Monday, September 08, 2014


The recent twitter controversies about the tag #OpPornPixie involved some serious questions about how communist criticism of the media works. As a follow up, I want to bring attention to some articles Marx wrote in 1861 for the New York Daily Tribune. Marx had a long-standing concern with the press and its political role. Marx worked as newspaper editor in Germany twice during the 1840s.  Throughout the 1850s into the mid-1860s he was a foreign correspondent for several papers. As an editor he regularly analyzed and criticized the positions taken in other papers. As a correspondent in 1861 he began writing about British responses to the Civil War for the Tribune’s readers in America. During a period in 1861 when Parliament was not in session, Marx wrote repeatedly about the coverage of the war in the British press. In these articles Marx sketches a brief, clear, and explicit materialist media analysis. The most substantial part of this sketch appears in the article The London Times and Lord Palmerston.

In this article Marx aims to do more than simply inform his American audience about  British attitudes toward the war. Instead of just telling them what people in Britain thought or what the British press said, he instructs politically interested American readers in how to read the British press and to understand the connection of the press to public opinion. These instructions explain the forces in British politics and their operations. The article describes how the British press became one of these forces and how the government integrated the press into its operations. Marx assumes that for politically conscious readers to grasp the practical meaning of newspaper writing, they would need to understand the press as an active element in political relations.

The article also exemplifies the connection between Marx’s theoretical work on political economy and his journalistic criticism of politics and media.  In 1858 Marx had completed the manuscript known today as theGrundrisse. In it he sketched a comprehensive, conceptually integrated critique of political economy. In 1859 he had published A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.  In this short work he discussed two key concepts in his critique, money and the commodity, but did not attempt a systematic exposition of capital. In August of 1861, three months before he wrote this article, Marx had begun work on what is today known as the Economic Manuscript of 1861-1863 [no longer available at the Mars-Engels Internet  Archive!], his next major work in the critique. The Manuscript comprised the first draft of Capital. Thus when he wrote his article on the Times, Marx had already begun to formulate his scientific theory of capitalism as a fundamental process in bourgeois society. In The London Times and Lord Palmerston we see how this conceptual framework shapes Marx’s criticism of contemporary politics.

The first long paragraph makes up 1/3 of the article and contains the political media analysis. It opens with a quote about the influence of the Times “English people participate in the government of their own country by reading The Times newspaper.”  Marx follows the assessment with his own qualification, “This judgment, passed by an eminent English author on what is called British self-government, is only true so far as the foreign policy of the Kingdom is concerned.” This opening gambit establishes that the influence exercised by the Times is an established fact. Marx will examine that influence, but it is not something he discovered himself. Although Marx does not name Robert Lowe, who was the author of the quote, we should note that in 1861 Lowe was the editor of the Times and that he later served for six years as a minister in the Cabinet. This estimation of the unique role and profound influence of the Times came from a man who was a key figure in the collaboration of the press and the government and who spoke with an insider’s knowledge of that connection.

The opening quote also suggests the specific historically and socially unique features of the press at that time.  When we think of “reading,” we think first of the basic process of interpreting  words and sentences by which readers cull information. But in a second more important sense, the quote identifies a particular social quality of that process. Through reading the Times, its readers “participate in the government.” In a time when political parties as we know them now did not exist, the right to vote was highly restricted by property requirements and the means of communication were much more limited, the Times made unique information about the government widely accessible and provided a surrogate means of participation in government affairs. This participation consisted primarily of holding a share in public opinion. Now, before this first paragraph is through, Marx relates these informational and participatory features to the specifically capitalist features of the Times as a business. So to apply that perspective from the start, we can say that information and surrogate participation are what the paper sells. When readers buy the paper for the use-values of political news and participation, they create the relationship that is the basis of the paper’s strategic function for the government.  This relationship is “public opinion.”

Following the quote, Marx qualifies this claim by limiting it to foreign policy. To prove his point, he mentions several recent domestic political reforms. While the Times had opposed all these measures, its readers supported them. To maintain its readership, the paper had to reverse its editorial positions. Marx then contrasts the way this mediation through the market determined the domestic views of the paper to the way the paper determines the foreign policy views of the readers. He makes this first, fundamental point, “In no part of Europe are the mass of the people, and especially of the middle-classes, more utterly ignorant of the foreign policy of their own country than in England… .” When it comes to foreign affairs, the readership, which is constituted as a public by reading the paper, depends on the paper for information and political interpretations.  

