Review: “Television in the West and its Doctrines” – N.S. Biryukov

“Television in the West and its Doctrines” by N. S. Biryukov is a Marxist-Leninist analysis of television and other mass media in the U.S. and other capitalist countries. It is a rather peculiar mixture of Marxist-Leninist political economy in true Progress Publisher style as well as a critique of culture in capitalist countries.

The basic arguments of the book are still true — that TV is a vital propaganda tool of the monopoly bourgeoisie, which exploits its to debase Western culture and ideologically brainwash the masses with selective and biased news coverage, the glorification of capitalism, the proliferation of police shows and who-done-its, etc. But there was very little in the book that was new or innovative. For example, I can’t imagine very many people today that don’t think all this about TV, except for some TV-obsessed Boomers and maybe Gen Z. It is common knowledge that practically every major TV channel or network in the U.S. is owned by a handful of monopoly corporations, such as AT&T, Disney, Comcast, Viacom, and Fox/News Corporation. Perhaps, however, this has less to do with the quality of Biryukov’s analysis than it has to do with time; the book was published in 1971, and TV was probably quite different than it is today, at least in terms of monopolization, commercialization, etc. A case in point: it wasn’t until I read this book that I learned there was a time when TV didn’t have commercials! (My wife, Steph, who is 4-years older than myself and is much more familiar with outdated and discontinued technology than me, confirmed that this was the case.)

Nevertheless, as someone that loathes TV, I did enjoy Biryukov’s criticism of capitalist TV culture. “’Mass culture,’” Biryukov writes, “is a peculiar surrogate of culture concocted by the chiefs of bourgeois propaganda and designed not for a collective of human personalities who can think for themselves but for a mass of alienated individuals — the ‘lonely crowd’. The ‘mass culture’ doctrine has been adopted by bourgeois news media, including television, in order to keep away working people from high culture, genuine cultural values and achievements, to limit their interests to the family circle, to sow distrust, skepticism and an irrational fear of the ‘outside world’. The spiritual needs of the individual in the world of alienated and, essentially, enforced uncreative labour, and alienated social life are severely curtailed. ‘Mass culture’ has created the image of a primitive individual blinding following the standards and values of bourgeois society. To keep up with the Joneses, to pay deference to authority, to stifle any sign of free thinking — these are the qualities ‘mass culture’ is designed to foster among the masses” (pp. 153-154). “Thus, the discrepancy between the impressive technical achievements of bourgeois television and the poor cultural standard of its programming is the result of the class nature of bourgeois television” (p. 153).

Sometimes Biryukov’s criticism of TV remind me of the late George Carlin: “The ‘mass culture’ doctrine has been developed and used by bourgeois television with a view to stimulating robot mentality and behaviour among its audience. The powers that be need all kinds of robots: quiet robots, satisfied with their lives and position, never thinking of active struggle for the interests of the working people (the ‘comforting presence’ concept) and violent robots, ruthless servants who will carry out their superior’s orders without a thought, deprived of any moral scruples and deterrants (the concept of ‘symbolic catharsis’)” (p. 165).

A good, but not great, book.

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