It’s quite easy- natural, even – to assume that the way things are reflects the way things ought to be. Though many recognize that the universe isn’t intelligently designed, they assume that at least America is. On average, the modern American citizen rarely questions the capitalist superstructure upon which our society operates. But the overwhelming spread of spin in politics and the excessive extension of copyright are not inevitable results of a process of modernization. These two phenomena reflect the burgeoning neoliberal corporate power that threatens to permanently dominate American culture and government and infiltrate the last few sacred areas of individual expression. Neoliberal restructuring of America has erased the barrier between the public and the private sector, allowing politics, media, and art to fall under the control of corporate interest. Elections, paintings, campfire songs: all have become privatized to a ridiculous extent. Yet paradoxically, the private citizen has become lost in the public arena. Power and ownership today are more privileged than ever, predicated on an exclusory system of class and wealth. As Gerald Sussman’s Global Electioneering and Brand Name Bullies by David Bollier suggest, corporate power has waged a war on the American people, and what’s at stake is democracy itself.
Bollier introduces his text with a clear explanation of the value of copyright law. It was designed and initially used for encouraging creativity among authors and artists, and was deemed successful in that it allowed these producers to sustain themselves for a limited period of time, in which they could create a new work. This law kept a judicious balance between private ownership and public use rights. But in recent years, copyright and trademark law have been rapidly expanded, mainly in favor of large entertainment industries. The result? The decline of democracy as we know it.
“We are accustomed to thinking that knowledge and creativity are things we can freely use and share with each other. That is what a democratic society is all about. But increasingly, copyright and trademark law is extending its reach into the most intimate corners of our daily lives and consciousness. We are being told that culture is a creature of the market, not a democratic birthright. It is privately owned and controlled, and our role is to be obedient customers. Only prescribed forms of interactivity are permitted” (Bollier, 3).
On a deeper level, what Bollier seems to be sublimating in this quote is the root of cultural identity formation in a democratic society. As Americans we believe we have the right to choice in just about everything, and we severely dislike being told what to do, where to go, how to act and who to be. And though on some level Americans recognize the intrinsic influence of the media, the family, religion, and all of Althusser’s other Ideological State Apparatuses on the identity, we still resent explicit legislation that infringes on our freedom to self-define. Copyright law does just that when it empowers major industries and disenfranchises the artist, the musician, and even the ordinary citizen. Under these circumstances, copyright law refutes its own original constitutional intent by repressing creativity and suffocating free expression. This trend is extremely frightening especially when considering that, historically, American corporations go after the proverbial mile once you’ve given them an inch. Currently they possess the power to dramatically redesign the flow of information in popular culture, and they aren’t afraid to use it, as long as it spells financial gain.
Bollier does not advocate the total overthrow of copyright law as we know it. He merely seeks to inform the greater public of the extremity of current cases and the significant impact that these rulings can have on the ordinary citizen’s life. His examples of ridiculous litigation are manifestly humorous, yet deeply unnerving as well. And through this satiric demystification he urges the public to demand a return to the original goals of copyright law. “The volume and free flow of information and creativity need to be protected. The public’s rights of access and use must be honored. We must strike a new balance of private and public interest that takes account of the special dynamics of the Internet and digital technology” (Bollier 8).
The major strength of Bollier’s text lies in his abundance of examples and stories which make clear the importance of this debate to the cultural studies layperson. However, while they are totally relevant and pretty entertaining, his argument often seems to be mired down and occasionally even lost in these examples, which can basically be summed up as “Corporations bad. Freedom of expression good.” It would be much more interesting to read Bollier’s opinion on the irony of the increase of corporate restrictions on sampling, collaborating, and paying homage in a culture of postmodernity that is predicated on allusion and pastiche. How has professional America so transcended its cultural counterpart? Clearly, the views of the corporate world and government do not align with the desires of the postmodern artist, and in defending the rights of corporations the judicial system is doing a grave disservice to our culture as a whole.
