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The critique of the political economy of the media / communication: a highly topical approach


This forum contribution discusses the topicality of the approach of a critique of the political economy of media / communication. He analyzes the status of this field, which has a longer international tradition and history within media and communication studies. Since the beginning of the new crisis of capitalism in 2008, interest in Marx has generally increased. At the same time, the communicative and ideological dimension of the unpredictable and turbulent social change has come to the fore. The article offers a short introduction to some approaches to the critique of the political economy of media / communication. The discussion of 14 dimensions emphasizes that the complex, multi-layered, open, dynamic theory and research approach of the critique of capitalism and society, which goes back to Marx, is highly topical in this social situation for the analysis of the connection between communication and society. Thus, the Critique of Political Economy is a fruitful approach to empirical and theoretical analysis and to the elucidation of contemporary communication, which has real practical relevance.


This debate article discusses how topical the approach of the Critique of the Political Economy of Media / Communication is today. The paper analyzes the status of this field. At the international level, there is a longer tradition in the Critical Political Economy of Media / Communication, especially in the United Kingdom and North America. Since the start of the new crisis of capitalism in 2008, the interest in Marx’s works has generally increased. At the same time communicative and ideological features of societal changes ’unpredictable turbulences have become evident. This contribution introduces some specific approaches. It also discusses 14 aspects of why the complex, multidimensional, open and dynamic research approach of the critique of capitalism and society that goes back Marx’s theory remains relevant today.

After an introduction (sect. 1), the article’s second section provides a brief introduction to the critique of the political economy of media / communication by presenting the understandings of this field advanced by Peter Golding / Graham Murdock and Vincent Mosco. It also points out that there have been single representatives of the Critique of the Political Economy of Media / Communication in the German-speaking world, but that this approach is largely forgotten in German media and communication studies. The article provides a brief introduction to Horst Holzer's version of the critique of the political economy of media / communication: Holzer combined critical social theory and empirical social research in order to critically theorise and understand communication (s). He was critical of both systems theories of communication (e. G. Niklas Luhmann) and theories of communicative action (Jürgen Habermas) and worked out foundations of an alternative approach that are grounded in Marx’s theory.

The third section argues that Karl Marx is not just a critic of capitalism, but that his approach can also help us to ground a critical theory of communication. It stresses that there are many elements in Marx's works that can help us to critically understand communication: critical journalism, limits on the freedom of the press, the analysis of the commodity form, the analysis of labor, exploitation, class, surplus-value, globalization, crisis, modern technology, the general intellect, communication, the means of communication, the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production, dialectics, ideologies, social struggles, and democratic alternatives.

Sect. 4 provides an example of how to use the approach of the Critique of Political Economy for analyzing concrete communication phenomena. After the 2011 Arab Spring, there were many discussions about the role of digital and social media in protests. Some observers claimed that we had experienced Facebook and Twitter revolutions. Others argued that such claims are technologically deterministic and that protests would not be a matter of communications, but of crowds gathering in the streets and occupying squares. Using the critique of the Political Economy of Media / Communication as framework, the OccupyMedia! -study analyzed how activists used social media and how capitalist power and state power limited protest communication. It also explored the potential of alternative digital media in protest and the challenges that political economy posed for the establishment and use of such communications.

The article concludes that the Critique of the Political Economy of Media / Communication is a fruitful, praxis-oriented approach for the empirical and theoretical analysis of contemporary communication (s). In the German-speaking world and in German media and communication studies, there has been unjustified fear of Marx. In addition, examples from the 1970s until today show that representatives of the Critique of the Political Economy of Media / Communication in the German-speaking world have had justified fears over being considered as Marxists.

The future will show if new developments and attempts to advance the Critique of the Political Economy of Media / Communication in the German-speaking world will make a difference that makes a difference or not.


The critique of the political economy of the media / communication is to be understood as an approach that applies theory, philosophy and empirical research in order to analyze the connection between communication, capitalism, domination and power, to reflect it critically and thereby to generate knowledge can play a significant role in social practice aimed at changing the world. "One of the basic questions of a communication-science media economy as a critique of the political economy of the media is the analysis of the relationship between the media and capitalist society, i.e. the role of the media for the entire material, economic, societal, political and cultural human life." (Knoche 2002, p. 105)

The critique of political economy is one of the approaches within the political economy of media / communication. Other forms go back to neoclassical economics, neo-Keynesianism, institutionalism, feminist political economy, political ecology and other approaches (cf. Mosco 2009; Hardy 2014; Winseck 2011). These approaches partially overlap and cannot be clearly delimited from one another. Nevertheless, a general distinction can be made between orthodox approaches, which are neoclassical, neoliberal and neoconservative, and heterodox approaches.

