I am afraid I am going to have to admit that I shall somewhat complicate this discussion. And I begin doing that by asking – would it suffice for the Indian Left – both its communist and non-communist variants alike – to protest against the current government proposal to bring in a broadcasting bill that seeks to limit the ‘free’ media’s operations? If the intended broadcasting bill is an act of state censorship – which it most certainly is – would it do for the Indian Left to simply see it as such and resist it? In other words, shouldn”t we on the Left, before we take a definite political position against the proposal, understand the tension within a system of which both the government and the media are integral parts? Only when we are able to comprehend this systemic tension would our praxis become a really interventionist critique of the political economy of the mass media. To put it broadly, the principal concerns of the proposed bill are regulation of market-share of TV companies to purportedly prevent media monopolies from coming up, so that homogenisation of opinion can be checked. After all, shouldn’t the state in a capitalist democracy like ours be concerned about homogenisation of opinion, and be sensitive to the question of consumer choice? Of course, given the sameness of the content on most of our TV channels, choice is really an illusion. An illusion that is intrinsic to the political economy of the mass media. But more of that later. Coming back to where we were:
The state’s intent, in proposing the bill, is to putatively articulate the wishes, demands and concerns of those social groups, whose concerns either find no reflection in, or are undermined and/or contradicted by, programming on cable TV channels, which articulate the concerns of the hegemonic classes. We can sense in this a dialectical tension between two visions of hegemony: One which considers that the project of hegemonisation is complete. And the other, represented in this case by the government, which thinks that the hegemony of the ruling classes is yet to be conclusively established. So, the current move to bring in the bill is meant to emphasise the fact that the state is as much concerned and bothered about those social groups, which do not ‘identify’ with the interests of the ruling classes, as the ruling classes themselves as also those who have accepted their ideological hegemony despite the fact that their interests do not really converge with those of the ruling classes.
(In fact, when we say that a particular group does or does not identify with the interests of the ruling classes we must qualify that by saying that some groups identify with the interests of the system more than others. For, the political economy of capital excludes identities, commodities, ideas, cultures to the extent that it orders them in a hierarchy of exchange values. But since things higher up in the hierarchy valorise themselves by transferring value from things, different from them occupying the lower tiers, nothing, from the point of view of the total system, is excluded. We can safely say that capitalism creates hierarchical exclusion of difference even as it includes those differences productively! The bourgeois social formation, which is civil society in common parlance, is constituted by a differential hierarchy of social relations or relations of production.)
To come back to the government gesture of proposing the broadcast bill: In this gesture of the state, at any rate a sizeable section of it, lies the will of the ruling ideology – not class since the latter is too internally fragmented and heterogeneous an entity – to hegemonise.
But this tension, or contradiction, between two visions of ideological hegemony of the ruling classes has two possible syntheses, or to borrow from Hegel, ‘aufhebung’. The first unity of opposites is obviously the will to hegemonise. It is positive, present and status-quoist. The second dialectic, and this is our main concern, is critical, absent and revolutionary. That, in this instance, must be seen as a Marxian overturning of the Hegelian dialectic.
It is the will to construct a counter-hegemony, or to be more precise a counter-ideological position. This is the will we on the Left have to extract from the consensus that is being articulated by the government to bring the bill to control the freemarket of the free media. Let’s understand this better. The strand of the government gesture to bring in the broadcast bill, which in what it manifests – as we well truly know – is the will of the ruling classes to hegemonise on the larger political terrain. But it seeks to do so in the name of demand for more choice from among certain social sections lower down in the systemic hierarchy. It is the essence of this demand for more choice from among those social sections, which the Marxists must comprehend. In the Marxist’s revolutionary scheme, this social demand must be first seen, and then articulated, as being inflected with its negative, counter-ideological and autonomously political desire to reject and unravel the law-constituting gesture of the ruling classes to dominate – through ideological hegemony and consensus or direct coercion, or a combination of both.
Of course, if we were to deal with this within the conceptually segmented domain of the mass media the Left should read in this positive demand for certain kind of TV programmes over others, the absent or sedimented desire to disavow, even challenge, the anti-dialogic spirit intrinsic to the mass media, thanks to the larger political economy within which it is situated and, at the same time, facilitates.
