed to the consensus from the airwaves. For example, after the outbreak of the Cold War, the elected representatives of the pro Russian Communist parties were banned from the public service radio and television stations for supporting the totalitarian opponent of the western European countries. Similarly, freed of pressures from advertisers and private owners, the directors of the nationalised media could fill their schedules with educational and cultural programmes. While the majority of the population mainly wanted entertainment shows for their amusement, the state broadcasters primarily catered for the cultural tastes of the most privileged sections of society. Crucially, as members of the bureaucracy of the public service state, the directors of the nationalised media were an integral part of this educated elite. Because media freedom was only seen as a political right, the provision of entertainment programmes could be largely ignored by the nationalised radio and television stations. Instead, following the Jacobin tradition, the dissemination of high culture by the electronic media was encouraged as a means of educating the citizens in correct ideas.
The process of separating public service broadcasting from any form of popular control was most fully developed in Great Britain. In the early 1920s, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was founded as a nationalised monopoly funded by the licence fee. But, in contrast with the pillarisation adopted by its continental European equivalents, the BBC had complete independence from any direct control by both government and opposition politicians. As the BBC’s first director general, Reith successfully prevented the British political parties from having any day to day involvement in its management. In order to preserve this autonomy, Reith ensured that the leaders of the major political parties regularly appeared on BBC programmes and their views were reported in its news service. By skillful lobbying, Reith persuaded the major political parties to rely on the neutrality of BBC management for the impartial presentation of their views. Yet, within the balanced programmes of the BBC, there were strict limits on political pluralism. During the 1926 General Strike, the leaders of the trade unions and the Labour party were prevented from broadcasting. Even without civil unrest, Communists and fascists were systematically excluded from the airwaves. At the same time, Reith also believed that the BBC had a duty to educate the British population. Under his control, the corporation limited the amount of popular entertainment in its schedules. Instead, the BBC mainly transmitted religious, educational and classical music programmes for its listeners. Above all else, Reith wanted the BBC to impose the culture of the conservative middle classes on the rest of the country. For Reith, the pedagogical role of the corporation even included improving the accents of its working class listeners. By creating ‘BBC English’, he hoped that a standardised southern English accent would be adopted by the whole British population.
After the industrialisation of the media, the political right of freedom of communications could no longer be foundedupon the economic right of private property. Owned by a minority of share holders, the mass circulation newspapers and commercial radio stations excluded the majority of citizens from exercising their freedom of speech in print or over the airwaves. In response, left wing politicians advocated the nationalisation of the media, which would place the newspapers and radio stations under the control of the ‘general will’ of all citizens. At the end of the Second World War, the collaboration of the commercial media owners with fascism created the opportunity for the introduction of this new model of media freedom. Because the Blanquist and Leninist variants were too authoritarian, Blum’s pluralist version of Jacobin media freedom was adopted for the nationalised electronic media across western Europe. Although public service broadcasting didn’t create two way communications, all citizens could influence the one way flow of communications produced by the state owned media by choosing between the competing political parties in regular elections. However, this democratisation of the electronic media simultaneously led to the bureaucratisation of the airwaves. Because they were only indirectly accountable to the people, politicians and bureaucrats were increasingly able to run the nationalised broadcasting corporations in their own self interest. If all citizens were to be able to express their views in print or over the airwaves, a more radical version of media freedom would be needed.
The Challenge of the New Left
By the mid 1960s, both right wing and left wing governments across the industrialised world believed that the adoption of Fordism had removed the main causes of social discontent among their electorates. In national and local contests, the different political parties competed to offer higher wages and more social services to the voters. As their incomes steadily increased, workers were able to buy the consumer goods produced by the corporations, such as refrigerators, record players, vacuum cleaners and washing machines. From the early 1950s onwards, the ultimate consumer commodity became available to ordinary people: the television set. As the ownership of receivers spread, watching television programmes quickly became the most popular leisure activity within Fordist societies. Although they couldn’t escape from the need to work, workers were now entertained and informed by sound and vision in their own homes.
Despite the rapid rise in living standards, the growth of the consumer society created its own social tensions. During the 1960s and early 1970s, this discontent led to the emergence of the New Left within the leading industrialised countries. Although initially inspired by protests against the American invasion of Vietnam, this movement soon challenged the cultural and sexual conservatism of its own society. In early stages of Fordism, the state and employers had encouraged cultural and sexual repression within the working class to reinforce labour discipline on the assembly lines. Yet, once Fordism was fully developed, the end of unemployment and the spread of mass consumption undermined this puritanical social order. Abandoning the morality of their parents, many young people adopted the hippie lifestyle, which championed sexual and chemical hedonism. By the mid 1960s, this cultural bohemianism had turned into social rebellion. Because they no longer respected the authority of their bosses, young workers instigated a wave of absenteeism, wildcat strikes and sabotage within the factories. While most activists were simply fighting for more wages and better conditions, a revolutionary minority rejected the entire Fordist compromise. While their parents saw televisions, fridges and cars as liberation from poverty, these young radicals believed that the desire for consumer goods had trapped society within the treadmill of wage labour. In their view, cultural liberation was only the first step towards a social revolution.
