On Capitalism As A Culture Industry

In the 1940’s, the German-American philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno introduced the term “culture industry” as a description for Capitalist societies. The basic premise being that such cultures function as industries, and that various aspects therein condition people to function as active consumers and alienated workers in order to sustain the process of mass production. Mass marketing conditions addictive spending habits, standardizes styles, and defines fads and fashions in order to create and coordinate cyclical yet predictable markets in order to justify endless mass production.

In his 1957 book “The Art Of Loving”, Erich Fromm identified three elements which are necessary in a Capitalist society. Those elements being people who will work together to perform assigned tasks, people who will buy things, and people who will obey orders. The ability of people to work together in order to produce in bulk is a quality which is exploited by those who condition those workers to do as they are instructed. Consumerism then serves as a necessary active agent in order to preserve the system itself. That said, Fromm, Horkheimer, and Adorno all observed that such elements are conditioned as a mass deception rather than presented as evident dictates. Thus the need to incorporate a variety of aspects of society in order to subtly yet effectively sustain the culture industry.

In their book “Dialectic Of Enlightenment”, Horkheimer and Adorno dismissed the notion that mass production is the response to consumer demand. Rather they noted that mass production is the design of corporate board members and wealthy profiteers. Consumerism in turn is a conditioned response to manipulative marketing. Since people in general will not be exploited voluntarily, then the means to condition the masses to servitude and complicit participation in the process are so encompassing that such entails the shaping of the entire culture into a responsive and productive industry.

Horkheimer and Adorno identified several aspects of society which are utilized as means to such ends. Namely film, radio, magazines, television, religion, formal education and politics were mentioned as avenues which the culture industry exploits in an effort to entice habitual consumerism and maintain a wage slave system of mass production. Film and television portray a picture of the ideal family as owning a nice home with several of the latest model vehicles. Radio and magazine ads aggressively market specific commodities for purchase. Religion and formal education promote obedience to authority, routine ritualism, and patriotism. Politics offers a sense of identity and the illusion of choice and influence in the economic and social system itself. The end goal of the culture industry then is to manipulate buying habits through seductive marketing, while at the same time manage and produce a demographic of willing wage slaves who are suitable servants in the process of mass production.

As I read Horkheimer and Adorno, it occurs to me how perceptive these two German-American philosophers were as to their observations regarding the culture industry. Their astute observations and warnings of social manipulation were documented decades before the era of daily conservative propaganda talk radio, 24 hour news cycles and Shopping Channels, and electronic marketing sites. Despite the transformation of America from an industrial economy to a retail market base, it would seem that the culture industry continues in 21st Century America in much the same manner as described by Horkheimer and Adorno.

In essence, the culture industry is the subtle social engineering and the mobilization of the masses for active and compliant service in a social system which is based upon wage slavery and a manipulated economy. Such service entails willing labor for long hours with minimal time for rest and recovery, addictive consumerism, and passionate support for militarism and imperialism as a matter of patriotic pride. Basically speaking, the masses must be manipulated to embrace and accept their own exploitation in order to sustain an effective culture industry.

Collective gullibility to social conditioning and systemic propaganda thus serves as the lifeline which sustains the ongoing culture industry. The ease with which collective thinking may be conditioned renders the masses vulnerable to the very circumstances which maintain the culture industry. Routine schedules of the over worked and underpaid reinforce and somewhat ritualize the very process of the oppression of the working class. Alienated and exploited working class people adapt by assimilation into the culture industry as a means of survival.

Capitalism as a culture industry will then predictably continue to thrive in a society of people who are willing prey to propaganda, who continue to function as complicit participants in the process of collective coercion, and whose very existence depends upon their service as wage slaves.