Marxist school of thought argues that society is structured by and is divided into classes with the ruling one being at the top of the hierarchy. No matter which class takes that social power (hegemony) and becomes the bourgeoisie of its time, there is always a need to maintain it, thus controlling the proletariat by any means at hand. In this essay I will discuss how popular culture is used to achieve this goal according to the Marxist point of view.
In the modern times culture and classes are mostly confined within individual states, although interchangeable cultural values and process of globalisation might be developing in our society, they are not yet matured enough to challenge the key capitalist ideology. The state in opinion of such Marxist as Louis Althusser is the kind of governmental formation that arises with capitalism; a state (term ‘nation’ can also be applicable in this case) is determined by the capitalist mode of production and formed to protect its interests.
It is historically true (whether you are a Marxist or not) that the idea of nations as discrete units is coterminous with capitalism. He sees such political ideologies as democracy for example, as providers of an illusion that all people are equal, and have equal power (and hence masks relations of economic exploitation). ‘Culture is a constant succession of social practices: it is therefore inherently political’ (John Fiske) Althusser stated in his works that there are two main ways in which the elite can manipulate lower classes; Ideological State Apparatuses is one of such mechanisms.
These are institutions, which generate ideologies, which we as individuals (and groups) then internalize, and act in accordance with. Examples include schools, religions, the family, legal systems, politics, arts, sports and media. As we will see later, popular culture can be used in conjunction with these ISAs. Since the end of 19th century television started to play a major role in our lives. It generates values, ideas and messages that we often do not question thoroughly enough to understand their indented meanings.
Thus, arguably it is the tool social elite uses to controls us. Due to the fact that television is often blended into the term popular culture or is defined as significant element of popular culture; I shall base my discussion around its example. According to such theorists as John Fiske and Wiesengrund Adorno mass media promote low cultural concepts (to which all this of popularity are assigned according to elitist point of view) that are meant to keep the members of the lower society classes passive or even narcotized to fuel the capitalist machine.
A good example would be a BBC news report that is considered to be trustworthy source of information. Every day before report goes on air its content is carefully edited to fit in with the current government agendas and social norms. Even though issues raised may concern a variety of professional debates within the society, they are simplified and implemented in the standardized language to be easily understood, hence dummed down to the level of the lowest common denominator that is proletariat. Amongst such concepts is commodity culture which links well with the culture industry.
First endorses the view that people in modern society are nothing more than a set of branded goods and are easily manipulated. This theory connotes that anything could be purchased in the capitalist society for a certain amount of money that serve as ultimate lever of the classes. John Fiske goes on to expand this idea to suggest that even loyalty, love and friendship values can be corrupted by this type of popular culture. Supporting these
Non-compulsory military service could suggest purchasable loyalty; it offers good wages and high quality training in exchange for your life (extreme and blunt example yet makes a point). Commodity culture in its turn, as stated by Adorno, keeps us passively satisfied and politically disinterested. It provides us with false needs to take care of and a set of fetishistic desires, which invade our lives. All of this is said to exhaust our economic potential to the point we loose our upward mobility and become an inactive part of the society that poses no threat to the ruling elite’s hegemony.
Take reality TV shows and property market. Do we really need to know that some of our fellow humans can’t sing? Or do we need to keep buying and selling properties until we have large mortgages, high levels of stress and no real power? Yet most of the people master the art of making do that is popular culture values. Finally French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu divided capital into cultural and financial parts. He reasoned that similar to variable access to money and thus power by different classes and social groups, there is a variable possession of cultural and symbolic power.
Hence by embracing popular culture we lower our cultural capital that affects our status and meaning within the modern society. Marxist view of the society is quite dated now, yet it still provides alarmingly appropriate to modern day life ideas. Nonetheless, it is important to understand that in its extreme and pure form Marxist view can only lead to wild conspiracy theories and delusional arguments. In my opinion Marxism should be used in conjunction and contrast with its rival theories in order to reach realistic conclusions.