Monday, August 19, 2013

The Quality of Monopoly Capitalist Society: Culture and Communications

From the editors of Monthly Review:
Below is a hitherto unpublished chapter of Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966). The text as published here has been edited and includes notes by John Bellamy Foster. The style conforms to that of their book. Part of the original draft chapter, dealing with mental health, was still incomplete at the time of Baran’s death in 1964, and consequently has not be included in this published version. 
The culture of a society includes the education of its young, its literature, its theater, music, the arts—in short whatever contributes to the “training and refinement of mind, tastes, and manners…the intellectual side of civilization.” To inquire further into the culture of monopoly capitalism, we have here selected for attention two areas which offer a larger body of specialized research and which we judge to be decisive for the quality of culture as a whole: book publishing and broadcasting. These are both now big businesses, and they therefore demonstrate the striking extent to which culture has become a commodity, its production subject to the same forces, interests, and motives as govern the production of all other commodities. 
The development of big business in the cultural field has of course been possible only because of the enormous increase in the productivity of labor under advanced capitalism. In earlier times culture was the monopoly of a tiny minority, while the vast majority had to work most of their waking hours to keep body and soul together. 
Read Rest here


  1. This is the kind of thing that turns people off to Marxist analysis, David. I don't think we get anywhere criticizing the tastes and preferences of the working classes; indeed, we risk becoming the elitists we belief we're countering. If Joe Lunchbox likes to watch ESPN and drink Coca-Cola after a hard day at work, let him. Not everyone likes to listen to Hayden and read Camus. Not everyone gets pleasure from intellectual exercise (reminder: 50% of people have an IQ < 100).

    Like many on the left, this also confuses intellectual exercise with culture. Yes, capitalism has attacked our intellectual elite, try to marketize intellectual pursuits. That's a separate issue from working-class culture.

    Finally, there's a reason nobody listens to Marxist cultural critics: they reak of 1950s Freudian pop-psychology. There are good parts in "Monopoly Capital," but the 1950s pop-psychology is a throwback (and throw away).

    Overall, this sort of cultural analysis is a wrong-turning for the left. It needs to keep focused on shop floor and distributional issues.

  2. @anonymouys. I essentially agree with you. I do think that there is tendency by Marxists, especially by those associated with the so-called (American, not British) New Left, to ignore the important difference between the species and genus of capitalism, and as such, are, in the final instance, succumbed to sense of elitism, as espoused by C. Wright Mills (with his indisposition of the working class as source for revolutionary leaders) , for instance, or even the snobbish Hegelian dialectics of Herbert Marcuse. Nevertheless, I do have the position that the above unpublished piece by Baran & Sweezy is quite pertinent in understanding the extent to which late capitalism modernity has fostered an overwhelming force of cultural commodification that significantly undermines the development and ongoing fostering of authentic human development. As Walter Benjamin noted in his famous essay 'The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction': "[The creativity of human beings] is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be [...] the sphere of authenticity is outside the technical [ and, as such,] the manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined by [an] historical circumstance [of pathological narcissism]".

    In my view, cultural analysis by the Left is not necessarily a wrong turn, it just needs to be more inspired by the messages and writings of the likes of, let's say, Aleksei N. Leontiev and Christopher Lasch - to name a couple.

  3. I do realize that Walter Benjamin was part of the Frankfurt School which provided the intellectual impetuses for the New Left movement...however, this is not to suggest that I am in engaging in self-contradiction - authors like Benjamin, Fromm, Horkheimer, Adorno, Pollock, and even Arendt (loose affiliation) were brilliant. Nevertheless, the school did contribute to the proliferation and entrenchment of organized Zionism, which is nothing to be proud of.

  4. If you're going to pull quotes from Wikipedia, you might want to be sure that you understand them first. Benjamin's argument has little to nothing to do with the point you're trying to make. Here's a hint: appeals to authority are less effective if you simply insert your own opinions into square brackets.

  5. Benjamin's argument is not that "late capitalism modernity has fostered an overwhelming force of cultural commodification that significantly undermines the development and ongoing fostering of authentic human development." What he instead suggests is that with technical advances that allow for mass reproduction, art is no longer a luxury good for the elite. Rather, art in modern capitalism is an everyday good to which most individuals are exposed. This doesn't imply that art is necessarily debased by capitalism, though it certainly can be. It implies that art, by virtue of its ubiquity, must take a conscious political stance. While Benjamin was well aware that art could be used in support of fascism, his basic claim is that radical artistic practice is only possible with the aid of the 'tools' of 20th century capitalism.

  6. Mr. Ananymous,

    Below is a passage from Benjamin's essay; this is not just to support my argument, but also to prove that I am not a wikipedia junkie which you accuse me of. By the way, your argument is reasonable and justified (per Benjamin's analysis), yet does not grasp the full essence of what the author is trying to convey to his audience. In salutations, D.

    "The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated. This holds not only for the art work but also, for instance, for a landscape which passes in review before the spectator in a movie. In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus – namely, its authenticity – is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.

    One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind."

  7. If you are so interested, I could send you the pdf of the essay, or you can the read the entire essay yourself at this site:

  8. Hello, David.

    Anonymous #1 here. Anonymous #2 is someone different than I.

    I really don't see how capitalist culture "undermines the development and ongoing fostering of authentic human development," as you argue. As I remarked, I really think this sort of sentiment is fundamentally elitist and unhelpful.

    When ever has culture "fostered authentic human development?" There have always baser elements to entertainment culture. Hell, before capitalism Europeans got their kicks by seeing who could throw animals (by the tail) into the air the highest. The Romans had their bloody games. On the intellectual front, it's not like the scribblings of St. Tomas Aquinas (or any Medieval theologist) did much to towards the "fostering of authentic human development development" in the Marxist sense. Some of the oldest writings out of Mesopotamia are more pornographic than anything you'd see on Skinemax or than Grandma would read in a Harlequin.

    Fox tossing, counting angels on the head of a pin, and Cuneiporn are not liberating in the Marxist sense. Culture has never been liberating in the Marxist sense. That's not what culture is for. Your goalposts and expectations of what culture should be are unrealistic and unprecedented. You expect too much out of culture. Worse, I fear you may expect culture to parrot your politics.

    In the end, your critique of capitalist culture (and Baran and Sweezy's) is really just a critique of culture you don't like -- condemning workers for not liking what you like and not being intellectually and politically engaged to their level of liking. That's fine. Different strokes for different folks and all. But it's simply not fair to criticize culture like you, Bran, and Squeezy do for multiple reasons (solving for those is an exercise for the student).

    So, please, cut Joe Lunchbox some slack. He just wants to relax after a hard day instead of comparing Ricardo with Robinson.


    Anonymous #1

  9. Sorry, David, but you're still missing the point. In the quote you selected you (curiously) omit the last few sentences of the concluding paragraph. The quote continues with: "Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage." In other words, the break with tradition, and the work of art's divorce from its tactile history, gives birth to new (potentially positive) possibilities for art.
    You may very well disagree with this position, but your interpretation of Benjamin isn't textually supported (or supported by the secondary literature, for that matter).

    p.s. Thanks for the link, though I'm also familiar with how to use Google


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