Although they were anti capitalist, these young revolutionaries were also critical of the traditional Left parties. Instead of more modernisation, this new generation wanted an immediate revolution against the consumer society. In the early 1960s, this new form of politics was pioneered by the Situationist International, which had been started as a radical art group. According to its analysis, the introduction of mass production and consumption had ended the poverty of the past for the majority of the population. But, in the process of modernisation, the members of civil society had been transformed from individual property owners into wage-workers. Deprived of the ownership of private property, the majority of the population was now unable to control their time at work. With the creation of the consumer society, this alienation had been extended into everyday life. Under Fordism, the workers not only had to labour in factories and offices, but also had to consume the commodities produced by the assembly lines. Because the large corporations tried to manipulate the patterns of consumption, the Situationists believed that the majority of the population was now oppressed in their leisure as well as their work. As passive consumers, workers could only respond to the decisions of others without being able to participate themselves. Using the metaphor of the Theatre, the Situationists denounced Fordism as the ‘society of the spectacle’.
Rejecting the European Left’s Jacobin traditions, the Situationists claimed that the alienation of work and everyday life could only be overcome by the creation of a direct democracy, which would end the separation of political and economic power from popular control. In the May ’68 Revolution in France, this revolutionary utopia was temporarily realised by the nationwide occupation of factories, universities and other institutions by striking workers and students. Under the slogan of self management, people from many different occupations demanded the extension of democracy into the workplace. But, despite the continuation of industrial unrest throughout the 1970s, the New Left never gained much influence within the labour movement. Instead, across the industrialised world, these young revolutionaries transferred their hopes for the implementation of direct democracy to the new social movements. During the 1960s, American radicals successfully established autonomous campaigns to champion the rights of women, lesbians & gays, ethnic minorities and other communities. Drawing from this experience, many New Left thinkers claimed that the traditional working class parties and unions were now obsolete. In their view, with modernisation completed, the competing classes within capitalism had fragmented into different social groups. Therefore, individuals could only identify with organisations fighting against their own particular oppression as women, homosexuals or members of ethnic communities. Applying this analysis to western Europe, Félix Guattari called for the creation of a ‘micro politics of desire’, which would express these new forms of popular struggle. According to his analysis, revolutionaries could only unite the majority of the population in the fight against capitalism by championing the specific demands of each autonomous campaign. Crucially, Guattari believed that close cooperation between the different new social movements in the revolutionary struggle was made possible by their common commitment to direct democracy within their internal structures. In his view, these autonomous campaigns provided a practical example of the end of the separation of politics from everyday life, which proved that a social revolution was imminent within
The Alternative Media
Because of the New Left’s origins in cultural rebellion, many young revolutionaries were convinced that the spread of the hippie lifestyle was a crucial part of the revolutionary struggle. In their view, the work ethic, patriotism, sexism, racism and other conservative attitudes were cultural defences constructed by the ruling class against the spread of revolutionary ideas among the workers. Like Blanqui and Lenin, most New Left intellectuals believed that the majority of the population had been ideologically indoctrinated in false ideas by the capitalist media. In their writings, these thinkers relentlessly exposed the political biases of the mass circulation newspapers and the electronic media. Inspired by the Chinese Cultural Revolution, some radicals even advocated the creation of new type of totalitarian media, which would educate the whole population in politically correct ideas.
In contrast, the Situationists rejected the Leninist analysis of the media. In their view, the spread of bourgeois ideologies was only an effect of the power of the media. Instead their analysis emphasised the passivity imposed upon workers by the dominance of the media. According to the Situationists, radio and television broadcasting had to be examined as the primary form of the ‘society of the spectacle’. Crucially, the Fordist organisation of the electronic media prevented any two way communications between the different members of the audience. With their centralised structures, there could only be a one way flow of communications within radio and television broadcasting. With the audience reduced to passivity, the radio and television stations could use their programme schedules to reinforce the daily rhythms of Fordist society. While the morning radio shows encouraged people to go to work, the evening television programmes provided instant relaxation after a tiring day at the office or factory. At the same time, the electronic media also created markets for the consumer goods produced by the Fordist factories by broadcasting advertising and programmes featuring rich lifestyles. Similarly, the electronic media maintained the illusion of choice offered by representative democracy through the provision of airtime for the competing parties. By mesmerising its passive audience, the electronic media had extended the disciplines of the factory into the leisure time of the workers.
Following the May ’68 Revolution, this Situationist analysis was widely accepted among the most radical sections of the New Left. For example, Guattari thought that the mass media had replaced religion and physical force as the most important method of imposing social discipline within capitalist societies. Using his psychoanalytic studies, Guattari claimed that the electronic media promoted specific forms of ‘desire’ among their audiences. Bombarded by advertisements and mindless entertainment programmes, the majority of the population were being brainwashed into becoming loyal workers and contented shoppers. Crucially, the radical philosopher believed that the effectiveness of this new form of social control depended upon the exclusion of the majority of the population from any participation within the media. According to Guattari and his followers, the New Left had to counter the ideological influence of the newspapers and the electronic media by inventing a new form of media freedom. Rejecting the Jacobin solutions of the past, they called for the application of the principles of direct democracy within the media.
In the mid 1960s, the American New Left pioneered a self management model of media freedom. Using cheap off set printing techniques, young radicals set up underground newspapers to cover events censored by the mainstream media, such as anti Vietnam war protests, new social movements, rock music and the hippie culture. Unlike their Leninist predecessors, these alternative newspapers didn’t advocate the policies of a single revolutionary party. Instead they tried to provide ‘counter information’ about the activities of all sections of the New Left. Although some were run by hippie entrepreneurs, most alternative newspapers were organised as co operatives. In these self managed newspapers, the journalists not only elected the editors, but also rotated important tasks between themselves. Crucially, these radical underground newspapers allowed their readers to contribute their own articles, poems, photos and drawings. By encouraging participation in the production and management of their newspapers, the American New Left hoped to free people from the passivity imposed upon them by the mainstream media.
