IN EARLY May the Disney blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War took over $1 billion from box offices around the world.
At that point, breaking the $1bn barrier had been done by 34 films in total, with 17 of them produced by Disney.
In the opening days of the same month, Disney became the fastest film company to break the $3bn mark in global ticket sales in any given year.
And then earlier this month, the British government gave the go-ahead for US giants Comcast and 21st Century Fox to begin a bidding war to buy the British company Sky.
Yet when the mainstream media discusses self-styled “media” transnational corporations (TNCs) merging with one another or the box office success of yet another Hollywood blockbuster, the threat to democracy through the ongoing process of cultural imperialism is very rarely mentioned.
For centuries the ruling elite have maintained control using various cultural mechanisms, among other things.
World War II, however, proved to be a turning point in the ongoing war to colonise the minds of the masses.
Before the war one of the largest struggles for radicals had been overcoming a culture of deference towards their exploiters. A struggle which they were arguably winning.
The revolutions in Russia and Spain, the civil and labour unrest across Europe and the Americas, and the nationalist independence movements in the imperial colonies, were all starting to pry open the cracks in the structure.
One of the main catalysts of change was technology, with the specific developments in the industrialisation of mass communications acting as an accelerant. The mass media was fast becoming a tool that could be used to both enslave and emancipate the minds of the masses.
It didn’t take long for the ruling class to recognise that the burgeoning communications industry needed to be controlled.
In 1928 the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed war and the incitement to war, was signed by the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Africa, India and Belgium, among others.
When it didn’t do the job, they all went back to the drawing board. And then, in Geneva in 1936, the assembly of the League of Nations signed into international law the Convention on Broadcasting in the Cause of Peace.
The signatories agreed that their governments would not allow or take part in broadcasts that could directly or indirectly incite war or civil unrest.
There was one fly in the ointment. The US refused to sign off on one of the key clauses which covered private ownership of the media.
The US administration’s argument was that it was a freedom of speech issue, and all they would ever be able to do was hope that the media barons would patriotically volunteer their support.
Even then, it was an already depressingly familiar song. In Howard Zinn’s quite remarkable People’s History of the United States, he outlines how out of all the 14th amendment cases brought before the Supreme Court between 1890 and 1910, nearly 94 per cent were in reference to corporations, and only 6 per cent in relation to African-Americans.
However, one of the fundamental changes that did take place after WWII was that large sections of the exploited class felt able to openly acknowledge the fact that they knew exactly who would inevitably end up paying the price for unfettered authoritarianism, for democratic deficits, for imperialist expansionism, for unaccountable elites, and of course for totalitarianism hidden behind patriotism.
Whatever deference to power had existed before was disappearing fast. But it still wasn’t enough. Suffering from the short-sightedness of entitlement, there were factions within the international elite that either couldn’t see it, or just didn’t care.
And they quickly seized on the opportunity to start redrawing the lines of regional control. So, amid the blood-soaked battlefields of the world, once again new empires began being built.
When the survivors began returning to their communities they found their exploiters waiting to pick up where they had left off.
Unrest was inevitable, and it wasn’t long before sections of the exploiters began bartering for their privileges.
In the US, after a good deal of argument, the GI Bill of Rights eventually got passed. In Britain the National Health Service (NHS), much to the annoyance of some, was also set up. And of course, in the regions where the exploiters were unable to renegotiate their authority, their empires became uncontrollable. The world appeared to be in transition.
In reality, the power was just shifting within the confines of the historical framework, but with a few minor concessions to placate the indignant masses and a couple of staffing changes in the senior management.
The setting up of the United Nations was part of the international process of reassuring the masses that their ruling elites could be trusted to not keep getting into world wars, at least while they were redrawing the post-imperialist map.
And as part of that, and in light of the role played by communications technology in genocide, revolution, violence and civil unrest, the United Nations educational, scientific and cultural organisation (Unesco) was formed. It was based on the understanding that “since wars began in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”
The intention was that Unesco would help bring an end to war through “mutual understanding and a truer and more perfect knowledge of each others’ lives,” through “education for all … pursuit of objective truth … free exchange of ideas and knowledge … and to increase the means of communication.”
Unfortunately, one of the main obstacles to Unesco’s laudable intentions was the elitist nature of media ownership, be that the private ownership model popular in the US or the political elite control model of Britain.
Within both models, objectivity, freedom and education are just not a priority. The problem before WWII hadn’t been that the rabble had been broadcasting their totalitarian views, it had been that the exploiters had been broadcasting theirs. And there was no sign of that changing.