Another aspect, which is brought out by this tension between two visions of the ruling classes, is the idea of the autonomization of the executive. That is, when the state ceases to be a mere executive representative of the ruling class, and becomes an independent entity in itself. Virtually a class for itself, whose decisions are often at variance and in conflict with those of the dominant social class. This happens when polity is faced with, what some Marxists have called the “crisis of representation”. This crisis of representation, together with the autonomization of the executive, has been very evident in India and some other post-colonial Asian nation-states for at least the past few decades. That is typical of a fascist conjuncture. This crisis of representation happens when the ruling class, and in fact the entire social formation created by and enabling its political economy, is deeply fractured and becomes too internally differentiated to articulate a single cohesive set of interests and ideologies. In other words, the ideological hegemony of the ruling classes collapses and various contending ideologies, facilitating various sectional interests, come to fore. The state then steps in to fill the hegemonical vacuum by asserting its independent coercive and administrative role. It does so by playing one class against the other – the bourgeoisie against the proletariat; the petty bourgeoisie against the proletariat; the proletariat against the peasantry; and the petty bourgeoisie against the big bourgeoisie.
This means two things:
a. The state’s interests are independent of the interest of all social classes, though it may at times converge with one, at another with the other.
b. Its interests are best served by preserving the current political economy of exchange value and its attendant system of differential inclusion. Consequently, it does everything except unravel the socio-economic origins of the system.
Let us go back to the broadcast bill in the light of this analysis. To the extent that it seeks to curb the power of an influential section of the dominant classes (the media barons); through executive fiat, it indicates the crisis of representation. (1)
I repeat once again that the political economy of the modern state, whatever be its form, is a capitalist political economy of valorisation through value transfer, which creates an anti-dialogic, stratified system of productive inclusion. Given this political economy of the state and its various attendant political and social institutions, it would be too much to expect that this tension would, objectively on its own, have a revolutionary, critical resolution. As a matter of fact, the absence of any progressive subjective political intervention would most likely resolve it in favour of the status quo: a continuous extension of the hegemonic project of the ruling classes and their ruling ideology.
That revolutionary subjectivity will, however, have to be premised on a critical understanding of the political economy and ideological character of the mass media. The Left must understand that this radical subjectivity would be most effectively deployed when the subjectivity is fully seized of the crisis of representation. Mostly, people resist the state, but without any new paradigm of politics that would seek to understand the state as a function of a certain type of political economy; a certain mode of production; and a certain structure of social relations. Such resistance is, therefore, doomed to be plotted in terms of the status quo of social relations. Thus capturing state power inevitably becomes, for them, an end-in-itself. Every such act of resistance, as a result, ends with some sections of those resisting being absorbed into the state. Those who are not absorbed, again align with those who are preparing to launch a fresh assault against the might of the new state. And thus the vicious cycle continues.
The preponderant tendency of the state is to close itself and exclude others, but it can never do so completely because, objectively, there’s a counter-tendency in it to deal with others and include them, if only in a hierarchical fashion and if only to oppress and exploit them in order to transfer value and accumulate capital in all its ‘materialised’ and ‘dematerialised’ forms – cultural capital, social capital, political power, money and so forth. The modern state, as a consequence, remains precariously open to challenge. This tension results in it being forced to reflect the demands of those who are lower down in the systemic hierarchy, and who through resistance are trying to move upwards, or to-wards the centre of it all. But since this demand is articulated by the state; and also because the demand itself is inscribed within the paradigm of modern political power and form of state, even in its resistance it ultimately fails to articulate itself without distorting its counter-ideological, critical essence – the essence, which wants to escape the mediatory appearance of the prevailing political economy and its ideological-ethical framework.
So, the UPA government has, through its gesture of proposing the broadcast bill, articulated the ‘aam aadmi’s’ mandate, which demands of it more choice as a consumer. Something that monopolising media houses would obviously be loath to grant them. But this manifest demand and mandate are distorted by the mediation of the politics of state power, its ideologies and institutions, and, most fundamentally, its political economy. It would be the Marxian Left’s task to cut through the clutter and recover what the appearance of this mandate, or this demand has distorted beyond recognition.
