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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Michael Parenti on hegemony, monopoly capitalism and culture

Excerpts from an essay by the great Michael Parenti -- Monopoly and Culture -- in Political Affairs Magazine (a journal of the Communist Party USA) 1985.

It is amazing how completely the analysis stands up.


-- Those persons who believe the United States is a “pluralistic" society resist the notion of a ruling-class monopoly culture. They see cultural institutions as standing outside the political arena, independent of business power and the state. Indeed, they see culture itself as something distinctly separate from politics. They make much about keeping the arts, sciences, foundations, schools, colleges, professions, churches and media free of the taint of political ideologies so that these institutions might not be deprived of their purity and independence. Since the pluralists believe that Big Business is just one of many interests in the political arena and does not dominate the state, they can not imagine that business dominates civil society and cultural life.

A closer look at reality, however, shows that cultural institutions such as the media, publishing houses, recreational and entertainment enterprises and most hospitals are not merely influenced by business ideology but are themselves Big Business, components of large profit-making corporate conglomerates. Furthermore, nonprofit cultural institutions like schools, museums, scientific and research associations, foundations and universities are ruled very much like the profit-making ones - by boards of directors (or trustees or regents), drawn mostly from the business class or those in the pay of that Class. These boards have final say over the institution’s system of rewards and punishments, its budget and personnel, its investments and purposes. They exercise power either by occupying the top positions or hiring and firing those who do. Their power to change the institution’s management if it does not perform as they desire is what gives them control.

The boards of directors exercise authority not by popular demand or consensus but by state charter. Incorporated by the state, they can call upon the courts and the police to enforce their decisions against the competing claims of staff, clients or other constituents. These boards are non-elected, self-selected, self-perpetuating ruling coteries of affluent persons who are answerable to no one but themselves. They are checked by no internal electoral system, no opposition parties, no obligation to report to the rank and file or win support and confirmation from any of the people whose lives they affect with their decisions. As one observer put it: “When the state acts to protect their authority, it does so through the property system; that is, it recognizes the corporation as the private property of some determinate group of men and it protects their right to do, within legal limits, what they please with their property." Yet, institutions so ruled are said to be the mainstay of "democratic pluralism."

In a word, the cultural order is not independent of the business system.

-- The university’s dependence on rich foundations, corporations and government has affected the substance of its academic research and curriculum. Yet most of the recipients of this bounty maintain that they are independent, self-directed scholars who have not been bought by anyone. Their remarkable ability to remain free of the hand that feeds them is matched only by those members of Congress who claim a similarly miraculous independence of the moneyed interests that lavishly contribute to their campaign coffers.

The “free and independent" colleges and universities of the United States do not govern themselves. As already noted, most institutions of higher education, like most other institutions, are run by boards of trustees drawn almost entirely from the business community. The trustees of Columbia University, to site a typical example, are mostly real estate magnates, bankers and directors of such corporations as Lockheed, Consolidated Edison, IBM and CBS. Lacking any special training in the field of higher education, trustees nevertheless exercise authority over capital funding and budget; the hiring and firing and promotion of faculty; the formation and abolition of academic departments, study programs, courses and curriculum; tuition and student fees; commencement speakers, guest lecturers, degrees, awards and just about any other decision including, if need be, the name of the school football team. (When the student body at Stanford University voted in the late 1960s to name their football team the Robber Barons in recognition of how the founder, Leland Stanford, had made his millions, the trustees suppressed the vote and themselves chose a less unsettling team name.)

Among the cultural institutions that are great pretenders to impartiality and autonomy are the law and the law profession. In the early days of the Republic, leaders of the bar often saw themselves as sentinels preserving civil order from popular insurgency and mob rule. Upon becoming a professor of law at Harvard in 1829, Joseph Story announced that the lawyer’s most "glorified and not infrequently perilous" duty was to guard the "sacred rights of property" from the “rapacity" of the majority. The lawyer and the law were the "solitary citadel" that stood between property and property redistribution. Today, lawyers have learned to be more circumspect in their expressions of devotion to the propertied class and more inclined to talk about "justice for all." But law schools continue to reflect the biases of the owning class they serve. Corporate law, tax law, contract law and property law are the prestige areas. The ground rules in these courses are drawn from 19th century laissez-faire capitalism, with passing recognition given to the need for limited government regulation to rectify certain "abuses." Judicial outcomes are presented as products of "legal reasoning" rather than responses to political and economic forces. Attention is on individual rights and procedures, not on substantive social justice between classes, races and sexes.

