Rage Against the Machine Fans Speak!

Paddy Walsh: Dissertation

Chapter 3;

"Tha structure's set ya never change it with a ballot pull"; To what extent can counter-hegemonic dissent be politically instrumental when removed from the realm of commercial culture?

For Gramsci, having autonomy over the factors of production was an essential part of combating hegemonic rule and providing alternatives to dominant prevailing ideology, which, in reference to Rage Against The Machine, is corporate America. He believed that, in order to focus a political movement which would be a viable counter-hegemonic force, it must formulate its own autonomy within the current political spectrum, occupying a position between the forces of production and the conformist proletariat. Of course, Gramsci formulated his theory as society-based, having no conception of the power of cultural hegemony. Lumley describes Gramsci's theory thus; '[he formulated] the concept of a revolution as a process growing within the bourgeois regime, in which councils formed a counter power of proletariat producers.' Gramsci himself indicated that this could be the only way that hegemony could be countered, by the proletariat organising itself primarily in the productive apparatus.

As I have previously discussed in Chapter 1, Gramsci believed that a strong economic base was fundamental to asserting hegemonic rule, and so taking control of the factors of production, and its economic base, was the only way to challenge hegemony. He said 'To those who object that in this way one is collaborating with our adversaries with the owners of the factories, we reply instead that this is the only way to make them hear in fact that the end of their domination is near, because the working class now conceives the possibility of producing by itself and producing better; thus, it acquires everyday a clearer certainty that it alone is capable of saving the whole world from ruin and desolation.'

Although Rage Against The Machine use their popularity to publicise political movements within their work, they are still subject to marginalisation by cultural producers. So I am going to analyse how effective a political impact they can make when removed from the umbrella of Sony to protest independently, without having to adapt their politics to conform with the ideology of any ruling hierarchy. Of course, we must formulate Gramsci's notions of this middle ground autonomy within cultural production, and relate this to Rage Against The Machine. By removing themselves from the sphere of popular culture, and thus the rules and ideologies that govern it, Rage Against The Machine are able to set parameters for their own ideologies, politically.

As already shown, political ideas and institutions materially affect the ideology, character and thus content of popular culture, which is manifested through censorship and propaganda. These factors then determine what kind of culture produced, based on the rules of populism. Street comments that, as regards the rules of populism, 'the only test of cultural merit is to be found at the box office, in the ratings or in the charts.' Therefore, the only way for Rage Against The Machine to have complete autonomy over the presentation of their dissenting ideologies is to remove themselves from popular culture. They are no longer subject to censorship and regulation, and can therefore attack hegemonic institutions in detailed ways which were not previously able to do. Free from the constraints of a "soundbite culture", identity creation and censorship, they are able to engage in detailed or lengthy expositions that the form and character of popular culture does not always allow for.

However, once they remove themselves from mass culture, they do face certain problems, the most significant being that they are no longer able to prefigure 'cultural linkages through new forms of community established by mass communication'. In short, they lack the socially unifying hegemonic potential of popular culture.

Rage Against The Machine's efforts to occupy a "middle ground" seem to be a parallel to Gramsci's writings about the Futurists. Lumley described their actions as 'a relentless attack on bourgeois traditions in music, painting and even in language and everyday behaviour. He sees [their behaviour] as opening the breach which the working class should enter in order to develop its own autonomous culture.' The most infamous manner in which Rage Against The Machine have attempted to do this was with "Radio Free L.A.", a temporary, uncensored radio transmission that let the band and political groups they were affiliated with have a platform on which to make known their ideologies. It featured interviews with, among others, Noam Chomsky, Subcommandante Marcos of the EZLN and an interrupted conversion, from prison, with Leonard Peltier.

By controlling the cultural factors of production, the band was able to offer an ideological construct alternative to the hegemony of popular culture. Of course, it was affected by the rules of popular culture in that it was directly competing with other cultural forms, and the economic backing of the project couldn't compete with the multinational corporations' promotion of their products; it was a temporary transmission and was restricted to only one city. However, I would argue that its positive effect cannot be negated. It presented a counter-hegemonic alternative ideology (regardless of economic constraints) and gave the opportunity for integration of oppressed groups, although obviously not on the scale that the mass media could do. Live performances are also integral for the band to promote their political message, as they can give uncensored opinions to the crowd gathered to see them. It is a tactic Rage have used a lot, using speeches before songs.

Rage Against The Machine have also had success in their activism by instigating palpable change. Although the video for "Sleep Now In The Fire" featured, among other images, a parody of a game show, the live footage of the band was based on an incident that had a direct political consequence. Video director Michael Moore, an infamous crusading anti-capitalist journalist, had decided that the band should perform (illegally) outside Wall Street, two days after it made an announcement of record profits and job losses at the Stock Exchange. Although the footage presented typical revolutionary images of police oppression of rebellion, the fans who had gathered to watch stormed the Stock Exchange itself when Moore was arrested, leading to it being shut down for the first time "anyone could remember".

Aside from Rage Against The Machine, other counter-hegemonic cultural forms attempt to occupy themselves within this "middle ground". Many politically activist organisations attach themselves to images of popular culture in order to increase public awareness of the causes they support or run. Bocock notes that 'Hegemonic struggle may take place also in voluntary organisations, religious organisations, pressure groups, trade unions, and in the educational system. Some of the work has been done at the highest intellectual level in philosophy and the social sciences. Other parts of the work are oriented to teaching students of all ages.' As a consequence of the public being increasingly bound to the processes of capitalism and cultural hegemony, Bocock says it has become more important than ever for such groups to affect society, 'it is argued that it is necessary to look elsewhere for agents of change and for new conceptions of social change itself. This has led in turn to a debate about the political importance , or otherwise, of new types of social movement such as the Women's movement, the Gay movement, the Peace movement, the Greens and other environmentalist movements, together with ethnic and national movements. These new movements have developed over the last twenty years or more largely outside the conventional political system of parties and pressure groups.' As De La Rocha has noted, there is a direct link between these organisations and what his band is campaigning for, "[civil rights and women's rights] were won by the kind of activism that Rage Against The Machine practices and that we encourage people to practice."

