Monday, 4 October 2010

Media, hegemony and the control of society

In the past, society had its villains. On the one side was the working class – the cotton mill worker, the miner, the small boy sweeping chimneys. On the other was the top hat wearing, cigar smoking, port drinking capitalist. This jaded view of the past, with sharp class distinctions, not only serves as a means of simplifying class based politics, but is used by the modern ruling class to pretend that society is now “classless” and more equal.

However, while the ruling elite is not seen to be directly oppressing the people by locking them up in workhouses, their influence and control is now more subtle, and through this subtlety, much more powerful.

The control of one section of society by another through social, cultural and intellectual means, as well as by creating “common sense” ideologies and beliefs, originates in the works of the Italian Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci. He described how “cultural hegemony” is used to maintain capitalist societies. By encouraging a society to submit to the capitalist system with the hope of sharing in its wealth, the ruling elite prevents society from taking away their position of privilege and control. Their most powerful weapon in this crusade is the mass media.

Consider these two news stories:

“Despite the strikes, 30% of the tube network ran as normal,” and; “France's train network was crippled as 50% of trains were cancelled due to strikes”.

Which of these strikes was more successful? The Transport for London strike cancelled 70% of the trains, the French only 50%. The two headlines show how the media is able to tailor a story to fit its own agenda. By using language like “crippled” or by focussing on how many trains ran rather than were cancelled, the media effortlessly shifts the story to one of a successful French strike and a poorly supported London strike.

The worldwide media has incredible power to change public opinion, influence government policy and mould society. Newspaper headlines can create mass moral panics that shake every sector of public life. Whether scare stories about paedophiles, drug abuse, crime, anti-social behaviour, delinquent teenagers; or critical stories about failing schools, government spending, benefit cheats or the nanny state – no area is outside of their remit.

Some newspapers would have us believe that, apart from the paper's own hard-working, probably white, aspirationally middle class, “I'm not racist, but” readers, the rest of the country is either fiddling the system or fiddling with children.

There is more to media scare stories than simply trying to sell newspapers. The underlying current that flows through the press simultaneously demonises anyone who is different while offering an unachievable model of what it is to be successful.

Aspiration, opportunity and choice are the buzz words used by an elite in society to maintain their own position. By convincing a population that they too can have all the trappings of wealth if they simply work hard enough, not only do the elite justify their own position, but also quell any dissent.

Who does not want more choice or opportunity? Who doesn't aspire to better themselves and their children? The problem with the model we are given to achieve these goals is that no matter how hard we work, we are either making someone else even more profit, or we are exploiting the people who work below us.

In any society social norms are created to shape how that society behaves. These norms are far more subtle than “the American Dream” or images of a chocolate box England of the past. Workers, their families, and most importantly their children, are taught on different levels about ownership, private property and consumerism.

The child wants the latest toy or fashion, the family a car and holiday in the sun, the worker to own their own house. Society holds up home ownership and consumerism as a foundation, benefit and fundamental principle of western democracy! While from time to time there may be an outcry from the press that “children are growing up too fast” the press will never admit that it is through their own objectification that society is changing in a direction they do not like.

This last point highlights the fundamental contradiction in right-wing neoliberal capitalism. By believing in a free market and free trade, encouraging consumerism and personal wealth, by pandering to big business and global financial institutions, and by destroying the collective action of the working population, conservatism creates the conditions for the destruction of the society it seeks to protect.

Big business does not support a local shop. Urbanisation does not maintain the “traditions” of the countryside. Capitalism, by forcing us to work longer and harder for as cheaply as possible, destroys the family. The right-wing press encourages the very behaviour that it rails against. For the neoliberal elite, the countryside becomes a refuge of the patronising rich and the working class nothing but Disney-style tour guides.

The patronising character of the elite pervades their ideology. While many people struggle to buy enough food to feed their families, television force feeds us images of organic vegetables, free range meat and feta cheese and olive filo pastry parcels. While many people rely on public transport, we are subjected to adverts for the latest model of car, available on extortionate finance packages. Celebrity “culture” and excessive conspicuous consumerism, paint the lie that cars, swimming pools, diamond rings and high end fashion brands are just within the reach of us all, if only we work hard, or find we have that special talent.

Anyone who dares question these aspirations is derided by society as a “hippie” a “wishy washy liberal” or as “not living in the real world”. Anyone who fails to attain these goals is deemed to have failed in life. Ask yourself this: what is your opinion of a man in his forties who has never owned a car? Your gut reaction, like mine, is probably that he is somehow not normal, or must have something wrong with him. That is the control that the elite has over us.

Cultural hegemony paints an artificial picture of the world. In this country we are led to believe in the lazy undeserving poor, while helping the poor of the developing world becomes a noble pass-time that is forgotten about as soon as you unscrew the top of your next bottle of mineral water. The problems of the world are someone else's problem, and the problems of society are caused by people refusing to pull their weight.

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