The Culture Industry and its Critics: The English Way

  • Oded HeilbronnerEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer Reference Sozialwissenschaften book series (SRS)


The article suggests a close reading of an opposition towards the concept and theory of capitalist culture and culture industry. That opposition rose during the 1970s in the UK among left intellectuals and social critics. They were deeply affected to a large extent by European – Marxist intellectuals such as Althusser and Gramsci, and Englishmen from the New Left group such as E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams. The group centered at the University of Birmingham established and was operated in The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. The group reevaluated the term “culture” as a central component of the Gramscian term “cultural hegemony”. Highly influenced by the political and social atmosphere in 1970s’ Britain, they learned the processes in which hegemony tries to impose various ways of life (i.e. culture) on the subalterns, but at the same time they display flexibility to let them live in accordance with their ways of life, and even show tolerance towards opposition, protest, cultural subversion and demonstrations of independence by lower classes, as long as they do not imperil their control of means of production.


Culture industry England 1970s Gramsci Birmingham school The centre for contemporary cultural studies Left-intellectuals 

Relationship between the culture industrialists or members of the hegemonic class – and their clients, has been criticized profoundly for several decades. Neo-Marxist scholars have focused on the aggressive mechanisms used by owners of mass media in order to publish their ideology among the passive public. These media producers usually express male, white, rich and heterosexual hegemony, associated with the Culture Industry.

According to the Frankfurt School, (Adorno, T. W. and Horkheimer, M.), the culture industrialists’ interest is to distribute their products to as wide a public as possible, in order to maximize their profits. To achieve this goal, they must address the lowest common denominator and to adhere to the most simplistic and vulgar formulas. Any appearance of spontaneity, of originality or of innovation that deviates from the central stream, faces immediate economic resistance. Any attempt to deviate from the accepted processes of marking and tagging encounters financing, marketing, and distribution hurdles. This is a sphere of business, not of spiritual elevation; it is an environment of industrialization, not of inspiration; a place of consumption, not of art.

Adorno and Horkheimer suggest that the production mechanisms flood the culture consumer with infinite variations of the same content that complies with the standard set by the industry itself, or the hegemonic forces. Moreover, as Adorno and Horkheimer say: “ …. In addition there is the agreement – or at least the determination – of all executive authorities not to produce or sanction anything that in any way differs from their own rules, their own ideas about consumers, or above all themselves. (Adorno and Horkheimer 1979, p. 78), and they add that the democratic pluralism is revealed as a disguise of certain interests of the hegemonic class who succeeds in forcing a consensus produced in accordance with its needs.

Actually, the opinion of Adorno and Horkheimer agree with that of Walter Benjamin, that the popular culture is used as a tool mainly by capitalists for subjugation of the mind of the masses. Benjamin does not deny that films, might in several cases encourage and promote revolutionary criticism of the state of the society, and even of property arrangements, but, argues Benjamin, it is not the focus of the Western European film industry, which is interested in profit while subjugating the masses (Benjamin 2008).

Real opposition towards the concept and theory of the capitalist culture rose during the seventies and among other things was expressed in the critique of Louis Althusser (1971; EisenbergEisenberg and Gestrich 2012) on “The Ideological State Apparatuses”. In this expression he intends to define several realities that present themselves to the direct observer in the form of specific and designated institutions. Among these systems we can find the educational system, the legal system, the political system, workers unions, culture institutions, and of course, the media. Althusser suggests that these ideological apparatuses operate massively, first and foremost by means of ideology. In addition, they also function through oppression, even though it is apparently hidden in the symbolic layer.

Althusser, to a large extent, follows on the theory of Antonio Gramsci. Althusser suggests that the imposition of the consensus on various parts of the society is performed by means of annexation mechanisms that incorporate the opponents into the economic – social system they oppose. Gramsci suggests that the hegemony is composed of the combination of lingual power and consensus that maintain mutual equilibrium. He identifies the cultural – ethical hegemony with the civil society and argues that the state is the one that contains both state apparatuses (control and coercion) as well as the apparatuses of the private, hegemonic civil society that produces the consensus (Gramsci 1991).

