Global media, neoliberalism & imperialism

by Robert McChesney

International Socialist Review, Aug/Sep 2001


IN CONVENTIONAL parlance, the current era in history is generally characterized as one of globalization, technological revolution, and democratization. In all three of these areas, media and communication play a central, perhaps even a defining, role. Economic and cultural globalization arguably would be impossible without a global commercial media system to promote global markets and to encourage consumer values. The very essence of the technological revolution is the radical development in digital communication and computing.

For capitalism's cheerleaders, like Thomas Friedman of the` New York Times, all of this suggests that the human race is entering a new Golden Age. All people need to do is sit back, shut up, and shop, and let markets and technologies work their ) magical wonders. For socialists and those committed to radical social change, these claims should be regarded with the utmost skepticism. In my view, the notion of "globalization," as it is commonly used to describe some natural and inexorable force, the telos of capitalism as it were, is misleading and ideologically loaded. A superior term would be "neoliberalism"; this refers to the set of national and international policies that call for business domination of all social affairs with minimal countervailing force. Neoliberalism is almost always intertwined with a deep belief in the ability of markets to use new technologies to solve social problems far better than any alternative course. The centerpiece of neoliberal policies is invariably a call for commercial media and communication markets to be deregulated.

Here, I should like to sketch out the main developments and contours of the emerging global media system and their political-economic implications. I believe that when one takes a close look at the political economy of the contemporary global media and communication industries, we can cut through much of the mythology and hype surrounding our era and have the basis for a much more accurate understanding of what is taking place, and what socialists must do to organize effectively for social justice and democratic values.

The global media system

Whereas, previously, media systems were primarily national, in the past few years a global commercial-media market has emerged. This global oligopoly has two distinct but related facets. First, it means the dominant firms-nearly all U.S. based-are moving across the planet at breakneck speed. The point is to capitalize on the potential for growth abroad-and not get outflanked by competitors-since the U.S. market is well developed and only permits incremental expansion. Second, convergence and consolidation are the order of the day. Specific media industries are becoming more and more concentrated, and the dominant players in each media industry increasingly are subsidiaries of huge global media conglomerates. The level of mergers and acquisitions is breathtaking.

In short order, the global media market has come to be dominated by seven multinational corporations: Disney, AOL Time Warner, Sony, News Corporation, Viacom, Vivendi, and Bertelsmann. None of these companies existed in their present form as media companies as recently as 15 years ago; today, nearly all of them will rank among the largest 300 nonfinancial firms in the world for 2001. Of the seven, only three are truly U.S. firms, though all of them have core operations there. Between them, these seven companies own the major U.S. film studios, all but one of the U.S. television networks, the few companies that control 80-85 percent of the global music | market, the preponderance of satellite broadcasting worldwide, | a significant percentage of book publishing and commercial magazine publishing, all or part of most of the commercial cable TV channels in the U.S. and worldwide, a significant portion of European terrestrial (traditional over-the-air) television, and on and on and on. By nearly all accounts, the level of concentration is only going to increase in the near future.

Why has this taken place? The conventional explanation is technology; i.e., radical improvements in communication technology make global media empires feasible and lucrative in a manner unthinkable in the past. This is similar to the technological explanation for globalization writ large. But this is only a partial explanation, at best. The real motor force has been the incessant pursuit for profit that marks capitalism, which has applied pressure for a shift to neoliberal deregulation. In media, this means the relaxation or elimination of barriers to commercial exploitation of media and to concentrated media ownership.

Once the national deregulation of media began in major nations like the United States and Britain, it was followed by global measures like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the formation of the World Trade Organization, all designed to clear the ground for investment and sales by multinational corporations in regional and global markets. This has laid the foundation for the creation of the global media system, dominated by the aforementioned conglomerates. Now in place, the system has its own logic. Firms must become larger and diversified to reduce risk and enhance profit-making opportunities, and they must straddle the globe so as to never be outflanked by competitors.

