The Contradictions of Information
The greatest difficulty in constructing a Marxist theory of mass communication under capitalism is the fact that the few references by Marx pertinent to the subject are clearly insufficient for such an undertaking. Apart from the historical references to the revolution in transport systems, a product of capitalist expansion which, together with other factors, would provide mechanized production with “enormous power to quickly expand by leaps and bounds” (Capital, Volume I*), and his statement that the “development of ocean navigation and of the means of communication generally has swept away the technical basis on which seasonal work was really supported” (ibid.), Marx’s main reference to the subject in Volume I is in the section on “Division of Labour in Manufacture, and Division of Labour in Society”. The famous reference to the town-country antithesis is followed by the comment that
In the third volume, Marx also makes repeated references to the subject of transport (and telegraph communications), asserting for example that “the chief means of reducing the time of circulation is improved communications” (Capital
, Volume III). But the main references are to be found in Volume II. Already in Chapter 1
(“The Circuit of Money Capital”), he states that
He goes on to analyse the characteristics of the sector in relation to industrial production proper.1
Later, in Chapter 6
(“The Costs of Circulation”), Marx refers more specifically, in the third section, to the “Costs of Transportation”. In this section, Marx points out that, unlike all other costs of circulation “which arise only from changes in the forms of commodities [and] do not add to their value” (Capital
, Volume II):
In the Grundrisse*, the difference between costs of transportation and other costs of circulation appears as follows:
However, “if an individual capital is to undertake this – that is, if it is to create the conditions of the production process which are not included in the production process directly – then the work must provide a profit” (ibid.). In this passage, Marx then uses the example of a road being constructed to discuss the general conditions of production, which refers more to the subject of the relations between capital and the state (see Bolaño, 2003 and 2003b) than to the question that is of particular interest to us at this point.
The conclusions to be drawn from all of this are as follows: (a) that taken together, the “means of communications and transport” are understood by Marx to be part of the general conditions of the reproduction of capital; (b) that they play a role in the establishment of consumer markets and the provision of raw materials and intermediate products required by industry; (c) that they form a specific sector of the economy with particular characteristics, which (d) is productive and creates value. There are certainly a number of different lines of approach that can be developed using these quotations from Marx as a starting point, which have special relevance for defining the technical sectors of communications (e.g. telecommunications) but which are also pertinent to other important discussions, such as that of the general conditions of capitalist accumulation or that of the productive or unproductive nature of the communications and advertising sectors.
Nonetheless, these quotes cannot serve as the basis for an adequate Marxist treatment of the subject of communications, much less of “culture under capitalism”. No amount of reductionism will suffice to combine, in terms of the functions of production, a means of communication such as television with one such as railways. They are two different things, two different connotations of the term “means of communication”. I do not deny that there are certain interesting interactions between them. Railways and other means of transportation certainly have a role to play in cultural integration, whether by drawing geographically separate groups of people into closer proximity, thereby modifying behaviour patterns or altering the forms of perceiving reality, or whether simply by the fact that, like satellites, they serve as a means for transporting information and cultural goods. The same channels that carry television programmes also deliver quantities of fictitious capital that can modify the financial situation of economic agents. It was certainly with these correspondences in mind that Marx always referred, in the passages cited, to a broad-brush “communications and transport” sector. It would appear today, however, that significant theoretical problems arise from lumping together even two means of communication as radically different as broadcast media and the telegraph or telephone.
The passages from Marx cited above are obviously insufficient for constructing a theoretical approach to the subject of mass communications under capitalism. The theoretical approach adopted here, on the contrary, takes as its starting point an inquiry into the form of communication appropriate to Marx’s general definition of capital, and accompanies the logical trajectory of Capital in seeking to identify, at the highest level of abstraction, the basic category that accommodates all of the features and inherent contradictions of the capitalist form of communication. Our starting point thus shifts from the analysis of functions germane to constructions mounted upon the base/superstructure model, towards the so-called method of the derivation of forms (Bolaño, 2003). Although I cannot indulge in the comfort of direct support in the form of quotations from Marx, I believe it will be possible to defend my project in rigorously Marxist terms, following the method of Marx himself, beginning with the analysis of simple circulation through to exploring aspects which, if not relevant to Marx’s needs, for my purposes will assume a fundamental role requiring detailed treatment.
