Monday, November 10, 2008

The problem of mass

The late great media critic Marshall McLuhan described the planetary media system as the extension of humanity’s collective nervous system into space, creating a “one world” consciousness.

It is indisputable that 21st-century humans have a more global consciousness than our predecessors. The extension of media all over the world, with satellites providing instantaneous information through a variety of receiving devices, from televisions to cellphones, has united human consciousness in an unprecedented way. Mass culture has become a global phenomenon; billions of people “know” Angelina Jolie.

The worldwide unanimity of opinion about Barack Obama’s election to the presidency is the latest example of the positive benefit that planetary culture brings. Already, all over the world, American travelers are reporting a much more positive reception to their national identity from the native people they encounter in foreign lands. The Obama election really did bring about a paradigm shift in world opinion about America. We confounded the racist stereotype, to everyone’s surprise, including our own.

But mass culture also brings many problems, from celebrity worship to corporate domination of national politics, that inhibit the healthy functioning of democracy. Many of these problems can be addressed by returning our national cultural emphasis to local participation in politics and the economy.

Of course, it is against the interests of the ruling power structure to decentralize either political or economic power. So naturally, this subject doesn’t get much discussion in the national media. Nor does it even get much discussion in the academic world of political science. I saw an analysis of an annual conference of political science professors a few years ago, which showed that not a single paper submitted to the conference discussed corporate influence on American political life.

As McLuhan would have explained, they don’t see corporate involvement in democracy because it’s like the water in which fish swim: it’s everywhere. It hasn’t been possible to separate business from government since the very beginning of the American republic.

When the republic began, however, business was much more decentralized than it is today, and there was a healthy distrust of corporations. Thomas Jefferson wanted an anti-corporate 11th amendment in the Bill of Rights. Corporations were far more restricted in their lifespans, and in what activities they could engage. Some historians think that the American Revolution was principally waged against the monopoly power of the British East India Company.

It’s a different story today, when multinational corporations provide just about everything we buy, from food to entertainment. We’ve lost the economic independence that comes from local self-sufficiency, and as a result, we’ve lost our real political independence. When every jurisdiction is begging for jobs, because there’s no more real work, and most people spend their lives sitting in boxes, looking at changing light forms emitted from ever smaller boxes, a county commissioner is as likely to favor a global giant in his decisions as anyone else up the political food chain. We are all prisoners of a corporate economy.

With the corporate economy comes the corporate mass media, from which most Americans still get most of their information. (This is what I generally refer to as “the Matrix,” from the film trilogy, which, whatever its flaws, presented a devastatingly accurate picture of how the virtual world in which most Americans live operates.)

The corporate media is as multinational as the other corporations which dominate the global economy, and because of its unique function, integral to the continuation of the current global economic structure, which primarily benefits the elites who control it. So mass culture, in the present context, will always reflect the long-term needs of the global power elite, whose corporations fund the advertising, which produces the media under this system. No advertising, no media. And anyone who doesn’t think advertisers affect media content is living in a fantasy.

The biggest problem with corporate mass culture is that it frames the political context. An Obama aide speaking to McClatchy reporter Margaret Talev compared the media to a group of kindergartners playing soccer, and all the campaign had to do was to nudge the ball to get reporters to follow it. But the herd mentality also spills over into the blogosphere, and too often the internet conversation centers around what the corporate media wants us to talk about. Unfortunately, it’s the subjects omitted from the conversation which often speak most directly to stark reality. (I’d like to see more discussion, for example, of what evidence Bolivian President Morales will present to Obama, about US Drug Enforcement Administration involvement in drug trafficking in his country.)

The most harmful effect that corporate mass culture has on our political brains is to close off possibilities, and to separate us from our own local geography. Whenever single-payer health care is discussed, for instance, it’s routinely dismissed as politically impossible. Why it’s politically impossible—namely, the political power of insurance companies to override the public interest—is rarely discussed, if ever. In another important omission, the unhealthy emphasis on presidential politics in our political culture (what populist David Sirota calls “presidentialism”) leaves out necessary discussion of local offices and issues.

Late one night, many years ago, I stood at the base of the Citibank skyscraper in Manhattan. I couldn’t help but marvel at the engineering that produced it, as well as the amount of work involved, having spent much of my life building things. But I was struck, at the same time, by the fact that the building’s dimensions were so far beyond human scale, and that that physical fact also expressed the underlying reality of the corporate/human relationship. The mass scale of global institutions has grown beyond human control. It’s a major reason we all feel so helpless.

If we really want to return control of our economy and government to the American people, we’re going to have to find a way to bring our institutions, especially our media, back to human scale.

2 comments:

VMCebollero said...

Your point regarding the Matrix is well taken, although I don't believe it goes far enough down the "rabbit hole". A couple of years ago I was prompted to do a little research into the Knights Templar and today I often quote the villein who quipped "I should have taken the red pill".
As for Obama, I was on the band wagon from the start and even produced a music video based on Ottis Redding's "change's gotta come". I left the campaign when Obama voted on FISA. I knew then that change was probably not going to come but the status quo was merely being repackaged. Eventually I did vote for Obama but with lots of misgivings.
I recently told some friends at Ice Mountain WV, that if they wanted to see the truth about our government they need only "follow the money".
I've learned that life is based on love, and fear is simply the absence of it. The ruling class understands this primordial truth and exploits that power to enslave and draw energy from the masses much like the Master Control Program (MCP) in the Matrix. However, in our virtual world the MCP expresses itself through Corporations, Religion, and Government all working synergies via "secret societies" that develop and cultivate the rulers behind the curtains of democracy.
When we follow the money the trail leads back hundreds of years and meanders through the greatest wars and atrocities of all times.
Like our constitution, the USA is being dismantled incrementally and the jackals have been released to eliminate us financially. A "new world order" is in the offing, clearly the trail is pointing in that direction, and only a new American revolution to restore our constitution will save our republic from being assimilated by the "Borg".

... Victor

Jim D said...

Have we finally put to bed the sordid affairs of our kissin’ cousins, ignorance and stupidity, “church and state”? For the past eight years they have walked hand in hand as they led our nation over a cliff, while the whole fam damily has been lulled into a false sense of reality by an unfettered desire to embrace everything corporate. Their feely-touchy obsession with things has left them out of touch with their feelings. Mr. and Mrs. Zipowits and the Nanowits’s are about to experience the Great Awakening, when they finally arrive at that sudden stop at the bottom of the cliff that they’ve followed the rest of the lemmings over.