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Richard Barbrook
media freedom

The Industrialisation of the Media
part 4

After decades of struggle, the bourgeois revolutionaries had finally abolished censorship and other restrictions on the press in western Europe and north America. Yet, at the very moment of victory, the ability of male citizens to exercise this media freedom was being fatally undermined by the continued modernisation of the economy. Responding to market competition, entrepreneurs started expanding production by hiring wage workers and introducing new types of machinery. After successive restructurings, innovative capitalists discovered Fordism: the mass production of commodities using semi-skilled workers on assembly-lines. In turn, the resulting expansion in the number of workers created the consumers for the commodities produced on the assembly-lines. Crucially, the successful introduction of Fordism changed the form of property ownership within bourgeois societies. Because of the increased amount of investment needed for mass production, most individuals no longer possessed enough capital to fund their enterprises from their own resources. Instead, individuals had to come together to form collective forms of capital ownership, such as joint-stock companies and bank investments. Moreover, as Fordism spread, the production of commodities by individual property-owners was increasingly marginalised. Therefore, increasing numbers of individual property-owners were forced to join the propertyless working class. With the development of Fordism, the individual owners of private property were gradually separated into a minority of shareholders of joint-stock companies and a majority of wage-workers.

Because of the peculiarities of information production, media companies were among the pioneers of Fordism. When a newspaper was published, the majority of the costs of production were incurred in the creation of the first copy of a print-run by its journalists and printers. However, unlike other Fordist industries, the owners of newspapers weren't able to use machinery to replace expensive skilled workers with cheaper semi-skilled assembly-line operators. Instead they employed the new technologies to displace the costs of their skilled workers through the repeated reproduction of the products of their labour. Because of the dramatic increase in the productivity of media labour, the price of each individual newspaper fell rapidly as further copies were printed. During the bourgeois revolutions, the artisan methods of printing ensured that most publications were too expensive to be purchased by the rural and urban poor. For the first time, after the rapid fall in price caused by the economies of scale of industrialised publishing, almost everyone could afford to buy a copy of a newspaper.

As in any other sector, the industrialisation of newspaper production involved the simultaneous mechanisation of production and proletarianisation of the direct producers. During the late-eighteenth century, individual journalist-printers had produced their own newspapers on simple wooden printing presses. But, with the advent of Fordism, newspapers could only be created by the collective labour of large numbers of wage workers on mechanised presses. Because of this scale of production needed large investments of capital, single individuals could no longer afford to publish their own newspapers. Instead, joint-stock companies and large banks took control of the new mass circulation newspapers. Crucially, the industrialisation of publishing didn't only prevent most individual citizens from expressing their own opinions in print. As mere employees, journalists and printers were only allowed to reproduce views acceptable to their employers within the Fordist media.

The Fordist organisation of information production was enhanced by the advent of the electronic media. Although originally developed as a new type of point-to-point communications, amateur experimenters soon discovered that radio communications could also be used to create a new form of media. Within the small world of engineers, radio broadcasting was initially developed as an electronic version of the eighteenth century press. Because everyone owned a transmitter, the broadcaster-engineers could simultaneously produce and receive radio programmes. Like the journalist-printers of the bourgeois revolutions, each individual could directly exercise their right of freedom of communications over the airwaves. But, this electronic agora did not last long. Using mass production techniques, radio-set manufacturers soon started producing simple receivers as consumer commodities. Under Fordism, most individuals could only be listeners.

In the 1920s, the radio set manufacturing companies were at the leading edge of the second industrial revolution of electronic technologies, which was transforming the economies of the major capitalist countries. The application of scientific advances in production was encouraged by the adoption of the techniques of Fordism. By using Taylorist labour discipline and assembly-lines, manufacturers were able to lower the price of radio receivers until almost everyone could afford a set. As in other sectors, the radio receiver was turned into a mass consumption commodity by the dramatic increase in the productivity of labour and capital achieved by the new methods of Fordism. At the same time, the successful adoption of Fordism by radio set manufacturers encouraged companies in other sectors to reorganise their methods of production. In turn, this process transformed more individual private property owners into wage-workers, which created more consumers for mass consumption commodities.

The mass ownership of radio sets formed the basis for the Fordist organisation of radio broadcasting. The industrialisation of publishing had been encouraged by the rapid obsolescence of the political news printed by daily newspapers. The advantages of economies of scale in media production were intensified in radio broadcasting. In this new technology, the transmission of music and speech over the airwaves simultaneously produced and distributed the same programme to many different receivers. Instead of printing many individual copies, a radio station broadcast a continuous flow of instantly obsolete programmes. This technical attribute of broadcasting encouraged the industrialisation of programme-making by radio stations. With many hours of airtime to fill, radio stations needed paid workers to create a constant flow of programmes for their listeners. As in newspaper publishing, the high costs of employing skilled media workers were displaced by transmitting the same radio programme to many different listeners. Like the mass circulation newspapers, radio stations needed the maximum possible audience for each programme to increase their economies of scale.

During the bourgeois revolutions, individual journalist-printers had both created and owned their own newspapers. Because printing presses were cheap, all citizens could express their own views in print. In the early 1920s, the broadcaster-engineers had briefly recreated this two-way form of communications over the airwaves. But, with the industrialisation of publishing and broadcasting, individual citizens could no longer directly exercise their right of freedom of speech in print or over the airwaves. This development reflected the changes caused by the spread of Fordism. Because of economies of scale, a clear division between the producers and consumers of the media had been created. In both newspaper publishing and radio broadcasting, large banks and joint-stock companies employed paid workers to create information and entertainment for the audiences. Thus, although everyone could now receive the media, the majority of the population couldn't participate within the production of the media. The Fordist development of the media had restricted the right of freedom of speech in print or over the airwaves to a minority of share-holders. As a consequence, both media producers and consumers were prevented from freely expressing their own views. Thus, after industrialisation, there could be no form of two-way communications within the media. Instead, there was a one-way flow of information and entertainment from the mass circulation newspapers and radio stations. Under Fordism, most individuals could only be consumers of the media.

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