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How far does Roland Barthes rely on a marxist interpretation of capitalism in his work Mythologies?

How far does Roland Barthes rely on a marxist interpretation of capitalism in his work Mythologies?
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  How far does Roland Barthes rely on a Marxist interpretation of Capitalism in Mythologies? Roland Barthes’ work on the power of cultural myth can be interpreted in many ways. Writing in an age of mass consumerism, it is clear that his interpretation of Capitalism plays a key role in how he views the world and how he views the function of myth in propagating that world. There is much evidence to suggest that Barthes’ view of capitalism was indeed marxist, at least in a purely economic sense. Yet, it is as important not to view Marxism as purely an economic dichotomy as it is to view Barthes as not simply a Marxist theorist. Barthes’ use of marxism in his writings often allows him to explain the motivation of the Bourgeoisie, but more often his mythologies explore his assertion that the Bourgeoisie’s overriding aim is to maintain the ‘ doxa  ’ or status quo. Barthes does not subscribe to the notion that capitalism will be inevitably toppled by violent revolution from below; but he does view capitalism as an imperfect system that makes it effortless for the Bourgeoisie to maintain their cultural dominance. This essay will attempt to show, through the study of the work Mythologies, how Barthes’ view of Capitalism began but did not end with Marxist theory.   We shall begin by examining some of the more overt examples of Barthes’ awareness of capitalist exploitation. In Le vin et le lait, Barthes discusses French society’s relationship with wine, its influence on the individual and its ‘universality’ as the accepted national drink. He uses wine as a metaphor for the nobleness of French society arguing that, generally speaking, the French do not drink to get drunk (Barthes, 2009: 66). But insofar as he starts painting an innocent portrait of wine and it’s role, he argues that wine, like all things, exists as the physical embodiment of capitalist exploitation. Barthes states: ‘The private distillers impose on the muslims, a crop of which they have no need, while they of 16  lack even bread.’ (Barthes, 2007: 83) Barthes wants to demonstrate how something so leisurely as a glass of wine can act to displace populations and perpetuate poverty. Whilst Barthes is not marxist in relation to his audience (the French population), he does not, for example, suggest that wine can be used by the Bourgeoisie to subjugate the French proletariat; it is clear that Barthes sees capitalism as an exploitative and self-serving system. Barthes continues his use of symbolism in the extract Le bifteck et les frites. Similarly to Le vin et le lait, Barthes suggests that steak and chips are the gastronomic embodiment of French culture. However, rather than overtly referring to capitalism as before, Barthes chooses to focus on the way that the democratic notion of steak and chips is used by the establishment to create the illusion that every frenchman is equal and united. ‘It is a part of all the rhythms, that of the comfortable bourgeois meal and that of the bachelor’s bohemian snack.’ (Barthes, 2007: 70) Barthes makes a subtle reference to the way the Bourgeoisie use myth to reduce the perceived disparity between the classes. A largely economic disparity stemming from capitalist inequality. It is clear then that Barthes takes a marxist view of capitalism in the sense that he understands how it could exploit, not just a certain class within society, but also the citizens of a less economically developed country. Moreover, he sees capitalism’s creation of economic disparity as part of the reason that the Bourgeoisie use myth. Rather than reducing the inequality, which would in turn reduce their power, the Bourgeoisie use myth to reduce the scope of inequality in the eyes of the working classes. In this sense, his view of capitalism is not exclusively marxist.   So far, we have considered that the definition of marxist capitalism exists only in economic terms. We have dismissed the social myths exposed by Barthes as being unrelated to his interpretation of marxism. Yet, as Hawkes argues it would be erroneous to dismiss Marxism as a purely economic philosophy (Hawkes, 2003: 89). Therefore, neither should of 26  we restrict our interpretation of Barthes view on capitalism to the purely economic. It is already clear that in many ways Barthes saw Capitalism as a method of myth transmission. Indeed, Thompson argues that Marx certainly linked ‘the production and diffusion of ideas to the relation between classes.’