This contribution to the discussion deals with the relevance of the critique of the political economy of media / communication in today's society. Section 2 offers a brief introduction to the field of criticism of the political economy of media / communication. Section 3 deals with the importance of Marx’s theory for media and communication studies. Section 4 presents an application example of the critique of the political economy of media / communication, namely the analysis of the political economy of alternative media and social movements.

The research field of the critique of the political economy of the media / communication

The approaches of the critique of capitalism that go back to Marx, which are summarized with the terms “Critique of Political Economy” and “Critical Political Economy”, have a long tradition and a relatively large number of forms (cf. Bidet and Kouvelakis 2008). These approaches differ in terms of their subject area, the type of theory formation and orientation, the role of empirical and theoretical approaches, the relationship between structure and action, and the relationship between economy and society. But they also have in common that they always see the analyzed subject area in connection with capitalist rule, power structures, classes, class struggles, forms of production and reproduction and alternative social formations. To speak of Marx therefore does not mean fixation on a person or a book, but rather orientation on a complex, multi-layered, open and dynamically developing tradition of theory and research. If you want to rediscover Marx, there are many starting points, possibilities and theoretical versions.

The expression of interest in the criticism of capitalism and critical social analysis influenced by Marx is related in a complex way to social development and the results of social struggles and class struggles. During and immediately after the 1968 student movement, this interest was relatively strong. With the rise of neoliberal capitalism, the collapse of “really existing socialism” and postmodern approaches that rejected the critical social analysis influenced by Marx as a totalitarian “great narrative”, devoted themselves to microanalysis and micropolitics and believed that history would end Interest clearly decreased. The new world economic crisis that began in 2008, the crises of national and transnational state power (including the European Union) as a result of austerity measures and short-sighted reactions to refugees and war, the political and ideological crisis of the neoliberal model of regulation, the social crisis that is emerging precarious living and working conditions and which in many parts of the world mainly affect young people - they have all led to a crisis of legitimacy for capitalism. In the course of this crisis, interest in the critique of capitalism and society influenced by Marx has increased significantly.

This theoretical analysis can be empirically founded for the social sciences. Tab. 1 shows the number of mentions of key words critical of capitalism in the titles of social science journal articles that are indexed in the Social Sciences Citation Index for different time periods. In the 1970s and 1980s the number was significantly higher than in the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium. The annual average has increased significantly since 2010, almost to the level of the 1980s. The turbulent social times in which we live have evidently led to an increase in interest in and preoccupation with the critique of political economy in the social sciences.

The criticism of the political economy of media / communication has become institutionalized to a certain extent, especially internationally and in Great Britain, the USA, Canada and Latin America (cf. Wasko 2014; Mosco 2009). The International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) has had a very active Political Economy Section since 1978. There are scientific journals like tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique or The Political Economy of Communication, as well as conferences, textbooks and events, edited volumes, manuals, research and dissertation projects, etc.

Vincent Mosco (2009, p. 2) defines the approach of the political economy of media / communication as the "analysis of the mutual constitution of social relationships, especially power relations, and the production, distribution and consumption of resources, including communicative resources". According to Mosco, an analysis of communication phenomena with the help of the critique of political economy approach is to relate the object of investigation to processes of commodification (of content, labor and audience), globalization and internationalization, privatization, liberalization, commercialization, on concentration processes (horizontal and vertical integration, strategic alliances, joint ventures), on structuring processes (e.g. on class relations, racism, gender relations) and social practice (social movements, social change or protest movements).

Graham Murdock and Peter Golding emphasize that capitalist media sell information as a commodity and / or are integrated into the overall economy as advertising platforms (cf. Murdock and Golding 1974). The specificity of the media consists in the fact that they publicly communicate ideas about business and politics, whereby in addition to the analysis of the role of the media in capitalism, the critique of ideology also represents a central task of the critique of the political economy of the media / communication. The critique of the political economy of media / communication differs from mainstream approaches in four ways: “Firstly, this approach is holistic. Second, it's historical. Third, the discussion about the relationship between capitalist corporations and public regulation is central. And ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, the approach goes beyond technical issues of efficiency and addresses fundamental moral issues of justice, fairness, and the public good. ”(Murdock and Golding 2005, p. 61) So one can say that the criticism of the political economy of media / communication is materialistic in that it avoids technology and media-centricity and "decentralizes the media of communication" (Mosco 2009, p. 66), i.e. always regards it in the context of overall social conditions.