Inspired by the success of the underground press, other New Left radicals began experimenting with community television. In the early 1970s, the first portable video cameras had become available and the price of VCRs had fallen dramatically. According to the community video activists, the skills of television production could be easily learnt by amateurs. Moreover, almost everyone could express their opinions in a television interview. Therefore, these video radicals advocated that the new social movements should make their own programmes about their struggles. Above all else, they wanted to create an interactive television system, which would allow two way communications between viewers. In their view, when everyone was connected to the cable television networks, individuals and groups would be able to speak for themselves without need for representation by politicians or packaging by media professionals. Unfortunately for the community video activists, the construction of an electronic agora within television broadcasting was technically impossible in the early 1970s. With cable networks only available in a few cities, community television broadcasting was restricted to a limited number of experimental channels in the USA and western Europe.
In contrast, community radio stations were successfully set up across the industrialised world. In the late 1940s, the first community radio stations had been founded by pacifists in the USA. After the emergence of the New Left, these radio stations were rapidly radicalised by their younger members. By the 1960s, the community radio stations were playing a leading role in the protests against the Vietnam war and in the emergence of the new social movements. Like the underground newspapers, these radical stations not only provided ‘counter information’ about dissident political groups, but also were run as self managed organisations. In 1975, this form of New Left media spread to western Europe. After a celebrated court case, the confiscation of the transmitter of a radical pirate radio station was declared unconstitutional in Italy. As a consequence, thousands of unlicenced radio and television stations appeared in all parts of the country. Although most were commercial, a minority of these radio stations were run by revolutionary groups. Using cheaptransmitters, home made studios and voluntary labour, community radio stations were much easier to run than underground newspapers. Crucially, these New Left radio stations not only elected their own administrators, but also tried to break down the separation between media professionals and their audience. From phone ins to programmes made by volunteers, the Italian community radio stations encouraged listener participation in their broadcasts. Above all else, these stations allowed their listeners to describe their own experiences in social struggles or their own opinions on political issues without the interference of parties or journalists. According to many New Left activists, these community radio stations had successfully undermined the domination of the ‘society of the spectacle’ over the electronic media.
Following the success of community radio broadcasting in Italy, similar stations were set up in most western European countries. Crucially, many New Left radicals believed that the implementation of the self management model of media freedom within radio broadcasting was opening the way for a social revolution. Above all else, the new form of media freedom was the technological fix to the practical problems of creating direct democracy on a national scale. Because every citizen couldn’t personally attend an agora within a large country, the bourgeois revolutionaries had replaced the absolute monarchy with a representative form of democracy. However, although all citizens obtained the vote, the election of professional politicians to run the state exacerbated the separation of political power from civil society. According to the New Left, this alienation could now be overcome by implementing the self management model of media freedom. Within the ‘society of the spectacle’, the centralised radio and television stations only transmitted a one way flow of communications from political parties and media professionals to isolated listeners and viewers. But, after a social revolution, the New Left radicals believed that the electronic media could be used to establish two way communications between localised meetings of workers. With the formation of these horizontal links, direct democracy could be extended electronically beyond the physical confines of a general meeting. Thus, with the establishment of two way communications within radio and television broadcasting, everyone would be able to take part in social decision making by participating within an electronic agora.
According to some New Left thinkers, the creation of an electronic agora would only be possible once everyone was connected to a cable television network. In contrast, Guattari and other radicals claimed that community radio broadcasting could be used to build the electronic agora. Like other New Left thinkers, they believed that the new social movements had already instituted direct democracy within their own organisations. As a next step, they advocated that feminists, ecologists, lesbians & gays, ethnic communities and other autonomous campaigns should set up their own community radio stations. Then each new social movement could hold its internal discussions on its own radio station. At the same time, a common debate could be conducted between the different communities through the diffuse network of alternative radio stations. According to Guattari and his followers, these specific and general discussions on the community radio stations would be combined into a permanent meeting of the airwaves, which would involve every new social movement and civil society as a whole. Thus the implementation of self management model of media freedom within radio broadcasting would provide the technical fix to overcome the physical limits of direct democracy. Without waiting for the building of a cable television network, the electronic agora could be immediately constructed over the airwaves.
In the self management model of media freedom, the members of civil society exercised their individual political right of freedom of communications through the collective economic right of ownership exercised by co operatives. Unlike earlier versions, this new form of media freedom didn’t limit participation in production to a minority of male journalist printers or professional politicians and journalists. However the revolutionary hopes embodied in the self management form of media freedom weren’t fulfilled in practice. By the late 1970s, the New Left media had begun to go into decline. During a period of reaction, there was a widespread disillusionment about politics among all sections of the population. Reliant on voluntary labour and funding, most radical publications went bankrupt. At the same time, those underground newspapers with large readerships were slowly transformed into conventional commercial enterprises. Within community television broadcasting, most of the experimental stations never obtained enough support to evolve into permanent channels. Even within community radio, radical stations encountered great difficulties in recruiting new activists and raising revenue. By the late 1980s, much of the alternative media had entered into final stages of collapse, with declining audiences, little money and internal quarrels. Among the survivors, the radical media were usually run by a small minority of New Left activists. With their high level of political commitment, they were often culturally separated from their intended audiences. Under the self management model of media freedom, all individuals were supposed to participate in two way communications. Ironically, in an era of political apathy, most of the New Left media were only providing a one way flow of propaganda from a small group of revolutionary activists. Without the participation of all members of civil society, it was impossible to build the electronic agora. As the utopian hopes of the New Left faded, a new model of media freedom could be tried.
