Few recent books in film and media studies can match the ambition Lee Grieveson set himself with Cinema and the Wealth of Nations: Media, Capital, and the Liberal World System, and even fewer have delivered in the way Grieveson does. Nothing less than a comprehensive reconceptualisation of the discipline is on the agenda in this 2018 monograph, one in which political economy replaces aesthetics at the centre of our concerns, and in which questions of corporate ownership, state policy and class hegemony form the core of research in the field. As a beacon for the scholarly agenda he espouses, Grieveson gives us, in Cinema and the Wealth of Nations, a history of the role played by cinema and other mass media (radio, in particular) in both the ideological dominance and internal functioning of capitalism in the United States and the United Kingdom in the period between 1913 and 1939, the heyday of the “liberal world system”, before the combined effects of fascism, war, the threat of communism and the anti-colonial revolutions ushered in major mutations to the economic order in the capitalist West.
It goes without saying that, in speaking of “liberalism”, Grieveson is explicitly not using the term as it is predominantly employed today, to denote the “progressive” half of the bourgeois political divide, especially in the US, where even a reformist form of socialist politics has historically failed to gain traction. Instead, he harks back to the original meaning of the word, referring to a laissez-faire approach to markets and a worldview premised on the maximisation of individual freedom (for some, at least). The ur-text for this imbrication of free-market economics and a libertarian conception of subjectivity is, of course, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which is overtly referenced in the title of Grieveson’s book. As Smith would have it, state regulations are inevitably self-defeating: all that is needed is to ensure property rights are respected and allow individual self-interest to proceed unfettered, and the “invisible hand” of market logic will take care of the rest. Articulated at the close of the 18th century, this line of thinking was at the core of the ideology of the ascendant bourgeoisie in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, reaching its apogee in the period treated by Grieveson.
The contemporary echoes of this era should be clear for us: after the emergence of Keynesian economics and social-democratic reforms in the wake of World War II, the 1980s saw a renewed turn to (neo-)liberalism, unshackling capital and dismantling the post-war welfare state in a process turbocharged by the collapse of communism in the Eastern bloc. It is only now, more than three decades later, that economic crisis and a resurgence of xenophobic nationalism threaten once again to overturn capitalist liberalism. Correspondingly, Cinema and the Wealth of Nations is no dispassionate historical study, but an act of engaged scholarship replete with resonances for the present day.
Of course, liberal capitalism – both then and now – is marked by deep contradictions, between theory and practice, between ideology and reality, between the idealised self-portrait of smoothly functioning markets generating wealth for all and the concrete existence of labour exploitation, yawning inequality, class conflict and violent state repression. There is, of course, the central aporia that the “free” market is predicated on the monopoly of wealth, and the “freer” the market, the more concentrated the ownership of property, the more flagrant the disparity in incomes. Liberty for those with capital is oppression for those without. But there are also the internal contradictions for the capitalist class itself, which increasingly manifested themselves in the first decades of the twentieth century, and do so even more glaringly in the first decades of the twenty-first. With the financial and geographic expansion of capital, and the irreversible tendency towards monopolisation, the model of the autonomous economic agent butts up against countervailing tendencies: the exponentially increasing complexity of the world capitalist system entails the development of a managerial bureaucracy as a mediating layer between capital and labour and the necessity for a powerful state apparatus both to drive financial conquest abroad and ensure social pacification at home. These developments all flew in the face of liberal fantasies about self-made men who were the masters of their own destiny (what Marx derisively dubbed “Robinsonades” in classical political economy). The invisible hand of the market was supplanted by the all-too visible hand of the corporate state. In order to maintain the pretense of individual freedom and democratic rights in the face of really existing class antagonisms, a considerable array of propaganda tools had to be deployed. The liberal subject was not a fact of nature, but needed to be produced. Democracy had to be managed.
One of the most important tools used to paper over (if not resolve) this paradox at the heart of liberalism was mass media, a nascent technological-cultural phenomenon at the dawn of the 20th century. In spite of their contrasting materialities – one physically embodied in celluloid prints, the other ethereally transmitted over electromagnetic waves – cinema and radio formed a potent combination for the ideological needs of the classical liberal order. Grieveson treats the two in tandem, even if his background as a film scholar naturally leads to a greater emphasis on the former. To do so, he adopts a theoretical method that intriguingly draws on the thinking of both Michel Foucault and Karl Marx. These two heuristics are frequently seen as incompatible with one another, not least due to Foucault’s barely concealed hostility to the Marxist tradition. But Grieveson is evidently sympathetic to both figures, and sees areas where they can be productively used together. Whereas his earlier monograph Policing Cinema was a more purely Foucauldian study of audience formation and governmentality in the early years of the cinema, Cinema and the Wealth of Nations introduces a potent dose of Marxist political economy. Marx’s talismanic formula for the functioning of capital, M-C-M’ (in which capital is a dynamic process in a constant state of expansion and contraction), is central to understanding the circulation of films as commodities and the insertion of the film industry into the broader economic system. This conceptual impurity (as Grieveson himself admits) is deftly handled: if Foucault’s analysis of modern structures of political power can be useful for rescuing Marxism from the rigid economic determinism of its orthodox interpretations, returning to Marx’s economic precepts can also serve as a corrective to much recent Foucault-inspired film scholarship, in which epistemological regimes and discursive orders are largely deracinated from any grounding in the cold, hard reality of economic relations.