Another source of critique is Great Britain and scholars of the Birmingham School that influenced greatly the study of popular culture and media, and that were affected to a large extent by European – Marxist intellectuals such as Althusser and Gramsci, and Englishmen from the New Left group such as E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams. Birmingham School members who operated in The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, including center principles such as Richard Hoggart and mainly Stuart Hall, perceive the term “culture” as a central component of the Gramscian term “cultural hegemony”. This hegemony is a perpetual process of discourse and negotiations among various social groups that comprise both the subjects as well as the rulers. In this process the rulers tries to impose various ways of life (i.e. culture) on the subjects, but at the same time they display flexibility to let them live in accordance with their ways of life, and even show tolerance towards opposition, protest, cultural subversion and demonstrations of independence by lower classes, as long as they do not imperil their control of means of production.

Under the influence of Gramsci, the Birmingham School suggested that in capitalist regimes, the dominant patterns of opposition and protest are expressing themselves through a representative set of imaging from the area of life styles: language, fashion, music, way of speaking and body language. In this way the individual can – even in a society where the bourgeois – capitalist levels maintain their dominance through their control of the means of production, of punishment and enforcement – to challenge the oppressive system with the help of the “style culture”. On its part, the dominant class, is ready to meet this challenge while negotiating with these protest cultures and listening to them, because after all, these stylistic – protesting components are neutralized by the hegemonic classes by means of absorbing them into the capitalist economic system.

Perception of the Birmingham School was based to a considerable degree on the Neo – Marxist thinking of the Frankfurt School, which identified the unification, neutralization, and consensus establishing and conservation mechanisms of the culture industrialists. Unlike the thinkers of this school, Birmingham School scholars aspired to challenge the “Culture Industrialists”. The Center did it with the help of the consumers, the subaltern, the lower classes and the young. The Center performed it while analyzing attributes of the popular culture in Britain of the post Second World War period and through series of publications that dealt with the role of the media, cultures of ethnic groups, gender identity, urban culture and popular music.

As mentioned, the Center’s scholars followed mainly the Marxist or Gramscian orientation, led by Stuart Hall, perceived the term “culture” in different way than it was accepted until that time in Britain or in the West. For them, “culture” was not haute culture, art and exemplary works or “Culture […] is a study of perfection” – definitions that were accepted by British culture scholars such as Matthew Arnold in the nineteenth century (Arnold 1869, p. 7) the Bloomsbury Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, or F. R. Leavis in the fourth decade of the twentieth century. Under the influence of thinkers from the English New Left mentioned above, as well as the culture revolution generated by the working classes in Britain in the fifties, the Center’s scholars perceived the term “culture” as way of life, as all the relations between various mediators to daily life of the people (including lower classes). Scholars of the Birmingham Center who adopted the agenda of the New Left culture scholars who imbibed their work method and their theoretical motivation outside of the academy (Hoggart, Thompson, and Williams taught in adult education institutions and extra university teaching frameworks, whose basic philosophy was equal opportunity to all). Under the influence of the welfare state of the Labor and Conservative governments after the war, “culture” was perceived as a product for all social classes, and it even can be produced, not only consumed, by the lower classes.

The Center’s scholars focused on ways of life (cultures) of young people that flourished after the Second World War in Britain. They suggested that the attitude towards these cultures (named “sub cultures”) is an example of the way the Gramscian “cultural hegemony” works under the conditions of the British capitalist system. Members of these “sub cultures” were young people in their teens most of the scholars suggest that young women were negligible minority in these sub cultures) who refused to spend their free time according to the code of conduct of the hegemonic culture of their parents culture.