Perhaps the best way to understand how closely the global commercial media system is linked to the neoliberal global capitalist economy is to consider the role of advertising. Advertising is a business expense incurred by the largest firms in the economy. The commercial media system is the necessary transmission belt for businesses to market their wares across the world; indeed, globalization as we know it could not exist without it. A whopping three-quarters of global spending on advertising ends up in the pockets of a mere 20 media companies. Ad spending has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade, as TV has been opened to commercial exploitation, and is growing at more than twice the rate of gross domestic product growth.

There are a few other points to make to put the global media system in proper perspective. The global media market is rounded out by a second tier of six or seven dozen firms that are national or regional powerhouses or that control niche markets, like business or trade publishing. Between one-third and one-half of these second-tier firms come from North America; most of the rest are from Western Europe and Japan. Many national and regional conglomerates have been established on the backs of publishing or television empires. Each of these second-tier firms is a giant in its own right, often ranking among the thousand largest companies in the world and doing more than one billion dollars per year in business. But the system is still very much evolving.

The global media system is only partially competitive in any meaningful economic sense of the term. Many of the largest media firms have some of the same major shareholders, own pieces of one another, or have interlocking boards of directors. When Variety compiled its list of the 50 largest global media firms for 1997, it observed that "merger mania" and crossownership had "resulted in a complex web of interrelationships" that will "make you dizzy." In some respects, the global media market more closely resembles a cartel than it does the competitive marketplace found in economics textbooks.

This conscious coordination does not simply affect economic behavior; it makes the media giants particularly effective political lobbyists at the national, regional, and global levels. The global media system is not the result of "free markets" or natural law; it is the consequence of a number of important state policies that have been made that created the system. The media giants have had a heavy hand in drafting these laws and regulations, and the public tends to have little or no input. In the United States, the corporate media lobbies are notorious for their ability to get their way with politicians, especially if their adversary is not another powerful corporate sector, but that amorphous entity called the "public interest."

Finally, a word should be said about the Internet, the two-ton gorilla of global media and communication. The Internet is increasingly becoming a part of our media and telecommunication systems, and a genuine technological convergence is taking place. Accordingly, there has been a wave of mergers between traditional media and telecom firms, and by each of these with Internet and computer firms. Already companies like Microsoft, AOL, AT&T and Telefonica have become media players in their own right. It is possible that the global media system is in the process of converging with the telecommunications and computer industries to form an integrated global communication system, where anywhere from six to a dozen supercompanies will rule the roost. The notion that the Internet would "set us free," and permit anyone to communicate effectively, hence undermining the monopoly power of the corporate media giants, has not transpired. Although the Internet offers extraordinary promise in many regards, it alone cannot slay the power of the media giants. Indeed, no commercially viable media content site has been launched on the Internet, and it would be difficult to find an investor willing to bankroll any additional attempts. To the extent the Internet becomes part of the commercially viable media system, it looks to be under the thumb of the usual corporate suspects.

Global media and neoliberal democracy

I earlier alluded to the importance of the global media system to the formation and expansion of global and regional markets for goods and services, often sold by the largest multinational corporations. The emerging global media system also has significant cultural and political implications, specifically with regard to political democracy, imperialism, and the nature of socialist resistance in the coming years. In the balance of this review, I will outline a few comments on these issues.

In the area of democracy, the emergence of such a highly concentrated media system in the hands of huge private concerns violates in a fundamental manner any notion of a free press in democratic theory. The problems of having wealthy private owners dominate the journalism and media in a society have been well understood all along: Journalism, in particular, which is the oxygen necessary for self-government to be viable, will be controlled by those who benefit by existing inequality and the preservation of the status quo.

The attack on the professional autonomy of journalism that has taken place is simply a broader part of the neoliberal transformation of media and communication. Neoliberalism is more than an economic theory, however. It is also a political theory. It posits that business domination of society proceeds most effectively when there is a representative democracy, but only when it is a weak and ineffectual polity typified by high degrees of depoliticization, especially among the poor and working class. It is here that one can see why the existing commercial media system is so important to the neoliberal project, for it is singularly brilliant at generating the precise sort of bogus political culture that permits business domination to proceed without using a police state or facing effective popular resistance.

