Communication and Capitalism

by Thomas Klikauer and Meg Young


Many people would quite correctly argue that the conceptual pair of communication and capitalism are more about capitalism than communication and the media. While the imperatives of capitalism carry on, the requirements of corporate media become ever more determining.

More and more, the media – print, TV, online, etc. – define our lives from working (including working from home) to shopping (advertisements, marketing, online shopping, etc.) and virtually everything between work and consuming.

The pathological imperatives of capitalism become even more evident when looking at communication and capitalism from the standpoint of the Frankfurt School’s of critical theory. Such a view is mostly based on the German philosopher pair of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno.

But, also on Herbert Marcuse’s, seminal masterpiece One-Dimensional Man and not to forget Jürgen HabermasTransformation of the Public Sphere, and somewhat less: Axel Honneth’s theory of recognition.

In any case, communication shouldn’t be viewed from a media-oriented standpoint only, as traditional media studies like to do. Instead, communication needs to be seen from a society and even through a capitalism-oriented approach.

On this, one might argue that communication is the social process of symbolic interaction through which various actors come together, entering into a communicative relationship in the production and use of objects to create meaning. This takes place less in the sphere of the state and more in the sphere of society.

German philosopher Hegel was one of the first to separate the state from civil society in a systematic and philosophical way. Overall, Hegel sees modernity taking place in three different spheres:

  • firstly, there is the sphere of the modern state (bureaucracy, administration, police, army, government, etc.);
  • next, there is the sphere of the economy as outlined by Adam Smith, and even more so by Karl Marx – often neglecting the role of the media in modern capitalism; and finally,
  • there is the sphere of what we might call culture. On that, Adorno and Horkheimer‘s Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception remains a key text.

One of the first philosophical illuminations on our ability to develop culture and communication dates back to the most recognized Greek philosopher – apart from Socrates and Plato – Aristotle. Aristotle once noted that man alone among the animals has speech. In other words, animals do not speak.

Currently, there are about eleven theories seeking to explain why us? Why is it that only we – human beings – can speak? Until today, Aristotle’s assessment remains correct – human beings are the only ones who speak. And, this has positives and negatives.

Perhaps one of the key pathologies of human communication occurs when capitalism’s culture industry advances the systematic promotion of positive thinking – including a positive attitude towards capitalism.

Simultaneously, the culture industry delivers a concerted attack on transcendent and critical notions. This seeks to reduce resistance against capitalism. In short, the cultural industry sustains capitalism’s status quo.

At the same time, it is trying to eliminate any real alternatives to the status quo. Critique that is system-stabilizing is admitted, incorporated, and even welcomed. System-supportive critique is generally framed as critique to imply there is no critique seeking to overcome capitalism. System-supportive critique refines capitalism rather than challenges it.

On forms of communication that are also welcomed by capitalism, a typology of five versions of communication emerge: 1) verbal communication, such as spoken language; 2) non-verbal communication, such as body language and gestures; 3) amplificatory communication, such as TV and radio; 4) storage communication, such as seals, coins, etc.; and, 5) alternative communication, such as democratic media and free radio.

With the emergence of the Internet, one perhaps finds Zoom in the first box, YouTube in the second category, Twitter in the third, CD-ROM and Cloud servers in the fourth, and Facebook and WhatsApp in the fifth category.

Neither the rise of the Internet nor the move from manufacturing to the service and knowledge industry has changed the fundamentals of capitalism. The aforementioned philosopher Adorno reminds us that large sections of the Internet and media production still takes place for the sake of profit.

Slowly but surely, capitalism’s profit imperative – including its adjacent forms of communication – infiltrates societies. The attack of the sphere of capitalist production on the sphere of society is an element that largely defines huge areas of communication under capitalism. Much of this impacts on what German philosopher Husserl (1936) calls the Lifeworld.

For Habermas, the attacks of capitalism on human society has led to the Colonization of the Lifeworld. Originally, i.e. at the dawn of modernity, Habermas’ public sphere was a sphere that used to serve three key functions:

  • the public sphere is the realm for the formation of public opinion;
  • in a true public sphere, all citizens have access; and,
  • the public sphere enables political debate about matters of general interest in an unrestricted fashion underwriting key human rights such as, for example, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of expression and publication of opinions.