The Crisis of Fordism
From the late-1940s onwards, the economies of the industrialised countries enjoyed continuous growth, with wages and profits steadily increasing in parallel. However, in the early-1970s, the rate of growth suddenly went into decline. In part, this slowdown in the economy was caused by the revolt of the New Left against the disciplines of the assembly-lines. At the same time, a rapid rise in the price of oil and other raw materials substantially increased the costs of production for most businesses. As in previous decades, national governments responded to the crisis by adopting reflationary policies. But, unlike in earlier recessions, this Fordist strategy didn’t work. Instead, the world economy entered a period of persistent inflation, currency instability and growing unemployment. This failure in economic policy was caused by the globalisation of production. For over thirty years, American, European and Japanese companies had been slowly expanding to obtain economies of scale on an international level. Outside the control of any one national government, the global trading system created by these multinationals was regulated by the world financial markets. Following the collapse of fixed exchange rates, the international competition between different currencies increasingly determined the internal economic policies of the industrialised countries. For example, reflation in a single country was prevented by balance of payments crises, which forced a return to deflationary policies. Once the governments of the industrialised countries lost control over their own national economies, the virtuous circle of rising production and consumption was broken. Instead of steadily increasing wages and welfare benefits, workers now faced cuts in social benefits, stagnant money wages and mass unemployment. Faced with the reemergence of the social problems of the past, new solutions had to be found to tackle the deepening crisis of Fordism.
The Post-Industrial Utopians
After the failure of traditional reflationary remedies, many politicians and intellectuals were convinced that Fordism had reached its inherent social, organisational and technological limits. However, unlike the New Left, they didn’t accept that a social revolution was needed to transcend the crisis of the system. Instead, they believed that a new form of society would spontaneously emerge from the growing convergence of computer, media and communications technologies. Back in the early-1960s, Marshall McLuhan had been the first prophet of a new post-industrial age. According to this guru, the development of human societies was solely determined by their technologies, especially the different forms of media. For example, he claimed that Fordist industrialisation had been caused by the invention of printing, which brought about discipline, individuality and rationality. However, with the introduction of radio and television broadcasting, this industrial society had begun to break down. Because the electronic media were supposed to encourage participation and involvement, the younger generation would no longer accept hierarchies imposed by Fordism.
For McLuhan, the student revolts and the cultural rebellion of the hippies were simply symptoms of a clash between two rival forms of media. In his view, this crisis could only be overcome by the final triumph of the new information technologies. With the spread of computer automation, Fordist manufacturing would be replaced by information processing. As a consequence, alienating and boring factory labour would be transformed into participatory and enjoyable intellectual work. Similarly, the spread of the electronic media would also overcome national and social divisions among people. When everyone was watching the same television programmes, McLuhan believed that old hatreds and misunderstandings would disappear. As a devout Catholic, this prophet of the information age hoped that the whole world would be united in a mystical version of the electronic agora: the ‘global village’. Inspired by McLuhan’s celebrity status, other intellectuals also started predicting the replacement of Fordism by a post-industrial society. According to these futurologists, the introduction of information technologies would shift employment from the manufacturing and extractive industries towards the service sector, especially its media and high-technology companies. As a consequence, assembly-line workers would be replaced by white-collar professionals. In parallel, bureaucrats and industrialists would lose their political and economic power to scientists and academics, who had the skills to invent the new information technologies. For the futurologists, the crisis of Fordism was proof of the correctness of their analysis. For example, they claimed that the reemergence of mass unemployment was caused by the failure to train workers for the new information age, rather than the loss of control over national economies to the global financial markets. As technological determinists, these prophets believed that the profound economic crisis of the early-1970s was solely caused by the invention of new types of machinery.
Because of their technological determinism, the futurologists were fascinated by the electronic media. As the personal computer hadn’t yet been invented, radio and television sets were the most important information technologies in daily use. According to these gurus, the electronic media were already pioneering the future information society within the present. For example, with their ever-changing fashions, stars and advertising slogans, radio and television stations demonstrated the obsolescence of the rigid production methods of Fordism. In the future, the futurologists believed that the introduction of satellite and cable television technologies would greatly increase the influence of the electronic media. Crucially, they forecast that the construction of an interactive cable television network would inevitably lead to the development of direct democracy. In the post-industrial utopia, viewers would be able to register their opinions on issues of public concern by simply pressing their remote controls. Thus, without the need for a social revolution led by the New Left, the futurologists believed that the spread of the new information technologies would automatically create the electronic agora.
Despite their utopian conclusions, the prophecies of the futurologists were used by conservative parties to argue for the adoption of neo-liberal economic policies by the major industrialised countries. In the early-1980s, led by Reagan in the USA and Thatcher in Great Britain, governments across the world privatised and deregulated their financial and industrial sectors. By abandoning interventionist policies and cutting welfare spending, politicians hoped to revitalise their economies through the rapid integration of their financial institutions and manufacturing corporations within the global marketplace. Crucially, these conservative governments believed that increased market competition would encourage the adoption of the new information technologies. Inspired by the futurologists, they thought that the crisis of Fordism would finally overcome through the emergence of the post-industrial society. Although the futurologists had predicted the imminent advent of direct democracy, neo-liberal governments used their prophecies to defend the creation of greater market competition. Because they limited profits and prevented the entry of new competitors, state regulations were condemned for discouraging companies from taking the risk of introducing new information technologies within their industries. Thus, by accepting the inevitability of the transition to a post-industrial society, conservative governments were able to justify the removal of all regulatory controls over private corporations. Ironically, both Reagan and Thatcher believed that the success of their neo-liberal economic policies was proved by the overexpansion of the service sector and the decline of manufacturing industries in their countries.
