Herbert I. Schiller

There have been twelve presidential elections since the end of the Second World War. The Democratic party has won its share, but the Republican party has done a bit better. National policies as well as specific programs have varied with the different administrations. Some of the swings have been considerable. The shift to the right in the three Reagan and Bush terms has been extraordinary. The movement back to the center in the still young Clinton era is far from settled.

Yet however wide the policy differences and perspectives from one president to another, there has also been a basic continuity. And it is this para-electoral factor which has accounted for the essential features and direction of the times--far more, in fact, than the styles and programs of the various Democratic or Republican administrations. This deep and underlying element, long predating the Second World War but becoming more pronounced after it, has been the phenomenal growth and expanding influence of the private business corporation.

Through all the political and social changes of the last fifty years, the private corporate sector in the American economy has widened its economic, political, and cultural role in domestic and international activities. Moreover, this consolidation of corporate power has taken place alongside a parallel decline in the influence of once important forces in American life--independent farmers, organized labor, and a strong urban consciousness.

 The impact this expanded corporate power has had on the social landscape--especially the cultural activity and the visions that sustain a people--can hardly be overstated. The drive to privatize and bring under corporate management as many elements of economic and social activity as possible in the last half century has tipped the balance of democratic existence to an uncomfortable precariousness. This imbalance has much to do with the changed role of information in the economy.

A l988 Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) study notes that "about 40% of all new investment in the United States now goes to purchase information technology--computers, telecommunication devices and the like. Just l0 years ago the share was only 20%." (l) Today, it is higher still.

 The enormously expanded informational system that this technology supports and makes possible is directed and owned by a corporate handful. One consequence of the increased importance of information in a corporate-managed society is that corporate speech, advertising in particular, has, in the post-World War II period, been granted fundamental, First Amendment protection. The corporate voice, not surprisingly, is the loudest in the land. Institutions such as public libraries and the public educational system, which have provided free and open access to information and knowledge, are being brought into the corporate sphere, either through financial dependence or the transformation of information into a salable good. In either case, the erosion of equal access to information in the country progresses.

The sites where creative work is displayed--museums, theaters, performing-arts centers, etc.--have been captured by corporate sponsors. Such public events as street fairs, parades, and celebrations, too, have come under the same auspices. For most Americans, the daily transactions that living requires now are made in privately owned shopping malls, tens of thousands of which are strewn cross the land and constitute the current centers of shopping and commerce. However, these malls are privatized spaces, the uses of which, in most states, are decided exclusively by the owners.

 Meanwhile, the corporate-driven economy, impelled to expand or suffer contraction--there is no middle ground--has pushed beyond its national boundaries. The adventurers are the companies that operate in scores of foreign locales. This transnationalism of enterprise has brought to the world scene a comprehensive, corporate, informational-cultural apparatus which fills more and more national living space wherever it operates. The products of the massively concentrated American pop cultural factories occupy movie and TV screens, and listening space around the world.

 Curiously, these developments are treated by the currently dominant school of social analysis and cultural theory as hardly worth noticing. In the United States and England especially, the prevailing view is that the media, and by extension the entire information system, have little influence. Advertising, likewise, is seen as more ritualistic than effective.

Others, observing that the new information technologies routinely bypass national boundaries, conclude that the national state is no long viable. What is not made clear is who or what is supposed to replace the national state. Though no one has suggested that transnational corporations should run the world (not even their executives), no other candidate has stepped forward. International organizations, to the extent that they are universalistic and allow each member state a voice, are deemed unworkable, and are continuously weakened, by the dominant forces that now govern the main Western nations. The United States provides the leadership in this demolition activity.

The effects of these developments in the cultural-informational sphere at home and abroad are still to be fully experienced. But the prevailing outlook in the United States at this time is that there are no alternatives to the rules by which economic, political, and cultural affairs are currently ordered. Ways of organizing projects other than by private initiatives and reliance on market forces have been put beyond the boundaries of political consideration, especially as is observable with the proposal to build the electronic information highway exclusively with private capital. This perspective is reinforced by the recent eagerness of Russian and Chinese leaders to adopt Western managerial, business, and media outlooks and methods. Consumerism, as it is propagated by the transnational corporate system, and carried to the four corners of the world by the new information technologies, now seems triumphant.