In true McChesneyian fashion, Bollier ends his book with an optimistic chapter about the future of media policy. He advocates artist activism and grassroots organizing as well as an elemental shift in policymaking from behind closed doors to in front of the eyes of the general public. Finally, he stresses the importance of public awareness of this ongoing debate; “The point of speaking about the commons is to re-situate creative works in a larger context. Creative works are not simply artifacts of the market. They are not simply or always “property.” They also exist as important aspects of our personal, social, and shared cultural lives, and the deserve recognition as such” (Bollier 252). Creativity defines us individually as well as culturally, and a careful balance must be struck between limitations and abuse of creative power and ownership.
While David Bollier seems hopeful that corporate control can be dethroned, Gerald Sussman does not share the same positive outlook. Sussman argues that the overwhelming trends in the American political system have been candidate detachment from parties, professionalization of the electoral process, and a privatization that favors the elite. Elections have strayed from focusing on issues that are important to parties and voters and have instead become “exercises in communication and public relations” (Sussman 5). As the market becomes more and more influential in the governing of this country, politicians no longer wish to be associated with explicit values or public policy and programs, instead more concerned with the interests of their corporate backers. And as corporations merge and gain dominance across the society, privatization becomes even more dangerous as monied lobbyists and special interests groups exchange campaign funds for policy decisions that reflect their interests. Sussman states that while the public is aware of this practice of private money changing hands, there is little they can do about it. “…Because corporate and the highest income class’s money drive the campaign process and dominate the information channels, no radical or grassroots oppositional choices can realistically be formulated and acted upon, which consistently defaults electoral processes, political rhetoric and outcomes to elite power groups. The formal election system is captive of those individuals and interests able to negotiate their way within the larger political economy” (Sussman 7).
Sussman details in depth the decline of the party system in the United States, claiming that it opens up elections to celebrities and others who have already mastered the media, mere facilitators for individual candidates looking for a corporate checkbook to back them up. However, Sussman doesn’t discuss why he sees the party system as inherently superior, or even mention any faults of the former political party structure. He states that the current system emphasizes manipulation and the use of expensive media channels, yet the party system was in some ways equally manipulative. Above all, he stresses the diminishment of public participation in increasingly professional and private elections. “Corporate domination, centralization, and professionalization of political space have eliminated almost all but limited symbolic participation of ordinary people, who were once involved in the door-to-door distribution of campaign literature, attended local political meetings and rallies, and felt a general sense of grassroots engagement and excitement with the entire process of electing officials and debating issues” (Sussman 9). This denial of public participation delineates power even further towards the major corporations at the top. And the intense media furor that revolves around major elections only serves to permeate messages about the limits of civilian power.
Yet this mass media system has become central to the political process. It is the main channel of news information for most Americans, and thus politicians must communicate through it. This is dangerous because it puts the media in a position of power over both the public and the politicians. “Political communication is a joint and reciprocal project between the communicating individual and the media. The mass media, in turn, are primarily commercial enterprises that depend on advertising revenue, including political advertising, and thus have a stake in legitimating high-finance electoral campaigns” (Sussman 44). Because the media is revenue based, they have a strong need to protect their investments, and hence become political players themselves, eliminating any sense of objectivity.
Sussman spends a large portion of his book discussing different campaign professional occupations and specific professionals themselves, as well as the tools of the political engineering trade. While it is clear that these political consultants play a crucial role in campaigns, this chapter in ways detracts from the author’s greater thesis of a breakdown of traditional political systems in not only America but internationally as well. Sussman is at his best when he discusses the relationship between elections and corporate power, as well as the role that elections play in democracy. While he doesn’t explicitly state his opinion, it seems that he sees elections as mere symbolic events in a democracy that is not based on the rule of the people. Rather, these elections serve only the corporate elite.
Just as copyright limitations restrict artistic creativity, the United States political system has hindered politically creative and diverse ideas. What is called for is a radical shift from professionally managed campaigns and elections to a system of civic engagement and public participation. Sussman wagers that “When the corporate and commercial media no longer seem to speak to public interests, traditional institutions will begin to lose their legitimacy” (226). He also acknowledges, however, that the hope that the Internet would transform politics has largely failed. Ultimately, both authors theorize that only direct public participation in policy making can advance democratic societies in the age of mass media.