In order to win electoral support for the adoption of neo-liberal economic policies, conservative parties appealed to the individual self-interest of the better paid workers. With the advent of the consumer society, the living standards of most people had risen considerably. According to the neo-liberals, workers now had to be encouraged to become individual property owners. By extending the ownership of shares, small businesses and houses, conservative politicians hoped that most workers would no longer support collective solutions to their problems, such as state intervention or democracy in the workplace. Instead, these property-owning wage-earners would be more interested in expressing their individual autonomy, especially within their private lives. Reviving the principles of the bourgeois revolutions, neo-liberals urged that individual citizens should be given legal guarantees of their independence from state controls. While Socialists championed the public service state as the representative of the entire Nation-People, conservatives advocated individual rights for the protection of each citizen against the abuses of political power. Crucially, these rights weren’t only being claimed by individual citizens. With the globalisation of production, corporations also needed guarantees against the arbitrary actions of national governments. As legal persons, joint-stock companies wanted the same juridical rights as individual citizens. Under the slogan of freedom, neo-liberals advocated the protection of the particular interests of private capital in the name of the universal rights of all citizens.
As a central part of their campaign for more market competition, the neo liberals created a new definition of media freedom. Echoing the prophecies of the futurologists, they claimed that the application of their deregulation and privatisation policies within the electronic media would encourage the rapid construction of an interactive cable network. Once this grid was built, individuals would no longer be passive consumers, who simply watched programmes provided by public or private corporations. Instead, they would become active communicators, who expressed their own opinions over the network. Thus, individual citizens would use cameras, computers and other equipment to engage in two-way communications by producing their own electronic media. Reviving the traditions of the journalist-printers, the neo-liberals claimed that the political right of media freedom could once again be realised through the private ownership of the means of production. Crucially, in contrast with the New Left and the futurologists, these conservatives didn’t believe that the creation of two-way communications over the cable network would lead to the formation of the electronic agora. Instead, they believed that the new information technologies should be used for the construction of an electronic marketplace. In their view, the most important technical advance on the cable network was encryption, which allowed the imposition of a direct price for the consumption of the electronic media for the first time. With the formation of prices, market competition between different electronic media producers could be created within the cable network. Instead of advertising or licence fees, access to the cable network could now be solely decided by market competition. Following the introduction of this technical solution to the social problem of price formation, neo-liberals claimed that state intervention within the electronic media had become obsolete.
By advocating the creation of an electronic marketplace, conservative governments were able to win the support of both individuals and commercial companies who wanted open access to the media. Back in 1927, the introduction of regulation for radio broadcasting in the USA had been originally justified by the shortage of frequencies on the airwaves. Using their influence over the federal government, the NBC and CBS corporations soon monopolised the airwaves. Although another network emerged, television broadcasting was also dominated by corporate interests. In response, the regulation of the airwaves was gradually tightened to enforce limited pluralism in political reporting, the scheduling of children’s programmes and a few other public service commitments. By the early-1980s, state regulation of the American electronic media was being attacked by both radical groups in favour of more community broadcasting and commercial entrepreneurs calling for the end of expensive public service obligations. Seizing this opportunity, the Reagan government rapidly removed most of the controls over terrestrial and cable television broadcasting. According to the administration, the abolition of regulation would soon lead to the creation of the electronic marketplace, where everyone could take part in two-way communications over the interactive cable network. However, in the short-term, the principle beneficiaries of the deregulation and privatisation of the electronic media were the large media companies. Despite the promises of a post-industrial society, economies of scale still favoured the industrialised media controlled by the Fordist corporations.
Although the new information technologies allowed new services to enter the market, easier access didn’t abolish the influence of first copy costs within media production. Because the tastes of audiences weren’t limited to a specific local community, the same media products were often popular among people from different cultures. For decades, the Hollywood cinema industry had successfully sold its films across the globe and American music companies had marketed their records in many different countries. With the opening up of previously monopolised electronic media to competition, it was now possible to market television broadcasting on an international scale for the first time. For example, wherever they lived, large numbers of teenagers would tune into MTV’s top 40 hit format and many adults would watch CNN’s 24 hour news service. Although language barriers prevented the emergence of a completely global television system, dubbed American series and telefilms still dominated the newly deregulated channels in many countries. By covering its costs across a worldwide audience, a multinational television producer could provide expensively-made programmes at a cheaper price than any local competitor.
By the early-1990s, deregulation and privatisation had led to the dominance of the global media markets by a handful of American, European and Japanese corporations. These organisations didn’t just extend their control over different types of media, from newspapers through films to television production. At the same time, they also combined with the owners of distribution systems, such as cable television operators or telephone companies. Although these fusions fulfilled the predictions of convergence between different information technologies, the media multinationals weren’t creating enough jobs to replace those lost in the traditional Fordist industries, which had been devastated by the adoption of neo-liberal economic policies. Because of the cheap costs of reproduction, there was an extraordinary disproportion between the small number of workers employed in the media and the large audiences for their output. Despite the promises of the neo-liberals, the overwhelming majority of individuals were still passive consumers, who could only choose between the radio and television channels of the media corporations. Crucially, the rhetoric of two-way communications had been turned into the reality of a greater choice of one-way flows of communications.