The controlling factors of how successful these groups are in promoting their own ideology rests on economic factors, simply because the controllers of cultural production have an economic base that reinforces their hegemonic position, as Street notes, 'Much contemporary popular culture does emanate from corporations which span the world, and whose power and products can be detected everywhere. If we are to understand the relationship between politics and popular culture, then we cannot afford to overlook the industry, and we must not let the economics obscure our sight of the politics.' It is because those who operate from outside the regulations of popular culture, and whose counter-hegemonic ideologies do not rely on populism or the profit motive, do not have an economic base to compete with such multinational corporations that they are marginalised and have significantly less opportunity to present their ideologies.

Gramsci had certain theories regarding entertainment and education which can be directly related to Rage Against The Machine's attempts to revitalise political education. By removing themselves from the sphere of popular culture, Rage Against The Machine are hoping to promote more detailed political argument regarding certain issues, a tactic both they, and Antonio Gramsci, saw as necessary to raise general political awareness and promote political education. He is quoted as saying, "the problem of education is the most important class problem...the first step in emancipating oneself from political and social slavery is that of freeing the mind." When we look at politics from within the confines of popular culture, we are looking at ideologically filtered politics.

I would also agree that, given the current political climate and the "soundbite" culture, it is the optimum way to spread detailed objective political awareness. Although Street says that '...while the form and character of popular culture does not always allow for detailed or lengthy expositions, and while its profundity depends more on rhetoric than on argument, it can still constitute a political forum' - the politics within this "political forum" are constrained and subject to ideological positioning. They can have a negative effect on objective political discussion.

Street even sees that there are benefits to packaged politics and a soundbite culture. These incentives 'have less to do with the politicians and more to do with citizens. The lesson of the economic theorists of democracy, or public choice theorists generally, is that there are strong incentives for people to remain ignorant or uninterested in what their prospective representatives have to offer. These disincentives derive from the cost of information.' Although I would agree with the cost of information disincentive, I believe that this should not be a reason to promote political education through soundbites, which lessens political awareness, and, in an American political culture that perpetuates the two-party system, makes politics increasingly reliant on populism. Even though Street tries to justify his position by saying 'style and image are, it might be argued, rich in meanings and messages', these messages are filtered through ideologies, do not rely on democratic needs (only populism), and can never engage in detailed enquiry.

In conclusion, mass media's potential as a hegemonic force is so significant, political rhetoric outside the confines of popular culture can only be so successful. It has the power and the property to unite, as emphasised by the Bell quote, 'In a society which lacks well-defined national institutions and a class of elite leadership fully conscious of its legitimate role, social integration is achieved through mass media.' In this property, it has something those outside of popular culture and mass media cannot possess in equal measure. Equally, we must return to Gramsci's notion of human nature, 'In acquiring one's conception of the world one always belongs to a particular grouping which is that of all social elements which share the same mode of thinking and acting. We are all conformists of one conformism or other.' People inherently want to be part of a social grouping, for it is human nature, and because popular culture possesses the optimum modes of social integration, it is able to promote its ideologies and blind us to social realities without people actively searching for an alternative.

Despite this, the positive uniting effects that can be harnessed by groups such as Rage Against The Machine prove that, although popular culture maintains hegemonic control, the benefits from such counter-hegemonic acts outside the realm of popular culture are significant. They are able to unite disparate, marginalised political groups and provide the optimum method for detailed political discussion, for those who seek education outside popular culture's ideological constraints.


In examining the relationship between popular culture, hegemony and political dissent, I discovered certain trends that applied to the way hegemonic rule was maintained. Politics is increasingly becoming more reliant on the parameters of the depoliticising form of popular culture, and has had to adapt its own form concurrently. Due to the fact that there is such a pressure to entertain inherent in the sphere of popular culture, politics is ruled by populism, which, together with the depoliticising aesthetic of popular culture, serves to decrease political awareness generally.

Therefore, it has become increasingly more difficult to combat a hegemonic rule whose political content is almost entirely limited to images, gestures and soundbites. When exhibiting political dissent within the commercial side of popular culture, this dissent is marginalised and sanitised through processes of censorship and propaganda, until it does not become such an overt threat to the prevailing ideologies. And when removed from popular culture, it does not have the economic nor hegemonic properties to make it feasibly compete with the prevailing ideologies of the cultural producers.

However, focusing on the empirical example of Rage Against The Machine, I have shown that such dissent can have empowering properties, both within and without popular culture. Within popular culture, political issues can be made known, even if their presentation has been filtered through ideological constructs of the prevailing hegemonic group. Rage Against The Machine has used its popularity (which in part must be attributed to their signing to a division of the Sony Corporation) to popularise issues as diverse as the American Indian Movement and Mumia Abu-Jamal. When we combine this popularisation with the detailed discourse they promote outside of popular culture, the counter-hegemonic potential is very significant. Although people would generally have to seek for information outside of popular culture, Rage Against The Machine (and other such institutions) are able to provide a platform for counter-hegemonic dissent within popular culture, which extends to more detailed discussion without.


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Other sources;



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