An Introduction to the Political Economy Debate

For the Hungarian Intermedia Bulldozer Reader

Preface for Bulldozer (Intermedia, Budapest, 1997)

The question of the ‘economy’ seems to be back on the agenda. In the late eighties, the analysis of ownership and power over the media seemed to have ended up in a dead-end street. Not that the media titans such as Murdoch, Turner, Bertelsmann or Kirsch did not exist. Neither had they disappeared. Quite the opposite, these were the hay days of satellite television, commercial channels and the breakthrough of the consumer video recorder. A media revolution was on its way, which we can now label with ‘1989’ and ‘Gulf War’. Both the academic, ‘speculative’ media theory and the critical discourse of journalism had had enough of the ‘culture of complaint’ about the ongoing concentration of power. People no longer believed in theconspiracy theory of the media as the propaganda tool of capitalism. The exception here might be Noam Chomsky and his fellow critics like Herman, Barsamian and Schiller. The cause of the inability to speak about the rise of the media monopolies, has to be located in the ‘crisis of Marxism’ at the time, causing a blindness for the economic altogether.

The attention had shifted to another level of power. Intellectuals andartists began focusing on the ‘structural’ level and switched to the sideof the subject: the reader, watcher, surfer. At first analyzing theideological (hidden) messages such as sexism and racism, the attention soon drifted onto the higher level of simulation as such. Influenced by semiotics (Eco), linguistics (De Saussure) and French postmodernism (Baudrillard), the secret of the media power was to be found in the reception. It no longer mattered exactly who owned this or that cable system or copyright, the ‘means of production’, as the 68-generation of neo-Marxists used to call it. The anglo-saxon academic wave of the ‘cultural studies’ can be seen as a clear example of this shift.   The big, ugly power of capitalism outside of us was no longer the main cause of the daily alienation. From then on, the (micro) power was located in the lonely hearts of the individualized, ‘silent’ masses. The receiver at home, in front of the screen, became the actual ‘black box’. In order to crack the power of the mass media, the consumer had to be empowered with ‘subversive’ strategies like irony, reversing the signs and other forms of assimilation of corporate mass culture.

In times of rapid changes, when new media spaces are opening up, the question of economic power, ideological manipulation and exclusion is not the first priority. Initially, people are fascinated (and frightened) by the new possibilities that VR, PCs, CD-ROMs or the Internet seem to offer. Standards are changing overnight and the market seems to be on the move. There is even space for cute start-ups like Apple or Netscape (so favorite amongst artists), challenging the power of IBM and Microsoft (itself once a garage firm). Pioneers, tinkers, and visionaries are showing us the way to a sheer, endless space of possibilities. The open, decentralized, democratic potentialities of the media are emphasized, both by activists and entrepreneurs. It is Dream Time: a short period of collective dreaming,passionate debates, gatherings and quick money to be made. After a while, big firms move in, like MATAV, in the case of Hungary. Small firms disappear, merge or are eaten up by the big ones. The gap between commerce and the alternative, political and cultural media initiatives, again, widens. It becomes necessary to understand the strategies of the big economic players, and the government, in order to survive. In this phase, after the orgy (as Baudrillard would call it) the way of theorizing the media also changes. A return to (or of?) the classic discipline of the political economy seems unavoidable. Now Marx is only one amongst many the 19th century political economists… The God given dominance of Marxism over critical analysis of the economy seems to be over. The issues that once caused the ‘crisis of Marxism’, the death of economic determinism andthe inability of Gramscian and Althusserian concepts of ideology to explain the rest, have died out twenty years later. It no longer makes sense to accuse someone of being a reductionist communist, libertarian anarchist or corporate socialist just because of their analysis. What counts are the policies and the data and concepts that are related to the contemporary situation.

The equation of economics and Marxism now belongs to the past. What remains is the question of the status of the economic realm. The focus on perception of the previous period merely located the ‘digital revolution’ in the inside (the body, the brain, the senses), unwilling to face the harsh economic reality outside, where neo-liberalism ruled. The media industry, which itself is producing more and more immaterial commodities, can easily be overseen as an economic factor. This is complicating efforts to get a deeper understanding of the economics of the media. Its imaginary power has superseded its actual size many times. Compared to the financial markets, branches like tourism, car manufacturing or the military industrial complex, media are in fact a relatively small business sector. This specially counts for the Internet and multi-media, as compared to television, which still gets most of the advertisement money. This makes it all to easy to overemphasize the symbolic function. The political economyof the Net, still ‘under construction’, is both a critical and a speculative undertaking, without much solid ground. Figures are not at hand and the actual size of the industry is hard to measure. How many members, worldwide, would Kroker and Weinsteins’ ‘virtual class’ have? Can we estimate the influence of Wired magazine? What will be the place of the expanding information technologies within the ‘jobless economy’? One new tele-workspace against four fresh unemployed? Are we overestimating the impact of the global economy and what is its essence? And who will pay for the unavoidable big crash of Wall Street? All these are questions whichremain open and need a new, solid, though fluid and virtual basis oftheoretical concepts. Let’s make a start and let us not be overwhelmed by economic specialists.