Although market competition had failed to provide much individual access to the electronic media, neo-liberals still believed that deregulation and privatisation would create freedom of communications within radio and television broadcasting. Criticising the public service model, they pointed out that individual citizens could only indirectly express their views over the airwaves by voting for representatives of political parties. In contrast, the neo-liberals claimed that market competition between commercial media corporations directly reflected the wishes of their audiences. Because they wanted to maximise their audiences, competing radio and television stations had to provide the types of programmes desired by listeners and viewers. Therefore, by selecting channels on their radio or television sets, individual citizens determined the content of the programmes within the electronic media. For example, more entertainment programmes were provided for viewers in commercial systems than under a public service monopoly. Crucially, the neo-liberals also claimed that the intense competition for audiences between channels created a diversity of political opinions over the airwaves. Thus, although they couldn’t be active communicators, these conservative gurus believed that individuals had been empowered as channel zappers. In this version of the neo-liberal model, the individual citizens’ political right of freedom of communications was equated with their economic rights as consumers of the electronic media.
By advocating a free market utopia, the neo-liberals successfully recuperated many of the demands of the New Left. On the one hand, they accepted the opposition of these revolutionaries to cultural puritanism and unaccountable bureaucracies. Thus both sides could oppose the imposition of moral censorship and the monopolisation of the media by the public service state. But, on the other hand, the neo-liberals rejected the demands for the self-management of social and economic institutions, including the electronic media. According to the New Left, individual freedom was only possible through the collective ownership of property by co-operatives, as in the community media. In contrast, for the neo-liberals, individual freedom was the absence of state regulations within the marketplace, as in open competition between different cable television stations. Combating the New Left, the neo-liberals also promised two-way communications and direct democracy for all individuals. Yet, while the electronic agora was supposed to end the alienation of political and economic power from popular control, the electronic marketplace only allowed individuals to realise their needs for information and entertainment through commodity exchange. Above all else, the neo-liberals carefully obscured the consequences of media deregulation and privatisation. Although individuals had the right to produce their own media, the electronic marketplace was dominated by the output of the large corporations. For most people, media freedom was restricted to the right to choose between competing radio and television stations. Instead of being active communicators, they were only channel zappers.
Back in the nineteenth century, politicians tried to win the support of voters by holding public meetings, canvassing individual households, recruiting party members and sponsoring newspapers. However, from the early-1920s onwards, political conflicts have been increasingly fought out in the electronic media. For the first time, every citizen not only could receive large amounts of political information, but also were able to hear or see their elected representatives. Once they mastered the techniques of broadcasting, some politicians skillfully used the electronic media to establish an almost intimate relationship with their supporters. Like a trusted friend, these leaders explained the government’s polices to the voters in the privacy of their own homes. Because all citizens now had access to the opinions of their representatives, a few politicians even claimed that their appearances over the airwaves had created the electronic agora.
Despite these aspirations, radio and television broadcasting have been Fordist media for the last seventy years. Because they were organised as a one-way flow of communications, the electronic media excluded the majority of the population from any direct participation in their output. As the prime example of the ‘society of the spectacle’, radio and television broadcasting reinforced the separation of the state from civil society. During the 1960s and 1970s, the New Left, futurologists and neo-liberals believed that the introduction of the new information technologies would overcome this passivity in both media and politics. But, by the early-1990s, these utopian dreams had failed in practice. Above all else, the implementation of the policies of the neo-liberals had exacerbated the distance between the politicians and their electorates. Just as globalisation of production prevented national governments from controlling their own economic destiny, so the deregulation and privatisation of the electronic media had removed the indirect influence exercised by voters in the public service model. Although they had been promised active participation, most people were actually restricted to being couch potatoes zapping between channels.
Under the neo-liberal model of media freedom, the majority of the population were only offered a choice between almost identical one-way flows of communications. Contrary to the predictions of the neo-liberals, this homogeneity in content had been created by the deregulation and privatisation of the electronic media. With a fierce competition for ever higher ratings, news programmes on commercial radio and television stations copied each others’ successful features to prevent viewers from switching to rival channels. Above all else, the rival news bulletins adapted techniques pioneered by the entertainment programmes which filled the rest of the schedules. For example, the lengthy explanations of political situations used by the news programmes of the public services channels were rapidly abandoned., Instead, in imitation of magazine programmes, a quick and sensational coverage of current events was adopted. Copying the talkshows, news programmes started including more gossip about celebrities, sensational court cases and human interest stories alongside their political reports. As competition intensified, television stations increasingly relied on compelling visual images to illustrate their news bulletins. In the ratings war, exclusive pictures of wars, famines, terrorism and natural disasters were proven methods of attracting more viewers. Using live broadcasts, news programmes could even provide the emotional thrill of watching history as it was being made, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the bombing of Baghdad. Imitating the rhythm of sports reports, exciting live coverage of major political crises and foreign wars was now available for viewers in the safety of their own homes.
By the late-1980s, this combination of information and entertainment in news programmes was known as infotainment. Because it resulted from competition between television stations, this style of news coverage was defended by neo-liberals as an expression of the direct wishes of viewers. Yet, at the same time, the dominance of infotainment within the electronic media exacerbated the crisis of representation within the leading industrialised countries. Unlike its public service predecessor, the neo-liberal model of media freedom no longer guaranteed access to the airwaves for the elected representatives of the voters. Instead politicians could only express their opinions in the form of infotainment which had to attract high ratings among the viewers. In the USA and Britain, Reagan and Thatcher adopted the latest marketing techniques to create publicity stunts and soundbites for the evening television news bulletins. Following their example, both right-wing and left-wing parties across the world soon learnt to sell their political manifestos like consumer commodities. While the public service model was supposed to allow reasoned debate between politicians over the merits of their rival policies, the neo-liberal model turned voters into consumers of the advertising messages produced by the competing political parties. Crucially the use of advertising techniques often allowed the parties of both Left and Right to hide the real consequences of their proposed policies from the voters. Because they were made as infotainment, political advertising campaigns could rely on style rather than on content. But, when the promises of the advertising campaigns couldn’t be fulfilled, the voters became increasingly cynical about their political representatives. Far from ending the alienation of the state from civil society, the neo-liberal model had widened the gap between the professional politicians and their electorates.
