John Armitage on Sat, 20 Sep 1997 16:58:37 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Fighting for Communication Control

Hi  nettimers,

This just came through to me from the latest English language version 
of Le Monde Diplomatique. August-September, 1997. Its a neat little 
anti-neoliberal piece by the veteran US political economist of 
communication, Herb Schiller. Happy reading.

Best wishes,

John Armitage

Le Monde diplomatique - August, September 1997


Fighting for communication control

Liberalism is for others. Although it insists
on unlimited access for American products from the rest of the world,
Washington has not hesitated since the end of the second world war to
intervene financially, politically and diplomatically in sectors it
considers strategic for maintaining US dominance. Communication is one
of these sectors, and the most critical one, from both the industrial
and the symbolic point of view, for mastering the 'information
society' of the next century.

by Herbert I. Schiller *

Contrary to many reports, in the United States the state is alive
and, if not well, at least still in charge. This is not necessarily
the situation in other countries which form part of the global
economy. In particular, in the sphere of communication, the American
state is no paper tiger. Representing the core interests of capital,
it has demonstrated unusual vision. It has frequently acted with
determination to assure the promotion of an ever-expanding sector to
what has now become a central pillar of the economy.

This present time is also characterised by numerous efforts to
persuade the public that a new era has dawned, one which has no
connection to times gone by. Many existing structural or institutional
relations, like the contradictory relation of labour to capital, are
now dismissed as obsolete. The game is a new one, they say, with no
roots in the past. History, by this criterion, is not only useless for
understanding the present. It is totally irrelevant. This is an
especially destructive theory since it undermines any understanding of
the social process and how to change it.

A third conclusion is the legitimacy and necessity of political
economy as a means of grasping ongoing developments. The ever popular
proposition that the communication sector can be regarded as
autonomous and free-standing does not stand up to inspection.

In the late 1990s governing and academic circles still insist that
the market is the solution to all problems, that private enterprise is
the preferred means to achieve solid economic results and that the
state is, as one economic analyst recently put it, 'the
enemy'. (1) This credo hardly squares with the last
half-century's record of initiatives and policies by successive
governments to ensure the US's world mastery over the now powerful
sector engaged in cultural production, transmission and dissemination.
We are up against a deliberate policy followed by every Administration
from the second world war up to and including the Clinton White

The principle of the ' free flow of information' (vital to
the worldwide export of the American cultural product) is a
construction which has made a universal virtue out of the cultural
industry's marketing requirements. We should not forget that John
Foster Dulles, possible the most aggressive secretary of state in the
post-war years, regarded the 'free flow' as the single most
important issue in foreign policy. Even before the end of world war
two, the Pentagon made military aircraft available to US publishers
and senior editors to go and hector leaders in eleven allied and
neutral countries on the virtues of a free press - that is to say, in
private hands - and the free exchange of information (2)

In 1946 Assistant Secretary of State William Benton, put it like
this: 'The State Department plans to do everything within its
power along political or diplomatic lines to help break down the
artificial barriers to the expansion of private American news
agencies, magazines, motion pictures and other media of communications
throughout the world... Freedom of the press - and freedom of
exchange of information generally - is an integral part of our foreign
policy' (3)

At the United Nations and Unesco, and at international
conferences, US representatives pressed1 relentlessly for the free
flow. To be sure, there was another benefit from this advocacy. Beside
the material advantages if offered to US companies, it facilitated an
ongoing propaganda windfall at the expense of the non-market sector of
the world (the USSR etc.).

State support for the cultural industries, however, was not
limited to ideological initiatives. A wide-ranging programme of US
material assistance to many countries came into operation after the
war with, as its model, the Marshall Plan (1948-51). Among the many
features of the plan was one tying dollar grants to a recipient's
acquiescence to opening its market to US cultural exports, and film in
particular (4).

Fifty years later, Harvard University Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs,
free market missionary to several former socialist countries, recalled
an aspect of the Marshall Plan that has generally been obscured. He
noted that 'The Marshall Plan had two key features: it was
conditional on policy changes in the countries that received
assistance, and it was temporary (5).' Seemingly unaware that
this has been, and remains, US policy in all its overseas dealings,
Professor Sachs was recommending this as a new idea.

More indirect but of enormous significance are the huge subsidies
for state-funded research and development, in the first place from the
Pentagon. These are estimated at over $1,000 billion since 1945 and
have allowed, among other things, the rapid development of computers
and the fields of computer science and artificial intelligence. These
industries and fields of study have contributed incalculably to US
ascendancy in information technology, computer networks, date base
creation, the special effects industry and worldwide surveillance
systems - the underlying infrastructure of what is now benignly termed
'the information age'.