Now let’s see where this approach of unmasking disguised and alienated political-economic/ideological categories can lead us to in the segmented domain of the mass media. Once we accept this approach, media can be seen to be answering affirmatively to only one of these two questions: Is it meant to aid leisure, and ideological indoctrination and/or skilling of workers by purveying programmes that are passively consumed by them as part and parcel of the reified ritual to socially re-produce themselves? Or, is it a zone where pleasure intersects with critique to produce a radical rupture with the prevailing political economy in both its content and form, which are entwined thoroughly with each other? The question that we on the Left should choose to answer in the affirmative is clear.
To understand the fundamental difference between these visions of the media, we need to simply remember what French filmmaker Goddard had once said: “TV transmits, while cinema expresses.” Here, of course, we must also understand that for Goddard TV is the epitome of the bourgeois mass media purveying entertainment, ideologies and skills, while cinema is the supreme expression of what a left-wing cultural-political resistance against such a mass media and its political economy ought to be. For Goddard, TV transmits things as they are, and that transmission is meant to be passively recognised, received and consumed as reality by its intended viewers for entertainment and/or ‘education’. Cinema, on the other hand, is to express that reality. In other words, it is meant to reflect upon and investigate as to how this reality is constituted. Not just that, it also ends up provoking the audience, too, to participate in that reflection and probe. That implies engagement and active participation of the audience. It is this vision of Goddard’s cinema that has to permeate the Left’s cultural-political discourse and its vision of an alternative media.
This kind of cultural politics of resistance has a long and rich legacy.
A. First, of course, is the anti-narrative films of Goddard himself. His cinema is known to suddenly rupture the narrative and take recourse to various devices and tropes that lead to reflection on the reality that the narrative is seeking to capture or depict.
B. And then, of course, there is Brecht, whose debt Goddard has acknowledged time and again, and whose idea and practice of epic theatre did to culture and aesthetics what Marx’s did to politics and political economy. In his epic theatre Brecht sought to alienate the audience from the play, by interrupting its narrative through use of various devices like melodrama, documentary film clips, newspaper cuttings, actual audio recordings of historical events, etc, in order to unearth and foreground the various processes that constitute and contextualise the reality being depicted in his plays. His intention: to destroy the cathartic consumption of theatre, and the reality it represents, by a passive audience; and provoke that audience into thinking about how reality is historically constituted. His didactic approach was meant to provoke audiences into a dialogue with the producer so that they become active participants in the process of producing the plays, and by extension the reality outside theatre itself. Brecht was actually known to have rewritten many of his plays by taking into account the reactions and responses of politically engaged German workers, who were his primary audience.
C. South American Augusto Boal has taken this Brechtian experiment a step further. His plays of the theatre-of-the-oppressed vintage are produced in a fashion that it provokes the audience not just to reflect on how the narrative is constituted but to actually become part of the play and start participating in it.
D. Filmmaker John Abraham’s Odessa film club experiment closer home in Kerala is also another example of how the audiences of cinema can become its producers. Abraham and Odessa made some films successfully with money raised from poor villagers, radical intellectuals and the urban underclass, who often enough also became its cast and supplied their intellectual inputs, too, to the making of those films.
Eventually, however, Odessa has significantly been diminished and it is a pale shadow of its past. There’s, however, a moral to this story of Odessa’s diminution. A moral that the Left, particularly its cultural political practitioners would do good to learn by heart. Odessa succeeded only till that time when there was a certain kind of active, left-wing, anti-systemic consensus at work. As soon as that politics went into retreat there were few if any takers for an experiment like the Odessa. This means that cultural-aesthetic practices, like the ones just mentioned, have radical implications in terms of critiquing the prevalent system and its political economy. But those implications have to be actualised through active political praxis.
In the absence of such praxis, these experiments are doomed to be reified into aesthetic-cultural artefacts or forms, by the market’s Ricardian logic of value ascription through demand and supply. These experiments become yet another commodity/ideology that the bourgeois mass media includes in its hierarchical jungle of commodities, ideologies and brands.
