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Capitalist Dominate Through Their Control of Culture
The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.
--South African freedom fighter Steve Biko
Our Collective Study Group "met" on line to investigate how capitalism accesses our attitudes and what we can do about it. Fortunately for us, we already had an essay written by a new comrade in Oregon. In it, he explained that Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci had written extensively about the ways that the
capitalist class controls the rest of us without having to use their armies and police. He wrote, "When people grow up in capitalist society there are many institutions – family, school, church, mass media, and the like – which teach the values of the larger culture, tell you what’s right and what’s wrong, teach you what’s possible and what isn’t. That larger culture is the culture of capitalism, and it shapes how we think and how we relate to class rule."
Gramsci defined "culture" very broadly to include all the values inculcated by socialisation mechanisms in addition to what is conveyed by traditional cultural media. For example, the teaching of racist or classist attitudes in the classroom, the teaching that the boss is always right by experience with the foreman on the shop floor, the various neurotic and socially and personally destructive behaviors taught with regard to sexuality and marriage by the church. Most fundamentally the cultural lesson that the system can't be changed is an artifact of hegemonic capitalist culture.
The ruling class, the essay told us, uses "cultural domination" to ensure its rule!
None of us in the Collective Study Group lays claim to being a skilled researcher or a mighty intellect, but all of us have had firsthand experiences with capitalist culture. We set ourselves to thinking of some of the worst examples of everyday capitalist brainwashing.
One of the first examples was the children's TV cartoon, "Rocky and Bullwinkle." "Haven't you ever noticed," the participant asked, "that the villains have Russian names and accents?" Then we began cataloguing movie villains through the years. In the powerful silent epic, "Birth of a Nation," African American people were clearly the villains. The film was credited with stimulating a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan! Racist stereotypes are perpetuated in most of the early "Tarzan" movies.
During World War II, Asians, particularly Japanese, and Europeans, particularly Germans, were demonized in films. Almost immediately afterward, movie villains were nearly all Russians. More recently, when the Hollywood Hero machine guns the bad guys, they are all wearing turbans! Thus capitalists use our culture to unite us against their enemies! "Red Dawn," "Charley Wilson's War," and "Soldier, Tailor, Tinker Spy" are more recent examples of blatant anticommunism in films.
One of the most popular movies of all time was "Gone with the Wind." In it, the southern slavocracy was romanticized and African Americans, with the slight exceptions of loyal house servants, crudely took advantage of noble white people. Almost any movie made during Hollywood's so-called "Golden Age" denigrated African Americans. The stereotypical character Stephen "Steppin" Fetchit was used over and over.
"Brassed Off" and "Matewan" were applauded as films that showed working people fighting successfully against their oppressors. "Bread and Roses" had a union organizer as a hero, even though it swerved a bit into anti-unionism at one point. "Enemy at the Gates," about the defense of Stalingrad in WWII, showed Russian soldiers in a good light, even though it had a sub plot opposing their leadership.
One film that is in a category to itself, "Salt of the Earth," relates the true story of how women saved a miners' strike in Arizona. The movie seemed to prove our point about capitalist culture both in a positive and in a negative way. It showed that movies could be used to uplift the working class in their struggles against capitalists, but the fact that almost none of us had seen it showed that it is very hard for such cultural productions to find their audience in a capitalist-controlled society. "Salt of the Earth" was banned from theaters, along with all its creators. Ironically, another film from 1954 which depicted labor unions as evil and criminally corrupt, won Best Picture. Salt of the Earth has only lately, half a century after it was made, become generally available. Check it out for free on Google Videos!
Nobody from our study group thought we should take an elitist attitude toward capitalist culture. We aren't trying to purify ourselves, but rather to improve our lives. The way to do that is to work and talk with other working people. We would be foolish indeed to isolate ourselves from conversation because of a misplaced notion of superiority. Good, like some of it, or bad, like a lot of it, capitalist culture is what we share with our peers. A boycott of the culture we share would be stupid.
The original essay on Gramsci's ideas provides us with two strategic courses. The first and most immediate is to learn more about culture and how it influences us. The more we understand it, the better we can defend ourselves against it. Books like Michael Parenti's "The Culture Struggle" can help us, but discussions like the one we just completed are the fundamental method.
The second thing we must do is, to the extent possible, create and spread a culture that is friendly and helpful to the working class. We might look for inspiration to artists like Joe Hill, the great songwriter of the Industrial Workers of the World. HIs music has inspired millions, even long after his death. Another good example is the great filmmaker Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin's "Modern Times" was a highly successful comedy/drama with capitalism as the butt of most of the humor. Chaplin was one of the few people on this planet to criticize Hitler and Mussolini, as he did in "The Great Dictator."
To this end, it is important to encourage our fellow progressives to write reviews of worthwhile cultural phenomena. www.peoplesworld.org carries a tiny few movie, theater, and book reviews, but, regrettably, there are hardly any reviews of television shows. Once we realize how important culture is, perhaps we will meet the challenge!
The Collective Study Group concluded with a short discussion of other topics we'd like to take up. Top nominees included the effects of current religion on our lives and how the capitalists run our schools. The immediate winner, though, was to study elections next. Elections are probably the most contentious and least understood political phenomena in America.
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