Grieveson restricts the focus of his research to the trans-Atlantic dyad of the UK and the US, and the pair of Anglophone countries serves as a useful point of comparison on a number of levels. Britain, of course, was the chief imperial power of the 19th century, while American global hegemony would only be fully asserted after World War II. The early 20th century was a transitional moment between the two. Whereas British imperialism was based on territorial colonialism, the US only briefly flirted with direct rule (Cuba, Panama, the Philippines), and predominantly exerted its international influence through rapacious corporate marauding. In this mercantile mode of imperialism, cinema played a major role. As Will Hays, the Republican operative-cum-chairman of the MPPDA and a major character in Grieveson’s book, legendarily stated: “trade follows the film.”
It follows that the differences between the US and British strategies for imperialist domination were mirrored in their conceptions of how the moving image could be exploited to this end. The US model was predicated on for-profit corporations satiating (or generating) audience demand, chiefly through studio-produced narrative drama. Such films functioned internationally as advertisements not only for American products, but also for the nascent American consumer lifestyle, even if the standard of living depicted in these films was materially well out of reach for the majority of their global audiences. The British, meanwhile, persisted with a paternalist understanding of film production, centrally organised by the state, tailored to the specific needs of its imperial dominions, and with a heavy emphasis on pedagogical documentaries, as advocated by John Grierson in particular. Grieveson is blunt here: the British strategy unequivocally failed. Morally edifying material made by the Empire Marketing Board could not compete with the output of the American studios. If Hollywood was not the main driver of America’s impending superpower status, it was certainly an integral part of the US’s burgeoning soft power. As the UK press recognised as early as the 1920s, the British flag, once flown prominently around the world, had been replaced by the American film.
And yet, Grieveson himself relativises this contrast between salacious Hollywood fiction and the dowdy documentaries of the British Empire through the prolonged attention he gives to the genre of the corporate documentary in the US itself. The prominent position given to these films, relegating Hollywood features to a marginal status within Cinema and the Wealth of Nations, is one of the most provocative elements of Grieveson’s book. In the radically anti-auteurist historical method he espouses, film studies should essentially replace John Ford with Henry Ford. Indeed, an entire chapter is dedicated to the activities of the Ford company’s motion pictures department, while in Grieveson’s cursory mention of The Iron Horse, the film’s director remains pointedly unnamed. The justification for such a move is twofold. Firstly, if they have now slid into oblivion, such industrial films were undeniably widely seen at the time. Secondly, by interpellating the audience in a far more direct manner than fiction films, they afford researchers today a more frontal insight into the inner workings of liberal capitalist ideology. In bringing up these films, Grieveson persuasively scotches the notion that naked political propaganda was somehow the preserve of “totalitarian” regimes such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and alien to liberal-democratic cultural practice. The focus on Ford is telling: not only was the Ford company a pioneer in what Grieveson (following Gramsci) calls “consensual capitalism” – using productivity increases to raise wages, thereby buying the loyalty of workers at the same time as creating a consumer market to sell the company’s products to – but Henry Ford himself was an openly anti-semitic fascist sympathiser who peddled wild conspiracy theories. If shorts such as How Henry Ford Makes 1000 Cars a Day and The Road to Happiness were more restrained than the rantings of the Dearborn Independent, Red Scare tracts such as 1919’s Uncle Sam and the Bolsheviki shed light into the fear and paranoia about working-class revolt that lay just underneath the official confidence in the unbounded superiority of free market capitalism.
That many of these films were made in cooperation with the Bureau of Public Roads is indicative of the constituent contradiction between corporate liberalism’s rhetoric of freedom from state control and its factual dependency on the state to ensure the smooth flow of capital: while Ford could build the automobiles, the US government still had to construct the roads they drove on. And so it was with the movies. The output of the federal Department of Agriculture is indicative here. While some of its films, such as The Life of the Cattle Fever Tick and the Method of Dipping Cattle, served a purely functional purpose (informing farmers of methods to treat livestock diseases), others were unabashedly intent on instilling the country’s culturally diverse population with “American” values. The Happier Way instructed housewives on the efficient use of domestic labour-saving appliances, while the goal of Helping Negroes to Become Better Farmers and Homemakers is already evident in the film’s symptomatically explicatory title.
