A Classical Marxist Perspective
For decades, the relationship between media, ideology, social order and economic power has been a subject of debates. Numerous theories were proposed to explain the way literary and song texts reflect the historical conditions of their production. Rage against the Machine has become famous for its politically coloured texts. Overt criticism of capitalist societies transcends every aspect of the song lyrics produced by the band. Rage against the Machine is indeed a convenient object of Marxist analysis, which unveils the complexity of media-power relationships in a capitalist economy. ‘Take the Power Back’ is one of the many songs in which the band attacks power of capitalist media and takes a proactive role in defending the interests and expectations of the proletariat.
Rage against the Machine is one of the most ardent critics of capitalism. As Finley (2002) writes, one of the most prevalent themes in the lyrics of the songs made by the band is ‘that the media present propaganda prohibits the general public from recognizing capitalist ideologies.’ Carragee (1993, p. 330) confirms that media are actively engaged in producing and reproducing ideologically coloured content. In this sense, they also contribute to the sustainability of capitalist forces. Rage against the Machine and their song lyrics reflect these social and ideological complexities while offering sufficient space for Marxist analysis.
‘Take the Power Back’ is as an anti-capitalist manifesto in which the band attacks one of the most powerful instruments of the capitalist propaganda – popular media. “But the system that dissed us / Teaches us to read and write / So called facts are fraud / They want us to allege and pledge / And bow down to their God” (Rage against the Machine 1992). In other words, the band blames the media for the cultural and ideological blindness imposed on the general public. It is a sense of disappointment that accompanies every word, but the song also conveys aggressiveness and people’s willingness to take the power away from media and change the existing social order.
The relationship between base and superstructure is one of the most prominent features of Marxist media theories. ‘Base’ is the economic foundation of any society (Haslett 2000, p. 18). It is the mode of production which defines the patterns of economic activity and social order (Haslett 2000, p. 18). In contrast, ‘superstructure’ covers all non-economic forms of social activity, including politics, religion, philosophy, and literature (Haslett 2000, p. 18). ‘Take the Power Back’ by Rage against the Machine is an example of superstructure, which is still closely related to its economically determinate base. It is material production and social status that come before the intellectual and cultural development (Haslett 2000, p. 18). In reality, the relationship between base and superstructure is complex and reciprocal. ‘Take the Power Back’ can be both a response to the economic base of the band members and the general public. However, it can also be an autonomous component of the social order at the beginning of the 1990s. The latter is more likely, since the song lacks any economic or production rhetoric. Rather, the calls for taking the power of media and changing school curricula to relieve the burden of the capitalist propaganda imply the presence of a complex base-superstructure interrelationship. Dissatisfaction with the material base provides an inspiration for song writing, whereas song writing provides a context for changing the social base.
It should be noted that economic determinism remains a popular subject of criticism among Marxists. In fact, only Marx insisted that the economic component determined the quality and contents of other components of the social order (Haslett 2000, p. 22). Other theorists including Gramsci shifted their attention to social institutions and media as the primary instruments for reproducing the meanings of capitalism (Carragee 1993, p. 330). This is why the economic component is virtually absent from ‘Take the Power Back’. Instead, Rage against the Machine re-establishes the central power of cultural and media practices in shaping the way people in the capitalist society perceive the world (Carragee 1993, p. 331). For the band, its writers and singers, it is a combination of media and education that works to achieve the desired result (Rage against the Machine 1992).
Nevertheless, by mentioning Uncle Sam in the discussion of media propaganda, Rage against the Machine revisits the complex relationship between media, economy, and power. The band criticizes the powerful members of the capitalist society for their vices, suggesting that they use their financial and social privilege to influence the hearts and minds of the general public. In ‘Take the Power Back’, the world resembles a totalitarian community described by George Orwell in his revolutionary book 1984. Media and education come together to become ideological Messiah who carries his convincing message to the public.
Rage against the Machine disagrees with this message. Its ‘Take the Power Back’ is full of rage and violent opposition to the ruling class and the social order they have created to retain and reinforce their economic and social privilege. The song is a bright illustration of the class struggle as presented by Marxists. The powerful ones use their resources to manipulate mass media and create a sense of universal satisfaction with the social order of things in society. “Ignorance has taken over […] See right through the red, white and blue disguise” (Rage against the Machine 1992). Ignorance, disguise and fraudulent facts are the reality for the prevailing majority of people in a world depicted by Rage against the Machine. The less powerful can either accept this reality or stand up to challenge the existing status quo. Rage against the Machine is a representative of the so-called proletariat, whose values and principles contradict the values and principles promoted by the capitalist society (Williams 2001, p. 130). The band understands its position in the social hierarchy and its role in fighting against the dominant ideology.
It is the ideology of the ruling class that Rage against the Machine violently rejects in its ‘Take the Power Back’. The criticism of mass media and the system of education echoes the Marxist writings of Antonio Gramsci (2001, p. 16) who described press as the most dynamic ingredient of an ideological machine, followed by other institutions, including but not limited to schools, libraries, clubs, associations, and so on. ‘The teacher stands in front of the class / But the lesson plan he can’t recall / The student’s eyes don’t perceive the lies / Bouncing off every fucking wall’ (Rage against the Machine 1992). School is a powerful medium for promoting the ruling ideology in society. However, Rage against the Machine goes further to display a distinct political consciousness and uses its lyrics as a channel for spreading the message to other potential class allies (Gramsci 2000, p. 16). It is a huge work done by the band to overcome the ideological barriers set by the ruling class and create new conditions for changing the existing social order.
In summary, Rage against the Machine and its song ‘Take the Power Back’ is an interesting subject for Marxist analysis. The song is an attack on the media and the system of education, which are believed to be the central instruments for spreading the message of capitalism. The band and its song are the components of Marxist superstructure, but they are likely to lose their relevance without an economic base. ‘Take the Power Back’ illustrates the complexities of the class struggle and challenges the capitalist ideology, offering an opportunity to change the existing social order.
- Carragee, KM 1993, ‘A critical evaluation of debates examining the media hegemony thesis’, Western Journal of Communication, vol. 57, pp. 330-348.
- Carragee, KM, & Roefs, W 2004, ‘The neglect of power in recent framing research’, Journal of Communication, June, pp. 214-233.
- Finley, LL 2002, ‘The lyrics of Rage against the Machine: A study in radical criminology?’, Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 150-166.
- Gramsci, A 2001, ‘History of the subaltern classes; The concept of ‘ideology’; Cultural themes: Ideological material’, in in Durham, MG & Kellner, DM eds. Media and cultural studies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 13-18.
- Haslett, M 2000, Marxist literary and cultural theories, Basingstoke, UK: MacMillan.
- Rage against the Machine 1992, Take the power back, Epic.
- Williams, R 2001, ‘Base and superstructure in Marxist cultural theory’, in Durham, MG & Kellner, DM eds. Media and cultural studies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 130-143.