The discussion between critical political economy and cultural studies dealt with the question of what role structure / action, macro / micro, social science / humanities, domination / resistance, production / consumption, economy / culture, exploitation / power and class / identity play the analysis of communication phenomena and how the relationship between these categories is to be grasped. Today the international approach has become more and more accepted that both sides of these contradictions are to be treated dialectically and integratively. This fact becomes clear, for example, in the last interview that Stuart Hall gave before his death, in which he said that “one should return to the political role of cultural studies, the political dimension of cultural studies, and one should ask oneself : 'If the economy does not determine everything in the last instance, what is the role of the economy in the reproduction of material and symbolic life?' You have to ask yourself economic questions. […] There is a kind of return. […] Gramsci always said that the economy should never be forgotten. […] You will not be surprised to learn that I think this return should be more of a return to what cultural studies should have been and was in its early stages. Cultural studies have somehow got lost. ”(Jhally 2016, pp. 337–338) Hall argues that cultural studies should deal more with the“ Marxist tradition of critical thinking ”(Jhally 2016, p. 338).

Horst Holzer (1994, p. 185) spoke of the fact that the criticism of the political economy of media / communication in the German-speaking area is a "forgotten theory". There were consistently representatives with excellent approaches, such as Holzer, such as Manfred Knoche, Dieter Prokop, Jörg Becker, Wulf Hund, Bärbel Kirchhoff-Hund, Franz Dröge, Jörg Aufermann, Rudi Schmiede, Lothar Bisky, Jürgen Alberts, and others. With exceptions, such as Manfred Knoche's professorship in Salzburg (1994–2009), the approach to criticizing political economy has not become institutionalized in German-language media and communication studies.

Horst Holzer combined critical social theory and empirical social research with the analysis of media and communication. He therefore represented the approach of a critique of the political economy of media / communication, which is based on a dialectic of theory and empiricism. For example, Holzer used the content analysis, the secondary analysis of empirical studies and the analysis of macroeconomic data to analyze the connection between communication, economy and democracy (cf. Holzer 1971). Like Habermas, he emphasized that advertising, media concentration, the commercial orientation of the media, “the personalization of social issues” and the “stressed mixing of individual life problems and public affairs” (Holzer 1971, p. 151) undermined the democratic character of the public. The difference between Habermas and Holzer is that the latter does not argue purely in terms of social theory, but rather interprets empirical results in a socially critical way and on the basis of a critical theory of communication and society.

Holzer's dialectical theory of society and communication emerged as a critique of action and systems theory. He criticized the systems theory, which was decisively shaped by Talcott Parsons, that it grasps social systems as a subject (cf. Holzer 1971, p. 255) and "hypostatizing a real social status quo for the order of society as such" (Holzer 1971, P. 250) operate.Luhmann's system theory of communication is not able to shed light on the connection between communication, body and psyche and "the entanglement of genesis, nature and function of mass communication" (Holzer 1994, p. 182) with media production, media organizations, media content, media use and reception and to explain human consciousness.

In Habermas' theory of communicative action, Holzer criticized the fact that it did not define the relationship between work and interaction dialectically, but rather dualistically (cf. Holzer 1987). Habermas is “unable to do that essential To recognize the determination of social production: that in the process of production not only the productive forces are developed, but also those social relationships - including: 'communication', 'interaction' - that people enter into with each other in this production process ”(Holzer 1987, p. 27). In contrast to Habermas, Georg Lukács has in his Ontology of social being characterizes the social production process, which is based on a dialectic of work and communication, as a teleological positing (cf. Fuchs 2016a, chap. 2).

