Karl Marx in The German Ideology argued in the 1840s that the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas. Almost one hundred years later theorists from the Frankfort School elaborated on Marx’s idea by developing the theory of the “cultural apparatus.” German sociologist Max Horkheimer wrote:
One function of the entire cultural apparatus at any given period has been to internalize in men [and women] of subordinate position the idea of a necessary domination of some men over others, as determined by the course of history down to the present time. As a result and as a continually renewed condition of this cultural apparatus, the belief in authority is one of the driving forces, sometimes, productive, sometimes obstructive, of human history (quoted in John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, “The Cultural Apparatus of Monopoly Capital,” Monthly Review, July/August, 2013).
Ideas do not spring from the air nor do they arrive untarnished by social reality from Gods and religion. No, as suggested by Marx, Horkheimer, Foster, McChesney, and other theorists, ideas are weapons in the continuous struggle for economic and political domination. Herbert Marcuse added that the “necessary domination” over people comes from pleasure and enticements in addition to threats of force. If the image of pleasure does not mollify the people, then threats of impending pain can be transmitted from parts of the “cultural apparatus” (education systems, mass media, the internet, patterns of child rearing, religious institutions), thus legitimizing the application of force.
As we prepare for a new year with hope for positive social change, it is worth reflecting on three central concepts communicated through and justified by the “cultural apparatus:” markets, police, and the war system. Markets offer the image of growing pleasure. Economists and politicians reiterate over and over again that economic development and political stability require the free flow of markets-- buyers and sellers, investors and speculators, workers and bosses, and the commodification of everything. The idea of markets permeates political discussion and is presented to publics as intimately connected to democracy, freedom, and cultural advance. Markets may serve as one mechanism among many to distribute goods and services but are not, as the ideologues suggest, the fundamental way of organizing society. But we hear over and over the promise that markets will bring to all humanity. And market fundamentalists add that government programs, visions of the public good, and community constitute a threat to markets and ultimately human betterment. On television, the internet, in schools, and everywhere in the cultural apparatus people are encouraged to consume, enjoy, think primarily of themselves, and remain obedient to the ongoing order.
According to the cultural apparatus not all people, because of their own shortcomings, will be beneficiaries of the pleasures of the market. Consequently societies require the construction of police forces to maintain order. In societies where the threat of violence exists, police are necessary to protect the citizenry from the violent, the crazed, and the hateful who see race or exploitation behind their misery. The cultural apparatus communicates images of violence and mayhem in society such that people are convinced that police and prisons are the only institutions that save us from a brutal “state of nature,” based on killing, rape, and robbery. General sentiment, reinforced by the criminal justice system, suggests that for majorities of the US population police should be free to act as they choose.
Finally, politicians, pundits, security analysts, and many scholars point out that human nature is flawed and as a result there will always be wars. During the brief periods when the United States is not actively engaged in war, policy makers ruminate on how the United States must be prepared for the “next” war. Visions of a peaceful world are beyond the scope of the economic and political system because there are aggressive, greedy, and crazed nations and terrorists in the larger world.
In sum, markets, the police, and the war system constitute key concepts embedded in the cultural apparatus and are central to the interests of the ruling class. The formulation of these key concepts is left purposefully vague here as is the description of the cultural apparatus because every aware participant in the political process can fill in detailed examples. Whether one “consumes” film, videos, computer games, music, television, or print media, examples of the messages about the legitimacy of markets, police, and the war system are readily available. The same self-reflection can be made about the level of centralized control of the cultural institutions that shape peoples’ consciousness.
Therefore, while global corporations, banks, police forces, and militaries constitute material sources of power and control, they are maintained also by core ideas about markets, police, and the war system. In short, ideas matter. Transforming society therefore is about changing ideas and who distributes them as well as the economic and military institutions themselves.