Economism (also called 'vulgar Marxism') is a key feature of 'classical Marxism' (orthodox or fundamentalist Marxism). In economism, the economic base of society is seen as determining everything else in the superstructure, including social, political and intellectual consciousness. Theories positing economic relations as the basic cause of social phenomena are also called materialist theories, and Marx's version is also known as 'historical materialism'. Economism is related to technological determinism. Marx is often interpreted as a technological determinist on the basis of such isolated quotations as: 'The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist' ('The Poverty of Philosophy', 1847).
Mass media research in this fundamentalist tradition interprets the 'culture industries' in terms of their economic determination. According to this view, 'the contents of the media and the meanings carried by their messages are... primarily determined by the economic base of the organizations in which they are produced' (Curran et al. 1982: 18). Consequently, 'commercial media organizations must cater to the needs of advertisers and produce audience-maximizing products (hence the heavy doses of sex-and-violence content) while those media institutions whose revenues are controlled by the dominant political institutions or by the state gravitate towards a middle ground, or towards the heartland of the prevailing consensus' (ibid.). Marxists of the 'political economy' variety (such as Graham Murdock) still see ideology as subordinate to the economic base. The base/superstructure model as applied to the mass media is associated with a concern with the ownership and control of the media.
Critics regard economism as reductionist, failing to account for diversity. Althusserian Marxists propose 'the relative autonomy of the superstructure with respect to the base... [and] the reciprocal action of the superstructure on the base' (Althusser, cited in Lapsley & Westlake 1988: 5; my emphasis). According to this view ideological practices such as the mass media are relatively autonomous from economic determination (see Stevenson 1995: 15-16). The notion of 'relative autonomy' has been subject to criticism (e.g. by Paul Hirst in 1977: see Lapsley & Westlake 1988: 13-14; Curran et al. 1982: 25).
Under the influence of Althusser, Stuart Hall and other 'culturalist' Marxists reject the base/superstructure formulation, arguing that there is a dialectic between what Marx termed 'social being' and 'social consciousness' (Curran et al. 1982: 27).