Yet, today’s public sphere remains under sustained attack from at least five angles: 1) media concentration; 2) commercialized and tabloidized content; 3) power inequalities that underwrite the disempowerment of alternative voices; 4) private media ownership; and finally, 5) capitalism’s inevitable for-profit and “advertising-equals-revenue-and-profits” logics. To a large degree, these five elements shape how people experience mass media and communication.

Of course, like all systems of domination, capitalism depends on the production and dissemination of system-supportive ideologies. In that, ideologies serve three key functions: virtually all ideologies seek to eliminate contradictions such as, for example, from between a demand for high wages to sustain consumer capitalism set against a company’s interest in reducing wages as these are mere costs to a business.

Secondly, many ideologies serve to sustain capitalism’s system of domination – Hegel called this master and slave; and finally, ideologies seek to reduce or, preferably, eliminate – as much as possible – any moves into the direction of human emancipation from capitalism.

Most importantly, any ideology that stabilizes power asymmetry also – and always – sustains the rule of someone over others. In doing so, ideologies seek to naturalize domination and exploitation by making them appear natural. Ideologies communicate – for example, ideals like: that is the way it is; that’s how the world works; it has always been like that, etc.

It makes domination, poverty, global environmental destruction, and the pathologies of capitalism appear normal, neutral, and even natural. Beyond all that, many ideologies can serve two additional functions: justification and concealment. Ideology justifies capitalism by making it appear to be a just and even legitimate.

Simultaneously, concealing pathologies from slavery to child labor and from mindless consumerism to global environmental vandalism can easily be concealed by focusing on, for example, one actor slapping another one at the Oscars, the Kardashians, etc. This can even reduce interest in democracy – including attempts to eradicate democracy as seen on the 6th of January 2021.

Despite the rather common myth that – almost inevitably – capitalism will lead to democracy, capitalism can – and has done and continues to do – very well without democracy. On the capitalism-means-democracy myth, one might like to argue that authoritarian capitalism is a particular form of capitalism. In this version, the state is used in a repressive manner to advance the interests of the capitalist class. Worse, authoritarian capitalism also uses corporate media to advance its interest.

In some cases, this has led to what Edward Said describes as Culture and Imperialism. On this, cultural imperialism supports the cultural dominance of US-style capitalists’ mass culture and consumerism throughout the world. Of course, this is inextricably linked to Americanization, McDonaldization, CocaColonization, and Disneyfication, etc. Perhaps Facebookization and Amazonificaton might be added today.

Meanwhile, inside corporate media, the old logics of anything can be said, provided that you can afford to say it and that you have to say it profitably continue to hold sway. Some of the most evil heretics have even said that the freedom of speech boils down to about two-hundred people who own most of the world’s corporate media.

In addition to all that, the anonymity of Facebook, etc. has changed much of the way in which human beings communicate and even relate to one another. On Facebook, Instagram, and others – many things can be said and is indeed said – anonymously. This aids the rise of hate speech and right-wing conspiracy fantasies, such as: no, Angela Merkel is not Hitler’s daughter!

Set against conspiracy fantasies, and our current media and communicative pathologies, one might like to suggest that we return to HabermasTheory of Communicative Action. This focuses on two kinds of communication:

  • there is a strategic and instrumental communication in which communication is used to serve a specific strategy, plan, purpose, or ideology; and
  • there is an un-damaged communication seeking two outcomes: a) communicative action dedicated to reaching a common understanding among people, and b) communicative action dedicated towards consensual, and above all: rebellious social action.

In the instrumental-strategic version of communication, we find concealed strategic actions in the form of unconscious deception, and accidental misinformation. But we also find conscious deceptions in the form of deliberate disinformation, propaganda, and corporate public relations

Today, the ideological media apparatus of capitalism has advanced to such a state, that we can no longer escape its ideological domination. This is Adorno’s Grant Hotel Abyss from which you can checkout anytime but you can never leave. It is an enjoyable and mind-numbing place lavishly furnished with silly entertainment, consumerism, and meaningless distractions. As Adorno once said,

Immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them.

Thomas Klikauer teaches at the Sydney Graduate School of Management at Western Sydney University, Australia. He has over 770 publications including a book on Media Capitalism.

Meg Young is a Sydney Financial Accountant who enjoys the outdoors, good literature, foreign music and in her spare time – works on her MBA at WSU, Australia.

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