Following the triumph of infotainment, some intellectuals became disillusioned with the radical possibilities of the media. According to Jean Baudrillard, the mass ownership of computers and television sets had already successfully created the post-industrial society within the advanced capitalist countries. Yet the spread of information technologies hadn’t liberated the population from political and economic alienation. On the contrary, Baudrillard claimed that a new form of domination had emerged: hyperreality. Under Fordism, the electronic media had merely spread incorrect ideas among the people. However, in the new world of post-modernism, all aspects of social life had been transformed into an entirely simulated world of information. Instead of working and playing in the real world, individuals had been sucked into the hyperreality created by computer and television screens.
For Baudrillard, the domination of infotainment demonstrated the growing power of hyperreality. Once politics had been transformed into show business, the rival social programmes of the Left and Right were only simulations for the news and current affairs programmes of the electronic media. Instead of representing their electors, politicians were now taking part in a form of television gameshow. Therefore, aping the sports commentators, news presenters regularly assessed the latest position of the rival parties by reporting their most recent poll ratings. Moreover, under post-modernism, politicians no longer needed to win the political debate with reasoned arguments. Instead they could use the techniques of political marketing which had won two American presidential elections by selling Reagan’s smile. Similarly, as in the Gulf war, political leaders could embark on foreign adventures to provide thrilling infotainment for the television audiences back home. With the advent of hyperreality, the image of politics had become more important than its real application.
Crucially Baudrillard asserted that the development of interactive computer and cable television networks wouldn’t free people from the domination of hyperreality. On the contrary, he claimed that two-way communications simply encouraged further involvement in the simulated world of information. Instead of creating a self-managed society, the introduction of new information technologies had ended all opportunities for political and economic participation. While they were watching television or using the Internet, individuals couldn’t act as either citizens or members of civil society. Far from creating direct democracy, the electronic agora was the most insidious form of the new type of oppression. According to this guru, the dominance of hyperreality had ended any possibility of establishing media freedom. Whether indirectly or directly, individuals couldn’t express their opinions through the electronic media. For Baudrillard, the only form of resistance to the oppression of hyperreality was the refusal to participate within the media and politics. In his view, even if they watched television programmes, most people were no longer interested in the political role of the electronic media. At the same time, the rising rate of abstentionism demonstrated increasing apathy among the electorate. Far from condemning the separation of the state from civil society, Baudrillard believed that most people were happy to abdicate their responsibilities as citizens to the bureaucrats and politicians. Freed of their public duties, they could then enjoy the pleasures of private life without disturbance.
The Reregulation of the Media
The pessimism of Baudrillard and other post-modernists reflected the growing crisis of representation within the industrialised countries. Although they had perfected their media skills, politicians encountered increasing difficulties in arousing the interests of voters. In the early-1980s, right-wing politicians had claimed that deregulation and privatisation were needed to hasten the adoption of new information technologies. as the old manufacturing industries declined, redundant workers were supposed to find new jobs in the post-industrial sectors, such as computers and the media. Yet the electronic media and other information sectors only created a limited number of new jobs. Instead a two-tier society emerged within many advanced capitalist countries. Following Japanese and Third World examples, the labour force was slowly polarised into a core of full-time employees and a periphery of part-time or unemployed workers. Unable to meet the needs of all the electorate, politicians concentrated on winning the votes of core workers through tax cuts and abundant credit. Even when left-wing governments were elected, the domination of the world financial markets prevented any attempts to isolate a single national economy from the crisis of Fordism. Deprived of any chance to improve society, politicians and bureaucrats concentrated on enjoying the perks of power. Not surprisingly, many voters reacted with a combination of apathy and anger. With seemingly no possibility of radical change, they now believed that elections could no longer accomplish anything.
Faced by a disillusioned electorate, western European Socialist parties advocated the revival of state controls over the economy in a new form. In their view, government intervention could mediate between the conflicting interests of corporations, small firms and employees. Although integrated within the world market, they believed that the state could use regulations to improve competitivity and accelerate technological innovation. As representatives of the ‘general will’, the elected government had to override the particular interests of capital in the interests of all citizens. Inspired by this analysis, Socialist parties also reasserted the need for state regulation over the electronic media. In their view, the failure of media deregulation proved that the political right of freedom of communications couldn’t be solely guaranteed by the economic right of private property. Instead they argued that the state had to intervene within radio and television broadcasting in the interests of all citizens. Although the economic impact of the electronic media was marginal, their cultural and political impact was immense. Because of the dramatic economies of scale in information production, thousands of media workers could provide an increasingly wide range of radio and television channels to millions of listeners and viewers. By the late-1980s, many people within the advanced capitalist countries were spending more time watching television than working.
Despite supporting state controls, the Socialists didn’t advocate a return to the system of pillarisation within a single public service monopoly. Instead the Socialists wanted a new form of regulation which would enforce political pluralism across a mixed economy of nationalised and private electronic media providers. Using regulatory bodies, governments would ensure that internal pluralism was respected within the news and current affairs programmes of the major radio and television channels. By issuing licences to an ever larger number of stations, the state could also create external pluralism between competing providers of the electronic media. According to its supporters, this regulation model of media freedom combined the best elements of the public service and neo-liberal models by providing guaranteed access to the airwaves for the competing political parties and a choice of services for the listeners and viewers. Using limited government subsidies, the surviving examples of the self-management model could even be incorporated within this new media consensus. For some, the creation of internal and external pluralism within radio and television broadcasting led to a limited version of the electronic agora. Under the supervision of the state, a combination of pluralism within the electronic media and regular sampling by opinion polls had established a permanent dialogue between citizens and their representatives. But, in reality, this form of two-way communications was very indirect. Crucially, without full employment, the implementation of the regulation model couldn’t end the growing crisis of representation within the advanced industrialised countries.