Marx breaks the explanation down into finer detail. In its details, the explanation is historical and institutional. The history relates the class divisions of British society and the effects of capitalist development on the middle classes. Thanks to the enduring medieval features of British political institutions, the aristocracy had maintained control over foreign affairs. This social division of labor and the absorption of the middle classes in earning their living results in public ignorance of foreign affairs. The exclusion of the middle classes from this political power means “the aristocracy acted for them … .” The confinement of the ideas of the middle class to earning money means, “the press thought for them … .” Because the aristocrats and the publishers effective monopolize their respective aspects of foreign policy they have a shared goal, “their mutual interest to combine.”  Marx summarizes the outcome of this combination, “since the beginning of this century, the great London papers have constantly played the part of attorneys to the heaven-born managers of English foreign policy.” The particular configuration Marx describes an arrangement of shared power has existed for only sixty years.

Marx then identifies the stages in this collaboration between the governing aristocracy and the opinion creating press over those six decades. As political participation broadened through bourgeois economic and political revolution, the aristocracy that exercised foreign policy power narrowed into an “oligarchy.” The Cabinet came into existence as the formal institutional representation of the oligarchy. Marx characterizes the Cabinet as “a secret conclave.” The Cabinet was a political innovation. It did not belong to the traditional constitutional order and it operated beyond conventional controls over executive action. In recent decades Lord Palmerston had assumed personal control over the cabinet and over foreign policy. With Palmerston’s “usurpation” the political, institutional side of the process is complete. In this very specific political conjuncture of 1861 Marx highlights the ambitions and actions of a single man and describes the formal institution within which he worked in terms of covert collusions. Marx’s close attention to Palmerston in fact extended back for years. In 1853 he had already written a seven-article series about Palmerston’s career  that appeared in both the Tribune and in England in the People’s Paper. These articles were subsequently republished as a pamphlet that sold over 20,000 copies. In this sense, the article on the Times is an addendum to Marx’s earlier reports about Palmerston and his politics.

 Over these same years the developments in the “field of newspaper-mongering” that enable the collaboration of politics and press result from an inherent tendency of capital. Marx attributes the singular potential of the Times to play its role to “the law of concentration” and its rapid operation in the sector of the press.  “Concentration” is a technical term in Marx’s theoretical critique of political economy. In the Grundrisse Marx observes the phenomenon of concentration, but does not derive a definition from his observations. In the Economic Manuscript of 1861-1863 the few references to concentration are now collected in Notebook IV on relative surplus value. Ultimately the concept of relative surplus value will provide the terms for the definition of concentration, but in 1861 Marx still has not formulated this definition. The reference to the “law” of concentration, however, suggests Marx does have a particular systematic process in mind already. So let’s look ahead at the definition of the concentration of capital in Capital. (see section 2 of the linked chapter) ‘Concentration’ labels the distinctive aspect of accumulation in capitalism. It identifies the constantly increasing application of technology as an expression of the inherent need to obtain the greatest possible physical output from a constant amount of labor. The incorporation of technology into production on an ever increasing scale leads to, and at the same time results from, the accelerating growth of individual capitals. As the Times employs more and better presses and reaches a larger and more widely distributed readership, it becomes the new and unique medium of “the national paper.”

This conclusion about the Times illustrates a fundamental conceptual difference between Marx’s writing in his critique of political economy and his political writing for broad reading audiences. In the critiques his inferences about concentration are concerned exclusively with the implications of concentration within the processes of production and accumulation. For example, in the Economic Manuscript of 1861-1863, Marx characterizes concentration as a “material determinant for production on an expanded scale.” In Capital the discussion additionally specifies consequences of concentration for the employment of living labor.
In this article Marx is equally concerned with accumulation in the newspaper industry as the material determinant of a social process. But from the ‘law of concentration’ he here draws an inference about political relationships and processes. Their determination by the ‘law of concentration’ means that these political processes are capitalist in their nature and that their very form results from class relations. Yet these consequences of concentration have nothing to do with the immediate process of production or with questions of exploitation and accumulation.  The quantitative growth in the scale of operations of the press determines a qualitative transformation in the character of the print medium. This transformation in turn determines a new form of political participation and this new form of political participation provides a new instrument for politicians operating in the political institutions of bourgeois society.