On the other hand, I believe that it is better to make clear at the outset that I will not refer at any point to an ideal concept of communication or information. The aim of the present work is to construct a theoretical concept of information capable of being adapted to the most abstract
general description of the capitalist mode of production. However, if other forms of communication and other types of information exist in concrete reality that fail to fit the precise definition proposed here, that does not invalidate my present effort. On the contrary, if these various forms of communication and types of information appear jumbled together in reality, nothing is more necessary than a rigorous analysis that might provide the tools to better distinguish them.
Simple circulation and information
Exchanging goods is a process of communication between private owners of goods that goes beyond the mere economic relationship on which it is based. The phantasmagorical appearance of a relationship between goods, to use Marx’s picturesque turn of phrase, reduces this to an impersonal relationship in which the agents of the exchange are reduced to mere bearers (Träger), automatons programmed to operate the machinery of the circulation of goods. But this merely conceals a complex relationship between human beings who undertake the act of exchange in order to satisfy specific human needs that could not be met by the independent production of a single producer in isolation. This is the anthropological presupposition that underlies the basic contradiction of the commodity form of the products of human labour. Nor is this foundation altered even when one among the innumerable commodities becomes autonomous and assumes the function of a universal equivalent. On the contrary, when the use value of the commodity of money is elevated to represent the exchange value of all other commodities, it is clear that we are not dealing with an accidental exchange relationship, but rather with a social norm that, among other things, must be backed by an extra-economic coercive power. It is no coincidence that Marx’s first reference to the state in Capital appears precisely in the chapter on money in Volume I.
The social norm to be extracted from the analysis of the commodity relation involves a particular form of the relation between human beings – an economic relationship of buying and selling goods – which involves a particular form of communication: different, for example, from the form of communication between sexual partners, co-workers or members of a religious group. It consists, in the case of commodity exchange, of verbal communication about objective information. The price of the commodity is itself a basic unit of information without which no exchange relationship is conceivable, and without which the buyer cannot exercise his capacity of autonomous decision-making. And
the relationship between buyer and seller also involves other essential information concerning the use value of the commodity in question, its quality, the type of raw material used, the skill of the producer, production circumstances, the distance of the production facility from the place of exchange (which, by requiring the activities of the transport industry, alters the value of the merchandise itself, as Marx noted in the quotes above) and the unique characteristics of the product, in addition to the likelihood of the buyer having sufficient financial resources and, in the case of buying on credit, for example, the financing terms, schedule of payments, interest, etc. In short, information is a precondition for the existence of a market economy.
Commodity circulation represents the moment of equality that characterizes the capitalist economy, marked, however, by the fundamental inequality that still cannot be grasped at the level of appearances (Erscheinung), which concerns the analysis of simple circulation. Here, the social relation is a relationship of formal equality between individuals who share the character of private owners of commodities and arrive at the marketplace with the identical objective of buying and selling.
At this point we may reconsider the question of truth, one of the characteristics, according to Habermas, of normal, undistorted communicative action. While the information involved in the commodity relationship is objective, it is not necessarily true. There are certainly ways of confirming the truth of information of this type (such as inspecting a horse’s teeth or checking the length of a piece of linen with the buyer’s own rule), but it is always possible that the seller, for example, may lie about the quality of his or her goods, or that the buyer may lie about his or her financial resources (and here, as well, instruments exist for confirming the truth, such as requiring payment by certified cheque or guarantors). The existence of verification tools only demonstrates that there are indeed objective limits to the falsification of this type of information, owing to the very objectivity of communication that is characteristic of the commodity relationship in its pure state. More than lying, however, untruth (particularly as regards the manipulation of information by those who dispense it and have the power either to withhold and not report, or to unleash a stream of irrelevant information that impedes the autonomous decision-making of those who receive it) is always possible and is linked, on the one hand, to the very nature of money and the attraction it exerts on individuals, and on the other, to the fact that the commodity has a use value that corresponds to objective material needs, whether these be related to the stomach or the spirit.