Realty law is studied from the viewpoint of the landlord rather than from the needs of the tenant. Corporate law is seen from the perspective of the firm rather than from the human rights of the worker and consumer. Rights of big creditors are afforded careful attention while legal problems of ordinary debtors are generally ignored. Lawyers are more likely to work for industrial polluters than for ecologists, since that’s where the money is. They will be employed to get agricultural subsidies for the rich, not food stamps for the poor; lobbying for the banks, not small depositors; for highway builders, not displaced residents; for the rich man’s tax privileges, not the wage earner’s tax reform.

Generally speaking, the schools of law, medicine and academic scholarship train students to discard their initial outrage regarding injustice and privilege. Students learn that such concerns are “naive," “not professional" and “not relevant" to what they are learning, and that they must consider the larger picture, avoiding “simplistic" radical muckraking and at the same time confine their efforts to the narrow serviceable questions of their trade. In this way one is more likely to survive professionally and attain the preferred positions and lifelong rewards of the profession.

-- Labour unions are an institution that shows how difficult it is to function in this society without either becoming an auxiliary to or a victim of capitalism. A number of prominent union leaders, from Samuel Gompers to Lane Kirkland, have been pro-capitalist, hostile toward Leftist parties, superpatriotic, intolerant of internal dissent and often suspicious of rank-and-file militancy–enough to leave many people convinced that unions are worthless, corrupt, coopted organizations that are actually harmful to workers’ interests. A closer look tells us that, whatever their deficiencies, unions often take progressive stances on a wide range of critical issues and have won some real democratic gains for workers. To the extent working people have any mass democratic organization which provides them with opportunities for fightback and collective action, and some protection from the relentless oppression of management, it is the labor union. Unions are the major countervailing class power pitted against the process of capital accumulation. Our “pluralistic" capitalist society does not easily tolerate this kind of pluralism. For this reason, business and government treat unions differently from all the social institutions previously discussed, attacking rather than subsidizing them.

-- Let me sum up some of things said so far. What we face is not only a capitalist economic system but an entire capitalist social and cultural order. Capitalists exercise cultural hegemony by direct ownership of the means of mental production and production of services, by occupying positions of institutional command as trustees and directors, as patrons and contributors, and by procuring public funds to subsidize private institutions. While their cultural hegemony bolsters their state power, they also use their state power to finance and expand their cultural hegemony. This cultural dominance serves several valuable functions:

• First, as with the media, entertainment and health industries, cultural institutions are a major source of capital accumulation. Capitalists are involved in them because they make money from them.

• Second, capitalists support and direct institutions such as universities, professional schools and research centers because they provide the kind of specialized services and trained personnel that business does not want to pay for itself . When capitalists realized they needed literate, punctual and compliant machinists, they then favored public schools. When they needed lawyers, engineers and managers, they approved of professional and technical schools. The substantial public funds used to sustain these institutions represent an indirect subsidy to the capital accumulation process.

• Third, most important of all, these institutions are crucial instruments of ideological and class control, socializing people into attitudes and dedications that are functional to, and supportive of, the existing system, while suppressing information and perspectives that are not. The goal is to maintain class oppression while muting class struggle.

• Fourth, not only through propaganda and socialization but also through "good works, " or the appearance of such, do capitalists achieve legitimacy and hegemony. As if by magic, the ruthless industrialist becomes the generous philanthropist; the expropriator becomes "a leader of society," a trustee of our social and cultural needs. To appreciative American audiences Mobil Corporation is better known as the sponsor of “Masterpiece Theater" than as the heartless exploiter of oil workers in the Middle East and elsewhere. Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Clark, Duke, Vanderbilt, Tulane and Stanford are no longer robber barons but prestigious universities. And Carnegie is remembered not for the workers he starved but for his Hall, his Endowment and his Institute. The primary goal of capitalist cultural dominance is not to provide us with nice concerts and museums but to give capitalism’s exploitative reality a providential appearance so that people learn not only to accept, but admire and appreciate, the leadership and stewardship of the owning class. Indeed, have we not heard working people say: "More for the rich means more for the rest of us because they create the jobs we need" and, of course, they “do a lot of other good things for society. "