 It should not escape attention that these new information technologies--fiber optics, computer networks, communication satellites and cable systems--are being integrated and concentrated, in fewer and fewer corporate hands. One merger after another pyramids cultural and media facilities and technologies to astonishing levels of monopolistic control. The imminent integration of all images and messages into a digital stream, without significant public accountability--which is no where on the horizon--allows an unprecedented corporate command of social consciousness. (And) It may seem that the envelopment of informational and cultural space by the transnational corporate system has been (further) legitimized by recent United States-Russian and United States-Chinese accords.

Why question a social phenomenon if it appears to be the sought-after condition for the future by the world's major powers? Two reasons may be offered. First, it is by no means assured that the American model of the currently dominant informational-cultural system will become the global model of the twenty-first century. Though the world's social tectonic plates are shifting, their final resting place is still to be determined. In fact, there can be no final resting place.

The needs of billions of people for new institutional arrangements in resource allocation, state provenance, and cultural sustenance may outweigh the political agreements that now seem to foretell the future. Whatever arrangements the former East-West rivals may conclude, the unmet needs of people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, not to overlook those in Europe and North America, assure the continuation and intensification of social struggles. The New Year's Day, l994 Indian revolt in Chiapas, Mexico, to safeguard cultural and physical survival, is a likely forerunner of many, many other similar movements.

 Second, the developments in the United States have gone furthest along the road to corporate control. It is here that the outlines of a privatized, corporate-dominated society (though still far from completed) are most open to observation. What has transpired here, and what it may portend for the lives of US. citizens therefore, cannot only be of interest to the United States.<{> Sweeping economic and technological forces have influenced the institutional processes that, in turn, have set the direction of the postwar American informational-cultural enterprise. These do not provide a framework for explaining the totality of human self-expression. Individual expression occurs each time a person dresses, goes out for a walk, meets friends, converses, or does any of a thousand routine exercises. Expression is an inseparable part of life. It is ludicrous to imagine that individual expression can be completely managed and controlled. Yet, no matter how integral to the person, it is ultimately subject to social boundaries that are themselves changeable but always present. The growth of private corporate power today is the prime contractor in the construction of contemporary boundaries to expression.

The new technologies--at the service of corporate power--provide the instrumentation for organizing and channeling expression. This, in fact, is the connection--corporate power and the utilization of the new information technologies--that artist and critic John Berger calls attention to in his remembrance of Raymond Williams: "Modern technology is essential to the modern world. The danger is that the instantaneity of its techniques defines its aims. Instant greed. Instant prestige. The instant future. This is why a sense of history has become a condition for our survival." (2)

 But modern technology has been designed, produced and employed by the same corporations that have preempted national and international cultural and informational space. How to impart a sense of history when these commanding heights of social control are in corporate hands? What will be the programming of the promised 500 TV channels of the future?

 Consider, for example, former President Reagan's extraordinary references in l987 and l988 to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Reagan invoked the memory of those Americans who fought against Franco's counterrevolutionary troops in Spain in the l930s. He did so to gain support for the "freedom fighters" his administration was underwriting in many parts of the world. US.-financed mercenaries, mobilized, and paid by the CIA, fought to destroy socially progressive regimes on all continents. The commitment made by the young American volunteers in the 1930's was to protect a democratically elected government, attacked by forces that included Nazi and fascist legions.

 Vicente Navarro, a health scientist living in the US., and in his youth a Spanish anti fascist, comments on this astonishing, but hardly unique, ignorance in America that allows such presidential mendacity:

 "How remarkable, a brilliant and noble page of US. history has been stolen from the country's history books. And the makers of that history were and have since been persecuted. The feat, the eloquent feat of the International Brigades, well-known, admired and applauded not only in Spain but all over the world, was unknown and silenced in their own country. In Spain today, in the democratic Spain where the fascist nightmare has been broken, there are streets, squares, fountains, and gardens named after the members of the Lincoln Brigade. In the United States, not one street, not one square, not one fountain is named after these veterans... Why has that piece of history of which Americans should be so proud been stolen? Why?" (3)

Paradoxically, the history-writing profession in the last twenty-five years has produced an outpouring of thoughtful and provocative works. These have excavated, reconstructed, and brought to light the aspirations, struggles, and achievements of the customarily disregarded but vast majority of Americans. A new generation of historians has supplied us with splendid accounts of another, non corporate, America.