Holzer worked on a materialistic theory of communication based on Marx’s social theory. There is a dialectic of work and communication. Knowledge and communication are “two sides of the process” that “regulates the socially organized metabolism with nature and internal social disputes” (Holzer 1973, p. 57). The decisive factor for such a theory is that it is a critique of the political economy of media / communication. Holzer analyzed communication and media in capitalism on the level of individual capital and total capital (cf. Holzer 1973, pp. 129–137, 1994, pp. 202–204). At the level of individual capital, the media and communication system has a capital economy in which information is directly a form of capital utilization and the production of added value, and a role that circulates goods in the "dissemination of the 'consumer climate' and the 'promotion' of specific products and services" (Holzer 1994 , P. 202). At the level of total capitalism, the communication system has an ideological role “to secure and legitimize the rule of capital” (Holzer 1973, p. 131) and “of the social order principle” (Holzer 1994, p. 202) as well as a reproductive role as a source of information and entertainment which serve for the "production, maintenance and restoration" (Holzer 1973, p. 131) of the workforce.

The criticism of the political economy of the media / communication has so far failed institutionally in the German-speaking area and was institutionally prevented. The view that critical political economy is an important theoretical and empirical contribution and approach to research into media and communication has not caught on. Although the criticism of the political economy of media / communication is highly relevant today, it is forgotten and little established in German-speaking countries. One of the influencing factors becomes clear in the example of Horst Holzer, against whom a professional ban was imposed in 1971 because of his DKP membership when he was appointed to a professorship in Bremen, which also prevented him from serving at LMU Munich in 1974 and at the end of his academic career led (see Bönkost 2011; Scheu 2012).

More than 45 years after Holzer's professional ban, the political hunt for Marxists is still not over. Media and communication scientists are still affected by this today: In autumn 2012, the Bavarian Office for the Protection of the Constitution initiated an examination when Kerem Schamberger was offered a funded doctoral position in the field of media and communication studies at the LMU Munich. Schamberger is known in Bavaria as a left-wing activist. He describes the circumstances as follows:

When I applied for the position as a research assistant in the Meyen department in July 2016 and was accepted, I had to fill out a so-called 'Constitutional Examination Form'. Organizations are listed there which, in the opinion of the Bavarian Office for the Protection of the Constitution, are unconstitutional. All applicants in the public service in Bavaria must fill out this “convictions” form. Scandalously, there are anti-fascist organizations like the Association of Victims of the Nazi Regime (VVN), right next to Nazi organizations like the NPD or militant fascist comradeships. Left organizations critical of capitalism, such as the DKP or the Red Aid, are also listed there. If you tick to be a member somewhere, then the protection of the Constitution will be asked for information about what the person is about. It was the same in my case. [...] I ticked the German Communist Party (DKP), the Association of Those Persecuted by the Nazi Regime - Association of Antifascists (VVN), the Red Aid and the Socialist German Workers' Youth (SDAJ), of which I was a member until 2013. (Schamberger 2017, pp. 93, 94)

The LMU Munich finally hired Schamberger despite a negative opinion, because the university had no doubts about his loyalty to the constitution and his advocacy of the democratic form of socialism.

Karl Marx as a critic of capitalism and communication theorist

Marx was a historical and dialectical thinker. As society changes, the categories in which it is analyzed must also change. Therefore, in terms of social theory, two extremes should be avoided. Namely, on the one hand, the assumption that today we live in a radically new, post-modern digital or information society. And on the other hand, the premise that society has not changed at all since the 19th century. Both approaches can be avoided through the dialectical approach of social analysis, which assumes a dialectic of continuity and discontinuity in development. A new phase of social and capitalist development cancels out older phases, i. H. to a certain extent the existing is preserved, eliminated or supplemented by new qualities. This degree is determined by a dialectic of chance and necessity, structures and action, crises and social struggles.

Today we live in a capitalism that, as in the 19th century, is based on the exploitation of labor. At the same time, however, capitalist change has led to changes within capitalism, which today is organized as a multitude of interlocking capitalisms, for example as financial market capitalism, digital capitalism, knowledge and information capitalism, neoliberal capitalism, authoritarian capitalism, mobility capitalism, hyper-industrial capitalism, etc.

Dealing with the criticism of political economy is important today in many ways for the critical analysis of the media and communication (see Fuchs 2017a, 2017b, 2016a, 2016b, 2015, 2014a, 2011, 2008; Fuchs and Mosco 2017a, 2017b , 2012). It goes back to Marx's analysis of capitalism and society.

A first more interesting aspect in the critique of political economy is the fact that Marx is a journalist and was an intellectual who dealt critically and comprehensively with the political developments of his time. In times of the erosion of investigative journalism, Marx’s journalistic practice reminds us of a time when the commercialization and capitalization of the media and thus the colonization of the public were less advanced. For Marx, journalism was a means of social criticism.