Unlike the research of “sub culture” developed in the United States by sociologists and anthropologists associated with the “Chicago School” whose goal was to understand the characteristics of the American juvenile delinquency and of the street gangs in an urban environment, and unlike the Frankfurt School and its cultural industry theory presented above that studied the “culture of masses” top down and which combined study methods from the areas of the Marxist thinking, philosophy, psychoanalysis and sociology in order to understand the material world of mass culture consumers – the Birmingham Center looked at the expression patterns of young people from the working class and of non-white immigrants that appeared in the British urban centers, and which changed their look and were expanded considerably after the war. Emergence of these centers, suggested the Center’s scholars, “signified the breaking of the consensus that emerged after the war” (Nathaus 2015, p. 42).

Following French Semiotics scholars and anthropologists such as Roland Barth and Claude Levy – Strauss, the Center’s scholars focused on “style”. The style was perceived as form of refusal and as the most conspicuous characteristic of the British youth “sub culture”. The Center’s scholars noticed a set of symbols and their meaning that were created by the English “sub cultures”, as well as rituals and their tangled set of associations that comprise system of meaning with cultural value. They argued, that unlike the American youth, the British working class youth expressed their resistance to their parents’ culture not through violence, but rather through unique style – fashion, clothing, hair style, and ways of spending their pastime. The Center’s scholars were first to focus attention to the symbolic value of “style”, to the meaning hidden in it and to its contribution to the “sub cultures” of the twentieth century. They suggested, following writings of Roland Barth, that different cultural – design styles are more than just fashion, new musical tempo, way of walking and moving; for them it was a new cultural signifier that has to be taken into account when mapping the post war society.

The new youth culture especially that of Britain, was authentic, autonomous and with specific English attributes, i.e. with class characteristic with central hegemonic – subaltern forces relations. Phil Cohen, one of the Center’s scholars, argued, and rightly so, that the middle class cannot create “sub cultures” since these are generated by the subaltern culture, not by the hegemonic one. The “sub cultures” of lower class youth became a cultural ritual, style and ceremonies whose purpose is to mark its members, both internally (to imbue a feeling of pride and belonging), as well as externally, (the style, fashion and symbols outline the boundaries of the sub culture to the hegemonic culture).

The Center’s scholars made a significant contribution to the critique of “cultural industry”, when they suggested that this “stylistic” protest (as expressed, for example, by music and the Punk fashion) was not perceived as a threat to the hegemonic class since they learned how to adopt material elements of the protest culture (from the areas of music and fashion), to turn them into consumer products and to encourage people to acquire them (Jefferson 2015). This way the subversion was stripped of any threatening element and served the capitalistic system. Therefore, the culture industrialists has central role in the culture industry, but this role was defined not by their ability to address the lowest common denominator and to adhere to the most vulgar and simplistic formulas in order to maintain control, rather through their ability to digest and integrate elements of the subjects culture thus neutralize their protest.

Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson (of the main pillars of the Center) called this “sub culture” of the English urban lower class youth of the fifties through seventies of the twentieth century “resistance through rituals”. Together with other scholars such as Paul Willis, John Clark, Bill Osgerby, Lawrence Grossberg, Ian Chambers, Phil Cohen, Stanley Cohen, Angela McRobbie, Jeff Pearson, Jeff Mungham and one of the prominent scholars of the Center – Dick Hebdige, they described the spectacular visual style of the sub culture. They studied the world of working class youth in the era of flourishing and economic prosperity in the fifties and sixties, and in the era of economic crisis and social uncertainty in the seventies and beginning of the eighties. Moreover, they dealt a great deal with relationship woven between working class youth and youth of the black community of immigrants from the Caribbean Islands and the mutual influence of both groups on their lifestyles. The Birmingham Center’s scholars blossomed during the seventies and beginning of the eighties. Frequent crises in Britain and flourishing of the “sub cultures” constituted fertile ground for activity of the Center.

With the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher and the slow elimination of the welfare state and the unions, as well as deepening of privatization processes in the British society, the focus of studies of the Birmingham Center has changed. Following change of generations in the Center and influence of post structuralism theories on the young scholars, the “sub culture” theory of the founding fathers received crossfire critique, especially due to the deterministic nature of their work method, ignoring of the role of women in the “sub cultures” and the emphasis of the class nature of the sub natures.