In his discussion of films made by the USDA and other government departments, thoughts of the contemporaneous efforts by Soviet filmmakers like Dziga Vertov or Aleksandr Medvedkin were never far from this reader’s mind. The “old and new” logic shared by the USDA shorts and Eisenstein’s film of the same name is indeed noted by Grieveson, as is the inspiration Grierson found in Soviet montage cinema. But this is not an avenue he explores at length, and in general the geographic focus on Atlantic liberalism regrettably excludes not only the attempted construction of a socialist system in the USSR, but also other variants of capitalist society, such as the more state-centred “Rhenish” capitalism of France and Germany, whose inclusion – at the risk of further distending a tome already bursting with information – could have given further contours to the ideological role of mass media traced out by Grieveson.
The closing chapters of Cinema and the Wealth of Nations look at the terminal phase of the first moment of the liberal world system, brought down by economic crisis and its own irreconcilable antinomies. The synchronicity of the advent of sound cinema with the Great Depression, and the subsequent introduction of a rudimentary welfare state under the Roosevelt administration’s “New Deal”, has, of course, been pointed out before – notably by Jean-Louis Comolli in the later installments of “Technique and Ideology”, as well as, more mercurially, Jean-Luc Godard in Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) – but the details Grieveson provides to the process by which film studios became further enmeshed into finance capital through the investment in sound technology are impressively thorough. The increasing monopolisation of the film industry (which was only momentarily set back by the 1948 Paramount edict against vertical integration) is also the prompt for Grieveson to focus his attention on the institutional history of film studies itself, and its origins in the philanthropic foundations of major US corporations.
In this account, efforts to study cinema and media have been marred by a primordial disciplinary schism with crushingly deleterious effects. On the one side was a deadeningly conservative communication studies, initially developed with backing from the Rockefeller Foundation. On the other side, in part through the efforts of MoMA (also funded by Rockefeller), film studies stricto sensu focused exclusively on the equally apolitical pursuit of aesthetic appreciation, following the model of other humanities subjects. Both fields, in this account, largely ignored the ideological effects of the “corporate-controlled system of mass media”. As Grieveson writes, “deemphasizing the question of influence and ownership in traditions of film and communication studies thereafter has been dangerously politically disabling, mistakenly ceding the ground of necessary debate about media power to the conservative (and frequently censorial) agenda, from where much of it originated in the first place.” As a corrective to this mistaken course, he calls for film and media studies to “explicate the practices and history whereby media was put to work to facilitate the governance of mass populations and the expansion of a corporate and consumer as precisely, empirically, as possible.” (p. 245) Few would quarrel with this clarion call – I certainly would not. But, without wishing to sound too parochial, Grieveson’s picture of film studies as the aloof contemplation of artistic masterpieces divorced from real world concerns does a disservice to a field that was, to a greater degree than perhaps any other academic discipline, forged in the foundry of far-left politics, from the exiled intellectuals of the Frankfurt school (which Grieveson discusses) to the student movements of the 1960s and 70s (which he does not). If film studies today is a “mostly conservative and fragmented discipline”, then this probably has more to do with the institutional situation of the university in the current political climate, hollowed out by neoliberal dogma and for-profit models of education funding, than it does with a kind of original sin committed during its embryonic phase of development.
Moreover, Grieveson’s emphasis on the ideological effects of capitalist ownership structures is welcome, but when he writes that “it would be naïve to think that the systematic and repetitive nature of a media system largely captured by corporate capital is adequate to meet the communicative needs of democracy” (pp. 245-246), he runs the risk of articulating an overly deterministic model, where any possibility of rupture or even friction with the prevailing economic system in a film is voided (similar charges, indeed, have often been levelled against Foucault). It is noticeable that, while Grieveson calls for film scholarship to be tied into a political praxis that is “radical in form and content” (p. 335), the audiovisual objects he analyses are largely treated as unadulterated manifestations of their intended social functioning, at the most prone to interesting moments of symptomatic parapraxis. Certainly it is utopian to think that a transformation in the utility of media forms is possible without a sweeping change in who owns and controls them, and there are undeniably many flaws to the traditional auteurist model of producing and consuming films. But it has at least provided a space for modest acts of resistance against the hegemony of liberal capitalism, which appear minimal in the works treated by Grieveson.
This should not diminish the achievement of Cinema and the Wealth of Nations, which is a rare breed of academic text: one that leaves the reader vivified at the end, as Grieveson’s final chapter whizzes from the techno-futurism of the 1939 World Fair, through the cinema’s insertion into the military-industrial complex in the Cold War and onto the fully automated drone-logic of contemporary capitalist media, in which, with the jettisoning of the garb of pedagogy, “media is now more fully, militantly liberal”, and the ideological values of neoliberalism are buttressed by a “relentlessly banal media culture suffused by individualist and consumerist logics that are incapable of picturing the kinds of collective actions necessary to realize humane transformation.” (p. 333) In his closing paragraphs, furthermore, Grieveson does more than merely deplore the nightmarish nature of the status quo, he calls for a refounding of film studies along collective, politically radical, practice-oriented lines, which would put it into a position to challenge the present order of things. Against the militant liberalism of corporate media, film studies must itself become militant.
Lee Grieveson, Cinema and the Wealth of Nations: Media, Capital, and the Liberal World System (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018).