Marx was an ardent advocate of democracy, freedom of the press and freedom of expression. He saw the danger of restricting this freedom on the one hand through state censorship as well as capitalization and media concentration: "The first freedom of the press consists in not being a trade." (Marx 1842, p. 71) Today we live in a world in which that there is a strong concentration of capital not only in the traditional media sector, but also in the new digital media. Google has monopolized capital in the area of ​​search engines, Facebook in the area of ​​social networks, Amazon in online trade, Microsoft in the operating system, etc. The mechanisms by which capital concentration and commodification operate and the forms in which they are expressed have changed with the change to digital capitalism, the phenomena of media concentration and media monopolies remain fundamental structural principles of capitalism. Google has a dominant position in the online advertising market. This is a global market because the Internet is a global information and communication tool. It is estimated that Google controlled 71% of online searches in 2016.Footnote 1 Google search and Google advertising are algorithmic. They are based on constant monitoring, storage and evaluation of (almost) all online activities of all users, whereby big data is generated and commodified. The online capital concentration therefore operates in a global market based on algorithms and big data.

Analysis of the Shape of goods as an elementary form of capitalism is a second more interesting aspect the criticism of capitalism. Marx begins the first chapter in the first volume of The capital with the words: "The wealth of societies in which capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an 'immense collection of commodities', the individual commodity as its elementary form." (Marx 1867, p. 49)

The politico-economic strategy of capitalism consists in subsuming more and more areas of society under the commodity form. In the last few decades there has been no stopping at areas that have traditionally been protected or spared from commodification, such as public law services (including public law media, education, upbringing, health and universities), the human body, the human mind, communication, nature, etc. In the field of digital media, commodification has the labor (digital work), digital content, digital technologies, access to platforms, the online audience, the online prosumers (manufacturing consumers and Consumers) and big data.

The categories of Exploitation of labor, of Added value and the Class relationships are a third current aspect Critical Political Economy. In capitalism, the worker is considered “only as a machine for the production of surplus value” and “the capitalist only as a machine for converting this surplus value into more capital” (Marx 1867, p. 621). Due to the historical differentiation of capitalism, the class structure has become more complex (see Wright 1997; Negri 2017, 1982/1988; Federici 2012; Dalla Costa and James 1973; Smythe 1977). This can be seen in the emergence of managers, unpaid interns, precariat, freelancers, knowledge workers, digital work, etc. The production relations of digital capitalism are based on an international division of labor in which various forms of exploitation (such as slave labor, digital housework, Taylorist industrial work, precarious digital Work, the work of highly paid and overworked software engineers, unpaid shadow digital work, low paid digital work in developing countries).

The Globalization of capital represents one fourth current aspect of the Critique of Political Economy. Marx emphasized that capitalism has the fundamental tendency to expand spatially in order to create markets, spheres of production and consumption for goods, workers and capital. “The need for more and more extensive sales of their products chases the bourgeoisie all over the world. It has to nestle everywhere, grow everywhere, establish connections everywhere ”(Marx and Engels 1848, p. 465). In the last few decades, capitalism has transnationalized the production of goods and surplus value and pushed capital exports forward, similar to the beginning of the 20th century. One consequence of this was that there has been a great deal of talk about globalization in public discussions and in the social sciences since the 1990s.

This terminology is not wrong, but the social criticism based on Marx has the advantage that it has grasped the specific form of capitalist globalization as imperialism. In recent discussions, for example, David Harvey coined the term new imperialism (cf. Harvey 2005) in order to emphasize the combination of financialization and neoliberalism as a characteristic of today's capitalist globalization. The economic sector of media, information, communication, cultural and digital capital is subject to such a capitalist globalization tendency. In 2016, the world's 30 largest transnational corporations included seven such companies: Apple (# 8), AT&T (# 12), Verizon Communication (# 15), China Mobile (# 18), Samsung Electronics (# 18), Microsoft ( # 23), Google / Alphabet (# 27).Footnote 2 Among these 30 companies are 15 financial companies (banks, insurance companies) and seven energy and mobility companies (oil, gas, energy supply, car production). This fact indicates that capitalism today is a combination of finance capitalism, mobility capitalism, hyper-industrial capitalism and information capitalism.