This already demonstrates the implicit possibility of manipulating information through advertising, which may be successful in altering the relationship between the cost of production and the price of the commodity, thereby providing higher returns to the unscrupulous businessperson and, therefore, competitive advantage. But this must be left, at this level, as a mere possibility, since in the terms of commodity circulation all individuals are formally presumed equal: equally private owners of commodities, which presumes them equal before the law, and equally capable of having access to or withholding true or false information.3
The fact, regardless, is that the relationship established between two commodity owners facing one another in the marketplace constitutes a complete communicative act. This is the result, of course, of the existence of a community (or Lebenswelt
, to use Habermas’ term), which although not determined by Marx in his analysis of the commodity, exists as a fundamental anthropological presupposition of his entire derivation of the concept of capital. In the final analysis this fact also justifies the whole theoretical argument of this work, since our starting point is precisely the establishment of the theoretical element that was not explicit in Marx, but that can be considered an implicit presupposition in Capital
if we reflect that behind the metaphor of the phantasmagorical character of commodity exchange are human beings who establish a social relation among themselves.4
Let us take the simplest case in which two commodity owners confront one another in the marketplace. Let us suppose, for example, an individual A, owner of a certain quantity of any commodity (say, wheat) and an individual B, owner of a certain quantity of money, who meet at the marketplace and perform an act of communication there, with the object of undertaking an operation of buying and selling. We may observe at the outset that the observations made by Habermas in his example of a group of workers who decide to meet for a beer at lunchtime (Habermas, 1981, Chapter VI, Section 1.1) are generally valid in this case. Thus, A and B perform a “co-operative process of interpretation”, referring simultaneously to something belonging to the objective world, the social world and the subjective world, seeking an “understanding (Verständigung), [a term that means] that participants in communication reach an agreement (Einigung) concerning the validity of an utterance” (Habermas, 1981, vol. 2, p. 171).
The topic of the dialogue between A and B is wheat; the aim is the act of purchase; the normative framework is the fact that both are private commodity owners. A is a seller and B a buyer; the situation is defined
by the two having met at the marketplace. The dialogue begins when B asks A about the price of his wheat. Suppose that the sum of money requested by A for a given amount of wheat does not initially meet the expectations of B. In this case, B will make a new utterance, responding (for example) that the price is quite high in view of his own knowledge of the market, to which A will eventually respond by referring, say, to the allegedly superior quality of his product, and so on. In all its aspects, the situation is adjusted to reflect the characteristics of a communicative action as described by Habermas.
In our example, the wheat belongs to the objective world; the environment, consisting of the market and by the status of buyer and seller of A and B respectively, defines the normative framework given by the social world; meanwhile, the subjective world of each of the participants in the communicative act in question is one that only they themselves are privileged to access, although it is reflected by means of “dramaturgical action” throughout the negotiation process. Thus, for example, B may assert that, despite the high quality of the product, he is not personally interested in acquiring it under those conditions, preferring other wheat of inferior quality at a lower price. Similarly, other elements of a normative order may intervene in this case; for example, an assertion that the seller does not accept payment by cheque.
Here we also have a series of elements comprising a situation (the market, the price of wheat, the quality, the financial position of B, etc.) and other circumstances that are not relevant (such as the fact that the transaction is taking place on a Saturday), but which, with successive redefinitions, may become so (thus, the fact that the transaction is occurring on a Saturday may assume importance when A states that he does not accept cheques as payment and B explains that, since banks are not open to the public on Saturdays, the transaction may be impossible, since he does not have enough cash on hand). The same could be said of the constant presence of the “lifeworld” of each of the participants, or of the inclusion of language or of underlying cultural patterns of interpretation. But it is not necessary here to extend this comparison further, as our interest is not specifically in developing a theory of communicative action.
The theory of the derivation of the state has already demonstrated that commodity circulation presupposes the existence of the legal form guaranteeing the rights of individual owners over their goods (and to dispose of them by sale) and ensures the honouring of contracts – which defines, already at this level of abstraction, one of the basic functions to be...