With the exception of the gender aspect that lies in the heart of the critique on Birmingham Center’s papers, the post sub culturalist theory critique tries mainly to suggest that in the last decades it is difficult to find a coherent and dominant culture against which the sub cultures protested, therefore one should notice the fragility and inconsistency of the phenomenon. The post sub cultures critique tries to over stress visual – global factors based on the market and advertisement culture when analyzing phenomena of youth cultures. As opposed to Hebdige and assertions of the Birmingham Center Scholars, members of the “sub cultures” express protest against visual phenomena such as fashion or hairstyle, which are products of the advertising and consuming mechanism that impose itself on them – they adopt characteristics of this market as regular consumer and not out of some desire of freedom or protest. The critique (Bennett 1999; Bennett and Kahn-Harris 2003; McRobbie 1991) tries to minimize the value of local authentic phenomena originated in social – class factors, as Hall and friends are trying to do. In addition, the traditional “sub culture” theory from the school of Hall and company, tries to describe linear development of the phenomenon from the fifties to the end of the seventies, with “punk” culture as its peak. Their critics argue that there is no such linear development. They describe phenomena where youth cultures rise, fall and are revived during the same period. Others (Bennett 1999; Gelder and Thornton 1997) even say that taking part in the “sub culture” in the visual style’ is not total, i.e. young people dedicate only part of their time to rituals and sub culture fashion. Finally, many of the Birmingham School critics describe “sub cultures” that include opposing and contradictory elements that do not always express protest against dominant culturalism, sometimes they even cooperate with them, for example the use of the Internet culture in structuring of a virtual youth culture.

In the first wave of publications of the Birmingham Center’s scholars, we could feel their fierce criticism of the “Culture Industry” ideology from the school of Adorno and Horkheimer and their heirs. In the mid – seventies the Center’s scholars stressed the protesting nature of the “sub culture” against the capitalist system, culture of the parents and against the establishment’s use of “style” and fashion (Hebdige with his book “Punk: The Meaning of Style” was among the most conspicuous in this wave). It seems that the “Culture Industry” ideology matched better the Central European Marxist or the Jewish – American thinking and less that of the English left and socialism, who due to its geographic location, tradition of cooperation between the classes (the English Ideology), and as Robert Colls pointed out, the hegemonic approach of the English ruling block since the seventeenth century, never took seriously the “Culture Industry” approach.

The second wave of publications of the Birmingham Center’s scholars criticized the first wave’s approach and references to the “Culture Industry” were marginal, if at all. The response of the hegemonic – consumer system towards the “sub cultures” of white working class youth was emphasized. Scholars such as Phil Cohen, Angela McRobbie as well as later studies of Hebdige indicated the importance of the consumer culture and of consumer products among the “sub cultures”. Hebdige (in his later studies) shows how punk culture, which started as an Avant-garde culture and as a protest against “parents culture”, very quickly absorbed consumer products that were produced by the hegemonic culture, thus neutralizing the protest.

Abandonment of the “Culture Industry” tradition in recent decades characterizes studies of capitalistic hegemony at its relations with its customers. Late papers of Stuart Hall, the dominant figure of the Birmingham Center and of the important secondary cultures scholar Andy Benett, point out the centrality of young people – the colorful consumers in the British consumer culture and in the creation of consumer sub culture. In the nineties Hall started to study the contribution of the modern, capitalist and neo – liberal media to mass control, mainly through creation of fear atmosphere (Moral Panic) against deviation trends among youngsters of the lower class and black immigrants. In addition, in the field of post – colonialism Hall initiated series of studies that dealt with the colonialist culture in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century, long time after the demise of the empire and its relationship with the capitalist hegemony. Benett studies the tribal element of the young Brits’ sub cultures and the way this element unifies, preserves and strengthens their resistance toward the Parent Culture.

It looks like the “Culture Industry” ideology and its successors (for the time being) have disappeared from Britain, which until the twentieth century was “The Capitalist Workshop of the World”.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Shenkar CollegeRamat GanIsrael

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