And these dimensions of capitalism are intertwined and interlocked. Digital companies are a good example of this: Many of these corporations are financed by venture capital companies, which makes the Internet economy vulnerable to crises in financial markets, as these financial investments are often very risky. Digital media cannot exist without an energy supply. The global internet currently consumes around 10% of the energy consumed globally (see De Decker 2015). In times of big data and server farms, this proportion increases. Digitization has supported and mediated a flexibilization and global mobilization of goods, people and information.

The Vulnerability of capitalism to crises is a fifth important aspect the critique of political economy. Capitalism is an inherently crisis-ridden system. "The contradicting movement of capitalist society is most strikingly felt by the practical bourgeoisie in the vicissitudes of the periodic cycle that modern industry goes through, and its climax - the general crisis." (Marx 1867, p. 28) The new world economic crisis and its Consequences illustrate the importance of the objective dialectic of capitalism, that is, its susceptibility to crises. A complex combination of wage stagnation, class struggle from above, financialization, precarization and the increase in the technical and organic composition of capital through computerization, informatization and automation has allowed contradictions to mature over the decades, which have then been resolved in the crisis and are now expressed. Due to its financialization, the capitalist internet economy is a highly crisis-prone area of ​​capitalism. The dot-com crisis in 2000 made this clear. The area of ​​social media economics is also subject to similar financialization tendencies.

The Dialectics of technology and society is a sixth significant aspect the critique of political economy. Marx has this dimension in the so-called machine fragment in the Floor plans as well as in the thirteenth chapter of the first volume of the Capital (Machinery and big industry) shown. He writes there, for example, that “machinery per se shortens the working time, while applied capitalistically it extends the working day, per se makes work easier, increases its intensity when applied capitalistically, it is in itself a victory of man over the force of nature, applied capitalistically subjugated man by the force of nature, in itself increases the wealth of the producer, if applied capitalistically, pups him, etc. ”(Marx 1867, p. 465)

“Dialectic of technology” means that technology in a class society also develops contradictingly under the influence of existing and developing social contradictions. At the same time, technology is not only socially produced, but also has unpredictable internal contradictions and development dynamics. This applies above all to highly complex systems that involve a disaster risk. Communication technologies and other technologies do not necessarily develop in any particular way, nor is their development entirely accidental. Rather, the dialectic of chance and necessity plays a role. Raymond Williams, who was a lifelong theorist influenced by Marx, emphasized in his criticism of Marshall McLuhan's technological determinism that technology is not an “automatic force that creates new ways of life” (Williams 2003/1974, p. 6). Rather, human intentions and actions that are influenced by certain social conditions play an important role.

The seventh important aspect of the critique of political economy consists in dealing with the knowledge-based society and capitalism. Marx introduced the term general intellect in the “machine fragment”. He uses this to describe “general social knowledge, knowledge” (Marx 1857/58, p. 608). He describes a state in which "general social knowledge, knowledge, has become the immediate productive force and therefore the conditions of the social life process have come under the control of the general intellect and are rearranged in accordance with it". On the one hand, Marx emphasizes with the term general intellect that knowledge, technology and science represent general conditions of modern economy that flow into many production processes at the same time and are created and used cooperatively by many people. On the other hand, with this category he anticipates the computerization of the economy.

The fact that Marx was concerned with the new media of his time (especially the telegraph) and their role in society is related to the general intellect. The eighth aspect is therefore that preoccupation with Marx historical, theoretical and methodological insights for the Technology and media sociology and the analysis of the Means of communication and the human communication offers. For example, Marx described communication systems "in which each individual obtains information about the activities of everyone else" and "relationships and connections" are established (Marx 1857/1858, p. 94). This formulation shows a striking resemblance to the communicative properties of the Internet, but was written in the 1850s, more than 100 years before the technical creation of the Internet.

The ninth aspect of the Critique of Political Economy that matters today is the Contradiction between productive forces and production relations (cf. Marx 1894, pp. 274-275). Capitalist development creates new forms of cooperation and cooperation technologies that represent the basis for new commons, but at the same time, as capitalist private property, are a means of exercising power. This contradiction is clearly evident today in networked digital technologies, which at the same time produce new modes of commodification and exploitation and can oppose commodification and establish spheres of non-capitalist communication. The contradiction between productive forces and class relations is expressed in digital capitalism as a contradiction between digital commons and digital goods. In this context, Negri (2017, p. 25) speaks of the fact that digitization is characterized by an "antagonism between the social cooperation of the proletariat [the social workers] and the (economic and political) command of capital".