 But while this exciting effort was being made, pitifully little--or nothing at all--of this important work appeared on the national media channels or in the historical allusions of the nation's leaders. Instead, there is what can best be described as the corporate-sponsored, mass-media history machine. It churns out products that are processed and calibrated to corporate specifications--undisturbing, unprovocative, and reinforcing the status quo. It provides national audiences with a historical view as seen from the top of the social pyramid. The corporate history machine has at its disposal the means by which it becomes the national narrator of record. Television, which takes its screening orders from corporate marketing, furnishes the history (such as it is) that is seen by the millions, be it in the news, drama, sports, or historical narratives.

There is room for different interpretations of exactly how tens of thousands of writers, journalists, broadcasters, editors, and producers of videos and films are made to accede, or voluntarily shape their creations, to the taste of the Established Order.

 It is not necessary to construct a theory of intentional cultural control. In truth, the strength of the control process rests in its apparent absence. The desired systemic result is achieved ordinarily by a loose though effective institutional process. It utilizes the education of journalists and other media professionals, built-in penalties for doing what is not expected, and rewards for doing what is expected, norms presented as objective rules, and the occasional but telling direct intrusion from above. The main lever is the internalization of values.

 In the last forty years, the history machine has worked overtime. Not only have dissenters to the corporate model of America been dropped from the historical record. More perilous to the long-term national well-being has been the destruction of empathy and the erasure of identification with the less advantaged at home and abroad.

 In recent decades, for example, the existence of significant unemployment has been made to appear as a normal part of national life. A newspaper report in l986 noted that the unemployment level had hovered around seven percent for two years, yet "the rate seems to have become acceptable to the public, experts say." (4) In l994, actual unemployment is far above this level. Yet it is indisputable that unemployment has not been a major political issue in recent years, despite its perseverance at a distressingly high level. The changing character of the postwar economy, the attrition of the organized labor force, and the values that have been generated by a temporarily triumphant corporate economy have enfeebled the once strong sense of social justice and solidarity that in an earlier time would have reacted strongly to this condition.

And so, approaching the twenty-first century, joblessness continues to afflict the work force. Homelessness is a national scourge. Electoral politics is meaningless to half the voters. National leaders and the governing elite honor conspiratorial war hawks. High and low-level influence peddlers are ubiquitous. And the media dutifully, if not joyously, transmit bizarre diversions endlessly into the country's living rooms.

What to make of these phenomena? Whatever the explanation or interpretation, the effect is that attention is diverted from the source of the problem--the corporate organization of society for the benefit of the relatively few. In this way, the necessity for imagining and developing genuine social alternatives to the deepening crisis is by-passed.

The self-promoting corporate doctrine extolling market values is recited by executives, government officials, and academics alike, and permeates the national discourse, typifying the willful disregard of history. Market forces were not viewed so reverentially in the l930s. But remembering the depression years, and their lessons, depends on history--history which is made available, meaningfully and clearly, and disseminated widely, to the general public, especially the young.

 Now a new project is being launched and presented to the public as a cure-all for the problems facing the nation. Better education, good jobs, more health care, and the general well-being, it is claimed, will flow from the proposed electronic superhighway, now in the early stages of construction. Ignoring the fate of radio, television, and cable, Americans are told, once again, that the new information technologies will produce a more satisfactory way of life. Hardly mentioned, and minimized when it is, the managers and custodians of this electronic instrumentation are the same "market forces," a clutch of big businesses in the telephone, cable, computer, and entertainment industries--the sources from which have come the commercialized and corporatized cultural space that now envelop us.

How to learn from history when it is itself controlled? This is no mean assignment for the upcoming century.

l. Colin Norman, "Rethinking Technology's Role in Economic Change,"
Science, 240 (May 20, l988):977 
2. John Berger, "For Raymond Williams-From 'Who Governs' to 'How to Survive,'" 
New Statesman (March ll, l988), 28.
3. Vicente Navarro, "The Lincoln Brigade: Some Comments on US. History,"
Monthly Review, (Sept. l986), 34. 
4. Robert D. Hershey, Jr., "High Joblessness Gaining Acceptance," 
New York Times, October l4, l986. 
This is a revised and updated revision of the 

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