In fact, they do perform some good works. Some of their policies do have beneficial spinoffs. This brings us back to Gramsci's brilliant insights about how hegemony works to induce the people to consent in their own oppression. Gramsci noted that the capitalist class achieves hegemony not only by propagating the right values, attitudes and beliefs but by actually preforming vital social functions that have diffuse benefits. Railroads and highways may enrichen the magnates, but they also provide transportation for much of the public. Private hospitals are for profits not for people, but people who can afford them do get treated. The law is a class instrument, but it must also to some degree be concerned with public safety. So with just about every cultural and social function: the ruling class must act affirmatively on behalf of public interests some of the time - at least in those situations where private profits can be made while servicing public needs. If the ruling class fails to do so, Gramsci notes, its legitimacy will decline, its cultural and national hegemony will falter and its power will shrink back to its police and military capacity, leaving it with a more overtly repressive but ultimately less secure rule,

What has been said so far should remind us (in the unlikely event we need reminding) that the struggle ahead will be long and difficult. But change and progressive victories are not impossible. The ruling class rules, but not quite in the way it wants. Its socializing agencies do not work with perfect effect - or else this essay could not have been written nor read and understood. There is just so much cover rulers can give to their injustices and just so many substantive concessions they can make. And the concessions become points of vulnerability. The law is an instrument of class control but an imperfect one, for successful struggles have been fought to defeat retrogressive laws and pass progressive ones that are socially desirable and the basis for further struggles. The media are propaganda machines for the owning class but to maintain their credibility they must give some attention to the realities people experience; they must deal with questions like: Why are my taxes so high? Why are people losing their jobs? Why is the river so polluted? Why are we in Vietnam (Lebanon, El Salvador, Nicaragua)? The media’s need to deal with such things - however haphazardly and insufficiently - is what leads conservatives to the conclusion that the media are infected with "liberal" biases

The ruling class must forever contend with the democratic forces of working people, women, Afro-Americans, Latinos and other oppressed minorities. Ruling-class culture is predominantly a white, male domain which denies the existence of other cultural forms. (We might recall how social scientists like Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in the first edition of their book, Beyond the Melting Pot, could assert that American Blacks were devoid of any real culture of their own. Because the dominant culture took no note of the contributions of Afro-Americans and their struggles for recognition in the arts and sciences, in entertainment, music, medicine, education, politics and law, and in the labor and peace movements, white social scientists did not know about such things; and what they didn’t know about, they assumed did not exist. Thus their perceptions are often racist despite their conscious claims to the contrary.) The struggles of particularly oppressed groups such as Afro-Americans, can become a catalyst for change throughout the society, as we saw in the late 1950s and through the 1960s when the civil rights movement strengthened .the civil liberties struggle and then helped galvanize the anti-war movement, from which, in turn, emerged a long dormant feminist movement.

To maintain its legitimacy and popular acceptance, the ruling class must maintain democratic appearances and to do that it must not only lie, distort and try to hide its oppressions and unjust privileges, but must occasionally give in to popular demands, giving a little in order to keep a lot. In time, the legitimating ideology becomes a two-edged sword. Bourgeois hypocrisies about “democracy" and “fair play" are more than just the tribute vice pays to virtue. Such standards put limitations on ruling-class oppression once the public takes them seriously and fights for them...

In sum, capitalist monopoly culture, like monopoly capitalist economy, suffers shall we say, from internal contradictions. It can invent and control just so much of reality. Its socialization is imperfect and sometimes self-defeating. Like any monopoly, it can not rest perfectly secure because it does not serve the people and is dedicated to the ultimately impossible task of trying to prevent history from happening. Its legitimating deceptions are soft spots of vulnerability, through which democratic forces can sometimes press for greater gains.

An understanding of monopoly culture shows us how difficult it is to fight capitalism on its own turf, but if I may paraphrase Lenin, sometimes that's the only turf available and we must use every platform we can get. At the same time we must continue to create alternatives to monopoly culture - alternative scholarship, radio, newspapers, schools and art. But such a "counterculture" must be grounded in an alternative politics and political party so that it confronts rather than evades the realities of class struggle and avoids devolving into cultural exotica and inner migration. It is easier to shock the bourgeoisie with cultural deviance than to defeat it with revolutionary political and cultural organization.

The struggle for state power is a struggle also to win back the entire cultural and social life of the people, so that someday we can say: This land is our land, and so too is this art and science, this learning and healing, this prayer and song, this peace and happiness.

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