The Delhi-based Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) is a good example of illustrating this. The PSBT’s efforts are geared towards producing short films, both documentaries and features, that the ‘public’ would ‘actually’ want to see. It has even gone so far as to produce films by filmmakers drawn from local communities and with participant-actors taken from those communities for those communities as well as others like them. But then, the PSBT is a kind of an NGO that looks at people’s media and its practices purely in cultural terms, and is completely divorced from a larger anti-systemic political movement and its political-economic critique. As a result, most of its films and programmes are telecast by the Doordarshan. In other words, the PSBT has to depend on government assistance and subsidy to realise and propagate its purportedly progressive cultural-political vision. In the process, the PSBT programmes, too, have willy-nilly fallen prey to the market’s logic of TRP ratings, ad revenue, branding and so forth. Consequently, they are condemned to either survive precariously as government-subsidised arte-facts of good culture, which can disappear any moment, just like the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) of India-sponsored art-house cinema; or they go beyond the pale of lei-sure-driven mass media to become highly prized cultural commodities, which are accessed by a privileged few to indulge their supposedly non-utilitarian pleasures. This, according to Theodor Adorno, is precisely how the culture industry creates the reified domains of mass culture and high culture, in which the latter category absorbs everything that is avant-garde and radical, cutting of larger society’s access to them, completely defanging them in the process.
That is not to say those ‘good cultural’ programmes and art-house movies should not be there. (Albeit one must admit that a lot of those NFDC-sponsored films were ponderous, pretentious, junk with no real cultural-aesthetic merit and political use.) The point is to see how they can thrive even in the bourgeois mass media, whether owned by the state or private players.
Such programming can be made viable only by going beyond the market principle of demand and supply; or, more precisely, the split between the active producer and the passive consumer-audience. That would be possible only when media and art are transformed into a de-commodified zone of political resistance and political-economic critique. For, a media that seeks to transform the passive audience into active participant-producer will have to situate itself within, and simultaneously drive, a larger political movement that critiques and seeks to transform the political economy of exchange value and value transfer, which through creation of differential hierarchies privileges oppressive and pedagogic determination of identities, over an open dialogue.
Only when such larger politics frames our protest against state censorship or our demand for transparent regulation would they be effective in becoming something more than effete editorials written by well-meaning editorial writers in the mainline press.
Such a political approach also implies, and I believe that’s by now clear, the creation of alternative media, and popular cultural-political initiatives that want to change the world, not merely interpret it. Such initiatives, of which the alternative media would be the instrumentality, would be a movement that intends to heal the producer-consumer breach, and turn passive audiences into active participants in the production of politics, and a horizontal, non-hierarchical political economy of non-exploitation.
Such cultural-political initiatives must not, however, be confused with reified models of Soviet-style socialist realism and Proletkult. We already have far too much of useless, status-quoist ‘janwadi’ cultural-political artefacts, like the hoary street theatre, being churned out by various cultural fronts of equally various communist parties. Instead, we would do well to recall Walter Benjamin’s words: “Rather than ask, ‘What is the attitude of a work (of art) to the relations of production of its time?’ I should like to ask, ‘What is its position within them.'” No longer do the cultural-political initiatives of the Indian Left exhibit their original awareness of how their techniques of production, or the forms of representation that resulted from those production processes are in sync with the socialisation of production that this left seeks to establish.
To put it briefly let’s modify a little a maxim of historian E. P. Thompson: “There can be no culture without struggle.” Certainly not for the Marxists.
But this politics of struggle is not just somewhere outside. It is, in fact, situated, on point where the inside inflects with the outside. The inside in this case being people like us: journalists yes, but more importantly media workers.
I’m not very experienced in matters organisational and will, therefore, refrain from trying to come up with an organisational plan. But I will certainly stress the need for a media workers” organisation, which would contemplate its revolutionary politics in terms of struggles within their place of work. These struggles must not focus merely on gaining more wages and/or more time for leisure, but, more importantly in this conjuncture, control over their production process.
Pothik Ghosh is a professional journalist with The Economic Times. He has long been involved with various grassroots organisational efforts and Marxist study circles in India.
(1) The “crisis of representation” has been explicated well by Marx in his ‘The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’; and later by August Thalheimer and Trotsky while theoretically dealing with the ascendancy of Nazism. The resemblance with India of the past, at least, three decades is uncanny.