At the tenth important aspect The Critique of Political Economy is about Contributions to communication theory. “Only through the relationship to the person Paul as his equals does the person Peter relate to himself as a person.” (Marx 1867, p. 67) Through the communication process, people relate their intellectual reflections to one another in a complex way, which leads to cognitive changes leads and produces and reproduces the sociality of man and society. Important contributions to communication theory were made in the Marx-based tradition, inter alia. by Georg Lukács ’ Ontology of social being and the work of Raymond Williams, Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Lev Vygotsky and Valentin Vološinov (cf. Fuchs 2016a). If these theoretical approaches are thought together, this results in a communication materialistic alternative to the dualistic critical communication theory of Jürgen Habermas and to the instrumental communication system theory of Niklas Luhmann.

The eleventh current aspect has to do with the fact that Marx in the base / superstructure problem the Ask about the context of economy and society, work and communication, work and ideology, body and mind, physical and intellectual work, production and reproduction, nature and society. In his approach to cultural materialism, Raymond Williams emphasizes Marx's insight that society is a connection between the social production of human sociality (cf. Williams 1977). The social production mediated by communication is an identical element of all social systems and social sub-areas. It is about the economic moment of the social. At the same time, however, all social systems and areas have emergent qualities that distinguish them from other systems and areas and the purely economic aspect.

The twelfth reasonWhy the Critique of Political Economy has relevance today is the role it plays Ideologies and the fetish character of the goods play in today's society. By commodity fetishism, Marx understands that the “specific social relationship of people themselves [...] takes the phantasmagoric form of a relationship between things” (Marx 1867, p. 86). Ideology naturalizes and normalizes naturalization. Characteristic of the ideology in capitalism today is the spread of new nationalisms combined with new racism and xenophobia, which are primarily directed against migrant workers and refugees. Nationalism is an ideology that constructs a fictional ethnicity (cf. Balibar and Wallerstein 1991) and proclaims a fictional unity of the interests of capital and labor in a national interest. This distracts from the complex causes and connections of social problems. Nationalism is a political form of fetishism in which the nation and a national and ethnic collective are fetishized. Nationalism pretends to "unite all classes by reviving the mirage of national glory" (Marx 1871, p. 338).

The thirteenth aspect the critique of political economy that is important today is the role of social struggles and class struggles with social change. Marx sees a historical dialectic of chance and necessity, practice and structural conditions. When he says that people make “their own history”, but “not of their own free will, not under self-chosen circumstances, but under circumstances immediately found, given and handed down” (Marx 1852, p. 115), this insight is practical today Relevance. Today, in the context of the discussion of social change, there are discussions about the role social media play in rebellions, protests, revolutions and social movements. The question arises as to whether the people, the crises or the media technologies make history. To answer this question, one needs a theoretical model of social change that takes into account the dialectics of structures and practice and the influence of communication technologies. The orientation of the Critique of Political Economy towards social struggles is based on a practical humanism that questions the conditions in which man is “a humiliated, enslaved, abandoned, contemptible being” (Marx 1844, p. 385).

The fourteenth aspectThe Marx-based critique of capitalism emphasizes the necessity and importance of democratic alternatives to capitalism and capital accumulation. Marx is about expanding democracy from politics to economics. In the media sector, this refers to the non-commercial, non-profit, alternative media oriented towards the communicative commons. In the field of academic publishing, for example, non-profit open access journals that question the capital accumulation strategies of commercial publishers have become more important (see Fuchs and Sandoval 2013; Knoche 2014).

The discussion of the relevance of the critique of political economy could go on for a long time, since the number of its representatives with important ideas in this theoretical tradition is very large.

An application example: social movements and alternative media in capitalism

The Critique of Political Economy has a humanities tradition in the form of dialectical social philosophy and a social science tradition in the form of critical social analysis. From a practical point of view, these two dimensions cannot be strictly separated; they often appear in combination as a theory-based empirical critique of capitalism and society.