Palmerston’s sole power over foreign policy and the Times’ sole access to a national readership thus lead to a very particular combination of the government and the press. Marx observes, “Lord Palmerston, who secretly and from motives unknown to the people at large, to Parliament and even to his own colleagues, managed the Foreign affairs of the British Empire, must have been very stupid if he had not tried to possess himself of the one paper which had usurped the power of passing public judgment in the name of the English people on his own secret doings.”  This observation has several significant implications about the combination of press and politics in 1861. To assert that Palmerston would have been “stupid” not to initiate the collaboration implies that the potential  was self-evident. From the perspective of the law of concentration in the press, it was inevitable, since the Times would have needed “more than Spartan virtue” not to combine with Palmerston. Marx also says that both Palmerston and the Times “usurped” their power. We can imagine Palmerston’s usurpation of political power as the result of intrigue and manipulation. The usurpation of power by the Times results from success in accumulating capital to expand operations.  Success in competition in this particular branch inherently produces an undemocratic outcome. In this one sentence Marx also points out twice that Palmerston’s “motives” and his “doings” are “secret.” The reasons and actions of the government are consciously clandestine. The function of the Times is “judging them for the nation” and “representing the public mind," yet in this public function it maintains that clandestine secrecy.  The Times provides a judgement of Palmerston’s motives and actions that does not describe, explain or interpret them factually. This deliberate discrepancy between Palmerston’s clandestine motives and actions and their representation in the press is a necessary, inherent feature of the creation of public opinion.

In this combination at the initiative of Palmerston, Marx says the Times sought to “ally” itself to the minister but Palmerston treated the paper as his “slave.” Palmerston achieved this one-sided relationship through two principal means. To employees of the Times he gave subordinate jobs in ministries and access to his social circle. Marx sums up the role of the Times once this combination was effected, “the whole business of The Times, so far as the foreign affairs of the British Empire are concerned, is limited to manufacturing a public opinion to conform to Lord Palmerston’s foreign policy. It has to prepare the public mind for what he intends doing, and to make it acquiesce in what he has done.” The strategic political function of the Times is not identical with its business as a whole. The editorial positions and reportorial content of the Times cannot be directly inferred from its business interests or even from the more general class interests of its owners. The content produced in the manufacturing of public opinion is determined by political dictates.

In the remainder of the article, Marx uses two examples to illustrate how the Times edits its reporting on Palmerston’s behalf. He bluntly identifies the mechanics of manipulation and spin. In the first example, three members of Parliament had made speeches about Palmerston’s diplomatic maneuvers and political methods in the preceding thirty years. In two cases the Times simply “suppressed” the most damaging evidence. In the third, procedural parliamentary tricks failed to prevent the speech from being given, and the paper then inadvertently reported the speech in full because the “editor specially charged with the task of mutilating and cooking the parliamentary reports” had taken time off. To cover its lapse, the Times attempted to disqualify the criticisms. It argued that the attempts on the floor of Parliament to prevent the speech were justified because the speaker was a “bore.” Marx calls the work of this type done by the Times “drudgery” because its writers must take the Parliamentary reports and literally overnight “mutilate, alter, [and] falsify” them for publication.

 In the second example Marx discusses how, at the drop of a hat the Times reversed its support of the Confederacy and its opposition to the United States in accord with Palmerston’s policy. Marx specifies significant features of this reversal. The Times can even more easily employ “misstatement and suppression” on foreign news than it did on domestic reports. This spin on the news does not follow from any consideration of the business interests of “the British Cotton Lords” nor of “real or supposed English interest.” Instead, the editorial manipulation of reporting “simply executed the orders of its master.”
In addition, the reversal occurred simultaneously in a number of papers “connected with” Palmerston. Not only did all the papers act at the same time, they reversed their editorial position prior to any public statement by Palmerston himself. As his agents, they were preparing public opinion for the change of direction.  In both examples Marx charges the paper with plain and simple misrepresentation. Facts are omitted, they are changed and they are mendaciously misinterpreted. These manipulations are the mechanical execution of the strategic motive driving the creation of public opinion. “Falsifying” public opinion is the paper’s political function. Like the policies it justifies, the process of justification rests on covert and collusive manipulation.

In this first article, Marx establishes the “subserviency” of the “public-opinion-mongers” to Palmerston. He targets the influence exercised by a powerful official whom he singles out by name. Marx represents the instrumentalization of the press as a process of personal corruption and manipulation through “emoluments and advantages.” Both the policies the press supports and the collusion through which they support them are products of covert collaborations. Neither the policies nor the editorial positions toward them can be deduced directly from economic interests of particular participants or from national interests. The inherent tendencies of capitalist development and the specific levels and forms those developments have reached in England in 1861 set the parameters for the political arrangements between the government and the media. Marx criticizes those arrangements for the benefit of his politically conscious readers so they can better understand the relations that produce that reporting and its immediate political functions.

In the months following this article, Marx’s journalism often returned to the topic of the press. He relies on this model to discuss further examples of politically instrumentalized reporting and adds further detail to the model. In a second post I will follow up on these writings.


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