Still another planned and direct state action to further US
communication primacy in the post-war years was the communication
satellite undertaking. In this instance, the objective of this costly
enterprise was explicit. It aimed to wrest global information control
from Great Britain, which to that time exercised worldwide domination
of underseas cable. Testifying before Congress in 1966, McGeorge
Bundy, former chief aide to President Kennedy and afterwards president
of the Ford Foundation, recollected: 'I was myself a part of 
the executive branch during the period which led up to the 
establishment of Comsat [Communication Satellite Corporation]'. I 
do clearly remember what the record fully confirms - that Comsat was 
established for the purpose of taking and holding a position of 
leadership for the United States in the field of international global 
commercial satellite services (6)'

In his book, 'Theories of the Information Society', Frank Webster 
makes a crucial distinction between those writers who see today's 
world as a rupture with the past and those who find 'historical 
antecedents and continuities (7)'. Webster comes down firmly on 
the side of historical continuity, though his is by no means a 
majority view. In the postwar decades, at least three variants of the 
rupture of history theory have had a powerful influence in fortifying 
the ideology of capitalism.

The first came from Daniel Bell, who set the stage for what was to
follow with his study of what he called post-industrial society (8), a
theory about which Dan Schiller noted: 'Post-industrial theory
utilised its exceptionalist premise [the uniqueness of
'information' and its production] to invoke a comprehensive
but undemonstrable historical rupture, and therefore to draw back
decisively from the predominating social relations of development.
'Information' itself was given an aura of objectivity (9)'

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, signalling the global
'triumph' of United States capitalism, Francis Fukuyama was
able to declare the 'end of history (10)', to the delight 
of those tired of confrontation and polarities. According to the 
author, serious social conflict now belonged to the past and people's
conditions should henceforth reflect an ongoing process of social
betterment driven by well-disposed, pluralistic forces. Inconveniently
for this theory, the facts show that these forces are working in the
opposite direction and 'triumphant capitalism' has 
unleashed a powerful drive toward inequality.

Today, the latest theory of historical rupture is represented by
the claims of the electronic crowd, who now comprise a strident
chorus. In this group come the communication hardware and software
people, who speak mostly with market expectations in mind. But there
is also the academic contingent, centred in the high tech
universities, and, above all, political figures in the highest reaches
of government. A prophet has emerged in Alvin Toffler, whose numerous
books won mass circulation and nationwide attention. Toffler described
the computer-using society as the 'third wave (11)',
displacing the preceding industrial one which in turn came after the
agricultural era.

Winning in the 21st Century

More recently, Wired, a monthly with a sizeable readership,
has been serving up feverishly enthusiastic accounts of the networked
age, according to which we are on the threshold of a wonderful new
world. Here is the magazine's outlook, as described by an outside
observer:'Computers lead to a kind of Utopia: a better future
through symbiosis between man and machine', a religion that sees
cyberspace as a transcendental medium which will usher in a Golden
Age, an age where being digital frees the mind, allowing us to
transcend the body and ascend to a higher plane of consciousness
(12)', When such a transcendental fantasy is accepted, the more
earth-bound problems that have been with us since the beginning of
industrialisation - insecurity, poverty, unemployment, exploitation -
fade from thought. The class struggle, for instance, is transformed
into an opposition between those who support and those who are
unreceptive to the Internet (13).

Yet Wired and the many other equally fervent media and
academic voices claiming transformative power for electronic networks
are, at most, only cheerleaders for processes already underway, helped
along by powerful political and economic forces. Far more influential
in affecting actual developments in the restructuring of the economy
is government. Communication has been elevated to a top government
priority since the beginning of the Clinton Administration in 1993.
The president and the vice-president, Al Gore, rhapsodise as much as
Wired over the capability of the new information technologies
to transform everyday life and to overcome the pervasive economic and
social disabilities that scar modern existence. They say that the
Internet is set to transform itself into a cybermarket.

In 1941 Henry Luce proclaimed the advent of the 'American
century'. In the late 1990s it seems that government officials
are contemplating a second one, this time founded on electronic
mastery. At all events, this is the core of the argument offered by
two formerly high-placed officials in the first Clinton
Administration, Joseph S. Nye Junior and Admiral William A. Owens,
respectively former assistant secretary of defence for international
affairs and now dean of the Kennedy School at Harvard, and the former
vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

According to them, 'the 21st century, not the 20th, 
will turn out to be the period of America's greatest pre-eminence. 
Information is the new coin of the international realm and the United 
States is better positioned than any other country to multiply the 
potency of its hard and soft power resources through 
information' Furthermore, 'the one country that can best 
lead the information revolution will be more powerful than any other. 
For the foreseeable future, that country is the United States' 
its subtle, comparative advantage is its ability to collect, process, 
act upon and disseminate information, an edge that will almost 
certainly grow over the next decade (14)'

Another voice, one from the computer software industry, is no less
enthusiastic about prospects for American information global primacy
in the times ahead. Daniel F. Burton Junior, vice-president of
government relations at Novell and the former president of the
private-sector Council on Competitiveness, has this to say: 'As
the pioneer of the [networked] economy, the United States will play a
defining role in how it develops. No other country combines the
diverse set of assets necessary to drive its evolution - a towering
software presence, a world-class hardware business, a dynamic content
industry, a telecommunications sector that is rapidly being
deregulated, a strong venture capitalist base, flexible labour
markets, and an unparalleled university system.' From this,
Burton concludes that 'it will be a networked world comprised 
of electronic communities of commerce and culture - a world that
ironically will strengthen the position of the United States as a
nation among nations, even as it disrupts the system of nation-states