The Revival of the Media Utopias
In the late-1980s, the collapse of the credit boom sent the world economy back into recession. Despite integrating their economies within the world market, governments across the world were now faced with the threat of continual economic stagnation and permanently high rates of unemployment. As core workers realised that the days of easy credit were over, the economic crisis slowly led to political instability. With a few exceptions, ruling parties within the advanced industrialised countries were decisively defeated in elections. However, trapped within an increasingly integrated world economy, the new administrations encountered great difficulties in abandoning neo-liberal economic policies. Yet, without new solutions, popular disillusionment with the main political parties would increase further and the voting patterns of the electorate would become even more volatile. Harking back to the early-1970s, some leading politicians decided to revive the media utopias of the futurologists. For example, they held up the success of Internet system as proof of the long awaited convergence of computers, telecommunications and the electronic media. After the election of Clinton, the American government increasingly used the construction of ‘information superhighways’ not only as an excuse for state intervention within the economy, but also as a potential technological fix for the country’s intractable social problems. Once again, leading politicians were claiming that the solution to the crisis of Fordism was the construction of an interactive fibre-optic network which would create two-way communications among its users.
Encouraged by government support, the major telephone and cable television companies embarked on a series of mergers and alliances to mobilise the capital needed for this infrastructural project. In parallel, the media corporations combined film studios, record companies, video games developers, television stations and newspapers within one organisation to provide a full range of services for the emerging ‘information superhighway’. As other countries developed their own interactive networks, the media multinationals hoped to take advantage of economies of scale on a global scale. By eroding cultural differences between nations, they dreamt of an international electronic marketplace where all forms of information would be traded under their control. Not surprisingly, these corporations saw the installation of secure encryption systems and enforceable copyright laws as the key to the further development of the network. Once electronic commodity exchange was fully established, they hoped that the final vestiges of the public service model could be removed from a globalised electronic media system outside the control of any national regulatory body. Far from increasing political diversity, this international media oligopoly threatened to turn all news and current affairs programmes into infotainment.
Ironically this further development of the media exacerbated the crisis of representation across the developed world. As shown by the sudden success of fringe parties, there was a desperation for some magical solution to the political and economic impasse. Echoing the New Left, some politicians called for the creation of direct democracy over the network. Bypassing the discredited politicians, voters would be able to make their own political decisions in ‘electronic town halls’. The revival of this utopian vision demonstrated that the new networks didn’t have to be solely used for the sale of information commodities by the media corporations. Whether adopted by underground magazines, community radio stations, access cable television channels or electronic bulletin boards, the self-management model provided the only clear alternative to the dominance of the world information economy by an oligarchy of a few corporations. While conventional capitalist companies were limited by the constraints of price formation and copyright controls, musicians and other artists had already demonstrated how the new digital technologies were breaking down the rigid divisions between the production and consumption of information. In addition, Minitel in France and the Internet in the USA showed how a simple e-mail system could be turned into a participatory medium by its users. Although initially limited to text, these networks allowed individuals to carry out both point-to-point communications and the mass distribution of information. In a developed interactive system, every user was not only a receiver, but also a transmitter. By combining different systems, a single global network could be created from the different servers and contributors. Although reliant on subsidies from the American defence budget and universities, the success of the Internet system was based on the spontaneous collaboration of its participants on a global scale. Dubbed cyberspace, this fusion of networks could centralise the production and distribution of media on a scale surpassing the ambitions of the most predatory multinationals. Alongside the international electronic marketplace, a global electronic agora is waiting to be born as well.
In the late-medieval period, the emergence of the capitalist economy destroyed the intimacy of village and urban life. As people needed to communicate across time and space, the media were invented to carry news of economic and political events. At the same time, the creation of civil society also led to the overthrow of the absolute monarchies. From the beginning, the struggle for media freedom has been synonymous with this formation of the democratic republic. However the further development of capitalism has exposed the contradictions at the heart of modern politics and media: the need for representation. Although media freedom was originally defined as the right of journalist-printers to express their own opinions in print, the media freedom of the owners of printing presses presupposed the exclusion of most of the population. The propertyless majority may have possessed media freedom in theory but were unable to exercise it in practice. Not surprisingly, as in politics, most people were willing to accept representation as a substitution for participation. Just as parliamentary democracy created the conditions for universal suffrage, the industrialisation of the media reduced the price of information to levels affordable by all sections of the population.
Ever since the disappearance of the traditional interpretation of media freedom, there have been repeated attempts to reconcile the rhetoric of participation with the reality of representation. In the various Jacobin models, the views of the majority of the population were more or less successfully articulated by political parties. With the advent of the crisis of Fordism, there have been both left-wing and right wing attempts to surpass the limitations of the indirect forms of media freedom. Despite the failures of the New Left and the neo-liberals, the current revival of interest in the electronic marketplace and electronic agora demonstrates the persistence of this central contradiction within media freedom. Just as the crisis of representation within the state can only be resolved through the end of the separation of politics from control by civil society, so the construction of the electronic agora offers the democratic solution to overcoming domination by the ‘spectacle’. Until everyone can participate freely in the production and consumption, the struggle for media freedom cannot be over.
Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.