. Marx himself recognised that those that controlled the material (or economic) force of society also controlled its intellectual force (Thompson, 1990: 36, 38). Barthes takes a similar view of society and of how Capitalism helps to maintain the dominance of the ruling class. Le Pauvre et le Prolétaire represent ons of Barthes most overt acknowledgements of Marxism. In it he references Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times  . He praises Chaplin for creating an image of the proletarian masses that are unaware of their collective plight because they are too consumed by their own individual struggles. Trapped by his own poverty and oppressed by ‘the hands of his masters’ (Barthes 2009: 35), the peasant worker never achieves political awareness. Barthes’ clearly recognises how Capitalism and Capitalist society could exist to subvert and control the population. Le Pauvre et le Prolétaire   uses Chaplin’s character in  Modern Times as a prophetic example of what happens when the bourgeois myth surrounding capitalism and equality successfully permeates down to the subjugated working classes. This you could argue, is a marxist interpretation of how ideology functions, yet Barthes is very subtle and does not explicitly state this.   As previously mentioned, Barthes’ does not have a uniquely marxist view of Capitalism and its function. He seeks to interlink the economic elements of his argument with the Bourgeoisie’s penchant for social control through myth. Whilst he certainly does not see cause to advocate any sort violent socialist revolution, he does attempt to ‘pick holes in the ruling class’s legitimacy’ (Tager, 1986: 8). Instead, he also views Capitalism as a method of myth distribution. This can be seen in his mythology Jouets where he shows how the Bourgeoisie manipulate capitalism into producing objects which perpetuate established of 36  roles in society. Whether that is the soldier, the judge, the hairdresser or the homemaker, Barthes argues that the Bourgeoisie successfully maintain society as a largely static entity by using toys to condition the youth into accepted and established roles. He suggests that these objects are bought and consumed by the population at large and therefore cause people to be users rather than creators (Barthes, 2009: 58). In this way, it can be argued that Barthes sees capitalism as the system of distribution and toys as the mechanism by which the Bourgeoisie control both the pace and type of development in society. Barthes develops these ideas further in Romans et Enfants. Writing at a time when contemporary commentators thought of a society undergoing great change: the first wave of feminism, rising living standards under ‘ les trentes années glorieuses’ and growing social freedoms; Barthes argues that often these new found freedoms resulted in only superficial social progress. According to him, whilst a woman can write novels, become famous and be considered generally successful, something that was becoming more and more common; her traditional role as a mother and a wife had not disappeared. It ran alongside her new found success, and as such indicated that the ideas of social freedom and independence were illusions rather than realities. Here, Barthes is forced to concede that progress is not completely at a standstill; the Bourgeoisie have allowed some change in society’s structure. Yet, just as he argues that the French myth surrounding wine exists in order to increase to create a false sense of equality, with Romans et Enfants he is arguing that the Bourgeoisie create myths around social progress in order to ensure the very opposite, the maintenance of the social ‘ doxa  ’. With these two mythologies, we see how Barthes is not concerned solely with a marxist, exploitative view of economic capitalism but also with how capitalism can be used a method of distribution and how the Bourgeoisie use myth in order to control the social aspects of society. of 46  Overall then, Barthes’ interpretation of capitalism in ‘Mythologies’ is multi-faceted, complex and developed. His view of Capitalism never becomes fully clear, although it is evident that he sees it as a system which distorts equality through skewed economics for the benefit of the Bourgeoisie. As Barthes moulds his argument to include social and cultural aspects of society; he progressively moves further away from a purely Marxist interpretation of Capitalism. Yet, it is clear that a Marxist view of Capitalism as an exploitative system that allows the continued subjugation of the working classes (or according to Barthes, those unable to see through myth) is a view that Barthes shares. However, we cannot draw the conclusion that he advocates overthrowing Capitalism through violent revolution.   of 56
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