This thinking comes close to being a blueprint of current United
States strategic communication policy. President Clinton put it like
this:'To keep the United States on the cutting edge, my job is
to adjust America so we can win in the 21st century (16)'. 
Charlene Barshevsky, the US trade representative, struck an almost 
identical note after the recently concluded World Trade Organisation 
negotiations on worldwide telecommunications. The government, no less 
than industry and academics, confer on the new electronics a 
revolutionary role. Industry and university voices are more inclined 
to claim that the technology is producing a totally new world. The 
state and it s administrators, more aware of power relations, 
nationally and globally, announce their intention to incorporate the 
new technologies into historically familiar structures of control and 

This hardly escapes the attention of those most vulnerable to this
power. Sheila Copps, former Canadian deputy prime minister and now
minister of heritage, has openly challenged what she termed
'American cultural imperialism'  and stated the 'If 
the Americans insist in pursuing their domination of the world 
culture community by using all the instruments at their disposal, 
they will expect the same in return (17' Which is easier said 
than done...

There can be no doubt about the centrality of the communication
sector in the United States economy. In 1996, for instance, two giant
firms, one in software and the other in hardware, Microsoft and Intel,
reported net profits that totalled $11 billion. This colossal return
catapulted Intel into second place in the national corporate
profitability scale, behind General Electric and ahead of Exxon. And
these are far from isolated examples.

The 1990s have seen an incredible system-wide concentration of
capital, with the communication-media sector in the forefront. Growth
through merger, consolidation and capital expansion in the
symbol-producing industries has been especially active. TimeWarner and
Disney-ABC Capital Cities, two $20 billion plus communication-cultural
conglomerates, each manufacture films, TV programmes, books and
magazines, recordings. And their holdings extend to the circuits that
disseminate these products, such as cable systems, TV networks, theme
parks etc.

To understand the stakes involved, the returns to the 'Star
Wars' film trilogy offer some perspective. Beyond its $1.3
billion in cinema tickets sold, there were $500m in video sales, $300m
in CD-ROM and video games, $1.2 billion in toys and playing cards,
$300m in clothes and accessories and $300m in books and comics (18).
Four billion dollars is hardly small change! In the same way, a few
dozen mega hardware and software corporations increasingly submerge
the US and global market with their manufactured symbolic product.

Just as cultural production becomes increasingly indistinguishable
from production in general, a political economy of culture - its
production and its consumption - is becoming an obligatory and vital
site for research and analysis. The question is how to begin to
challenge the material and symbolic authority of 'triumphant

* Professor of the University of California at San ,Diego

(1) Paul Craig Roberts, Business Week, 13 
January 1997.

(2) The New York Times, 29 November 1944.

(3) Department of State Bulletin, 1946, 14 (344), 160.

(4) Thomas Guback, 'The International Film Industry' Indiana 
University Press, Bloomington, 1969. See also Genevieve Sellier, 
'Le precedent des accords Blum-Byrnes' , Le 
Monde diplomatique, November 1993.

(5) Jeffrey Sachs, 'When Foreign Aid Makes a Difference,' 
The New York Times, 3 February 1997.

(6) Progress Report on Space Communications,
Hearings before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications,
89 Congress, 2nd  session, 10, 17, 18 and 23 August 1966, serial 
89-78, Washington, 1966.

(7) Frank Webster, 'Theories of the Information Society', Routledge, 
London/New York, 1995.

(8) Daniel Bell, 'The Coming of Post-Industrial Society', Basic 
Books, New York, 1973.

(9) Dan Schiller, 'Theorizing Communication: a History', Oxford 
University Press, New York, 1996.

(10) Francis Fukuyama, 'The End of History and the Last Man,' Free 
Press, New York, 1992.

(11) Alvin Toffler, 'The Third Wave,' William Morrow, New York, 

(12) David S. Bennahum, 'The Myth of Digital Nirvana', 
Educom Review, September/October 1996, vol. 31, no. 5.

(13) John Perry Barlow, 'The Powers That 
Were', 'Wired', September 1996.

(14) Joseph S. Nye Jr. and William A. Owens, 'America's 
Information Edge', Foreign Affairs, March/April 1996.

(15) Daniel F. Burton Jr., 'The Brave New Wired 
World,' Foreign Policy,  no. 106, Spring 1997.

(16) John Markoff, 'Clinton Proposes Changes in Policy to Aid 
Technology,' The New York Times, 23 February 1993.

(17) Craig Turner, 'Canadian Official Hints at Trade War on 
Hollywood,' Los Angeles Times, 11 February 1997.

(18) James Sterngold, 'The Return of the 
Merchandizer,' The New York Times, 30 January 1997. 

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED & copy; 1997 Le Monde diplomatique.

John Armitage,
Division of Government & Politics,
University of Northumbria at Newcastle,
Newcastle upon Tyne,
NE1 8ST, UK.
Fax: 0191-227-4654.

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