Media under surveillance capitalism

Yes, our world has entered into a new phase of rule which can be termed as surveillance capitalism, at home as well as on a global scale. Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism writes, “At its core, surveillance capitalism is parasitic and self-referential. It revives Karl Marx’s old image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labour, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labour, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience.” We also find that every technological advancement is quickly being coopted to make it worse.

Louis Althusser defines the capitalist state by its two faces: one is repressive State Apparatus (SA), another is Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA). The first consists of the government, the administration, the army, the police, the courts, the prisons, etc.—each “functions by violence”; the second includes the family, religious, educational, legal, political, cultural institutions and obviously, the media. The components of ISA are the soft version of hegemony of the ruling class/es. Obviously both the “hard” and “soft” wings are interlinked; therefore, it is not possible to understand the logic of capital and the role of media separately.  

We find the world today more militarised, monopolised and therefore, more vulnerable for the people and environment than at any time in history. The US has led a “war of terror” in the name of a “war on terror”, causing more uncertainty, fear and regimentation in parts of the world. Corporate power has found the atmosphere more conducive to grabbing of lands, mines, water and economies with “neo liberal” (i.e. neo conservative) ideology. And development projects of the “development” agencies such as the World Bank, IMF and ADB in various countries show how these agencies work as lobbyists, pathfinders of big corporations and global capital, pushing for projects of mass destruction (PMD).

Governments in most countries have become an obedient follower of big capital, using its fist to dismantle public utilities and public media, privatise public services and common property, make attempts to commercialise everything to benefit corporate groups, open countries to transnational corporations, off-shore subcontracting, low wages, temporary jobs, to ensure tax incentives and corporate-friendly regulations as well as restrictions of labour and democratic rights.

In the process, we find that when more than a trillion US dollars are spent on war and armaments globally, when the top 80 billionaires have more wealth than 3.5 billion people, nearly two billion people live in poverty, nearly 250 million are unemployed, 100 million are displaced, and more than 20,000 children starve to death every day.
In this horrific scenario, the media certainly has a big role to play. But for global and local powers, it is necessary to control the media only to rationalise this global (dis)order, to portray occupation as freedom, environmental disaster as development, war as peace, and surveillance as security. In The Media of Power, the Power of Media, Lee Artz points out, “The world’s 1,826 billionaires cannot rule through coercion, nor can capitalist governments and their armies. Short of annihilation or permanent war against resisting nations and classes, capitalists depend on winning the consent of millions of workers, managers, shopkeepers, and other middle class and working class members.” In fact, for them, where the army is needed to occupy countries/land/resources, the media is needed to occupy people’s minds—in Chomsky’s words—to manufacture consent. In other words, the media is mostly used as a machine to manufacture consent in favour of ruling tyranny.

Monopolisation or the concentration of capital is visible in every part of the system—the media is no exception. The global media is now more than a two trillion US dollars industry, closely linked with many other areas of the economy including war industries, fossil fuel industries, speculative activities, insurance, banking, and consumer goods. Additionally, 90 percent of the global media is now controlled by six large corporations. In the global news chain, they determine what is news and what is not.

Michael Parenti is therefore very much correct when he argues in Inventing Reality: The Politics of News Media that, “Media bias does not occur in a random fashion; rather it moves in the same overall direction again and again, favouring management over labour, corporations over corporate critics, affluent Whites over low-income minorities, officialdom over protesters, the two-party monopoly over leftist third parties, privatisation and free market ‘reforms’ over public-sector development, US corporate dominance of the Third World over revolutionary social change.”

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky detail the propaganda model of global rulers in Manufacturing Consent. The model works though several “filters” such as the size of the media, concentrated ownership, advertisements, the reliance of the media on information provided by governments, intelligence agencies, businesses, and “experts”; and “anti” rhetoric. For example, it was “anticommunism” for decades, but since the fall of the USSR, rhetoric of an eternal war against terrorism has been used to rationalise all crimes.

In Democracy and Corporate Control of the Media, Robert McChesney also identifies four basic problems with the dominant perception of the media, i.e. free market is the guarantor of a free press. The problems McChesney identifies can be described as follows: (1) ownership of media companies, power to control the content of what the media produces (2) the news is determined by few, as few corporations control all of the major networks and cable news channels (3) power of advertisement (this represents the manipulating power of the moneyed muscles who determine when and where to speak and when to keep silence) and (4) “cost cutting profit-maximising strategies of corporations”, which means that media workers always work in uncertainty.

With the arrival of the internet, a new hope emerged—many found it a liberating platform. People around the world celebrated Facebook, Google etc., but soon found that it was an illusion. It was also revealed that these are nothing less than instruments of surveillance capitalism. Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning have shown the immense potential of internet technology to expose the dangerous truth, but all the global forces united to stop them, to show the world that no one is spared if they try to do things necessary to expose criminal syndicates. As one commentator correctly observed, “Much like today’s social media censors and pre-crime police departments, Orwell’s Thought Police serve as the eyes and ears of Big Brother, while the other government agencies peddle in economic affairs (rationing and starvation), law and order (torture and brainwashing), and news, entertainment, education and art (propaganda).”

Bangladesh, set in a peripheral status with ruling class/es as junior partners of this world system, has been shaped to be compatible with the necessity of the global accumulation process. People here are suffering not from scarcity of resources but lack of authority over it, they are suffering not only from economic poverty but also from poverty of intelligentsia and institutions, they are suffering not from the shortage of media houses but a lack of independent media.   

For Bangladesh, both corporate power and state power work to control media and to filter news. The Digital Security Act is an added threat for independent journalists. However, there are journalists and editors who still try to work with their conscience. Many suffer for their efforts to speak the truth.

Therefore, free press in this world is an ambiguous term—the question is who is free, the monopoly corporate owner, the state, or the news? Still, we see attempts to build independent and alternative media taking advantage of technological advancement despite spread of the surveillance machine. Subversion to bring out the truth from propaganda is now an urgent necessity. There lies hope for people’s future and also shows that freedom is a matter of constant struggle.
(Published in The Daily Star on 19 November 2019