The global media and imperialism

The relationship of the global media system to the question of imperialism is complex. In the 1970s, much of the Third World mobilized through the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization to battle the cultural imperialism of the Western powers. The Third World nations developed plans for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) to address their concerns that Western domination over journalism and culture made it virtually impossible for newly independent nations to escape colonial status. Similar concerns about U.S. media domination were heard across Europe. The NWICO campaign was part of a broader struggle at that time by Third World nations to address formally the global economic inequality that was seen as a legacy of imperialism. Both of these movements were impaled on the sword of neoliberalism wielded by the United States and Britain.

Global journalism is dominated by Western news services, which regard existing capitalism, the United States, its allies, and their motives in the most charitable manner imaginable. As for culture, the "Hollywood juggernaut" and the specter of U.S. cultural domination remain a central concern in many countries, for obvious reasons.

But, with the changing global political economy, there are problems with leaving the discussion at this point. The notion that corporate media firms are merely purveyors of U.S. culture is ever less plausible as the media system becomes increasingly concentrated, commercialized, and globalized. The global media giants are the quintessential multinational firms, with shareholders, headquarters, and operations scattered across the globe. The global media system is better understood as one that advances corporate and commercial interests and values and denigrates or ignores that which cannot be incorporated into its mission. There is no discernible difference in the J firms' content, whether they are owned by shareholders in Japan or France or have corporate headquarters in New York, Germany, or Sydney. In this sense, the basic split is not between nation-states, but between the rich and the poor, across national borders.

But it would be a mistake to buy into the notion that the global media system makes nation-state boundaries and geopolitical empire irrelevant. A large portion of contemporary capitalist activity, clearly a majority of investment and employment, operates primarily within national confines, and their nation-states play a key role in representing these interests. The entire global regime is the result of neoliberal political policies, urged on by the U.S. government. Most important, not far below the surface is the role of the U.S. military as the global enforcer of capitalism, with U.S.-based corporations and investors in the driver's seat. In short, we need to develop an understanding of neoliberal globalization that is joined at the hip to U.S. militarism-and all the dreadful implications that suggests-rather than one that is in opposition to it.


It would be all too easy, given the above conditions, to succumb to despair or simply acquiesce to changes from which there seems no escape. Matters appear quite depressing from a democratic standpoint, and it may be difficult to see much hope for change. As one Swedish journalist noted in 1997, "Unfortunately, the trends are very clear, moving in the wrong direction on virtually every score, and there is a desperate lack of public discussion of the long-term implications of current developments for democracy and accountability." But the global system is highly unstable. As lucrative as neoliberalism has been for the rich, it has been a disaster for the world's poor and working classes.

While the dominance of commercial media makes resistance more difficult, widespread opposition to these trends has begun to emerge in the form of huge demonstrations across the planet, including in the United States. It seems that the depoliticization fostered by neoliberalism and commercial media is bumping up against the harsh reality of exploitation, inequality, and the bankruptcy of capitalist politics and culture experienced by significant parts of the population. Just as all) organized resistance to capitalism appeared to be stomped out, it now threatens to rise again from the very ground.

This leads to my final point. What is striking is that progressive anti-neoliberal political movements around the world are increasingly making media issues part of their political platforms. From Sweden, France, and India, to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, democratic left political parties are giving structural media reform-e.g., breaking up the big companies, recharging nonprofit and noncommercial broadcasting, creating a sector of nonprofit and noncommercial independent media under popular control-a larger role in their platforms. They are finding out that this is a successful issue with the broad population. Other activists are putting considerable emphasis upon developing independent and so-called pirate media to counteract the corporate system. Across the board on the anti-neoliberal and socialist left, there is a recognition that the issue of media has grown dramatically in importance, and no successful social movement can dismiss this as a matter that can be addressed "after the revolution." Organizing for democratic media must be part of the current struggle, if we are going to have a viable chance of success.


Robert McChesney is the author of numerous hooks on the media, including Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (New Press), and is coeditor of Monthly Review. He is a professor of communications at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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