Research into the communication of social movements has established itself internationally as a partial aspect of media and communication studies. During the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements, there was much discussion about the role social media played in protests and revolutions (see Fuchs 2014b, 2017b). The majority of the works published on such questions dealt purely microsociologically with the question of how social movements communicate without taking into account the broader macro-sociological context in which these movements operate, namely the capitalist world system. The study OccupyMedia! The Occupy Movement and Social Media in Crisis Capitalism (cf. Fuchs 2014b), on the other hand, was designed as a work that used the critique of political economy as an empirical approach. Methodologically, an online survey was carried out in which 418 Occupy activists took part.

One of the results was that neither online communication nor face-to-face communication alone is the decisive form of communication for activists who occupy public spaces, but that there is a dialectic: the more active activists are in the movement, the larger their social protest network and the more they tend to use online and offline communication, which are mutually reinforcing, for internal movement communication and external, public mobilization communication. Internal and external communication are now in the context of capitalist and state power, against which such movements usually turn. The question arises, therefore, of how capitalist and state control of communication influences social movements. The survey highlighted a contradiction between public communication and communication control on capitalist social media: activists see it as a great advantage that these online platforms have high user numbers, as this enables them to be reached by a broader public. Since the companies (like Facebook and Twitter) that operate these platforms are among "the 1%" and some of them, as Edward Snowden's revelations have shown, are involved in the surveillance industrial Internet complex, the problem with protest movements is that their use Platforms can be associated with conscious or algorithmic censorship as well as state surveillance of their communication.

There was also a contradiction with regard to the use of alternative, non-commercial social media: On the one hand, they offer more autonomy and protection from the state and capital; on the other hand, they are relatively unknown, therefore only reach a few people and are also confronted with the resource inequality typical of capitalism As a result, alternative media often have little visibility, money, personnel, reputation or influence, are based on voluntary self-exploitation and precarious work, disappear due to a lack of resources or become capitalist.

When asked how the contradiction of the alternative media should be dealt with in capitalism, 54.7% supported the model of voluntary donations, 9.4% user fees on a non-profit basis, 8.0% personalized advertising and 7.0% state subsidies (see Fuchs 2014b). Donation and crowdfunding models are in turn confronted with the contradiction that most of the donations for alternative projects come from activists, who are usually not millionaires, but often precariously employed, which can easily make such models financially unstable. The fundamental capitalist contradiction lies in this connection between media groups like Google and Facebook, which create billions and hardly pay taxes for them, and the permanent crisis of the critical alternative media. This contradiction cannot be resolved under capitalism. Radical reforms are required that tax capital, profit and advertising and use the proceeds (e.g. in the form of a basic income, participatory budgeting for non-commercial alternative media and non-commercial projects, etc.) for public and critical purposes. The basic problem is the structural restriction and limitation of communicative democracy in capitalism.

The greatest challenge for research into political communication at the moment is the massive increase in nationalism and right-wing populism, which is evident from the example of Donald Trump in the USA. In this context, social media, reality TV and other popular media play an important role. Traditions of criticism of political economy, such as the theory of the authoritarian personality of the Frankfurt School (Franz L. Neumann, Erich Fromm, Theodor W. Adorno, Leo Löwenthal, Herbert Marcuse, etc.) represent an important starting point in this context.


The Critique of Political Economy is a fruitful approach to empirical and theoretical analysis and to the elucidation of contemporary communication, which has real practical relevance.

In this article I have tried to show that in media and communication studies the “fear of scientists of Marx [...] is unjustified” (Knoche 2005, p. 411). On the contrary: we are today in a social situation in which the crisis of capitalism is linked to a general crisis of legitimation and authoritarian movements and authoritarian capitalism are attacking the very foundations of democracy. Today neoliberal capitalism tends to turn into authoritarian capitalism in a negative dialectic. Communication platforms, strategies and ideologies play an important role in this turbulent social situation. The intellectual legacy of Karl Marx, Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Georg Lukács, Raymond Williams and other scientists in this critical tradition enables a practice-relevant, socially critical communication science that can better understand today's crises and forms of authoritarianism, as well as starting points for a critical, public social science (cf. Aulenbacher et al. 2017) that intervenes in public discourses.

The Schamberger case makes it clear that representatives of the criticism of the political economy of the media / communication in the German-speaking area must still have “justified fear” of “being considered a Marxist” (Knoche 2005, p. 411). Theories of capitalism, the authoritarian personality structure, crises, ideology, critical communication, etc., as found in the Critique of Political Economy, are now central to social and communication science. The foundation of the critical communication science network in spring 2017 (see and the establishment of a corresponding mailing list ( is a positive development in this context.


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