In the brilliant collection of essays titled Hope & Folly by Preston, Herman and Schiller, the history of Unesco and the role of the US government in its abuse and eventual downfall is laid all too bare.
From as early as 1949 the FBI was screening all US citizens applying for jobs at the UN in order to filter out “subversives.” This was at a time when about two-thirds of the staff working at the UN were US citizens.
In 1950 president Truman created the International Organisations Employee Loyalty Board which put FBI agents in the UN offices, and gave J Edgar Hoover the authority to effectively decide who would staff the UN.
This went on until 1984 when, after a 14-year legal battle, the US courts eventually declared it unconstitutional.
With control over Unesco failing, the ruling plutocracy made the decision that if it couldn’t be tamed, it had to be put down.
In 1982 Smith-Kline sponsored a four-page supplement in Time and Newsweek arguing that a “Unesco-sponsored coalition of tyrannies and their accomplices [were] hatching elaborate plots to muzzle free world news media, all in the name of alleged ‘omissions’ and ‘imbalances’ in coverage.”
And the elaborate plots that the impoverished nations of the world were supposedly hatching? They were trying to use Unesco to protect their national media organisations from hostile takeovers from TNCs.
Several studies have shown how at that time the US and Western media delivered little more than “self-serving and biased presentations in mass-media coverage of news on Unesco.”
The events of the 1970s and 1980s involving Unesco, media ownership in the developing nations, Western media TNCs and the Reagan administration, need to be seen in the context of the now infamous Trilateral Commission’s 1975 study the Crisis of Democracy.
The study argued that control of a media enriched society with access to democracy was faltering, in large part due to the failing of the media as an institution of indoctrination.
This crisis was leading the “previously marginalised sectors of the population to organise and press their demands.”
In short, the historical deference of the ruled to their rulers was waning, because the media wasn’t indoctrinating the masses as it should.
The sort of indoctrination that the US government had been partnering with the US media industry in is probably best exemplified by the work of the Office for Public Diplomacy (OPD).
The 1980s OPD operation, shut down after the Iran-Contra investigations, was reporting directly to Colonel Oliver North in the national security council.
It was through this mechanism that the US army’s 4th Psychological Operations (Psyops) Group out of Fort Bragg had been allowed to put officers to work in the offices of CNN and NPR.
A senior US official described the OPD as a “vast psychological warfare operation of the kind the military conducts to influence a population in enemy territory.”
Psyops were found to still be working at CNN during the 1990s. A fact that was reported extensively by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (Fair), the Miami Herald, Counterpunch, a Dutch newspaper called Trouw and the French Intelligence Newsletter.
And it wasn’t just in the newsrooms. The role of the US military in Hollywood was equally insidious.
According to David Robb’s brilliant Operation Hollywood, some of the worst examples are Jerry Bruckheimer, who in order to get in-kind assistance from the US military made nearly all the changes they requested to The Right Stuff, Black Hawk Down, Top Gun, Armageddon, and Pearl Harbour. Or John Woo, who made every change requested by the military to his film Windtalkers. And even Walt Disney, who allowed The Mickey Mouse Club to be used for recruiting, even though its viewers were mostly children.
In reality, the film liaison office at the Pentagon made hundreds of producers change their films from as early as the 1950s onwards. And this isn’t just a problem for the US people.
The reach of Hollywood is unprecedented in human history. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) helpfully produces an annual report of its members, Disney, Paramount, Sony, Fox, Universal and Warner Bros. According to the 2017 report, the global box office take for the MPAA was $40.6bn, across over 170,000 screens globally. And in that same year the industry generated $47.8bn in home entertainment sales, in large part through the over half a billion cable and online video service subscriptions.
The members of the MPAA are monopolising a large portion of the “resting” time of billions of people globally. In fact, it is hard to think of a time in history when quite so few people had quite so much control over the attention of quite so many.
When we sit down to watch a Hollywood blockbuster or a US TV show, it is important to remember that it’s not just a couple of hours of escapism.
A lot of powerful people, over a very long period of time, have gone to a lot of trouble to make sure you receive exactly the message they want. And one of the most persistent of those messages is:
“Your masters are your superiors, your masters know what’s best, obey your masters.”
Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation showed us that we no longer have to blindly defer to “our superiors.” Each of us has the power to question both the message and the messenger.
We are the first line of defence in any attempt to colonise our minds. In each of us is an anti-imperialist.